On Friday September 29th, aka NATIONAL COFFEE DAY, I met with a former cast-mate and long time friend, Ben Davis. We grabbed one cold brew and one pour over coffee at the Coffee Project downtown to go. The shop was filled with hanging light-bulb fixtures, exposed brick, and cozy seating. Since Fall weather was in our favor, we ventured to Washington Square Park where we sat, sipped, and then stopped at Big Gay Ice cream for a cone before bidding “adieu.”
*Ideal cup of coffee: I usually do pour over at home. I have my own grinder. Right now I have Blue Bottle beans. But I’ve taken to Gimme Coffee…so I’ll get my coffee, my beans and then walk over the Elizabeth Garden
AF: What a whirlwind of life events that led us here. You’re back in the city! How are you drinking your coffee right now?
BD: My coffee’s black which I usually take with Half and Half but I wanted to taste his pour over and not sully it with cream since he worked so hard on it. It’s very satisfying.
AF: Describe yourself in 3 words.
BD: Curious. Stubborn. Passionate…there you go. Maybe a little hot-headed goes along with the stubbornness.
AF: Tell us a little bit of your back story….where are you from?
BD: I’m from Indianapolis. Born in Iowa… raised in Indianapolis. I was kind of a jock all through High school then quit basketball in High School because I was hot-headed. I was mad at the coach… I got mad at him because he benched me for a game. I had missed practices to go to my Aunt’s funeral so F him…I showed him and quit! But quitting Basketball led me to my first audition Junior year which was West Side Story. I used to sing in the back of the bus to get girls. It never worked…I just annoyed them. So I auditioned for West Side Story my Junior year and got Riff… the most non dancing Riff you’ll ever meet! And then in what would never be allowed these days, my Senior year I played Lun Tah in the King and I…spray painted…basically orange…I looked like an oompa loompa… with dark black hair. You couldn’t do it now…people would have an uproar! But that’s another conversation…
AF:Where did you go to school?
BD: I went to Butler University for two years for Voice…and then I left it because I was wasting my parent’s money. I just wasn’t ready for school. I wanted to do the things I wanted to do but not have to take the classes I didn’t want to take. So then I went to work at a brokerage firm, became an assistant to a Financial Advisor in Indianapolis, had actually gotten cast in Beef & Boards theatre as Rolf (in Sound of Music) and turned it down and decided I was just gonna give up the business. And then mom got me the Chicago Performing Arts Trade Paper that had all the auditions in it…we didn’t do online back then! I’m old… This was 1997. So then I went to Chicago for a Phantom open call and was called back for Raoul. I didn’t hear anything and then about 6 weeks later the same casting director said they were coming for auditions for Les Mis and they’d like to have me come up. And so I flew back up. And then they flew me to New York the next week for another audition…that was my second trip to New York…ever. And then I flew back and I was sitting in the office one day and they called me and said, “Hey Ben we didn’t see how high you can sing and there’s a role that’s open- we need to see if you can hit this note.”I had never hit a high A in my life and I left the office and called him and somehow hit it twice and two weeks later I was on the road with Les Mis. That’s luck. That’s like having a horseshoe up your ass… it’s just lucky.
AF: What is your view on pursuing a degree in Theatre?
BD: For me, and I think for a lot of people…I say, instead of going into debt…if you have the discipline and you can do it, use your money and just come to New York, take class, learn from other people, work…because you’re gonna learn so much and see where you’re at. I think that you can really benefit from that. But if you need the structure of school I think it’s fine. But I think every summer you should come to the city and live and check it out!
AF: And what did your first years in New York look like…?
BD: I was on the road for three and a half years and then I came to New York with Les Mis. They hired me as Enjolras on Broadway. I opened on Broadway September 10, 2001 the day before the attacks. Yeah…yeah it was crazy. We cancelled for 4 days. During Les Mis I auditioned for La Boheme so I went right from Les Mis into La Boheme. So this was stupid…I went from Les Mis to La Boheme to Millie to La Boheme in LA…and then things abruptly stopped! I had a manager at the time…so I stayed out in LA thinking things would happen since I’d had success in theatre but it didn’t matter… I didn’t do the work that I should have done out there; going to classes and learning what it meant to be a TV actor. I went to Baz and said, “I want to do TV/FILM” and he said “If you want me to help you I’d be happy to make calls” and I was like 28 at the time told him I’d do it on my own. If someone is willing to help you…take it. His advice to me was get on camera and I didn’t do it. So…youth’s folly taught me thirteen years later not to do that. So all that said…my first years in the city were hyper idealized.
AF: What attracted you to a career in the theatre in the first place?
BD: I loved having this feeling that I could move people. That was kind of the seduction of it was like…something I did would make people feel something.
