Let me start with the cliché, because in this case, the cliché is probably true: If you don’t know Denée Benton right now, you will know her very soon.
Benton is having the kind of breakthrough year actors dream of. Over the summer, she played the pivotal role of Black Lives Matter activist Ruby in the second season of Lifetime’s dark, satirical soap UnReal. And now, she’s playing one of the title roles in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which opened on Broadway Monday, November 14. (The show had an earlier run off-Broadway from 2012 to 2014, and many of its creative personnel and actors have continued on to this production from that one.)
The show adapts a tiny sliver of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in which young Russian countess Natasha finds herself entranced by the dashing Anatole, despite the fact that she’s engaged to another.
Great Comet has already made a stage star of its first Natasha — Phillipa Soo, who went on to star in Hamilton and the upcoming stage musical of Amelie — and Benton looks poised for the same success. (She’s even starting opposite none other than Josh Groban, who plays Pierre, the musical’s bitter, disaffected narrator.)
Benton talked with me about the elaborate exercise routine that is any given performance of Great Comet, the importance of being a black woman playing a Russian countess, and why so many kids with strict parents go into the creative arts.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You've broken through simultaneously on screen and on stage. What parts of yourself do those two different forms of acting feed?
On stage, the whole rehearsal process, there's so much preparation that by the time opening night comes, you can really be free in the homework that you've done. You're supported by all of the work that you and your castmates and the creative team have put into this moment.
Television, it's really having faith in the present moment. It's scary because you don't have a ton of control. There's so many different pieces of the puzzle, and the actor is one of the last pieces. It's really just you and your scene partner, and [filming] stops so much that finding a way to stay present in that moment is something that challenges you in a different way.
You're so vulnerable because they're calling "cut," and you're like, "Okay, do I stay in character? Do I chat with my scene partner about their shoes?" It's this challenge to stay living in that present moment.
What techniques did you use to stay present in that moment?
I had to start letting go of what I had planned in my mind should or shouldn't happen, because there isn't a rehearsal process really. You go through the lines with the director and talk through the scene, and that's as deep as the rehearsal goes.
If my scene partner was giving me something different than the imaginary line reading I had prepared for them, you have to adjust and trust that maybe what's happening in this moment is actually better than what you planned.
I'm not going to combust and die if something that I didn't prepare starts to happen. If I ever felt myself going there, I had to be like, "Okay Denée, open your eyes and actually listen to what the person in front of you is saying to you and what they're giving you to work off of."
Between this show and being on UnReal, you’ve had a breakthrough year. I’ve always wondered if doing things like talking about yourself to journalists for the first time is fun and novel, or if it already feels a little onerous.
When I was dreaming about becoming an actor and dreaming about becoming a performer, so much of your access to the people you love outside of performing is watching their interviews, and reading their interviews. What is their process, and how did they do this, and how did they get there?
I am always mindful of another little girl or another little brown girl that might be reading this and be, like, "Oh my gosh, wait. She sounds like me. Maybe I could do that," I searched for that so much in the actors that I love — getting to see myself in them or see some sort of path in them that I could also follow. So it feels really cool and special to be like, "Oh my god, I used to read these interviews, and now I'm doing them."
Back when you were first cast in Natasha, you tweeted that you were so excited to do the show and that a black woman could be cast as a Russian countess. What’s important to you about helping to open those doors of diversity?
It's powerful to take down the boundaries that separate us and remind everybody that we're all human and we all have the ability to tell the human story. The hard thing sometimes about being an actor of color is that you can feel as if white actors have the right to tell everyone's story. White men get to play trans women, they get to play Asian men, they get to save the world from Martians, they get to play in World War II stories.
You have a right to everyone's story, but as an actor of color, you often find that maybe you have access to very limited stereotypes of what people might think you are. Even then sometimes, the story gets whitewashed, and you get completely written out of the tale.
Stories like The Great Comet were the stories that I loved growing up — big sweeping dramatic romances with a lead who was dealing with a love triangle. I was a very dramatic child, so The Notebook and Titanic were movies that I loved, but I never saw myself in them. It was something that made me a little afraid to go into this industry, not necessarily knowing how often the door would be open for me to tell stories that I really connected to.
When I was first auditioning for the role [of Natasha], there was a part of me that really did think that there was no way they were looking for me for this. I was like, "Okay, I'll go in for it, but they're going to cast a white girl with a very nice soprano, and that's the look that they're going to want."
I was pleasantly surprised that, no, they picked someone whom they felt embodied the role. It shows me that I don't have to limit myself, even if I feel like other people might. I hope that a little black girl sees this and gets to skip some of those steps of fear and insecurity. The issue with stereotypes and limitations is that if you don't fit in that box, you can think something's wrong with you instead of realizing that you have something just as special to offer.
Great Comet has existed in various forms before it got to Broadway, and a lot of the people associated with those earlier versions are still involved in the Broadway production. What’s it been like to step into the middle of this thing that’s new but not new?
It's been really wonderful. The creators, Rachel and Dave, their primary goal was to preserve the intimacy and the magical novelty of the show, but as far as the characters were concerned, [Rachel] approached it with me as our first time together, and gave me the freedom to really find what Natasha looked like and felt like and sounded like in my body.
