An Interview with ‘Get Hard’ Star Paul Ben-Victor

by Alexandra Fraioli on March 27, 2015

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Paul Ben-Victor has his roots in the New York theatre. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Ben-Victor made the transition from east to west coast early in his career. Scene spoke with him while shooting Emmett/Furla Films’ Empire State, a film set in New York but shot in New Orleans. “I started off a little bit in New York,” said Ben-Victor. “I started off on the off-off-off-off-off  Broadway thing for about a year. I got some early commercials in New York… the original Levi’s 501 Blues campaign. And then I got shipped off to L.A. to do a Dodge Boy campaign commercial. I did a bunch of those. The weather was great. I didn’t have any allergies out there.”

His budding film and television career grew during his early years in Los Angeles. “Back lots had no security,” Ben-Victor recalls about getting his start in 1980s Southern California. “I’d sort of walk on and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to walk in this building.’ ‘Alright.’ I’d walk in, I’d introduce myself. I did my monologues wherever I wanted to, an office here, an office there. Some guys said, ‘Come on in. You’d be good. Go in at four o’clock for a show called L.A. Law.’ I got my first guest on L.A. Law, and the rest is history. I started doing a scene here, an L.A. Law here, a Cagney and Lacey, a China Beach and a movie there. I became a member of the Actors’ Studio out there. I did a play by a playwright named Lyle Kessler who wrote Orphans.”

Though his career seemed to be developing rapidly, it wasn’t without growing pains. “Twenty years ago, I was confused, I was less happy,” remembers Ben-Victor. “A little nuttier, a little angrier. I burned some bridges that I regret doing back then. Just being a little cockier. But there was nobody to teach me otherwise. I had to learn these things alone.”

Perhaps Ben-Victor’s biggest break came when he was cast in the HBO drama The Wire, also starring Wendell Pierce. “That was probably one of the most exciting times of my life, in terms of career,” he says. “That was probably one of the most exciting times of my career so far because I was doing several things at the same time. I had written a play with my mom that was playing in a beautiful theatre, The Hayworth Theatre in L.A. At that time it was called The Good Steno, but we’re changing the name to This Little Jew Girl. Morty is this horrible villain, and I play Morty. So it’s a great play, and I was doing that. And then I get an offer to do The Wire, which was the greatest offer at the time. I don’t know how exactly that happened but [The Wire casting director] Alexa Fogel… I owe her a lovely gift that’s long overdue.”

“[Alexa] was amazing. She made that happen,” says Ben-Victor. “I don’t know how, but I get a call saying, ‘Paul, you start shooting next Monday. Get on a plane to play this Greek guy.’ I was doing Entourage at the same time, and I was doing The Good Steno, In Plain Sight. There was a lot of stuff happening that year. I was overwhelmed doing theatre, TV and film all at the same time. It was a great time.”

Now a veteran actor, Ben-Victor has gone back to his roots, again collaborating with his mother, but this time as a writer. “It’s Should’ve Been Romeo,” says Ben-Victor. “I co-wrote it with my mom. She’s a playwright, Leah Kornfeld-Friedman. We started writing it fourteen years ago, based on a summer stock play I did thirty years ago. [It was] Romeo and Juliet where I played Benvolio. When I should’ve been Romeo, but I was Benvolio. So it was the seed and wrote a draft, then kept writing new drafts. Greg Ferkel is another writer that came on board and myself. And then my friend Michael Goldberg came on board, who wrote Cool Runnings and Snow Dogs. Big family film writer. And that’s what this is: it’s a wonderful, funny, lovable little family story. We wanted to make a funny movie, a lovable feel good movie.”

“Over the years it just evolved and evolved and evolved and we finally put it together,” he continued. “And it stars Ed Asner, Carol Kane, Michael Rappaport, Alanna Ubach and Evan Handler. Kelly Osbourne has a  wonderful cameo in it. Mary McCormack from In Plain Sight has a cameo. It’s chock full of cameos! We needed Tina Majorino (True Blood), so I think we had to work around her schedule for the movie. She’s wonderful. Again, she has a cameo, and then she turns around and hits it out of the park. Everybody does. Costas Mandylor is in it. Natasha Henstridge and I go back to the Van Damme movie we did twenty years ago, Maximum Risk. Evan Handler and I did The Three Stooges together. We became and are still very close friends. Matt Winston, he did In Plain Sight. It’s a wonderful thing to call your old friends and say, ‘Hey, could you come do a day for us? Could you come do a couple days?’ And they go, ‘Sure, when should I show up and where? If I’m in this country, I’ll get there.’”

Now in New Orleans filming a movie about his native New York, Ben-Victor is enjoying himself. “Empire State is just exciting to just be a part of this thing,” he said. “It was exciting because it’s another Greek family that I’m playing that I’m a part of. And then I watched Dito Montiel’s movie, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. I was blown away by that, then I watched Fighting, which is one of his other movies. I got the script [for Empire State], and I didn’t put two and two together, ‘Oh, it’s this guy.’ He’s amazing. It’s just an exciting thing to be a part of.”

Empire State is a true story about these two neighborhood kids,” he explains. “Two crazy kids from Queens back in the 80s, I believe. They were the  biggest rip offs in history. One of them works for an armored car company, and they rip off fifteen million bucks. True story. It’s a great terrific project.”

“We did a night the other night; we wrapped at like five in the morning,” Ben-Victor continued. “So we got through the night, it was a very exciting night. There’s a big climax. I read the script and I went, ‘Woah, this is a great role. It would be great to get this.’ And when I got the offer, I was thrilled.”

“It’s great to be down here in this whole world, movie making down here,” he said. “Liam Hemsworth, a wonderful young actor, I play his father. A neighborhood immigrant from Queens back in the 80s just trying to hold down the fort, trying to be a good family man, and my son has his hands in some dirty business. We have a big week coming up where I’m going to meet with my family and work with some terrific actors. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a great group of people.”

“Liam Hemsworth and I were talking about [director Dito Montiel] the other night,” he said. “We’re like, ‘He’s sort of the perfect director,’ because he’s incredibly generous, incredibly warmhearted. He seems to really love actors and understand the actors, and yet, he’s really specific in what he wants. His direction is just really specific and really poignant. He seems to be able to say very little, and send you in another direction. He wants it to be very real, very organic. He’s very sensitive for it not to be anything stagy. He’s just got a beautiful quality.”

Though he laments the loss of production in New York and Los Angeles, Ben-Victor has appreciated his time in Louisiana. “Hats off to you guys. I’m thrilled you guys have this influx of the industry.”

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photos by Kelli Binnings