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.
What was like the most fun? You're character has a very particular style. Was there anything where you were like, “I cannot believe that I”m wearing this for like five straight days.”
Yeah, yeah, definitely. I mean it”s interesting. When I was at school I”d always hear actors be like, “I need to find the character”s shoes.” But you”re [thinking to yourself] “fucking whatever.” But honestly it”s not until I started working where you put on a jacket, you get your haircut and you like walk down the street differently. It informs so much about you and so having that whole experience, having the haircut, throwing on the earrings, having, you know, lacing up your Docs. It”s a real like, “OK, cool, this is who I am. This is who…”
Oh wait. So you wore Doc Martens in the movie?
I am so sorry. Oh my God, that”s…
Dancing in Doc Martens! Hiking up Welsh mountains in Docs! And you get this sense of “How do I want to be perceived?” You know? That”s the story we tell when we dress ourselves. And but the music man, the music was – I was inspired at how political a lot of the music that we were kind of exposed to was. And this is a time before social media so it”s a time when political causes and any social causes were very grass roots and you had to get up and you had to show up. And so that initiative was very rousing in me I think. I think it”s something hopefully that young people who go see the film, something that they can take away from it.
Your character, Mark, was a real person and he died very, very young.
Was there anything you were able to find out about him? Was there anything like that informed you about him more than just what was on the page?
There were a few documentaries that he”s featured in that I watched kind of on repeat. “Dancing in Dulais” was compiled by a member of LGSM at the time. And Mike Jackson, who Joe Gilgun plays in the film, was very close with Mark and he was a really invaluable resource. He was really generous and very open about Mark as a man and [their] relationship. He was kind of my main go-to resource. And he gave me a number of recordings of Mark speaking at political rallies. And so that helped get a real sense of who Mark was as a politician and as an ambassador and also just as far as trying to get the dialect down. It was a real kind of – that was another thing that was constantly on in my headphones always listening to in my trailer just to get…
…his voice, yeah.
So, you do play him in a way that”s slightly feminine for a gay guy.
Were you worried about like hitting the right note for that or did you not want to go too far?
I didn”t – I think that”s the thing. None of us wanted to go too far. We wanted to really, you know, we didn”t want it to be a bunch of like broad brushstroke stereotypes. We wanted to hit specific notes. And we didn”t want it to be a distraction but at the same time, you know, he had moments of being sure on his feet in life and, you know, his voice is – I wanted to try and do justice to it but not indulge in it and not do anything that would detract from the story itself.
This is only your third film, but you've already worked with notable actors such as Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton. Do you still get intimidated working with such respected peers?
Sometimes I do. It depends. You get surprised by the people that you get intimidated by. I mean, you get to kind of interact with people in the biz and personas that you”ve grown up watching. But I think once again, the nature of this project, we all really knew why we were there. I think by and large to his theater background, [Director Matthew Warchus] really facilitated a feel of ensemble from the get go. And so, Bill and Imelda – it”s not like they had big fancy this [or that]. They were right on the ground with us, right in the line of fire with all us young bucks. Obviously they”ve earned their stripes and spades, but they didn”t flash it around. They never patronized us ever. And when you”ve got people of that caliber who hold you to the same standard that they hold themselves to, it”s inspiring. It makes you want to step it up and it really – they were really great leaders, yeah.
So, you shot “The Riot Club” right after “The Book Thief” and then “Pride.” It's been pretty non-stop since you got out of school, hasn't it?
Pretty much, yeah. It”s been cool but it”s been, like, I had to leave school early to do “The Book Thief.” And then went home and then went like straight into “The Riot Club” and then went home and then kind of went straight into this. And then went home and then I was home for Christmas and then I went straight to Vancouver in the beginning of January to start pre-production for
“Warcraft.” And then did that and then went back for like five months in Vancouver and then went home and did a film in Utah. And then…
You're now finished with “Warcraft?”
At Comic-Con, they showed some footage from the film. It looked like it will make the fans of the game very happy.
I wish I had seen it.
Your character is a real person? You”re not a motion capture creation right?
I”m real. I”m real, yeah.
Has it mostly been green screen or…?
It”s a mix of stuff, a real mix of stuff. I mean, half the film is mo-cap and the other half is kind of live action. I”m pretty like under lock and key about what I say. We shot some stuff on location. We shot a lot of stuff studio. A lot of things were built. Amazing sets constructed.
Having gone from these sort of small indie movies to a big Hollywood flick, what's been the toughest transition?
It”s really difficult to ride a horse on a film set.
Really? That”s the number one? You've never been on a horse before?
No, no, I grew up in New York. I ended up falling in love with [it though]. I love horseback riding now. It”s amazing, but when you”re on a film set and you”re surrounded by hundreds of people and everybody”s a little bit anxious, horses don”t really like that. But we had some fun.
Considering how far you've come in a short period of time, do you think you would have had the same success if you”d tried it in New York? Did going to the UK make it happen quicker?
I”m just really grateful and I don”t know. I think one door opens, another door opens and [so on]. And I always had ambitions to work in the UK. I just never thought it was gonna happen so soon. So I think obviously I wouldn”t have gotten “The Riot Club” if I wasn”t in England. I wouldn”t have gotten “Pride” if I hadn”t done “The Riot Club.'” And so maybe I would just have been on a totally different trajectory, but who knows?
And by the way, how surprised are people to find out you're actually American?
They are, but I mean there”s so many British actors who come over and they”re like, “You kill the American accent. Just nail it.” And I”m like, “Man, I”ve got to try – I”ve got to hold it down.”
“Pride” is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. It expands into more markets on Oct. 10.