Ben Shenkman earned Emmy and Golden Globe nominations four years ago for his supporting role in Angels in America, in which he played the lover of a gay man who had AIDS. In the Canadian indie Breakfast with Scot, Shenkman takes on the lighter and more modern side of gay life, playing one half of a couple who are suddenly faced with raising a precocious, deeply theatrical 11-year-old boy. Shenkman stars alongside Tom Cavanagh, who plays a former hockey player and sportscaster who is in the closet at work, and ambivalent about raising a kid to begin with, not to mention one who seems more gay than he is.
Shenkman, who lives in New York with his wife and newborn son, talked to me about Breakfast with Scot, which he says is more of a family story than anything specifically for gay audiences. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, and was picked up by Regent Releasing at the Miami Film Festival in May.
Do you think it's been support of the gay community that's kept the film going through the festival circuit, to the point that it finally got picked up?
No. I I think it's been unassuming general festival audiences. The gay themes have gotten it programmed. It's an easy movie to program, because it has such an specific take and it touches on all these social issues. But the way the movie functions as a multiplex movie, as family comedy; you don't have to care anything about it in terms of its message or its politics. If this had been with Tim Allen and Adam Sandler instead of me and Tom, then it would have been a popcorn movie. You and Tom had worked together before in television, on Ed and Love Monkey. Did one of you talk the other into doing the movie?
Tom was intimately involved in working on the script with Laurie Lynd, the director, and Paul Brown, the producer. It was his idea to have me play the part. He called up, and it was basically on the strength of our relationship and my belief in his taste that I said yes.
I assume this was a mostly Canadian production?
I t was 100% Canadian production.
How was it different from American movies you've done?
I don't know if it was the personalities involved or something about Canadian film, but everyone was just so chill. The Canadian rules even are more gentle. They have this thing called substantials, where at some point between breakfast and lunch everyone stops and has a little snack. I found it suspiciously low-pressure. It thought, when is everyone going to to wake up? In fact, they got everything they needed, an the gentleness of it is in the movie.
Had you worked with so many kids on a set before?
I've worked with some kids. I don't think I've done a movie or TV with kids particularly. These weren't showbizzy kids. These were Canadian, local kids who were talented and interested. It was not an ambition suffused environment.
And how about working with Noah in the lead role?
Noah was great to work with, and was really the essential element of the whole film. Without him it would not have worked. If you've got a kid who's got a schtick going on, then it's a different movie. He isn't a particularly girly kid. He was just so game and comfortable with himself that he was able to pull it off. There's a lot that could be cringe-inducing about a kid that's doing a swishy act, and somehow the performance is free of all that stuff.
Do you have any kids yourself?
I just became a parent 6 weeks ago.
Do you think about these challenges of raising a kid that show up in Breakfast with Scot, like telling them what's OK to do and what's not OK?
I don't think of it in terms of gay and straight, but I do think about it. My child is a boy. For whatever reason, finding out that I was going to have a son, I thought, i have a little extra responsibility that I wouldn't have had with a daughter. I'm responsible for his idea of how to be a man, ultimately, or his image of being a man. Yeah, I do think about that.
Did your big role in Angels in America changed the role that come your way?
I don't think so, because that's not a formulaic piece, and those characters aren't stock characters. It's not like doing that sets the template for how people use you. In a way that's a liability, because as you go along it's nice to sort of have a shorthand for how people should cast you.
But do you feel like you can play a wide range--the romantic guy, the serial killer?
I don't think people see me for that scary, dangerous guy too much. Other than that's its hard to generalize. I'm just the journeyman actor.