Following in your famous father’s footsteps while pursuing your own showbiz dreams can prove to be a daunting career path.
Just imagine if Dad were as beloved as Robby Benson, a teen heartthrob in the ‘70s in such films as the basketball drama “One on One” and the skating romance “Ice Castles.” He would move on to more mature roles in the ‘80s such as “Harry & Son” opposite Paul Newman and leave an enduring mark on animation history as the voice of the Beast in 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
And then there is Mom, Karla DeVito, no slouch, either. The actress/singer, once dubbed “The Sweetheart of Rock and Roll” by David Letterman, sang backup for Meat Loaf on his Bat Out of Hell tour and starred on Broadway in “The Pirates of Penzance.“
It makes sense, then, that their progeny and quadruple threat Zephyr Benson, who turns 23 on March 23, did what a kid has to do to make an impression as the first-time executive producer, director, writer and lead actor of “Straight Outta Tompkins.” He goes hardcore white-boy gangster while mining his own youthful flirtation with drugs in the gritty crime drama, which opens in theaters March 6 before coming out on VOD and DVD on March 31.
Benson is just one of several second-generation actors carving out their own place in the spotlight lately, joining such notable examples as Jaden Smith and Domhnall Gleeson. But few have shown the kind of guts it takes to drop out of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts film and TV program at age 18 in order to shoot a feature on New York’s Lower East Side for just $160,000 (mostly leftover tuition money) and in less than 20 days.
The resulting violent slice of urban street life is surprisingly professional considering the circumstances, reflecting such influences as Martin Scorsese as well as such ‘90s hip-hop classics as “New Jack City” and “Boyz n the Hood.” Even a certain Oscar-winning member of “The View” generously contributes a few choice unbilled minutes of screen time.
“One thing that my dad taught me is don’t throw money at problems,” said Benson of father Robby, who has gone on to direct both features (2008’s “Billy: The Early Years,” which was also Zephyr’s movie debut) and over 100 TV sitcom episodes (“Ellen,” “Friends”) along with teaching college courses. “We made the best movie we could. I was trying to show what it was like to grow up in New York with this crazy group of friends. We sort of raised each other and things would get out of hand.”
There are definite signs in “Tompkins” that Benson has watched “Goodfellas” more than once, as his character, Gene, starts off selling pot-laced cupcakes to his classmates and ends up being recruited into selling hard drugs by a dangerous dealer. “Goodfellas was my bible,” he said. “The amount of fake coke that I snorted was unbelievable. I was coughing out vitamin D powder.” He also was influenced by an unlikely childhood favorite, “The Sopranos.” “I was 7 or 8 when it was on the air. It probably was not a good idea to watch the show then. It did something to me when I was younger.”
Benson makes it clear that “Tompkins” is not completely based on his own life. For one thing, Gene’s mother is dead and his remarried father is absent, save for the occasional checks that arrive in the mail. “I had to wonder what it would be like if I didn’t have a great family and was looking for a father figure who sold a quarter million dollars of drugs in one day. I got close to kids and had conversations that were really fucked up, to be honest with you. Some saw their dad die, some saw their brother die. These people were trying to hide their pain with drugs. Even I was trying to hide my pain. My Dad had four open-heart surgeries. It was always a matter of life or death.”
While he primarily used marijuana — and sold weed-enhanced baked goods to school friends for extra cash, just like Gene — Benson said he indulged in harder substances as well: “I probably have taken almost every drug that exists.” As for heroin, “I experimented with it. I rehabbed myself cold turkey during a week of hell. It was never a part of me, though. I was not a junkie. But I saw that world and wanted to make a movie about it.”
One has to wonder if his parents were concerned about how the film presents an extreme version of their son’s indiscretions. But one glance at the credits show both Dad – as an executive producer and the score’s composer — and Mom – as an associate producer and music supervisor — made invaluable contributions to the end product. DeVito also provided a telephone voice, while his father even performed some emergency wardrobe-procuring duty.
“On the first day on the set, I was supposed to be wearing boxers,” Benson recalled. “But we didn’t have any boxers for me to wear. My dad ran out to a 99-cent store and bought some. I thought, ‘Oh, my God. Everything can go wrong.’ But he taught me how to be the captain of my own ship, especially when it comes to handling doubt. It can spread like the plague with a crew. You can’t let it show.”
Benson’s parents have been equally supportive of his older sister, Lyric, who is 31 and newly married. As a child, she was recruited for their 1990 movie comedy, Modern Love. She also once appeared as a waitress on the ‘90s TV series “Evening Shade.” But after studying film at NYU, Lyric switched to music and became a devoted follower of Transcendental Meditation. With more than a little help from her mother (who provided backing vocals) and father, she recorded an album of inspirational songs and poetry titled “Lyric’s Love Light Revolution.”
There is little doubt that Benson, with his corona of dark curls and deep blue eyes, is going places. He has another film in the wings, “Coming Through the Rye,” about two boys trying to track down elusive “Catcher in the Rye” author J.D. Salinger (played by Chris Cooper). “I play the older brother of one of the kids,” he said. “I was kicked out of school and he is looking for a better route in life.”
Benson is in the middle of writing a script about the economic collapse and depressing state of Detroit’s East Side. “I spent 10 days in the worst neighborhood in America,” he said of his research. “The city is like a war-torn country. It’s a scary place.” He would also like to direct a movie about pharmaceutical companies, based on a screenplay with contributions by him and his father.
Basically, Benson said, “I just want to stay working.”
Speaking of which, it has been a while since father Robby has been in front of the camera. With Disney’s announcement that Harry Potter star Emma Watson has won the role of Belle in a live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, perhaps Dad might like to reprise his part as the Beast?
“They should get him,” Benson said with a laugh. “Actually, they should get me. I have a deeper voice than my Dad.”