In the interview below, Ben Feldman admits that, in his early days as an actor, he never imagined one day starring in an NBC comedy. In fact, when he began his career, the kind of project he imagined working on was much more like “Between Us,” the romantic drama which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Yet before that sort of opportunity, Feldman found himself deep into the world of television, including a few seasons of Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva” and the role for which he may be known best — “Mad Men’s” brilliant yet unstable Michael Ginsberg, who was introduced in Season 5 and remained a major player until the first part of Season 7.
“Between Us,” meanwhile, is Rafael Palacio Illingworth’s deeply intimate film about Henry (Feldman) and Dianne (Olivia Thirlby), a young Los Angeles couple whose relationship implodes as the two characters question everything about their lives. It’s a very different project from NBC’s “Superstore,” an ensemble comedy about the employees of a big box store — in which Feldman stars with American Ferrera and Mark McKinney — which will be returning for a Season 2.
Feldman sat down with Indiewire the morning after “Between Us” premiered at Tribeca to dig into why his independent film work and television feel like completely different jobs. An edited transcript follows.
How’d the premiere go?
I mean, for me, it’s an uncomfortable, strange movie, in a great way. [So] as well as that can go. It’s squirmy and fidgety. My in-laws were there and it’s a movie that’s essentially about struggling through marriage and trying to figure out if marriage is a thing or whether it’s some sort of social construct that we’ve created in order to tell ourselves that we’re on some sort of a path. So to have your in-laws there is an interesting thing and you see the whole thing through that particular lens. But it felt good! People dug it. I had only seen a cut a long time ago, so I was really happy with it. There’s a lot of new stuff just with editing, music and sound. It was really cool.
At what point do you just let the project go and check in when it’s done?
You’d go insane as an actor if you didn’t — on most levels — let it go the day the first [assistant director] says that’s a wrap on so-and-so. Once you hear the AD call your name and everyone claps, you go and drink at the after party. If you haven’t pretty much made peace with whatever happened, then you’re just going to drive yourself insane as an actor.
If you’re not producing.
Have you done much producing?
No! No, no, no. No one wants me producing. [laughs]
[laughs] You guys shot last summer?
We shot it last summer. For me, in this sort of a situation, you get to check in. I mean, if you’re friends with the director, which we are. We’d talk to him and hear about it and we’d go and do ADR and sound mixes. You’d see bits and pieces of things we’d recorded. So I was aware. Then when there was a cut worth showing people, we’d see that one. It’s interesting when you’re working with a relatively, almost first timer. I mean, Rafael [Palacio Illingworth] had one movie before this that was a very personal movie that was basically tiny and just him, starring in it. You don’t know. “Do I trust this person or not?” It’s a lot of trust to do a movie and walk away and then that person is in charge of exactly what you’re going to look and sound like. But for whatever reason, we all did trust him [laughs]. And I’m glad we did because I personally think he did an incredible job and did the best that he could do.
How did you get involved initially?
He was meeting a couple of people and I got this script and I read it and I felt uncomfortable and I felt sad and confused and kind of sweaty. And fascinated. All in a good way. This movie is unsettling for anybody who’s ever been in a long-term relationship in any sort of capacity. What’s interesting to me about this movie is that every person who sees it — so far I think, and everybody who I’ve talked to — feels that this was written almost directly at them. This movie does not belong to the other people in the audience. Why are they even here watching it? This is clearly all of my demons exposed. It was written for me. And in a weird way, everyone seems to see the uglier or the more confusing parts of their relationships in this movie. So it feels very personal to everyone who sees it. And when I read it, I felt, “Oh, this is written to my insecurities about relationships,” and then I started realizing that that sort of applies to everyone.
When you talk about everybody identifying with it strongly, do you feel like it’s gendered? Like, do men identify more with you?
I don’t think so. It feels like a pretty non-gender-specific movie. It was a very personal movie for Rafael and it was written in some capacity through his lens and his viewpoint. But he doesn’t judge anyone which is a really interesting thing about the movie. It’s such a judge-y topic. We all judge other people’s relationships. We judge our own. We judge what our spouses do. And yet he tackled this super judgmental topic without any judgment and gave credit and weight to every single character. They were all really formed and realized people which I thought was a really cool thing about the movie. So no, I didn’t see a gender perspective.
So you get a script, you read it. How much of the character and the relationship did you end up finding on the day, in the room?
A lot. A lot. It was such an intimate set and an intimate experience in general. The topic is so intimate and personal that if you can’t draw almost directly from your own relationships and your own life, and who you are as a human, then you’re totally going to fuck this thing up. [laughs] And I think that that’s what we tried to do. I think all of us worked really hard to be as open and naked as possible. Fortunately, I didn’t have to be literally naked but some other people did.
