Chasing the Dream in L.A.
January 21, 2009 · Updated 10:56 AM
He played the shoemaker once upon a time at South Whidbey Intermediate School.
Now, actor Paul Benz finds himself in Los Angeles, Calif. pursuing his dream of an acting career.
After landing the lead role in that first foray onto the stage in Mrs. Arnold’s fifth-grade production of “The Shoemaker and the Elves,” Benz said it was that teacher’s encouragement that gave him the first spike of acting fever.
“I wasn’t really great at sports or a prodigy kid,” Benz said.
“So when she gave me that confidence, I kind of just believed in myself and continued to feed off the energy I got from being on stage.”
His good reviews as the shoemaker led to another role at school as Robin Hood, followed by a long and rewarding experience with the Whidbey Children’s Theater and about 50 plays in 15 years.
“Whidbey Children’s Theater offered me a sacred and fun place to play and grow,” he said.
Benz continued to tap into the resources made available to him on the island. He participated in an improvisational troupe called “Pass the Hat Players,” with Jim Freeman presiding, made it to the “big stage” at the high school and trained in dance with Charlene Brown at Island Dance in Clinton.
Benz received one of the bibles of acting, “Strasberg’s Method,” from island mentor Doug Dirkson, with whom Benz did some documentary films and who, he said, introduced Benz to the “craft” of acting.
He also credits the filmmaker and one of his best friends, Jordan Albertsen, for getting him in front of a camera.
“He’s the reason I have a reel from when he shot ‘The Standard’ here,” Benz said.
“That’s what got me Taft Hartleyed, and that’s an important milestone for working actors.”
Benz refers to Albertsen’s feature film, which was partially filmed on the South End and which allowed Benz to join the film actors union.
The Taft-Hartley Act allows an actor who is not in the union and who becomes a “principal performer” (speaks a line) to become immediately eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild. The actor is covered under the union contract with the production company for 30 days, at which point he or she must either join SAG or cease working on any union productions.
“It’s the kind of thing that transcends, or at least bridges, friendship and loyalty to work,” Benz said.
“With Jordan, he wouldn’t just put me in a movie where I had a significant role ‘cause he’s my bro.
I knew I’d earned it, and I knew I was up for it. Merit matters, and where it lacks, you usually see bad acting or poor quality.”
After graduating in 2001, Benz attended the Young Actors Institute in Seattle and was immersed in a conservatory atmosphere where he trained with some of the heavyweights of the Seattle acting scene.
Ultimately, the nurturing aspect of the South Whidbey community played a huge part in giving Benz the confidence he needed to pursue acting as a career.
“I guess it’s nice to be told that you can do something and that it’s OK to be hungry for a dream,” Benz said.
He’s determined to realize that dream as he carries out the everyday exercises that every actor must do to make it in Hollywood, starting with supporting yourself.
Having completed a bachelor of arts in theater at California Lutheran University, Benz took a part-time faculty job there as a technical director. He also has two other part-time jobs, not unusual for an aspiring actor.
Many actors who settle in Hollywood quickly learn that the competition is tough, and bread-and-butter jobs are the mainstay of every hungry thespian.
Industrial films, commercials and small roles on television pay well, even if they don’t make you an immediate star.
Benz recently landed a small role in an upcoming episode of “Criminal Minds,” a show that focuses on an elite team of FBI profilers who analyze the country’s most twisted criminal minds and anticipate their next moves before they can strike again.
“Criminal Minds” stars Thomas Gibson (star of “Dharma and Greg”) as unit chief Aaron Hotchner, and movie and Broadway star Joe Mantegna, who plays senior supervisory special agent David Rossi.
Benz’ plays a deputy on the episode which airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21 on CBS.
But even after landing a role, the actor’s duty to find the next job is never done. Benz said he’s aware of the challenges.
Every actor needs an agent, and Benz is working on that.
“I’m not great at or interested in the self-promotion thing,” he said.
“But I go to my classes and attend workshops with casting directors at a place called Act Now when I can afford it,” he said.
A workshop was what led to Benz getting the “Criminal Minds” audition. He also recently played the lead in an equity (union) production with the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company in Thousand Oaks.
But the determination continues.
Benz said he is currently having a Web site built for himself on which he will be able to post reels of anything he’s done in television or in film.
Competition for roles and landing an agent aside, maintaining an acting career is a lonely exercise in perseverance, and a flexible schedule is key to carving out time for auditions.
“You might not guess this, but my average day has more to do with supervising college students with power tools and checking groceries while giving balloons and stickers to toddlers than anything else,” Benz said.
But Benz keeps his eyes on the prize.
He was recently in New York auditioning for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts graduate acting program.
“I’m really just looking forward to doing well enough with acting that I don’t have to have some other jobs to pay bills,” he said.
And as far as working with the director of his dreams goes, he has a long list that includes heavy hitters such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Sam Mendes, Julie Taymor, Clint Eastwood, the Cohen brothers and Quentin Tarrantino.
“All these guys make movies I’d really want to be a part of,” Benz said.
Actors know more than any other professionals that they can’t afford to be choosy on the road to a career. Even so, Benz tries to keep some level of integrity in his game.
He said doing theater and film that is accessible while it still has artistic value would be nice.
But ultimately, he knows it’s the audience that matters.
“My coach says as actors our job is to entertain, educate, enlighten,” Benz said.
“But the order is key. If you’re not entertaining ... bye.”