Entertainment » Television

Benjamin Bratt gets dramatic (in a beard)

by Jim Halterman
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Jul 9, 2009

Benjamin Bratt is used to getting attention when he happens to take his shirt off in films like The Next Best Thing or Miss Congeniality. These days, however, the actor is focusing on a pair of dramatic roles that are showing he is much more than a pretty face. On his A&E series The Cleaner, Bratt plays William Banks, a former addict who has devoted his life to helping those unfortunate people who have succumbed to the power of addiction and he works effortlessly to helm them get 'clean.' In the new film La Mission, Bratt is a less understanding man in a film that happened to be written and directed by his brother, Peter Bratt. Having wow'd audiences at Sundance, La Mission will be at LA's Outfest this week and will also be screened at the NY Latino Film Festival later this month. Edge's Jim Halterman talked to Bratt during a Cleaner press call and was able to ask about the controversial role in the film.

Bratt said that with these two projects he did not have a lot of time to jump from one role to the next. "What's interesting," he said, "is I went from shooting the pilot [of The Cleaner] directly into pre-production on this film that I co-produced with my brother, La Mission, which is about the Mission district in my hometown, San Francisco, and a neighborhood that I'm quite devoted to, as is my family. Then as soon as that film was wrapped, literally we wrapped on Sunday and I was at work the next day on what was meant to be the first season of The Cleaner so there wasn't much breathing space in between." He added with his wry sense of humor, "Thankfully, both characters required a beard."

Playing devoted fathers

While the time factor between roles was minimal, the roles weren’t completely different, the actor said. "My job as an actor is to render the most accurate, most complex portrayal of whatever is written on the page," he explained. "Thankfully, in both cases, there are elements to each character’s respective qualities, however dramatic the differences, that I could relate to. Both are fathers, both come from the school of hard knocks, and yet both are extremely and utterly devoted to their respective families. That’s how I am in real life. As much as I love work, as much as I love the responsibilities I have as producer and as an actor on The Cleaner, my number one priority is my family. That push-pull that exists with the lead character of William Banks succeeding at work while failing at home? I understand it clearly and it has resonance for me."

La Mission has also been picking up momentum with audiences on the festival circuit, Bratt said. "We premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this January and then we went on to open the San Francisco International Film Festival to a sold out crowd at the Castro Theater. It’s played at the Seattle International Film Festival and will open on July 9th at LA Outfest, which is the largest gay film festival in the country. Then, we follow that up with the opening night at the Latino Film Festival on July 28th. So it’s been a very busy festival circuit schedule going and we’re very encouraged by the response we’ve been getting for something that really amounts to a small story that has a global resonance."

"At the center of our story," the actor explained about his La Mission role, "is a man who is a reformed bad boy who is into low rider cars and has now become a bus driver and he finds out that his 18-yr old son, his pride and joy, is gay and has a violent response to it. It’s not just a little ironic that this occurs in one of the most progressive, liberal areas in the country and yet those social taboos are still in place in communities of color, particular the Latino culture and the African American communities."

Bratt is aware that his film role is going to stir up some audience members and that is fine by him. "I think the response to the ultimate message of tolerance and acceptance is resonating with everyone whether you’re gay, straight, white, black, brown, it doesn’t matter. What we’re finding is across genders, orientations, cultures, age, the film is ultimately about family and that’s what people are responding to. And what we’ve noticed happen is there has been a very lively debate after the film is played to sold out houses everywhere and that dialogue is ultimately healing so we’ve been very gratified by it."

Art reflects life

Bratt first burst onto the television scene with a prominent order on NBC’s Law & Order. His role on The Cleaner is giving him a chance to employ some different acting muscles.

"I’m a proud alumnus of Law and Order," he said, "a show that was just picked up for it’s 20th season, which is a remarkable record and it’s a good show. But what I did as an actor on that show was really sort of an expositional tool. The difference here, and the difference is extreme, for as much as I loved that job, what I was afforded the time and place to do on [The Cleaner] was create a three dimensional character who has the complexity and dimension from someone from real life because it’s based on someone from real life."

The actor was excited to play a character on a weekly series that had many different sides to him, and, playing an addict with addictive personality traits, is anything but perfect. His character of William Banks is "a man who has chosen his vocation as the job of saving lives which, by all consideration, you have someone who’s deeply, personally flawed and the balance of succeeding at work but fails miserably as a husband and oftentimes as a father and, to me, I thought that was an interesting tension to play against and one that I can sometimes relate to as an actor."

This season on The Cleaner, big name guest stars such as Whoopi Goldberg, Gary Cole and, in the July 14th episode, The L Word’s Mia Kirshner and Shirley Jones appear in intense dramatic roles. Asked if Goldberg was able to keep her wit at bay during her now-recurring role on the series, Bratt explained, "I think Whoopi gets to be funny because she’s a funny lady but we never lost sight of the fact that she’s also an amazing dramatic actress so she comes on with her full skill set and she did a beautiful job for her. We’re lucky to have her back as a recurring characters as her schedule allows. She’ll be in three episodes this year, so that’s good news for us."

However, art crosses over into life at times, as Bratt talked about how playing a detective on Law & Order and even The Cleaner has rubbed off on him. "My wife continually chides me for pretending to be a detective because I played one on TV for four years. Maybe I’ve always been suspicious of people and slightly paranoid which lends itself to be being a detective. In a way, what Warren Boyd [the character William Banks is based on] does is a kind of detective work, a lot of which is relied upon good instinct and the experience that comes from personal history...so am I more aware of the symptoms? I think so." Bratt added, with a chuckle, "Am I more suspicious than I was before? No, because I’ve always been suspicious."

The Cleaner airs Tuesday nights at 10/9c on A&E.

Le Mission screens as part of Outfest in Los Angeles, Thursday, July 9, 2009. For theater location and time, visit the Outfest website. National release date to be determined.

Jim Halterman lives in Los Angeles and also covers the TV/Film/Theater scene for www.FutonCritic.com, AfterElton, Vulture, CBS Watch magazine and, of course, www.jimhalterman.com. He is also a regular Tweeter and has a group site on Facebook.


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