Appearing as Jervis Tetch aka The Mad Hatter in hit show Gotham – with fans still reeling from his appearance in The Walking Dead – Benedict Samuel thankfully still loves supporting Australian filmmaking. David Barker’s feature film, Pimped, is a project that Samuel boarded early, and even though it took a while to find his leading lady in Ella Scott Lynch, the actor hung around and is pleased that he did.
What appealed to you about Pimped and your character Lewis?
He is a monster and abhorrent, and the attraction for me was to make that character not likable. What drew me to the film is Ella’s character’s strength, and her battles. Pimped forces the audience to choose the right side. It’s not a date movie.
There are two ‘Ellas’ in the film. How was that as an acting challenge?
Thankfully, I’ve always been in projects where I learned a tremendous amount. I’m always excited about what I am about to uncover. In this particular film, I hadn’t worked with that sort of style before so there was a slight learning curve with my acting towards a tennis ball sometimes.
Ella split her attention. There was certainly a lot more time needed to discuss, ‘well, what is this moment? At what point does he catch on that this woman that he is battling against might be a bit more dangerous than he is. When does the penny drop?’
I think what is interesting for the audience is that, they are able to say, ‘well, gosh, she does exist!’ Or ‘no she doesn’t, she’s a figment of the imagination.’
The discussions are really helpful for the film. The worst thing for the film is indifference. I think if people come out of this film talking about it, instead of being like ‘oh, yeah, cool.’ I think that’s great. I think that’s what we’ve achieved.
Some of the questions that the film brings up about male/female dynamics is very much part of the dialogue at the moment within the film industry, in particular. But you probably didn’t know that when you were shooting the film…
Well, it’s really interesting how modern or current events shape the film that was shot well in advance. Not that these issues weren’t there, but they weren’t brought to the forefront. I think we just set out to make a really great genre film.
I think that now with what is happening and what is being discussed, I think this film stands up and shows that certain behaviour is abhorrent and should be dealt with immediately and squashed. It also shows that women are incredibly powerful.
Back to your character, did you have a lot of backstory that you added to him that we don’t necessarily see on the screen?
It’s sort of tricky, because you can sort of get caught in a rabbit hole of creating a backstory. To be honest, I am not really that kind of actor. I am more interested in what’s on the page and making that interesting or as honest as possible.
Of course, there are some times where a backstory is necessary and helps. I think in this film, I just really wanted to focus on the events as they unfold and how that type of person deals with left turns and right turns.
You keep coming back to the fact that it’s a genre film, so what does that mean to you?
If you are going for a style, there are certain things that, in another film, you would choose as a choice. In order to withhold information from the audience, you have to make different choices. That is sort of an interesting way to operate as an actor. Normally, you would do this and normally she would just get the hell out of there. If it’s in a genre, how do you make the right choices that are going to satisfy the audience? That was really interesting to be involved in that discussion and that different level of thinking.
Did you want to act from an early age?
Absolutely. My brother [Xavier Samuel] is an actor as well. He’s older than me. I saw him on stage at school doing plays and he would come home and talk to me about all these things he was doing and discovering. It just looked like so much fun. It just really excited me and I was like ‘I want to do what you’re doing.’ I often joke that, if my brother chose to be an architect, we’d be building houses together.
I admire my brother so much. He’s been a wealth of support and knowledge. Having a best friend to go through this world with, and your career…I feel very fortunate to have that.
What about your parents, were they supportive?
They were. They were both teachers so there is an element of acting in that as well. I think in the early stages of both of our careers, they were definitely a little bit worried like, ‘oh my god, two actors and our eldest a stage manager!’
I was born and bred in Adelaide. I grew up in Adelaide. Then I moved to Sydney, went to NIDA, then shipped off to the United States.
Can you talk about the move to the States?
I think the one film that I am most proud of in the States was my first American film which was Asthma, directed by Jake Hoffman. Some guy from Adelaide… and all of a sudden, I am doing scenes with Iggy Pop and Rene Ricard and Krysten Ritter and driving a Rolls Royce through the streets of New York. I was like ‘wow, I am very lucky.’ Because of that film, a lot of opportunities came my way. I got a lot to thank for because of Jake. He’s become a really good friend.
How did you get that role in the first place?
My manager gave me a call and sent me the script, I read it and called straight back and was like, ‘okay, I am doing this film, I want to speak to the director.’ And he’s like, ‘ehhh…I’ll try, I’ll reach out to him and see if he wants to have a chat with you.’
And, lo and behold, he gave me a call. We chatted about the film and he straight away, he could feel my passion for it. I put a page down for him in the laundry room of my shared house. Within a week, it started to become more real and I was on a plane. It all happened so quickly… I’ve become very good at packing.
You have done these big budget American TV shows, but you still come back to make an indie Australian film like Pimped. Is that a deliberate choice?
I think I’ve always been very careful to not get myself involved in things I am going to regret. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in projects where I’ve learned so much, I’ve worked with great people. I think, in a way, it is deliberate to perpetuate a considered career. And, stuff might change, people do different things for different reasons, and that’s fine. That has nothing to do with me. I have always wanted to be careful about what I do and what roles I play. I’ve been lucky to only be involved in good work and good work follows good stories. I just want to do good work. I just follow story and character. That seems to have treated me well so far.
I imagine working on indie films also gives you an opportunity to play meaty roles…
In big budget films and TV, you recognise your pecking order. You show up and you do your work and you go off and you explore the city that you’re in. With the independent films, it’s about passion and working so hard to get it over the line because it is so hard to make films. You come on board with the same passion and that extends to certain conversations, that perhaps you may not have with someone who storyboarded the whole film and knows exactly what they want… and that’s fine too.
Pimped is in cinemas from March 14, 2019