Many movie fans will instantly recognize Jonathan Bennett from his comedic roles in film, his classic performance as Aaron Samuels in “Mean Girls” or as the host of Food Network’s “Cake Wars.” However, his latest performance will show the charismatic young actor in a whole new light! In Steven C. Miller’s “Submerged,” Bennett gets the chance to flex his acting muscles a a full-fledged action star; a role and genre that allows him to truly shine. The film focuses on an ex-soldier turned bodyguard who has been hired to protect a young woman. While cruising with a group of friends one night, their stretch limo is run off the road and underwater by a gang of ruthless kidnappers who dive in to finish the job. Suddenly it’s sink or swim, as the bodyguard engages in a tooth-and-nail fight for survival to keep the vehicle from becoming a watery grave. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Jonathan Bennett to discuss his passion for his craft, his evolution as an actor through the years, his transition to to action genre with ‘Submerged’ and what the future may hold for this star on the rise!
Let’s start at the beginning. What drew you to acting early on?
There has never been a moment when I didn’t want to be an actor. There was no ah-ha moment where I said, “Oh, I am interested in this.” Since I was 5 years old, I would put on little skits, magic shows and things like that for my parents. There was no deciding to be an actor, it is just the way it has always been! My parents were really supportive. Acting can be a very scary profession and a lot of parents say, “OK, go for it but you should have a backup plan” or “Maybe you should do something else and do acting on the side.” With my parents, they were all about it and thought it was a great idea. They knew I was born to this, so they didn’t really put my focus anywhere else, other than on becoming the best actor I could be.
What helped keep you inspired and moving forward through the years?
The thing that has really kept me creative and excited about the industry is how many different things I do within the industry. My first action movie is coming out, which is very exciting, but I have also done comedy, reality shows, TV shows and movies. There is really nothing I haven’t done! [laughs] It is that variety that keeps me focused!
Let’s talk about your transition to an action star! The movie is Steven C. Miller’s “Submerged.” What action films had a big impact on you over the years?
I was a huge fan of the genre. I love a good action movie! I love all of the “Bourne Identity” films, the “Mission: Impossible” films and so on. I think “Air Force One” was one of my favorite action movies growing up. I love airplanes and limos! [laughs]
Well, you had your work cut out for you with limos in “Submerged.” [laughs] What drew you to the role when the script came your way and how did you begin to bring the character to life?
No matter what language you speak, no matter what religion you are, where you grew up or what you do for a living, everyone is afraid of being trapped in a car underwater. I think that is why this movie is going to do so well and people are going to love it because everyone can relate to the feeling of being stuck in a car when it is filling with water. When I read it, I instantly knew I wanted to do the movie. I did a movie called “Memorial Day,” which was an Army film and I got to play a ranger. I got to spend a lot of time with the Rangers and went to basic training with them to prep for that movie. So, with this movie, my character is an ex-military, private security guard, so I was able to draw on my previous experience to help bring the character to life.
You and the character you play are from two different worlds. However, I was curious to know, if there were any similarities we might see between the two of you?
Definitely. I think the tough love that he has for his younger brother is very true to who I am as a person. I have tough love for my friends and I am always on their case and coming down on them. If one of them screw up, they can be afraid to tell me because they know I am not going to let them get away with it because I just want them to be the best they can be. That is what my character does for his brother because he really cares about him and isn’t going to settle for anything less than awesome. That is really how I am with my friends. I don’t settle for anything less than awesome! There are definitely a lot of similarities there!
The film is very intense. What were the biggest challenges for you on this project?
Every scene was a challenge! Let’s talk about what everyone wants to know about — being underwater and trapped in the limo. Being in that situation is very scary! I used to scuba dive, so I am not terrified of the water, however, when you are strapped in a seat belt and the car is filling up with cold water and it is about to go over your mouth and nose, you can’t go anywhere! That is scary! It’s truly terrifying! Shooting this film, we were so cold and it was really a marathon. We just had to keep going! We were sitting in freezing cold water for two weeks and acting! It was very scary. Claustrophobia definitely set in and it actually helped because you got to use your real emotions and fear as part of your performance, which definitely adds to the realism. One thing I definitely learned as an actor on this film is the process of acting without using too many words and no words at all in some cases because you are underwater. Learning how to act without saying a lot was a challenge and I am really proud of how our director, Steven C. Miller, directed me and how I ultimately come across. I am really excited to have people see me in this role because many fans know me from “Mean Girls” but this is me, grown up and carrying a gun! I am not Aaron Samuels anymore!