[laughs] Is that something you’ve had to do a lot of?
No! Well… a little tiny bit. Not really. I’ve never been fully naked. I’ve done sex scenes before, but I’ve never been naked. It just looks like a heart attack to me.
I’m very interested in the current state of actors who are able to move very fast and often between film and television, and you’ve had a lot of TV work under your belt. What’s that experience been like?
It’s certainly different than something like this. I am like an East Coast theater school-trained actor, who’s a snobby asshole about this whole thing. I never, never in a million years was going to live in Los Angeles, let alone be on an NBC sitcom. So in one way, this whole world to me — especially this particular genre of passionate, tiny, sweaty indie films — is both very close to me and the only thing I ever really wanted to do and also the total opposite of what I am used to doing. I dig it a lot. For me, it’s a dream to be doing something intimate and kind of dark and personal in a film festival, before I go back and put on a bunch of make-up and say goofy things on TV for ad buyers.
That said, I think “Superstore” is really something special.
Oh yeah, thank you. Yeah, I don’t mean it like that. For the record, we’re very proud of that show. It’s just completely different.
It’s not “Drop Dead Diva.”
It’s certainly not “Drop Dead Diva.” I’ll let the implications be drawn from your sentence and not mine. [laughs] No, it’s not. They’re two jobs that I love and that I’ve always wanted to do, this kind of world and the television world. They do ultimately feel like different jobs. I’m happy on the sitcom. The first thing I ever did when I first came out to Hollywood, it was in this multi-camera sitcom world. I always used to describe it as like I went to med school and I’ve dreamed my whole life of becoming a doctor and I’m so lucky, I have this amazing job but it’s just– I am a lawyer. It’s just a different job and it’s just not the one I always thought I was going to do. I kind of feel like I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I’m very lucky and I get to be doing the jobs that I’ve always dreamed of.
How important is it you in finding range in these jobs? Not just being able to play different things but playing different characters?
It’s very important to me. Unless you’re a big star, it’s hard to find someone who will trust you to play something other than you in cute different outfits. Or at least that was my experience. I will probably will continue to credit the rest of anything that goes right with my career to Matthew Weiner because I went in to him from being on a show on Lifetime and other things that you would never expect would lead to that. And somehow he saw this quirky, potentially insane, weird, Jew-y, bizarre character and trusted me to do that. He had no reason to trust me, just like we didn’t for Rafael. [laughs] There was no reason why but he did. Now people look at me like, “Maybe he can play something other than the quirky love interest on a sitcom.”
From a viewer’s standpoint, with “Mad Men” it felt like you got more and more with every week. Was that your experience as well?
With my particular character?
Yeah. Did you know going in what would happen?
No, I didn’t know the ending, for sure. I mean I knew that season. I knew before the rest of the cast at least and certainly before it was on TV. But no, I didn’t know where that was going to go. I was very much in the dark on that show and I think that’s the thing that we all shared, that we all had in common on set. Of all the jobs we’ve ever had, that’s the one show where all of us have ever been that much in the dark. You find out as you go along.
On an episode by episode basis, what was it like finding out — especially in the early days — “Oh, I’m in this episode!”
My first season — where I think I did the most work on the show — I was a guest star and not a regular and every single episode, I hugged the writers goodbye and, “It was great to meet you.” Because they knew! They were the only ones that knew. The writers are gods in that situation. They were all looking at me like, “What is with this guy?” But even they can’t say “Shut up, I’ll see you on Monday.” So we would just hug and it literally repeated every single episode. I never knew if I was coming back.
That always reminds of the Dread Pirate Roberts from “The Princess Bride.” They’ll probably kill you in the morning.
Yes! Exactly! I feel like I’ve heard that in reference to that show before.
Really? Specifically, in reference to “Mad Men?”
In reference to that experience on “Mad Men.”
Well, it’s tough too. Especially if you’re told very little and you’re getting information piece by piece. What goes into building the character on your own?
You don’t talk about it a lot because there’s not a lot of room. “Mad Men” was a very much in the moment — for us. Perhaps the writers had a very different experience. But as far as the actors go, I learned not to overthink it and overtalk it with Matt. There’s a scene where I was talking about being an alien. But really, was I? I don’t know. And so I came up to Matt and I said, “Let’s talk about what’s really going on psychologically.” I remember Matt going, “He thinks he’s an alien!” And I was like, “Okay, but let’s talk about what that means? Where does that come from?” And then he goes, “He says he’s an alien…” and that was the end of our conversation.
