'Pride' and 'Warcraft' have put Ben Schnetzer on the verge of breaking out
TORONTO — You likely have no idea who Ben Schnetzer is. Even if you're one of the few moviegoers who saw the WWII drama "The Book Thief" in theaters last year you wouldn't know the name. You'd remember his performance as Max, the young Jewish man who hides in the family's basement, but you'd find yourself scratching your head as to who actually played him. Since finishing "Thief," the 24-year-old has shot three other movies: "The Riot Club," "Pride" and Duncan Jones' big screen adaptation of the classic video game "Warcraft." Each project finds him playing widely different roles, but if you're looking for a true sign of his talent you must see his performance in the new drama "Pride."
Schnetzer, the son of two working New York actors, plays Mark Ashton, a man who spent most of his short life fighting for the rights of gays and lesbians in his native United Kingdom. One of Ashton's biggest achievements was as a member of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, a charity group set up to raise money for striking miners during the year-long British Miners strike from 1984 to 1985. Neither group would seem to have much in common with the other except for the person who was the focal point of their oppression: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. And as anyone who is a die hard member of Britain's Labour Party will tell you, that hatred was a major rallying cry.
"Pride" finally brings this touching (and entertaining) story to light. Mark is the de facto leader of the London branch of LGSM who begins to send funds to one particularly hard-hit village in Wales. The town's reaction was both surprising, and not so much, but it's a textbook case for why progressive coalitions continue to band together no matter what the country, or century, for that matter.
While "Pride" features impressive turns across the board from a well-known ensemble of Brits including Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Paddy Considine and Dominic West, it's Schnetzer's work as Mark that provides the passion and drive for the film's storyline. Sitting down with him during the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, where "Pride" had its North American premiere, it was remarkable to note just how different the actor was in person from his character. Yes, that's "acting," but if you see "Pride" before meeting or catching a video or audio interview with Schnetzer, you'd never think he wasn't English and, truth be told, you might think he was a gay actor (he appears not to be). For a veteran movie journalist it's a striking contrast and makes me seriously wonder what he's going to do next.
Before our interview began, however, Schnetzer had just experienced a fanboy moment in the lobby of a downtown Toronto hotel.
HitFix: Have you been having fun in Toronto?
Ben Schnetzer: A lot of fun. I just met Jon Stewart so – my mission’s complete.
You don’t expect to just turn around the corner and run into someone of that stature.
I know. Yesterday we finished [our official festival press conference] right after Denzel Washington and Antoine Fuqua did theirs for "The Equalizer." And so Denzel’s just standing right next to me. I was like, "Oh my God!" So it’s been a good one, yeah.
What was it like seeing the movie with an audience last night?
It was amazing seeing it in a room full of people. It’s just like another character. It’s another element factored into everything. And so it’s one thing when you’re watching it alone. They organized a screening for me in New York. It was like me, my dad and my best friend and we’re just kind of sitting there in this empty theater. And it’s interesting because it’s like if you’re a soccer player or something like that and you’re not gonna watch one of your games and like sit there and eat popcorn, enjoy what you’re watching it and you’re seeing it what, you know, what could I have done different. You know what worked, what didn’t, all that stuff. But you know when you played a good game. You know when your team played well. You know when you had a good coach. And so I think finally getting a change to watch it with an audience it was like OK, cool. Like it was a bit more – you could enjoy the experience of seeing it and you could see what, you know, you’re surprised where people laugh. You’re surprised where people cry. You’re surprised, you know, some things where you’re like, "Oh man, I hope this works." And you see it and the audience kind of, you know – it’s just a buzz man.
How did this project come to you? I think many people who see the movie will be surprised to find out you're American. Were you working in the UK?
I was. Yeah, I went to drama school in the UK and I was...
And by the way how did that happen?
You know, I was in love with a girl at the time and she just moved to England and so I wanted to go to drama school. And I looked around and realized that British actors and Australian actors were taking all the work in the U.S. So, I was like, "They’re probably doing something right." All signs pointed to England and I auditioned and got lucky and got in. And then, since you're [living] there, you get plugged into the circuit a little bit. And so started working a bit in the UK and I was doing a film there called "The Riot Club" when I received the script for "Pride" and immediately wanted in.
I didn’t have the chance to audition when I was on the ground there, but flew back to New York, put myself on tape and Skyped with Matthew and Stephen after I sent the tape in. It was like on a Thursday or a Friday. They’re like, "Great, cool, you know, we’re gonna take the weekend and we’ll get back to you. We might see a couple more people and then we’ll probably ask you to lay down a few more scenes." And I called my agent after the meeting and I was like, "Listen, is it overkill if I just like put more scenes down and send them over? What do I have to do to get this job?" And she was like, "No, do it." So, I laid down three or four more scenes and sent them off and wrote them an email. And I was just like, "Listen, I never do this but just tell me what I have to do to be involved in this. And if you’re not convinced, you know, here’s X, Y, Z, more material." I think they [thought], "He’s in step with the industrious spirit of the project."
This is your first leading role, really. Were you nervous going in? It's certainly an ensemble project, but you're steering the boat for most of the way.
I was a bit nervous, but I think the nature of this story really trivializes a lot of your own insecurities and problems. Pretty much right off the bat it was just like, "We know why we’re here," and it was easy to prioritize. It was easy to let go of any sense of insecurity or anything like that because it was just like, "I’m not worried about getting it right for me. I’m worried about getting it right for the story."
The movie takes place in 1985. What did you take away from researching the era?
First of all -- no idea -- I had never heard of LGSM. Nor had, you know, a lot of the team. And so the fact that that wasn’t kind of common knowledge was very surprising to me. [I also] didn’t know very much about the miners' strike so it was kind of a crash course history lesson getting versed in all that and realizing how much of a civil war it really was. It really changed the landscape of politics in the UK, of a lot of socioeconomic standing in the UK. And then on top of that also just really kind of getting rooted in what it was to be gay then. What it was to be constantly marginalized, constantly vilified, constantly, you know, attacked by the mainstream. We didn’t want to take that for granted. We wanted to portray and pay homage to the courage that it took for people to stand up. You had to be militant. Every day was a fight, you know? Every day you’d pick up the newspaper and you’d see a headline that would disparage you. And the miners were going through the exact same thing at the time. So finally when you meet a community who you have that common ground? It’s a testament to the common ground that marginalized groups share.
But in terms of like the 80s…I don’t even know if you were born then.
No, I wasn’t. I’m a '90s boy.