Part of the fun of any Whit Stillman film is watching the characters negotiate around a comedy of manners. But even more fun, apparently, is watching a character barrel through social courtesy altogether, like a bull in a (very polite) china shop. To wit (or Whit): Tom Bennett, who plays the buffoonish Sir James Martin in Stillman’s upcoming Jane Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship. Like a cross between Ricky Gervais and Colin Firth, Mr. Bennett–an Austenite name if there ever was one– is pea-brained Punchinello who nevertheless manages to steal the entire show with his casual observations about “the twelve commandments.”
After receiving accolades aplenty during Love & Friendship’s Sundance premiere, Mr. Bennett was gracious enough to expand on the difference between playing the asshole as opposed to the “lovable idiot.”
Observer: Congrats on being one of Rolling Stone‘s breakout stars!
Bennett: It’s pretty cool, pretty unreal. I’m kind of letting it sink in a bit. It’s great, to be one of twelve or however many breakout stars of Sundance.
Observer: But you’re on the top!
Bennett: I think I was, I was their first pick. And I think Variety did a similar thing. t I think I was–by like 15 years–the eldest breakout star this year.
Observer: So how does it feel, to finally get your due?
Bennett: Really nice! I’ve been doing this for twelve years now, over here. And I’ve mainly done television in England, that’s what I’m known for. So to suddenly have a film coming out, and getting pretty much universally good reviews–and most of them saying I’m not terrible in it!– it’s all pretty new.
Observer: Isn’t there a trend of British TV actors being stalked by rabid fans in London? Do people recognize you from EastEnders?
Bennett: No, no one ever recognizes me from Eastenders. If I get recognized for anything over here, it’s a sitcom I did a few years ago called PhoneShop. Because EastEnders is a huge program over here, but I was only in it for a week. It wasn’t like I was a regular lead in it. But if someone types my name into IMDB, EastEnders, that’s what pops up and people latch onto. But over here, I’m mainly known for PhoneShop. But I don’t get recognized on a day to day basis that much because I’ve grown out a beard.
Observer: To be fair, your EastEnders character, Steve, has maybe the best bio ever: “Bradley’s father, Max (Jake Wood) tells Steve to leave Bradley alone, which only leads to more bullying at work, including Steve creating a flash animation of Bradley’s head on a baby’s body.” That’s brilliant.
“I have as much fun playing assholes as I do lovable idiots. They’re my favorites.” – Tom Bennett
Bennett: Yeah, he was a bit of an asshole, really. I have as much fun playing assholes as I do lovable idiots. They’re my favorites.
Observer: I think I first saw you in Family Tree, where you appeared with one of my favorite acts ever: Nina Conti and monk.
Bennett: I had a complicated relationship with Monk. In Family Tree, there’s this sort of disconnect, where they’re not really paying attention to the monkey, they’re just thinking who is this crazy lady with a monkey. Whereas because my character Pete was kind of an idiot, I would engage with Monk a bit too much. I was very fond of Nina’s but I really disliked Monk.
Observer: So you’ve worked with Ricky Gervais, Christopher Guest, and now Whit Stillman. These are big names.
Bennett: It’s pretty incredible. I remember when The Office came out and I was in my first year of drama school. I was obsessed with it…I understood that it would change the landscape. And if you told me then that Gervais would one day have my email address and be writing roles with me in mind, I wouldn’t have believed you. And same thing, I remember the first time I ever saw Spinal Tap. And thinking again, this is an absolute game-changer. And if you told me twenty years ago that one day Jamie Lee Curtis would be cooking me brunch, and I’d get to knock a golf ball around the Riviera Club with Christopher Guest. But yeah, here I am.
Observer: What does Jamie Lee Curtis cook for brunch??
Bennett: Oh, it’s a spread. Yeah, Jamie puts on a real brunch; a real treat. It’s surreal that these people know who I am, let alone like me and enjoy my work.
Observer: When I saw Love & Friendship, my first thought was that you were doing a perfect Ricky Gervais impression. Ricky Gervais meets Colin Firth.
Bennett: Ricky and I share a certain comedy DNA…certainly in our delivery. Again, when I first saw The Office, my first thought was “This is going to change the game.” And in the same breath, I thought “Oh bugger, people are going to think I’m doing a Ricky Gervais impression.” And you know, sometimes that plays into my hand, and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m going to be in David Brent: Life on the Road…so that time, it did play into my hand. I’m a kind of surrogate Ricky in it.
Observer: Not to be too hyperbolic, but whenever you appeared in Love & Friendship, it was like you leaped off the screen. I was dying.
Bennett: It was such good fun. I love to read a script and go “Oh yeah, I get it.” And with comedy, half the time you read the script and go “Everything is there, I don’t need to do anything with that.” The other half you need to work to improve it, but it’s all in the script with Whit. It was all there and it all made perfect sense to me the first time I read it. It was a joy to get on the set and into that costume with those people and make it work, make it funny, make it brilliant.