I didn’t feel like I had to fit into this mold that had already been decided about the entire show. Because the proscenium-style stage was so new for everyone, we all got to discover that together, which was really nice. [Earlier productions of Great Comet took place with the audience sitting to three sides of the actors, and frequent interaction between audience and actors. The Broadway production has a slightly more common setup, though the actors still come out into the audience.]
The show is incredible, and very challenging and physically taxing. It was really great to have people who knew the ropes already. They were like, "Okay, watch out for the stairs. You might wipe out a couple times."
What’s that physicality like, just as an endurance test?
A lot of running all over the place, a lot of StairMaster. We're going to have Buns of Steel, definitely. [Laughs.] It’s a unique experience to have your mind and body need to be up and ready to go. The landscape of the stage adds so much to the piece, so figuring out what it's like to run up stairs while belting a high F is definitely something I will add to my special skills.
Natasha can be a tough character to get a handle on, because she can seem so naïve and foolish at times, but there’s also an underlying strength and desire to go after what she wants. Where do you find the greatest similarities to her, and the greatest differences from her?
I relate to her most in how broadly she can feel feelings of joy. The moon or a winter sky can knock her off her feet. I completely relate to her big expectations from life. She expects life to give her the moon and the stars, and she won't settle for anything less.
Any actor to a certain extent has to understand how much a little bit of naïveté and a bunch of gall it takes to really believe that this could happen for you. On a spiritual level, I really connect to being able to see the vastness of the magic that exists in this world in something as small as a twinkling star. That's one of the biggest things I love about her.
One of the most vexing things is I'm not quite as narrow-minded as she can be. I have very strict parents, so I was not a rebellious child at all. The concept of throwing caution to the wind and running away with this man and saying "screw you" to the people who know her, that makes me nauseous to think about.
She trusts herself. As naïve as she can be, she trusts that she knows what she wants. Especially in that time period [the Napoleonic era], at such a young age, you're obligated and responsible to so many people outside of yourself. For her to be like, "No, I know my heart, and I know what I feel, and this is what I'm going to do," I find that beyond her years and a little ahead of her time.
I’ve talked to lots of people who are in the creative arts who grew up in that sort of strict background. And even if they weren’t actively rebellious, they were drawn to that creative space. What about performing drew you to it from that environment?
It made me feel transcendent. When I started performing and singing and acting, it made my soul feel like it was alive and swelling, and watching people perform would bring me to tears. It made me feel divine, and it made me feel connected to the divinity in the world.
I know that sounds like so hippy dippy, but that's the only way that I can really describe it. It felt like magic, and the freedom that came along with that feeling of knowing that you were doing something that you had a gift to do almost feels like you're a vessel for something a lot bigger.
I got very attracted to that feeling of, oh my gosh, why does this just get my heart racing in such an incredible way? I just kept chasing that feeling.
Did you follow some of the controversy around UnReal season two, especially with regards to the idea that the show tried to do too much and handled some of the storytelling about race clumsily?
I feel like one of the things that I love about this show is that the writers really do tackle some huge issues, and I don't think that their goal is to have a perfect PhD dissertation on it as much as it is to really start a conversation about it.
I'm of the mind that even if you can't do it perfectly, sometimes it is better to bring it up. So many issues in our society come from a lack of communication and a lack of information and education. So many of us are afraid to even approach certain topics, because we're like, "Oh crap, do I have a right to talk about this? Will I get it right? Will I get it wrong? Will I offend somebody?"
If you're coming from a place of respect and humility, sometimes it's best to have some egg on your face and start the conversation even if you don't get it all right. I don't think we'll really get anywhere if we're too afraid to even mention things. Our society is just still so segregated, and you can grow up never knowing someone who was a different race than you, a different gender, a different sexuality. We have to have a little bit more compassion with each other when we don't get things all the way right the first time and keep digging deeper, even if it's messy.
What do you see as the role of art in getting people to help break down those barriers and help us understand perspectives other than our own, then?
I feel like it's almost art and media's entire responsibility to do so. We could wait for hundreds of years for certain policies to change, but if you make a movie or a TV show that reaches millions of people, you can start a conversation in a matter of minutes.
Media has such power to make you fall in love with people we’ve put in a box for centuries and be like, "That's a human being, too, who deals with insecurities and love and hate and fear and joy." Media and art and music are the most powerful tools to reach people and bring us together and humanize us.
History books are so dated and don't include gajillions of the facts that we need to know about ourselves to feel like we are active participants in society. Media and entertainment get to close some of those gaps. I am so encouraged when I see filmmakers and stage makers and creators taking on that responsibility to tell diverse stories.
Sometimes when people say diverse stories, it kind of feels like, "Oh, well they're making something up or pulling it out of the woodwork." It's like, "No, these people exist, and they've been existing for thousands and thousands of years, contributing to the way the world works.” We just got pigeonholed into telling the same story over and over again and kind of brainwashing the world to think that it might be the only story that exists. Media has the power to blow that wide open.