Can Check Out Any Time She Likes, But She Can Never Leave
by Jay S. Jacobs
Life must be a little scary for Julie Benz. In an acting career that has lasted over two decades, Benz is still probably best known as the ill-fated wife of the titular serial killer in the popular series Dexter. However, that is far from the only role that Benz has played that experienced thrills, chills, and things that go bump in the night.
She also had a recurring role on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer which then ended up on the spin-off Angel. She also spent hard time on Saw V, 8mm 2, Supernatural and the awkwardly-titled horror comedy Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the Thirteenth. The Pittsburgh native does not do all horror, mind you. In fact, she has had roles in such series as Roswell, Desperate Housewives, No Ordinary Family and currently is on both Hawaii Five-O and the brand new series version of the Oscar-winning film Training Day.
Her latest film returns her smack dab back into the horror genre. Havenhurst is a thriller of a recovering alcoholic who gets a second chance in an imposing Gothic New York apartment building that caters to people who have lost their way and are looking for a fresh start. However, it seems that tenants who fall off the wagon have a tendency to disappear mysteriously. Benz’ character of Jackie, an alcoholic whose daughter died while she was driving drunk, is first heartened by the opportunity, but quickly recognizes the dark side of the building when she decides to investigate the disappearance of a friend from rehab.
About a week before Havenhurst opened in selected theaters and was released on demand, we chatted with Benz about the movie and her career.
Nice to talk to you again. We last spoke when you did Ricochet. What was the spookiest place you ever lived or visited, and what about it disquieted you?
I stayed in a castle in Scotland one time, where Mary Queen of Scots had stayed with her third husband. She had to escape through a window or something. I remember in the castle, they told us there were ghosts. I didn’t really believe in ghosts at the time. That night it was really windy out, [and] we could hear the window whistling through the windows [which] were really tiny. You could [really] hear the wind. Then my water glass, that I had on my side of the bed, the next morning was on the other side of the bed. No one had moved it. I got really freaked out. (laughs) They also locked us in. They locked us into the castle at night. It was a hotel, but they lock all the guests in at night and they leave. (laughs again, harder) It doesn’t feel too safe when you’re locked in and you’re like: we can’t get out…. We’re stuck in here.
Jackie had to knowingly break the rules, purposely falling off the wagon, in order to go into the heart of darkness and confront the evil. I’d read when you were younger you had a teacher that wanted to dissuade you from acting, and look at you now. Have you always been a rule breaker? Do those challenges intrigue you?
Yeah, I mean they are two very different kinds of breaking the rules. (laughs) When I was young and I had that one instructor tell me that I was never going to make it as an actress, that ignited a flame in me to say “Well, I’ll show you.” Knock on wood, I think I have. (laughs again) In Jackie’s case, it wasn’t just making that choice to fall off the wagon. Falling off the wagon also represented her addiction, which resulted in the death of her child. It was a much more emotional moment for her to make that decision. She realized that the only way she could figure out what was going on was to take that step. When I read the script, I really loved that aspect of the movie. When we meet Jackie in the beginning, she’s the walking wounded. She has to carry the burden of her daughter’s death, and that she caused it because of her addiction, for the rest of her life. You feel it in every breath that she takes and every movement that she has. You feel that burden. The turning point is when she makes that decision to just get real, to find out what’s going on. There’s some serious stuff going on at Havenhurst, so she makes that decision. It’s a really tough decision to make, because she doesn’t know if she’s going to come back from it. Aside from putting her life in danger, she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to be clean again. It’s a huge moment for her in the film.
It’s a rather selfless thing that she does, because she’s doing it to protect the girl.
Yeah. What I was trying to reveal with her relationship with Belle’s character is that when they first meet in the elevator, she’s so awkward with her. It’s almost like she doesn’t want to have children around her. Especially a child who was the same age as her daughter, because it’s too hard. It brings back too many memories. She’s just kind of annoyed that this young person is in the elevator with her. Then, she becomes her protector. It evolves into that relationship. She has to break down some barriers and some walls to allow that to happen.
Your character’s life was so much about her recovery from alcoholism and her guilt about her daughter. Did you sit in on any rehabs or support groups to get a feeling of what she was going through?
I know a lot of people who have gone through rehab that I have spoken to over the years. I’ve watched them and gone through their own sobriety with them. But really, for me, the key was the fact that because of her addiction causing her daughter’s death, that was her burden. To me that’s something; I don’t have children, but I couldn’t imagine living with that. I couldn’t imagine knowing that I was the reason why my child died. My actions caused it. That was really the key into the character of Jackie for me. Really just using my imagination: What would that be like? As actors we’re able to have big imaginations. Not just as actors, people in general, everybody has a big imagination. You allow it, putting yourself in the shoes of a woman who caused her child’s death because of her alcoholism, just to me it is devastating. How do you move on? I did read a lot of books about recovery during that time. I read a lot, so I tend to pick reading material that somehow relates to a character. I remember I was reading a couple memoirs of people who has bad addictions and were going through recovery. You carry those stories with you into the characters.