My part in the film was not as big originally, and I remember one day being in the hair and makeup chair and the second A.D. came up to me and said “Has Whit spoken to you about the scene he’s written for you?” I asked to have a look at it, and it was almost three pages of monologue. I said to the second A.D. “Okay, when does he want me to do this?”
“As soon as you’re out of the chair.”
So I had to bribe my hair and makeup girls to make it last a bit longer so I could sit there frantically learning two and a half pages of monologue. Eventually, that became the “Twelve Commandments” scene. I’d learned that literally half an hour before we shot it. It was quite terrifying.
And it was so flattering. Because I think in the end, Whit wrote me three or four extra scenes that weren’t in the film originally. He decided that because he had me there, and liked what I was doing, he’d just write me extra scenes as he thought of them. So the pea scene? That was an extra one that he wrote in one evening, and we shot it the next day. Lots of my bigger scenes were written by him the night before. It was hard work, but it was amazing.
I don’t know how Whit was able to write in the style of what Jane would have wanted, but I believe he has. He’s like some kind of savant.
Observer: One of the thoughts I had with Whit, is that a lot of the humor is derived from the “straight face.” You watch The Last Days of Disco or Metropolitan, and the characters are clueless, but they take themselves very, very seriously. And they repeat lines over and over, which, I guess, is half of comedy: repetition. But you approached Sir James with a different sort of comedic angle and delivery, which made it so you almost seemed like you were in a different film, at certain points.
Bennett: It sort of feels like Sir James is the only one who is unaffected by any of it. Because he’s so simple. He’s like a dog. He’s a dog of a man. He’s like a really happy, sort of charming but idiot dog, who just wants to be loved. And he’s trying! He’s trying so hard! So he really has no concept of A) How ridiculous or silly he is, and B) Just how manipulative Lady Susan is. He’s just a pawn in her game. He’s sort of the only one who is entirely at ease with everything because he’s entirely unaware.
“Certainly, I played him as a man who has very, very little understanding of the world, because he’s entitled and he’s rich, and people tend to kowtow to him because he’s wealthy.”
Certainly, I played him as a man who has very, very little understanding of the world, because he’s entitled and he’s rich, and people tend to kowtow to him because he’s wealthy. He’s entirely unaware of what people might think of him behind his back, or indeed, to his face. I mean, people are rude to his face, and he just smiles and goes “Oh, marvelous!” He just laughs it off.
Observer: It’s kind of brilliant to have in a comedy of manners–like Whit often does– to have somebody with none.
Bennett: Someone said, “In a battle of wits, Sir James is unarmed.” And it’s completely true. He’s got nothing. He’s got no weapon in his arsenal. But in a way, that’s his biggest strength. He’s unaware that there’s even a battle going on. That’s what he keeps him safe.
Observer: It’s also a statement on one of the truer parts of life–even if it’s played up to a ridiculous degree–if you’re somebody like Sir James, in a privileged position, you don’t have to be clever, or smart. You don’t need to savvy, like Kate Beckinsale’s character, in order to navigate the social landscape. He’s good. He’s allowed to be.
Bennett: Exactly. He’s privileged, landed gentry. With however much money he has. Life is not hard for him. He gets to go out on his land and hunt large and small game. He enjoys his life, as he should. It’s Lady Susan who has to use her wits and her wiles and her guile to get what she wants. And eventually she gets it from Sir James. And Sir James is entirely happy with that because he gets to walk around with Kate Beckinsale on his arm. Who wouldn’t want that?
Observer: Should we be looking out for any other roles you have coming up?
Bennett: Having mentioned Christopher Guest, I’m also in Mascots, Chris’s new movie. It’s so exciting at the moment, I feel like I just want to blurt it all out.
And come August, I have the David Brent movie coming out. When Ricky first phoned me up, and he said “I’m working on the David Brent film and there is a role for you to have a look at. Take a read and let me know what you think.” And I said “Ricky, I don’t need to read it. I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” And I read the character description, and after the description it said, in brackets, “Possibly Tom Bennett.” I think that his first draft. I was flattered and amazed; I couldn’t quite believe my luck.
Observer: What’s your favorite moment from The Office?
Bennett: God, there are so many. But in the finale, when Brent tells Finch to finally fuck off and go fuck himself. It’s maybe not the funniest, but it’s this moment where his facade finally drops and he realizes “You know what? Finch is an asshole.” Everyone can say him doing the dance, or him saying “There’s been a rape up there!” It’s so imminently quotable. You can pick seven quotes from any episode of either series, and they’d all be great, but there’s something quite lovely about the British finale.
Love & Friendship opens in theaters on May 13th.