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Hey It's That Guy

Can Benny Safdie Just Make Himself Into A Character Actor?

Benny Safdie in Oppenheimer
Image via Universal

Welcome to Hey It's That Guy, a series celebrating a selection of character actors and spotlighting, in detail, the under-appreciated, singular traits that make them so indelible. 

A thin line separates the character actor from the supporting actor. It’s not necessarily that the character actor always gets their one big scene, but that their scene, if done well, plays like a resonant flavor that develops and strengthens in the mind long after it’s over. In the previous column, I noted Stephen Root’s singular talent in this regard, particularly in the one scene he has in The Empty Man. Charles Fleischer’s unsettling turn as the off-kilter movie poster illustrator in Zodiac comes to mind as well, a weird, menacing, but also slightly pitiful character who interrupts the film (in a good way) never to be seen again. It’s tough to make an impression feel authentic when you only have one scene, in no small part because the stink of affectation and ego can so easily ruin the tone. The pressure to be memorable overrides the needs of the project, and so what must be balanced is manifold: delivery, speed, expression, all with the sense that there is a fully developed person there. 

These are sublimated skills and they come with years of experience. Personally, I’m more likely to be drawn to the actor who feels ordinary and therefore plausible over the showy, explosive performer. That’s not to say both don’t have their place and, for as just fine as I thought the actual movie was, Austin Butler’s lead performance in Elvis dazzles both for the fireworks and the understated, quieter moments. But these technical matters conjure up differences between generations. Some stars are made, yes, and others find their own little corner to shine in. But the character actor is a peculiar breed in that they are so often associated with an actor of a certain age. The most character actor-like tendencies, those flairs of extravagance and idiosyncrasy that nonetheless feel whole and motivated, are now more likely to be found in younger lead actors rather than bit parts. I’d argue that, especially for more established leads, the desire to break out of realism into something like camp or melodrama has made for more interesting performances in mainstream films at the expense of true novelty. Which is to say, whatever pouty, twitchy, “weird” thing Mark Ruffalo seems to be doing in Yorgos Lanthimos’s upcoming Poor Things looks fun, and also derivative of what British character actor Simon Russell Beale could do in five seconds with his eyes closed. 

Still, there are a few newcomers who have the promise of the character actor about them, including writer-director Benny Safdie. Benny, one half of the Safdie directing duo along with his brother Josh, was, until recently, better known like Joel or Ethan Coen: one of the two guys responsible for that movie or other. But Benny has been popping up regularly as an actor in mainstream films for the past five years, with enough frequency to garner his own separate Wikipedia page. I first saw Benny in Good Time, alongside a bloodshot Robert Pattinson bombing down the streets of New York, Benny playing the developmentally disabled younger brother to Pattinson’s blonde-streaked criminal, Connie. Back in the day, playing a non-neurotypical character in a film was akin to a statement of seriousness as an actor. Dustin Hoffman did it in Rain Man and got an Oscar. Billy Bob Thornton did it in Sling Blade and got nominated. Sean Penn did it in I Am Sam, got nominated, but everyone felt a little embarrassed by the whole thing. (Edward Norton played a guy faking a mental disability in 2001’s The Score and still comes off better than Penn, which is true for just about everything.) The discourse around what kinds of characters certain kinds of actors can play has always danced around identity, but, generally, audiences don’t really go for the Keyser Söze routine anymore. 

That said, Benny’s performance in Good Time registers as sincere for the most part, a heartbreaking study in institutional neglect and familial manipulation. His character, Nick, is played like a walking piece of frosted glass, struggling to communicate himself clearly and claustrophobically bound up in his own body. Nick is the most tragic, and to date, believable character Benny has played. On the level of craft, it’s a little odd that his acting career has been as prolific as it has. Subsequent appearances in Licorice Pizza, the Obi Wan Kenobi Disney series, Claire Denis’s Stars at Noon, and the new adaptation of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret has Benny Safdie peppered across a wide variety of parts. His is a unique mug—those piercing eyes ringed by darker-than-dark eyelashes, his sometimes wan, almost bored resting expression belying the boyishness he exudes—and an interesting face to look at onscreen can sometimes be half the battle. Certainly, on the “Hey it’s that guy” spectrum, Benny is hard to miss and I’m always amused to see him, but often less for what he’s going to do with his performance than the fact that he’s just there. Such is the qualifying compliment I pay to his work. 

