Friday, March 23, 2012

Interview: Paul Ben-Victor's Bittersweet Goodbye

Paul Ben-Victor, photo by Fernando Escovar
For me, as an entertainment journalist, it's always a pleasure to interview "that guy from that show." You know who I mean: He's a prolific actor with years of experience and scores of TV shows and movies under his belt, and yet, he hasn't been pigeon-holed into one type of role, and he still is able to maintain a bit of anonymity in his everyday life. In the case of this article, the person to whom I am referring is Paul Ben-Victor. You might not know his name (yet, although you should), but when you see his picture (to the left), you know exactly who he is.

He's the guy who made your favorite show more interesting with his guest-starring story arc; he's the actor whose recurring spot on HBO's top shows is the reason you DVRed certain episodes; and he's the character on the USA Network's hit show "In Plain Sight" who is the perfect and balanced foil for marshals Mary Shannon and Marshall Mann. Paul Ben-Victor's Chief Inspector Stan McQueen and crew are back for their fifth and final eight-episode season (the first episode of which aired last week, so catch up with that before tonight's episode airs at 10/9c), which is gearing up to be a season of can't-miss episodes. With guest stars like tonight's Tia Carrere, along with future guests Josh Hopkins, Stephen Lang, Lesley Ann Warren and many others, "In Plain Sight" is promising to go out with a bang, not a wimper.

I spoke with the ever-charming and talented Paul Ben-Victor recently, and he is eager for fans to see the final season of "In Plain Sight," as well as his new movie, "Should've Been Romeo," which is making the Festival rounds as I type.

Celebrity Extra: Looking at your long, long resume here, I think I can safely assume you've been on every TV show and in every movie since 1987. How do you do it?

Paul Ben-Victor: (Laughs) I do what comes next. Christopher Walken once wrote, “I take what comes next.” And that’s pretty much been my best plan of attack. Whatever the next gig is, I just jump on board for the most part.

CE: Unless is not that good, right?

PBV: If it’s a decent, good job and I know who’s in it, I pretty much just go with. I’ve always liked working. I like the idea of being busy, and I like getting paid (laughs).

CE: And the variety of roles you've been able to take on must be great for you, as an actor.

PBV: It has been. I always felt like I could do characters pretty well, and actually, the first job I got out of college, I played a Puerto Rican guy in a play at a theater in the Lower East Side — and it was Puerto Rican guys who hired me to do it. There are plenty of Latino actors in New York, but for some reason, I got the job. 

I don’t do it consciously, I just say: “Oh, I can do that. I can play a Russian. I can play a Puerto Rican. I can play a Mexican guy. I can play an Italian. I can play whatever you got.” And I’d go in and learn the words, learn the accent, learn the sound, and somehow come out with the job. So I ended up doing all these different characters. I’ve become a character actor, I guess. It’s sort of what I was drawn to.


I’m still trying to learn how to do a lot of stuff. You’re always looking for the next level, as an actor. You want to move on to that next level so you can get to be more choosy, so you can get offered the juicer roles. There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to do and a lot of stuff I’d want to do, but those roles haven’t gone to me. They’ve gone to other actors who are more famous people, bigger names. It’s nice to have my career, but there are a lot of roles I’ve seen out there that I’ve wanted and fought for that I didn’t get, but I still would love to do at some point.

CE: What haven't you done yet that you'd like to get the chance to do?

PBV: I love comedies. One of my fantasies is to just get on a sitcom. I did a pilot once years ago, and I was just crossing my fingers and praying that this thing would go, because that’s a dream job. It’s not as demanding hourly. It’s not as many hours a week. It’s a shorter day and then you get that live audience that comes in at the end of the week, and that’s something that I would love to do. It’s just a blast. You get to put on a little play every week. That’s something I haven’t done but would love to do.


But I do love it all. I used to do a lot of commercials. I loved doing that. I just got chosen as one of the new voices on the Pepperidge Farm campaign. I love doing voice-over work. I also have a play that I wrote and produced a few years back in Los Angeles that I starred in, and that was the most exciting thing to do: to write, direct and produce your own work. I co-wrote that with my mom (Leah Kornfeld).

CE: With "In Plain Sight" drawing to a close, is it an exciting time for you, or are you a little sad about it ending, or a little of both?

PBV: It’s both; it’s sort of bittersweet. There’s definitely a sense of loss and there’s a sadness there. When they announced that this was the last season, I was like: “Oh man, what a great gig. I’m going to miss everybody.” We had become a family and have gotten even closer, especially over this past year. There's a real warmth and love on the set. It’s a real family atmosphere.


The guest stars we’ve been having are great. Mary’s brother’s, Will McCormack, is back this season. Stephen Lang is playing her dad in the last few episodes. I’m really looking forward to this final season, because while playing Stan McQueen has been great, I’m looking forward to spreading my wings, and there are some very exciting opportunities out there that I’m looking forward to.