What was your decompression process when making the film?
Jackie carries a lot of pain. I tried to reveal that in my physical movements, especially in the beginning. Her shoulders are a little more slumped than how I normally stand. Everything is very down. Ironically, I had to do a lot of palates to get back to normal. (laughs) I’m a big palates advocate. I do palates on a regular basis. Just to stretch out my muscles and my limbs, just to feel normal again, every night I’d go home and do some palates just to get my posture back. Then, usually the car ride home is where I decompress. LA traffic, there’s plenty of time. Sit in the car. Listen to some music. Get back to who you are. Then turn around and go back into it the next day. I use the car as my decompressor. And my recompressor when I drive to work.
Fionnula Flanagan is such a great actress, and her character was so chilling in this. What was she like to work with?
Yes. This is the second time I’ve gotten the chance to work with her. The first time was on [the Syfy Channel series] Defiance. She played my mentor on Defiance from season one. I love Fionnula. She is so elegant and a stunningly gorgeous woman. She has this amazing presence, on-camera and off-camera, that makes you want to sit up straighter and be your best around her. There’s a scene in the movie where I have to take her on, emotionally. Where I say I’m leaving. She left me shaking, just shaking, because she’s like a wall. You go up against her, it’s like she’s an unmovable force. It took every ounce of energy I had, and that Jackie, the character had, to just hold my own against her. I think she’s one of the best actresses I’ve ever gotten a chance to work with. I feel so lucky I’ve gotten to work with her twice now in my career. (laughs) I hope I get to work with her again.
Belle Shouse was very good, too. You started acting young as well, so with another younger actress, did you give her any tips?
Well, she’s pretty savvy. She knows her way around a set. She didn’t need any tips from me. But, you have to be sensitive to the fact that she is young. There were certain elements that were scary to her. We were doing one stunt that really frightened her. She was expressing her fear, and I felt they weren’t listening to her, so I pulled her aside and we talked about it. Then we made it so she wouldn’t be scared. It’s those elements. I always treat young actors as colleagues because they are colleagues. They have a certain level of knowledge even to get the job. They know what they’re doing. So I treat them with respect. At the same time, you have to understand that they’re young, and they can get more frightened and more terrified over certain things, so you have to be sensitive to that. It’s a scary movie to be in. There were moments when I was truly terrified, so I had to make sure that she was emotionally okay. Is this too scary for you? Do we need to rearrange this so it’s not so terrifying. She’s a tough little girl, though. Don’t get me wrong. She’s tough. (laughs) I don’t know if I could have done what she did at that age.
Jackie’s apartment has no modern technology in it. There is a rotary phone. Jackie doesn’t have a cell phone or a computer. Is there a reason why she doesn’t have modern technology?
It was a conscious choice that Andrew [Erin], our director, made about that. We just wanted the movie to have a little bit of a timeless feel to it. We wanted that little bit of isolation element added. I think it works. Because, I kept going [at first], why doesn’t she have a cell phone? It’s a bit of a style choice that Andrew had made. I think it adds a timeless element to the film.
What was the first outreach to you about the film? Did someone send you a script?
I was sent the script. I was out of town at the time. I ended up doing a Skype meeting. This was my first and only Skype meeting with a director. That was my audition. (laughs) So I Skyped with Andrew and we talked a lot about the script. I really wanted the movie, really bad. I loved the characters. I found out later that originally Andrew had developed this as a TV series, so it was a very well thought out script. It seemed everything had a purpose and a reason. There were no rewrites on the script as we were shooting it. We shot the script as written. You could tell a lot of work had gone in to developing the history of the characters. And the history of the building. Everything had been very well thought out for many years. I loved the drama element to the horror aspect. It’s not just a horror film. It operates on a deeper level, in that Jackie is the heroine, but at the same time does she survive in end? I liked that twist. I loved the whole historical element of the script with [notorious serial killer] HH Holmes. I was a big fan of The Devil in the White City [a book based on Holmes], so I liked that tie-in that the movie has. [The film eventually suggests that Havenhurst was originally owned by Holmes.]
That was such a cool old building, it sort of reminded me of the Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby, almost like another character. Where was the building that Havenhurst took place in, and how much of the filming was done on location and how much were studio sets?
The interior was all a studio set. (laughs) They built this amazing set in a studio here in LA. It was extraordinary. The exterior, I think it’s a building in New York. But I never really went to the exterior. We used an entry from somewhere in Hollywood. The lobby is an old, old building in downtown LA that they use for filming all the time. I think that place is haunted. It’s really creepy. We used that for the interior of the lobby. So, it’s a mishmash of buildings. They did a great job of tying it together. The set designer, they did a great job of pulling it all together and making it look like we were in a real building. The sets were gorgeous. They were stunning and gorgeous. Every element inside each of the different apartments were very specific to each character. I’d walk around set going like: oh my God, look at this! This is amazing. They did an amazing job.
You appeared on the new TV series Training Day. Is it going to be a recurring role? How are you liking it?
