Benjamin Bratt – Blessed Are the Believers
Updated: May 21, 2021
Benjamin Bratt stars in “The Lesser Blessed.”
Blessed Are the Believers
by Jay S. Jacobs
Ever since Benjamin Bratt exploded into the public consciousness in the 1990s as a detective on the long-running series Law & Order, he has been surprising us with his career choices.
Despite his leading man looks, Bratt was always drawn to grittier fare. Therefore, while he has done his fair share of big Hollywood films – like Miss Congeniality, Traffic and recently Snitch – Bratt has also shown up in a lot of darker independent films which take stark looks at some rather taboo subjects.
The latest is writer/director Anita Doron's The Lesser Blessed, based on the acclaimed by Richard Van Camp novel. Bratt plays Jed, a modern native American living in Northwestern Canada who is dating a local woman named Verna (Tamara Podemski) and acting as a role model for her son Larry (Joel Nathan Evans), a local teen outcast who is harboring a very dark secret.
A couple of weeks before the release of The Lesser Blessed, Mr. Bratt sat down with us for this exclusive discussion of the movie and his career.
Nice to interview you again, I spoke with you a few years ago when you were working on The Cleaner. What was it about the script of The Lesser Blessed that intrigued you?
As I began reading, it was immediately apparent that it came from the hand of a true artist. It was at once beautiful and raw, and painfully familiar with the awkward, often bittersweet business of growing up as a teen. Honestly, it grabbed my attention like a slap to the head. I was so startled by its humanity I had to write Anita [Doron] a letter and tell her so. The coming-of-age journey of a teenage outsider is a familiar trope, but I had never seen it done with such brutal and tender honesty, let alone from a native [First Nations] perspective. I loved that Larry’s story – his entire world – was so culturally specific, yet utterly universal in its depiction of teenage angst and isolation.
Your character was pretty fascinating. When he first appears, the audience assumes that they know who he is: the mother's selfish new boyfriend with commitment issues, but it turns out that he is nothing like that at all. Did the fact that he bucks the normal expectations make him a more interesting character for you to play?
The truth is, I jokingly asked Anita if I was too old to play Larry… the part is just that good! But Jed suited me just fine and yes, as you say, part of what makes him compelling is that he doesn’t fall into the category of the cold and indifferent boyfriend. In fact, he emerges as the opposite. He becomes both the moral and emotional anchor of the film.
Jed was an interesting dichotomy, because professionally and personally he was always trying to rescue lost people, and yet in some ways he was lost himself. Jed obviously really cared for Verna and Larry, but sometimes seemed scared by the responsibility of a potential family. Do you think that in helping Larry get through his issues, Jed will be able to finally allow them fully into his life?
That’s an interesting takeaway from the film and I can see why you might get that impression. There is much in the relationship between Verna and Jed that is left to question. What I hope remains clear is that Jed is really the only good man Larry knows and trusts. As it turned out, Richard’s novel became a treasure trove of information and insight, and I used it as a kind of character bible. Anyone who knows anything about contemporary native culture and some of the ongoing social ills that plaque our communities – drug and alcohol abuse, fractured families, domestic violence, incest, poverty, unusually high suicide rates – understands Richard’s intention in the design of this character.
Jed is the kind of man that is desperately needed in many of our troubled communities and is an even rarer find onscreen. He is a renaissance man, a role model, a world traveler who has lived a life of adventure and purpose yet remains connected to what defines him: His Indian-ness. He is contemporary yet still tied to his traditional ways. He has humor and pathos, tenderness, and strength.
In the book, Larry views him as a kind of superman. His hero worship of Jed is as heartbreaking as it is telling of his emotional need for a reliable father figure. Larry sees Jed as good for him and his mother both, but he also recognizes that it is Verna who is afraid to get too close. After all, Verna is a casualty of war wounded from years of mental and physical abuse at the hands of Larry’s biological father and God knows what else. Her soul wound has healed enough to allow her to recognize the goodness of Jed but not enough to let him in completely. There is a sense at the end of the film that in spite of the horrors of the past and the current lingering demons of the present, these three may well find their way to each other and likely to a place of… hope, I suppose.
I believe this is Joel Nathan Evans' first film, and both Kiowa Gordon and Chloe Rose are also fairly new to the business. As the person who has been working in TV and film the most, did you spend a lot of time with them and give them suggestions?
I was shooting Private Practice in Los Angeles when Lesser Blessed began principal photography in Northern Ontario. I literally flew up on my birthday over the Christmas break and worked only four days, the final four days of filming, then went home. There was no hanging out or time to even meet most folks; that night upon landing I went right into a costume fitting and eight hours later I was on set. My day one was the dinner table scene – a three-page monologue, no rehearsal, and go! No pressure there, right? Joel and Tamara [Podemski] were already in their groove, as was the crew, so it was my job to come in and make myself fall into step with their rhythm. That’s part of the challenge, but actually, also part of the thrill.
How did working with these young actors bring out the best in you as an actor?
