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Denée Benton has been sick with the flu for 3 days, but the moment she walks on set, her inner star trumps all symptoms. She naturally lights up the room. In between vocal drills, she talks about her upbringing in the Florida suburbs, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet, and what this show and role mean not just to her, but to all the young African-American girls watching.
by Phoebe De Croisset
PHOEBE DE CROISSET First and foremost, congratulations on Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812! Did you see this coming?
DENEE BENTON It was a huge deal. But I am a really ambitious person and I have been daydreaming about this so intensely for so long that it just feels right. You know when you speak something into existence for so long and it starts to happen? Everything kind of lined up universally and I feel like God allowed a lot of things to fall into place. It makes perfect sense for me in my life right now. And because of that, it almost makes it even more exciting and fulfilling because it feels like “Yeah!” You’re walking in your purpose.
PC You are an African-American woman playing a white woman from the Russian Elite in the 1800s. Stephen Colbert called this “post-Hamilton” casting. What does that mean to you?
DB It’s such a complex answer. I feel like it’s less about a black woman playing a Russian, or a Hispanic man playing a founding father or people of color playing white characters. I think it’s about who these characters represent. Natasha represents innocence and beauty and light and grace and this archetype of desire. When only white actors get to represent those stories it becomes problematic.
PC What would it have meant to you as a 13-year old to see someone who looks like you in this role?
DB I grew up in the suburbs and so I was educated in mostly white spaces. Dating was such a complicated thing. I didn’t get asked to my senior prom. And growing up you don’t have a vocabulary for that – why it’s so complex and why it’s not as simple for you. But we’re all affected by it. If you don’t see interracial couples in the movies or if you don’t see black love in movies it kind of trickles down to our little communities. And so if I was 13 and saw someone who looked like me playing Natasha in this love triangle in a corset, in this beautiful lighting, that would have meant everything to me. As someone who loved this industry so much, I rarely saw myself represented in these characters that I really connected to. So for Natasha I think it’s less about the fact that she’s Russian and more about the fact that she is a girl, and in this case she gets to be a black girl – so a black woman gets to represent grace and beauty and innocence and light. And so I think that’s what’s powerful about it for me – and seeing her as this object of desire.
PC How important is it for artists to continuously challenge the industries they work in to think outside the (often white) box?
DB I think it’s vital. You can wait for years for a policy to change. But nowadays, you can make a facebook video and reach literally millions of people. You have a show like Modern Family and all of a sudden gay families are normalized. And people who thought gays popped up last week suddenly have compassion. It seems trivial but I think it really does go a long way – the power that we have to normalize people. And to allow us to see the humanity in each other. If you can relate to a fish in Finding Nemo, then we can relate to each other as human beings.
PC Do you think Hollywood often misses opportunities to push the boundaries of what the public has grown accustomed to seeing in theatre and film?
DB I think of a movie like the Hunger Games, and in the book, Katniss is an olive-skinned woman. A Middle Eastern girl could have played that part! And what an opportunity that was to make that completely main-stream. And all of a sudden to open up doors for a completely new demographic of actors and creators. Hollywood keeps telling the same story when money is not the issue. The Hunger Games already had a following. Fantasy films and novels in particular have such an opportunity to do that – they are not tied to any “reality”. They’re not tied to 19th century Russia. Cinderella’s not real, you know? She doesn’t have to be blonde haired and blue-eyed.
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If you can relate to a fish in Finding Nemo, then we can relate to each other as human beings.
PC What are you most excited to see evolve in your industry?
DB I am excited for people of color and women and people with different orientations to get to represent the quote on quote everyman. I don’t want to see another movie, like another Martian, where a white man is saving the world. Why couldn’t it have been a trans Asian woman who was trapped in Mars? It would have been the same story. If you’re a woman, or a person of color, or gay, you only really get to speak to your demographic as if that’s where your humanity stops.
PC How do you reconcile all of this with the fact that a man like Donald Trump has just been elected president?
DB I have a really strange optimism about all of this. I feel like this sort of backlash is a reaction to the progress that has been happening and it’s a sign that we were making progress. You think about men like Donald Trump and he’s really only got 20 years left on this planet. Men like him and that “south will rise again,” imperialistic mentality is becoming extinct. My generation looks completely different than that demographically. And because the issues that we care about are going to be different, we are not going to be trying to hold on with white knuckles to the sense of the patriarchy.
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PC What would you say to people feeling less optimistic than you?
DB You don’t have to wait for policies to change to make movies about something, And for now we still live in a place when freedom of speech, to a certain extent, exists. So I say, write plays and write movies and put your money in places that matter and be political in how you spend, and I think we will get through this. My grandmother was born in the Great Depression in the Jim Crow south and raised 8 kids and was a black woman in Eustis, Florida. I don’t know if there was a harder existence. They survived so much. We can push through this.
PC What is your favorite down-time activity?
DB Laying in the park in the sun. Or laying on my couch watching Netflix!
PC What is the part (past or present) that you wish to play the most? Your dream role, so to speak?
DB I really love biopics. I would love to play Diana Ross in something. I don’t know if that’s the end all and be all, but I would love to do that.
PC What is the last thing you googled?
DB How to bake a sweet potato.
PC Most embarrassing moment?
DB I have certainly peed in my pants on stage before and no one knew. It’s a humbling experience!
PC Hidden talent?
DB I am very flexible. I can twist my arms all the way around.
PC Words to live by?
DB India Arie is my spiritual advisor – she just doesn’t know it. She has this lyric: “I have found that the art of simplicity simply means making peace with your complexity.” I like that.
PC Title of your autobiography would be…
DB Just Water Her and Leave Her in the Sun. That’s pretty much all I need!
PC Favorite Christmas tradition?
DB Growing up my brothers and I would play Monopoly and watch Christmas story all night. We’d just watch it on a loop all night until we fell asleep.
PC Favorite Christmas carol?
DB I love Someday at Christmas by Stevie Wonder.
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