Absolutely! I have to say you truly hit it out of the park with this role. I hope we see even more of you in the action genre because you really brought a lot to it!
Wow! Thank you so much, man! That is so great to hear!
What did Steven C. Miller bring to the table as a director for a project like this?
What was so great about working with him is that he was able to really stylize the movie and give it a very cool look. We developed a bit of a shorthand for the scenes, using a scale of 1 to 10 for intensity. I would do a scene and he would say, “You were at a 4 there. I want you to be at an 8” or “You are at a 9 right now, I need you at a 5.” We used a number scale because I couldn’t talk a lot in the movie because we are in the water, which limited the ability to go into longer, in-depth character work. He really made sure we were all on the same page as far as intensity goes, which really paid off in the long run. The other thing is, when I got the film, he said, “Everyone knows you as Aaron Samuels. My job on this movie is to change their view of you. I want them to see you like they have never seen you before!” I really think he pulled it off!
I couldn’t agree more!
Yeah! It’s funny, we would get done with a take where I would be shooting someone, punching someone or doing some crazy action stuff with blood, sweat and tears and he would yell, “Cut.” I would hear him yell over from video village, “Whose Aaron Samuels now?!” [laughs]
Tell us about your on-set experience and working with your talented castmates.
You know, it was really great because our cast got so close. What I love about the project is we hired everyone because they were really good at playing that character. I think that is so important because the cast, especially the kids, are so good at bringing the characters to life. When you see them in the situations, you really feel for them. We all became very close because we were soaking wet, freezing and miserable for two weeks, 12 hours a day and you are all together! There were moments between takes when we would all hold on to each other to stay warm with body heat! It was definitely a bonding experience!
From what I hear, you can be a bit of a prankster on set …
Uh, yeah! [laughs] Any time the water would warm up at all from the heaters and people would notice it, I would try to convince them it was because I had peed. [laughs]
Whether it is this role or any other, what type of process do you go through in bringing a character from script to screen?
Before every movie, I always reread the book titled “Acting In Film” by Michael Caine. I think it is the best acting book out there. It is about 100 pages and is a quick read. I read it before each film just to remind myself of all the tricks and things you need to remember when shooting a movie like this.
Do you see yourself doing more action films in the future?
Yeah, I think I will definitely do more action films in the future. I don’t know which one it will be at this point but it is definitely something I am looking forward to. For my next action film, I would really like to do what Ryan Reynolds does, blending some comedy into his action characters. I think that will be my next career goal, doing an action film where I can add in some comedic moments! I would also love to do a really crazy horror film.
We have watched your career blossom over the past decade. How have you most evolved as an actor along the way?
I think there were many milestones along the way. I think when you are first starting out, you are a bit nervous to try things. Having been in the business for 13 years now and having done over 60 films, I have learned to just try it. I used to think that everything would have to be perfect but I have learned to go for it and try it because if you are going to miss, you might as well miss big. I think so many actors in this business get so worried about so many things that just don’t matter when it comes to shooting these projects. Do you like the character? Do you like the material? Do you like the people you are going to be working with? If two of those three answers are yes then do the project! [laughs] I have found there are so many actors that don’t want to work and have so many excuses why they don’t want to do a project. I say, “Uh, didn’t you try to act for years and years and now you have projects being thrown at you and you don’t want to do them?” I just don’t understand it. So, getting back to the original point, don’t be afraid to miss big!
You lend your voice to some great causes. What can we help shine a light on?
I just lost my dad to brain cancer and I have this great charity called Walk With Sally. A friend of mine, who was my old publicist, works for the organization now. She introduced me to all the good they do. Basically, they provide community for people who are affected with cancer, especially children. Maybe a kid has cancer or they have a parent with cancer. It teams them up with mentors and gives them help and aid from someone who has been through a similar experience and helps them find comfort. There is always comfort in numbers!
We will certainly help spread the word! Thanks for your time today, Jonathan! We think you were great in the film and can’t wait to see where the journey takes you next!
Thank you so much, Jason! I really appreciate your time! Happy holidays!