Out of Character: A Conversation With Rob Benedict

It takes actor Rob Benedict three times to call Art Attack before he gets on a line that won't break up or disconnect. He had mentioned driving in Los Angeles before our last untimely disconnect, and when we ask him if he's in the mountains, his answer is surprising.

"Wilshire Drive, actually. There are pockets in the city where you just get dropped. It's funny, too, because you can always see them coming and you think 'I'm gonna lose you.'"

Benedict has made a career of playing character parts in film and television, perhaps most famously as Richard in Felicity and, more recently, as Jeremy in Starz's Head Case. But in his latest role, opposite Jenna Fischer in the film A Little Help, which is in theaters now, Benedict tones down what he calls "characteriness" for a more emotional performance.

The film takes place on Long Island in the summer of 2002, and the memory of 9/11 is still fresh in the collective memory of the characters. It concerns Laura (Jenna Fischer), a misfit in her own family who's creeping toward alcoholism. When her son lies to everyone at his new school about his father's death (that he was a firefighter who died in the Twin Towers; actually, his dad, played by Chris O'Donnell, died more recently from a heart problem), Laura goes along with the lie to protect him. Benedict plays Paul, Laura's childhood friend who grew up to marry her sister and to become unhappy in that marriage.

Needless to say, it's a little heavier than the Hangover II mockumentary DVD featurette he was shooting right before Art Attack talked to him.

"I loved playing this guy," he says about Paul. "He's the only reasonable voice in the movie. I mean, he's somewhat depressed, but he laughs a lot and he does things to make others laugh. And he's the only guy in the film who understands Laura."

One of the quirks of the film is its odd function as a period piece. Everyone dresses more or less like we still do and has more or less the same haircuts; but when we're reminded of how low gas prices were during a scene at a filling station (less than $2), or of the number of "Never Forget" posters plastered along school hallways, we realize how long it's actually been since the 9/11 attacks.

"I remember it was such a sensitive subject, and there was this thinking of 'how are we ever going to talk about this and start to recover?'" Benedict says. "And I think with Laura, there's that thinking in her personal life as well."

Benedict's favorite scene in the film is a quiet, emotional one in which Paul reveals to Laura a long-held secret. It is a scene that holds a lot of significance and history for Benedict and Fischer. The first time they read it together was during a chemistry read, a final step in the audition process to determine if the actors complement each other. "It was kind of nerve-racking," he says. "But when we went to shoot, we had that history and had so much respect for the scene."

Benedict's first role was in the sixth grade, as the title character in The Winslow Boy in a community theater production in Columbia, Missouri. He was hooked from day one. His résumé includes a degree in theater performance from Northwestern University, numerous regional theater productions and various television and film roles. But it's still the nuances of his day-to-day work that seem to bring the most joy.

"There's a scene (in A Little Help) where my daughter is making deviled eggs and I have to eat one," he says, laughing. "And after a day of shooting that scene...I'll never eat deviled eggs again."

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