You bring your own experiences and you hope that it all fits together. And it does! I think one of the interesting things about that character is that a lot of people would come up to me after I had my exit and they’d say, “I felt like it came out of nowhere.” It didn’t if you actually went back and only watched my scenes. You would see someone quickly unraveling and going insane. But because there’s so many other stories to tell on that show, it seemed like “Oh, we’re checking back in with this character. Wait, what’s he doing with his nipple?”
In contrast to “Between Us,” how deep did that character backstory get for you?
Oh god, a lot. It was such a rewarding and fulfilling experience to do this. You could really geek out as an actor. You could just get so obnoxious and actor-y doing this. We had rehearsals before we started, which were unlike any rehearsals I’ve ever had because it was just Olivia and I in a room. Then we just started improvising. First [Rafael] wanted to rehearse scenes but it didn’t feel right to do that in an office, without props or anything. It’s all going to change on the day. So we then just started taking about our lives together and where we met. We’d sit there with our eyes closed and he’d say, “All right, talk about when you first met.” Then we’d just start talking as though we had these stories that are years old. And then all the way through, “All right now you’re both dead. You’re laying next to each other. Talk about the end of your lives together.” It was pretty intense.
I kind of wish I had been at the premiere. It almost feels like the kind of movie that is really being made for a VOD audience. Because it is the kind of movie that you do want to watch at home.
Without a spouse! It’s funny, I think Tribeca did some story — I mean Tribeca the entity — about date movies that will be played during the festival. And we were included in that list and I thought, “what an awfully masochistic thing to do, to make that your date movie.” Analeigh [Tipton, another cast member] was talking earlier about how she watched hands subtly uncoupling during the film. I felt the squirms and nodding. There were collective nods at certain moments. People were very much identifying with it. If you’re not super secure in your relationship… Thank god, I’m married and happy. Had I made that movie a couple of years ago, before I proposed, when I was 6 years overdue for proposing to my wife, it would have been a tremendously weird experience.
How do you think it would have changed your experience with the film, if you hadn’t already been married?
I think I would have appreciated the movie just as much as I do now, which is immensely. Had I seen it on my own, had I gone with my then-girlfriend, I don’t know. Because it was me fighting, struggling with these questions of “Is marriage right?” I watched both my parents get married a thousand times. My girl who is now my wife (rather than my girlfriend), her parents married after three months and are super-happy married and have been married forever. I was the dead weight dragging us down. And to have seen [“Between Us”], I would have felt guilty. I would have had explaining to do after the movie.
It’s about growing up. I learned that you just eventually go — at least for me — “Okay, I’m an adult now. Why not get married? She would love to get married, we’ll be very happy together married, I’m not going anywhere, I’m not in love with anybody else. So why don’t I be an adult and stop being such a child?” I was just being a child about it, I think. And a lot of the movie is like that.
Can you pinpoint a moment when you broke through on that?
Honestly — and this sounds so unromantic — I think I just fought it so vigorously for so long, and I think I was married to this notion that I created long before I knew anything — I was an idiot in high school and college — that marriage was stupid and it’s an antiquated thing, which in many ways it is. It was created for people who died at 40, and by people I mean men, because women died from childbirth in tiny towns with no Facebook. But eventually, I just said, “what am I fighting against? What am I opposed to?” and I couldn’t think of anything that I was opposed to other than inviting a lawyer into my relationship? Or paperwork? But other than that, it was like, “This is a great thing and everybody will be thrilled and we get to have a huge party!” I think that that’s one of the main things that drew me to this movie. I felt for him.
For you, what do you think the movie ultimately says about marriage?
In risk of being vague and actor-y and press-y, it really is so specific to each viewer. My opinions — which I haven’t said and won’t say — of what actually happens after that could be tremendously different from somebody else’s. They’re not necessarily together and they’re not necessarily broken up. They’re in this weird space where they’re just two people who’ve loved each other for a long time. They’re in the same room, having been through a lot both together and separately. We have no idea where they go so I don’t really know what it really says. In many ways this movie is a mirror to the viewer. I think people will equal parts walk away going, “I’m so happy they ended up together” and other people will be like, “oh that’s doomed. What a terrible, awful place they’re both in.”
It really elicits strong visceral reactions, whether you hate it or love it. There’s a scene in the movie where we start dancing and running around, singing as husband and wife. 50/50 I’ve seen so far, split right down the middle. People either love that scene or abhor it and just think it’s the stupidest, gimmickiest, awful, horrible, uncomfortable thing. And other people say, “It’s so real! Did you improvise that? Was it a real moment?” And I think this movie will be that to a lot of people. Either way I’m thrilled, because people are reacting strongly.
For more from Tribeca…