AF: How fitting then that Les Mis was your big break…that definitely moves people! What/who is your biggest motivator to keep on going in this business?
BD: My dad. The faith and trust that my dad had in me that I would always be okay…that is the biggest thing to know that he had this undying faith. Yeah. It was a steadfastness.
AF: What do you think has been your greatest accomplishment to date as an actor?
BD: Just being able to work. I’m not a star…but I’ve worked. And that to me is important. I want to work with amazing people and continue to be stretched. That’s all.
AF: We did Sound of Music together in 2012…how do you think you’ve changed as an artist/as a human since then?
BD: Well…my dad died, I got divorced. There’s a couple things right there! I’m definitely more confident. I feel a greater sense of self and it’s interesting because I don’t know if that happened because of my divorce…but to have to rediscover my own identity was vital to my growth as an artist and as a human being. They were the two anchors in my life and I lost both of them within 3 days of each other so all of that happening kind of reshaped my whole life. I was incredibly blessed to have had an ideal childhood…I wasn’t an angsty kid. But I do feel richer in my experience now having had some knocks in life… not that you have to have those… but it’s definitely deepened things a lot. It’s just experience as human beings… we should get as many experiences as possible. As artists it’s our job to reflect the human experience.
AF: How do you evaluate success?
BD: Working and having good people want to work with you and feeling like there’s always someone better than you in the room and that you’re always being put in those situations because that means someone thought you belonged there even if you fooled them into thinking that…and hopefully by the end of the experience you will have proven you belong there. So that’s success to me… We all have that fear of failing as actors…that first week of rehearsal you’re like “Oh God, I’m getting fired.” But I think you have to go there…so success to me is being able to push through that and at the end of that you’re like, “I kinda killed that.”
AF: What has been the biggest life lesson you’ve taken away from a contract or a role?
BD: You have to be happy with the work you’re doing. You can’t look for anybody else to validate your work because everybody has a different opinion…even the people that are employing you…that doesn’t mean it’s the right opinion. You need to be honest with the appraisal of your work… and if you can be honest and are happy with it…that’s all that matters.
AF: How do you prepare for auditions/appointments?
BD: I like to be memorized because it just gives me more freedom to play if the director gives me any adjustments. For TV/FILM I told Paige- I’m never going in to another TV/FILM audition again without having gone over it with you on camera to see how it looks. Just the way you turn your head…the technical things of what helps the audience and see the story you’re telling better…how big you can be… I just went in without having done that and I hated every second of it. In the middle of it I’m just thinking, “I’m sucking, I’m sucking…” So frustrating.
AF: Walk us through your audition process for the Sound of Music tour.
BD: Telsey had cast me in the Paper Mill production, so they knew me in the role and brought me in for the tour. I was in twice for them before they cast me. After I’d been cast they brought me back in to read with the final five Maria’s who were all so wildly different. And before I went in Jack O’Brien said to me…there’s one in there that’s a ringer…I’m not gonna tell you who it is…but I want to see what it’s like. And it was Kerstin!
AF: When did you start your donut adventures?
BD: It was the summer before I went on tour…and I was living near Long’s Bakery and I thought it’d be a cool way to document my travels and then the press department at Sound of Music caught on and started booking me on press events so I got all these free donuts! It also made for very early mornings…but it was fun!
AF: What are some of your other hobbies?
BD: I love sports still, riding city bike, I love exploring the city, love restaurants. My ideal day is city biking around eating and drinking.
AF: So- if I were to plan a day with Douglas and wanted to go to a romantic breakfast place in the morning by the river…and then for a pasta dinner and a nice glass of wine…where would we go?
BD: I would send you over to the World Financial Center and grab some sandwiches by the Le District and then you could go and walk by the river and look at the Statue of Liberty. And then for dinner if you wanted pasta and a nice glass of wine…I would send you to Tribecca to Max’s or I would send you to Buvette in the West Village…Via Corota is right across from Buvette. But I’ve been gone for a year and a half and so there are so many new places so I’ve got to explore!
AF: What are your words to live by?
BD: There is a quote that I’m getting tattooed on me…I’ll condense it but it’s, “Take me out to the Cyprus Hill in my car. And we’ll hear the dead people talk. They do talk there. They chatter like birds on Cyprus Hill, but all they say is one word and that one word is, “live,” they say, “Live, live, live, live!” It’s all they’ve learned, it’s the only advice they can give. Just live. Simple! A very simple instruction…” I’ve got several tattoos… I have “perspective,” something in Latin for my dad, his signature…and “Now.” I Just think that’s a good way to live. “Do it now.” I can’t put it off any more!
AF: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
BD: I have no idea. I could plan that and it probably wouldn’t turn out that way…happy!