Joel had pretty good instincts as a first-time performer and it helped that he’s a bright young man. But the emotional heavy lifting that his part required would challenge even the most seasoned professional. Truly a once in a lifetime kind of role. Anita was very good with him and gave him plenty of time and a warm guiding hand. I think it also helped that inherent in our relationship onscreen was a mentor/protégé thing happening, which extended into our conversations off screen. Now thinking back on it, it was a pretty organic process, and of course it also helps when the writing is that good.
I've always thought that you had fascinating taste in films. You are willing to work on very small films that take on somewhat taboo subjects that many Hollywood actors might never touch, like this film or La Mission or The Woodsman or even The Cleaner. What is it about these small projects that take on touchy subjects that interests you?
I find provocative material to be the most interesting to work on, especially when it’s a challenging subject matter that others might shy away from. The reward is in the risk. In the case of La Mission, that was a deeply personal effort from beginning to end. My brother Peter wrote it for me, and we produced it together under his direction. With the character of Che, we wanted to explore the nature of a man – a bona fide, old-school Latino in this case – who can’t yet see beyond his cultural and societal conditioning. We wanted to peel back the layers and examine what lies beneath his homophobia, his misogyny, his violence, and ask what has to happen to bring about a move away from these things?
Anita is equally probing in her effort to get at the heart of what makes Larry tick. The Lesser Blessed is filled with cold, stark images and is unflinching in its portrayal of Larry’s particular kind of hell. The reward in sticking with it lies in the triumph of the human spirit, the power of love and hope even through the most dire of circumstances.
You still also pepper in roles in bigger Hollywood fare like Snitch and Love in the Time of Cholera and older stuff like Traffic and Miss Congeniality. Do you enjoy doing bigger films as well, or do you see those roles as a way to afford to do more personal, smaller films?
Frankly, the reasons vary when it comes to deciding what to do next. I think all actors wish for the luxury of being able to pick and choose from the best material out there, but alas, that has never been my lot. I’ve done many films for love – that is to say, no money – and I have also done jobs that simply pay the bills. Everything changes when you have children and practical decisions must be weighed alongside artistic ones. That’s my reality. Of course, the battle between artistic intention and the workman’s imperative to keep food on the table is an ongoing internal struggle for me. Listen, a close friend of mine is fond of saying, “There’s no shame in making an honest living,” and he’s right at the end of the day. I have to remind myself of that every once in a while.
At this stage of my life, it feels like I have found a semblance of balance, but even that feels tentative in the face of how the business is changing. The little gems are harder to find, and there are more of us vying for the same roles because there are less independent films being made. It’s a much different world than it was even ten years ago, and if I want to continue working as an actor, I find myself having to be more open minded than ever before.
Lately you've been doing voiceover work in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Despicable Me 2. Is voiceover work fun?
Ah, a case in point! Oh man, it’s ridiculous how much fun it can be. And of course, my cool quotient goes way up with my kids because these are the films that they and their friends love to watch over and over. “Nice work if you can get it,” as the song goes…
As an actor, how is it easier and how is it harder?
Different set of challenges, really. It’s very freeing to go into a recording studio and just let it all fly. The only downside is that you are usually working alone in a studio with the director. There is no acting partner there to really play off of.
You have had a recurring role on Modern Family. You tend to do more dramatic work, is it fun to do comedy again? Do you find comedy easier or harder than drama?
Acting is acting… whether you’re doing comedy or drama. They both require good instincts and some technique. I try not to get too complicated when thinking about it. I will say that the script read-throughs for the comedy jobs make for a much more enjoyable day!
When you were young, who were some of the actors who inspired you to go into show business?
As a kid in the 70’s, I saw a lot of films. I grew up watching a generation of actors that will never be matched again. Gene Hackman, [Dustin] Hoffman, [Robert] Duvall, [Al] Pacino, [Robert] De Niro, [Clint] Eastwood, [Paul] Newman. There was Michael Caine, [Sean] Connery, [Charles] Bronson, Bruce Lee, Chief Dan George, Steve McQueen, Charlton Heston, Warren Beatty, Richard Pryor. The list is long and varied!
What was the first film that you remember seeing which really wowed you?
The original Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston. I remember my father piling us all into the station and going to the drive-in to see it… and it freaked me out, as I recall. However, I became fascinated with that series of films.
What movie would you say you have seen more than anything else?
Probably a tie between The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Godfather. Two of my all-time favorites from an early age.
What movie do you watch that will automatically make you smile?
Which Way Is Up? with Richard Pryor. It’s hilarious and politically subversive, a classic in my house.
What movie can make you cry every time you see it?
Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man. When Custer’s cavalry attacks the Lakota encampment and slaughters the men, women, and children while the piccolo plays over the horrific images… haunting.
What kinds of things make you nostalgic?
Music. Photographs. Certain scents. New York City… and egg nog.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
As a little kid, I won a city sponsored paper airplane derby. Two out of three events!
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