Which is to say, Benny is a capable performer, though not necessarily one who approaches his roles with an eye to their most compelling potential. He seems to gravitate towards guys. As in, “he’s just some guy,” an admirable genre to play in and one that affords many opportunities for surprise. But Benny is still finding his way, which would be fine if he wasn’t positioning himself as a generational talent. Maybe that’s an unfair characterization. But with the release of Oppenheimer, Benny, or his PR team, have endeavored to seize the moment, with a splashy little piece in GQ and the announcement that his brother Josh is directing the next Safdie joint solo while Benny explores other opportunities, most likely with acting. There is a sense that Benny’s love of cinema, clear and kinetic in his directorial collaborations with his brother, affect his acting choices, with an eye towards the humble character actor. But there’s something to Benny Safdie’s angle of entry that means he’s not quite there. 

In Oppenheimer, Benny plays Hungarian physicist Edward Teller, the Hungarian part a bit of a surprise to me even though it’s obvious he’s doing some kind of accent. Oppenheimer is, among other things, a film made up of bit parts, with a huge cast of recognizable faces, each called upon to lend charm and gravitas to disparate roles (mostly scientists and bureaucrats) for minutes or even seconds at a time. Oscar-winner Rami Malek (derogatory), playing nuclear physicist David Hill, has a sleeper role, completely wordless and incidental until one pivotal scene at the end of the film. I think after Casey Affleck’s jump-scare, he says maybe five lines. Squint and you might catch Michael Angarano and Josh Peck. What this means for everyone in the cast, but particularly those who float in between out-and-out supporting actors and set dressing, is that they have little room to make an impression. Christopher Nolan and his casting director John Papsidera choose wisely from a wide variety of strong character actors, including Matthew Modine, who previously appeared in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, and Macon Blair, one of the most calming onscreen presences around.

Edward Teller, as a character, gets a few important moments with Oppy. Benny’s delivery of “Until someone builds a bigger bomb” ran laps in my brain for weeks after I first saw the trailer. But Teller is one of Benny Safdie’s more effortful roles. There’s the accent, but also the physical performance, a sort of flat-footed harrumphing gait that reads vaguely like Charlie Chaplin. Teller the character, and with Benny’s performance he reads very much like a character rather than a person, serves as one of many foils to Oppenheimer’s burgeoning self-assuredness. Typically, this plays out with Teller looking like a beleaguered, pissed-off student. This isn’t a bad, or even wrong, choice necessarily. Benny really sinks into his chair when he gets the chance and he’s got a mean eye-roll. But, as a character portrayed to be a backstabbing stick-in-the-mud, and as a real-life person who seemed like a real piece of shit, Benny gives Teller too little texture; it’s a role that asks a lot of him. 

To appear genuine with a wildly different accent as your baseline, to put your own spin on a person who comes with a large historical record, to find your footing in a time and place that's anathema to the world you know—none of that is easy and Benny comes away fine enough. A film where half your cast ends up in old people's makeup usually gives everyone a lot of room to breathe. Still, Benny’s performance in Oppenheimer is telling in that it clearly outlines his limits as an actor. It’s not that he can’t “disappear” into a role; I think that metric for acting is overrated anyway. But there is the sense that he wants to commit fully but can’t quite manage that final dozen yards. What makes Benny Safdie interesting here is that, aside from enjoying many connections and a pedigree at a relatively young age, he seems to have both a chip on his shoulder and an almost unearned air of accomplishment. He’s good, but he doesn’t have the mileage yet. You can’t force your way into a niche. As many veteran character actors would say, you’re more put into a corner, and then you find your wiggle room. Benny Safdie, unlike many actors, has the luxury of choice and no shortage of individual taste to guide him, but the obstacles to his best performances likely won’t be of a material nature. They’ll be a matter of personal judgment, whether or not he views acting as a lark or something he can really hone, the line between “good enough” and “room for improvement.” 

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