I’m a regular on the show. It’s fun. Working with Bill Paxton is a real treat and an honor. I’m a huge fan of his, for a very long time. It was one of the reasons why I took the role. It’s a smaller role for me, I’m a supporting character, but I was really interested in working with Bill. Also, playing a madam interested me as well because she’s a businesswoman. She’s morally ambiguous. I like those types of characters where you’re not sure whether you should root for them or not. The relationship between Holly and Frank is very complex. It’s not your typical love story. She’s his informant but she’s also his girlfriend. They both have a lot of baggage in their relationship. They’re very damaged people so it becomes very complex. I got to do some amazing work with Bill that’s tough and hard and complicated, but amazing all at the same time. He’s such a great team partner to have.
Between this film, Dexter and many of your other roles, you seem to spend more than your share of time with serial killers. What do you think it is about their stories that people find so fascinating?
Well, they exist in real life. (laughs) You’re always wondering if the person next to you is a potential serial killer. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a skeptic after all these years. What was interesting about Rita on Dexter was, had she ever found out the truth, I do believe she never would have ever acknowledged that it was real. I don’t think she would have believed it. When you create a life with someone and you are in love with someone, and then you find out they are a serial killer, what does that say about you? What did you miss? We see those stories all the time on the news. Turns out your neighbor has three girls kidnapped in his basement, and you’re like… but he seemed like such a great guy. I didn’t have any idea. We see that all the time play out in real life. There’s a whole fascination with that. What would I do if I was in that situation and discovered that the person I was sharing my life with was a serial killer? That’s what I loved about the show. It really left you questioning your own moral code, your own morality. If I found out that I was married to Dexter and he was a serial killer killing other serial killers, how would I feel? I don’t know. I’d probably report him, because it’s the right thing to do. He’s getting rid of the bad guys, but killing is still killing. You feel like a hamster on a wheel spinning around, never finding the real answer of exactly how you would respond. (laughs again) If I do report him, am I going to end up dead? It’s just a horrible thing. That’s what’s great about entertainment is that it can make you really question how you would react in situations that hopefully you are never faced with in real life.
Do you stay in touch with Michael C. Hall and your other Dexter co-stars?
We stay in touch as much as we possibly can. Everybody is spread out. A large part of the cast live in New York. I’m on the West Coast. When I do go to New York, we try to connect. It’s interesting, we can go for a long time of not seeing each other, and then you see each other and it’s just like picking up right where you left off. When you work on a show for that long, and Dexter was definitely a very close cast, we just pick up right where we left off. You don’t feel the absence so much. They’re family. It’s like family. They’re with you, whether they are with you or not. They’re still with you. The majority of the cast lives on the east coast. I see CS Lee [Masuka], a lot because he lives out here on the West Coast. I see James Remar [who played Dexter’s father] a lot, too, because he’s here. But the rest of the cast are all east coasters. They all came out here for the show.
You’ve done your share of scary films over the years. Are you a horror fan, or what kind of movies do you tend to mostly watch just as a viewer?
It depends, really. Lately I’ve been leaning towards more comedy, because I think it depends on what’s going on in the world. (laughs) I think we see that popularity in different genres change depending on what’s going on in our world, and the different things we’re faced with on a daily basis. I do like horror films a lot. I do like being scared, through my entertainment. I don’t like being scared in real life. There is something fun about going on that roller coaster ride and having all those emotions. I do try to keep my normal life [with] the least amount of scary as possible. (laughs again) I try not to surround myself in real life with serial killers. It is fun to watch horror as escapism. I do love to read scary books. But, like I said, it just really depends on what’s going on in the world. Right now I’ve been watching a lot of comedies lately.
Yeah, I think we all need a little bit more comedy right about now.
Yeah. A little more fluff right now is good. (laughs)
You mentioned there were some scenes that were tougher than others. There were a lot of physical parts to your role. Did you have any bumps or bruises while making the film?
I don’t really bang up that easy. (laughs) Knock on wood. I don’t get injured that much. I think it’s because I’ve been an athlete my whole life. I’m pretty physical. I will say, one of scariest things I ever had to do was when I was being chased and the floor dropped out from underneath me and I dropped. That scene, I had a very specific mark I had to land on, so they could pull the floor out from underneath me. I had to drop a pretty far distance into a big giant pad. It was a trap door, basically. I was terrified. When I was a little kid, I fell through a trap door in a barn and got hurt pretty bad. It just brought it all back to me. Also, just knowing I had to do this whole scene and land on this specific mark without looking down. I couldn’t look down and see if I was actually on the mark. During the first take, my heart was pounding so loud. I was so terrified that the sound department could hear my heartbeat pounding. (laughs) I was literally shaking anticipating the floor being ripped out from underneath me. I felt like I blacked out. I was there, and then all of the sudden I was on the ground, on the pad. I didn’t remember the moment of the floor dropping out. I had to do it a couple of times and I was terrified every single time. If I wasn’t perfectly straight, if I was slightly off the mark, I could hit my head, or my face, and knock my teeth out. That terrified me. But I did have an amazing stunt double who we threw around, and she was fantastic. She made me look really good. (laughs again)
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