Friday, December 21, 2012

Benjamin Farmer - Faith, Fear and Freedom

Benjamin Farmer
as Chris Merrill in "The Falls"
Benjamin Farmer stars in The Falls, an independent film made in Portland about two Mormons doing missionary work as is the duty of all Mormon males of a certain age. The film focuses on the relationship between the two young men and not necessarily the questions of faith that the two have but merely the question of their roles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. When I talked to Farmer by phone a week before Christmas, he told me about his own faith, his fear as an actor and the freedom he wants or aspires to feel as a performer in front of a camera.

Farmer was born in 1984 and raised in Salem, Oregon. He's Christian or at least he had a very strong, Christian upbringing. He grew up in what he calls a protected environment and among a group of regular, church-going people with most likely strict, conservative ideals and beliefs. In other words, these people probably wouldn't go see a gay movie or a movie where two men have sex with each other. Farmer said he was aware of Mormons when he was little but basically was told that what Mormons believed was wrong. The people with whom Farmer grew up also probably wouldn't go see a Mormon movie or a movie where two Mormons try to proselytize every day.

Nevertheless, this is what The Falls is. It's a movie about two Mormons who try to proselytize every day and it's about those same two men having sex with each other. Farmer said this is not a film that the people with whom he grew up, specifically his parents, would want and/or enjoy watching. The DVD for example is not going to be his Christmas present to them. That being said, Farmer is one of the stars. He plays one of the gay Mormons. He plays basically that which his upbringing was against.

My question is why. Why would Farmer choose to play or do a movie that he knows his family would never want to see? It's not as if he hated his upbringing. It's not as if he thinks that what his parents believe or what he was taught about religion is all bunk or non-sense. Most religions teach that homosexuality is wrong and that it's a sin, but Farmer doesn't come off as someone who takes scripture literally like a hard-core, Bible thumper. He does believe in Jesus Christ. Yet, he's not like Kirk Cameron. Farmer is not himself gay, but, listening to him, it's obvious that he is supportive of gay rights.

For Farmer, acting is clearly his passion. He says that he's been performing since he was three years-old. He sang in the choir. He did plays through high school. He did theater at his community college in Salem. He attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy of New York City for two years. He probably would have stayed in the Big Apple, if his love for a girl hadn't brought him back to the Northwest.

Even after his relationship with this girl didn't work out, and Farmer says he didn't know what to do with himself, acting is still something to which he gravitated. He signed with an agency. He started doing commercials, music videos, TV shows and even theater, and, as any actor will tell you, unless you're Kirk Cameron, it's a little difficult to be homophobic and work in theater.

The Falls is not the first gay character that Farmer has played and I'm sure the director of The Falls, Jon Garcia, is not the first gay man with whom Farmer has worked. Yet, when I asked Farmer what he thought about the screenplay when he first read it, he said, "It scared me." He said, "It scared me to death."

His character in The Falls, named Chris Merrill, is a more serious, more dramatic and a more intimate portrayal of a gay man than Farmer has perhaps done before. When I asked him what scene or moment in the screenplay that really affected or impressed him the most, Farmer said that it's the scene toward the end when Merrill and his fellow Mormon missionary are in bed together. The two of them implicitly talk about how their church would probably reject them due to their homosexuality, but Merrill says that he doesn't reject the church. Merrill says he still has his faith. He still has his love of Jesus Christ.

I might be inferring too much, but I see a parallel between this moment in the movie and what Farmer told me about his family. No, Farmer's family is not the Mormon church, but a similar distance lies between them and this gay movie. Farmer's family might reject The Falls but Farmer doesn't reject his family. Like his character, Farmer still has his faith, as it were.

Whatever fear that Farmer had upon reading the script that maybe stemmed from his upbringing, that fear ultimately drove or motivated him into doing the part. Farmer did a feature-length movie called The Roomies. In that film, he co-starred with Quinn Allan. Allan was friends with Garcia. When Garcia was looking for actors, Allan recommended his former co-star. Garcia then approached Farmer and offered the role, so Farmer didn't ask for this. He could have just said no.