CE: And I'm sure one of those is shopping around your new movie, "Should Have Been Romeo"?

PBV: We were just officially selected to the Newport Beach Film Festival. It’s in the featured slot on the weekend of the festival. We’re real excited about that. They're sort of focusing the whole event around our movie that first weekend. That’s really exciting.


So, on the heels of this, there’s the last season of "In Plain Sight," which is something that’s going to be really extraordinary. Some of the last few episodes that I’ve read and am now shooting are just phenomenal.

CE: What can you tell me about them, without giving too much away?

PBV: Let's see ... I gave you the clue that Mary’s dad is back. He’s been talked about for five seasons, so let’s just say he shows up and there’s a lot of excitement around his character — a lot of action, a lot of drama and a lot of interesting things. Stephen Lang is just terrific.


This year, Stan has a girlfriend, played by Tia Carrere. She’s absolutely lovely; she plays my dance teacher on the show, that’s how we meet. We do the tango together in (tonight's) episode, so everybody needs to watch out. Definitely don’t miss this episode. I’ve heard it gets pretty steamy.

CE: Speaking of Tia and Stephen and all the rest, your show does seem to get some excellent guest stars. What do you think it is about the show that attracts them?

PBV: Me! I’m just kidding. No, honestly, it's Mary. I’d say half of the wonderful guest stars we’ve had on have crossed paths with Mary on "The West Wing," i.e., Allison Janney and Richard Schiff — who I’ve also worked with in the past several times and he’s actually an old friend. And then Mary’s reputation — she’s got a strong history, a strong career. I think it’s about the show first and foremost, but people want to work with people they’ve either worked with before or people they admire, and that's Mary.

CE: Let's change gears a bit, and tell me about your movie, "Should've Been Romeo." I've seen the promos online, and I have to tell you, it looks really good!

PBV: Well, it is a labor of love, and it’s been a real family gathering. I wrote the original draft with my mom and with Michael Goldberg, who’s an old friend I went to school with at Carnegie Mellon. He wrote "Cool Runnings" and "Little Giants" and "Snow Dogs." And then another friend of mine, Greg Ferkel — who's cousin to the director, Marc Bennett — he did the last draft with me, so there’s actually four writers on this. So the writers are all friends and family, and then Marc, who I’ve known since I was like 12 or 13, is the director. He’s done documentaries and commercials, and this is his first feature, but he’s been directing for 25 years. Another friend, David Levy, he’s the executive producer, and he helped raise the money. We just kept rewriting it and rewriting it and rewriting it, and finally David said: “I’m ready. Let’s make the movie.”


I called in all my friends. Everybody just came to bat. I’d been talking to Natasha Henstridge and Michael Rapaport about this literally for at least eight years. They both just showed up and gave it their all, and they were phenomenal. They were great.

CE: I love Natasha's scene on the website ... it's so funny!

PBV: She loved it. As you saw, she plays herself in the movie. I wrote that scene a couple of months before we shot it, and I said: “Natasha, check out this new scene. Is this okay?” because it was a real homage to her "Species" character. She called back and said, “I absolutely love it!" She was thrilled with doing it, because it’s a real spoof on that character.


We tested the movie several times, and the audience were people who did not know me personally, and they were cracking up. They were hysterically laughing the whole time, and we said: “Holy sh*t! We think we may have something here.” So it’s a real crowd-pleaser. It’s PG — you can almost say it’s a family movie. It’s real easy to watch, and it’s a lot of fun. We’re looking forward to a successful run.

CE: Gimme a quick summary of the movie, just to whet my readers' appetites for it.

PBV: Ultimately it’s about an actor. That’s sort of the A story. It’s about this kooky actor, almost like a "Tootsie" kind of vibe, if you remember the old movie with Dustin Hoffman. He’s a little delusional, he’s a little nuts, wacky ... but it’s ultimately a family movie about this would-be, possible family coming together — and they're not really a family, but maybe they are? — and we find out what happens.

CE: If all goes well on the festival circuit, does that mean a wider audience will get to see it? Just from the previews, I am very anxious myself to see it.

PBV: It will probably come out next Thanksgiving when its family time and folks are looking for a nice fun, family film to go to.

CE: Speaking of family, I was reading about your wife Julie's nonprofit foundation, The Art of Giving. Would you tell me a bit about that?

PBV: Absolutely! It's a new, grass-roots, nonprofit organization made up of all volunteers. She began the foundation in January, and the programs are growing and expanding almost daily. Briefly, the Art of Giving Foundation provides assistance and care to children around the globe who are displaced and/or living in extreme poverty. They assist children in helping other children who are in need through the use of art.


Currently there are programs in Woodland Hills (California) and Santa Monica, which bring free arts and education to children in the programs and communities. Anyone who's interested can go to www.art-of-giving.org. It really is wonderful, so I hope you and your readers will look into it.

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