Yet, Farmer said fear or an element of fear is important to an actor. It echoed something that Oscar-nominee Naomi Watts had said in a roundtable discussion by The Hollywood Reporter. You can watch the roundtable online at the newspaper's website, but what I got from Farmer is that there's something unattractive to an actor about playing it safe. Obviously, it's good if an actor knows his strengths and weaknesses and knows what he can or can't do, but it's also good when an actor challenges himself and does something that's outside his comfort zone and that maybe makes him a little scared, even if it's scared to death.

Farmer felt like Merrill was a character he needed to do. That, and he said he loved Garcia's writing. The subtlety of it was very compelling. The fact that it was a love story and that it wasn't Mormon bashing was also a big draw to him, culminating in the scene at the end that really impressed and moved him.

Farmer also mentioned he had briefly read my article on Nick Ferrucci, his co-star in The Falls, and, in that article, I go into the Meisner technique a little. Farmer told me that he's been studying or embracing the Meisner technique in the past year or two, and it's really helped him to learn what it is to be an actor.

Aside from peeling away layers and removing defenses to be more personal and honest as an actor, the Meisner technique is also a great tool for improvisation because Meisner is all about observing and reading behavior and saying what you're seeing in that moment, basically feeding off body language.

Farmer said that it helps to believe what his character believes. At least, he has to be invested 100-percent in what his character is invested. It helps him to live in the circumstance of his character. There's an irony with this in one scene and something that Farmer told me actually had me re-thinking my entire interpretation of his character.

Benjamin Farmer (front) is upset following
a challenging encounter in "The Falls"
My interpretation of Merrill was that he was an adamant believer in Mormonism whose homosexual feelings eventually get the better of him. This seemed clear to me in the scene where Merrill delivers a speech about Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and to me his delivery was proof positive of Merrill's passion and dedication to his church, but Farmer says no. His performance and Garcia's direction is that Merrill might not believe everything he's saying. Merrill's passion and dedication might simply be misperception of a finely-honed habit and routine, or the result of Merrill being a really good salesman. I thought there was irony here because Farmer said he has to believe what his character believes, which in this case is that Merrill might not believe what he says he believes

One of Farmer's favorite actors at the moment is Michael Fassbender, a German-Irish thespian who has been in recent big-budget films like X-Men: First Class and Prometheus. The film that Farmer really loved was Shame (2011) in which Fassbender plays a sex addict. Fassbender really threw himself into the role, even going as far as doing full-frontal nudity. Farmer was also taken with Hunger (2008), a true-life story in which Fassbender plays a prisoner who goes on a hunger strike to prove a political point as well as expose harsh conditions at his prison. Fassbender actually went on a stringent diet, basically starving himself in order to help achieve the near-skeletal weight needed.

Farmer says he would be happy if he had even a shred of Fassbender's authenticity in Shame and hopes to have the kind of physical and emotional commitment that Fassbender had in Hunger. He says it's different from when he was little and he would pretend to be Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker or James Bond, and run in the open field next to his childhood home with his twin brother re-enacting scenes from those big 1980s films. It's different because as Farmer has grown up and learned Meisner and so forth, he knows that acting is more self-reflexive, personal and internal.

It's not just necessarily about mimicking external qualities as a child would, but Farmer admits that as an adult actor there is something envious about how a child behaves in the world. Like a child, he says actors can't have preconceived notions. Like a child, actors can't have too many filters. Actors have to live honestly. It's not that actors have to revert to a younger state of mind, but, like a child, actors have to have a similar sense of freedom.

Benjamin Farmer has two upcoming film projects. Because of good early sales of The Falls on DVD, Farmer says there's talk from the distributor, Breaking Glass Pictures, to do a sequel. If so, Farmer says he would love revisiting the character. You can read my review of The Falls here. You can learn more about the film by going to its website as well as more about Farmer by going to his website.

1 comment:

  1. I have watched this movie and a previous one on this same subject about Mormon missionaries. It is called "Latter Days" and was released in 2003 starring a character actor by the name of Steve Sandvoss. I have heard that Jon Garcia is going to release a sequel later this fall ( no pun intended).Moreover I am hoping that Jon Garcia will do this perhaps as a "real time" sequel such as the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight series with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy.Benjamin Farmer is a brilliant and talented actor whom I pray to see him develop into the longtime and long career actor for decades and generations to come.

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