A chat with Australian actor Ben Lawson on how art—including TV—can, and does, help us all evolve.
Despite what our parents told most of us when we were kids, TV won’t rot our brains. Well, at least, some shows go out of their way to make us start asking the hard questions about life. Australian actor Ben Lawson, as it turns out, has quite a bit of experience—not to mention interest—in works like this. Just look at three of his most recent titles from last year until now: “Doubt” which tackles transgender issues, “Designated Survivor” which gives us an unnervingly realistic portrayal of U.S. politics and the upcoming new season of “13 Reasons Why” which delves into some really dark places in the world of teenagers.
So, as we look forward to an all new season of programming, let Ben Lawson take you through some of the more thoughtful shows heading our way.
DAMAN: Hi, Ben. Awesome to have you with us. How are you doing these days?
BEN LAWSON: Never better; thanks for having me.
DA: This April, the second season of “Designated Survivor” will come to a close. How do you feel about wrapping up this run with the show?
BL: It’s been great. I’ve been able to have a lot of fun with this character and done things I’ve never done on a show before. It’s always sad to wrap up something because you have to say goodbye to the people you spend so much time with—your work family.
DA: By the way, how did you originally end up joining the show’s cast?
BL: I had auditioned for a role in the first season but then I went off to shoot another show —“Doubt” on CBS. When the role of Damian came up in season two, the lovely casting people remembered me and got me back in.
DA: So far, what has been your favorite part—or alternatively, your favorite moment—of being on the show?
BL: I don’t know about it being my favorite moment, but what I will most remember is a scene that was added just before I went away for Thanksgiving. We had already shot the scene where Hannah [played by Maggie Q] shoots me off a bridge and the producing director came up to me and said we have to add a scene where my character survives by crawling out of the river with a bulletproof vest. It was the last week of November and the show shoots in Toronto, which is not a city known for its mild winters. They put a wet suit under my clothes, which kept me somewhat warm, but my hands ended up being so numb from the cold. The more takes we took, the more water got into the wetsuit. Throughout the whole shoot, people on set kept coming up to me saying, “Man, I can’t believe you got into that damn river in November!”
“Teenagers are like juvenile snakes: They don’t realize how dangerous their venom is yet.”
DA: On the flip side, what do you see as the best parts of “Designated Survivor” when you’re watching the show?
BL: I loved reading the scripts every week and when I’m able to watch it, I always forget it’s my job and get sucked into the episodes. I think writers do a great job of grabbing your attention by adding interesting challenges for the President or FBI, which keeps you hooked throughout the whole episode. When the cast and the writing are strong, it always results in good TV.
DA: One side effect of the popularity of political drama like “Designated Survivor” is how people from around the world, including us here on the other side of the globe, become more interested in U.S. politics. Do you feel the same?
BL: As a foreigner myself, I can agree. I’ve learned a lot about American politics from “Designated Survivor.”
DA: What would you say are some of the things that the show gets right about how America is run?
BL: Kal Penn, who plays the press secretary on the show, actually worked in the White House. So, he is super interesting to talk to. Kal says the one thing the press secretary cannot do is lie. They can be vague and evasive and frustrate the press with generalities, but they can never lie. This is significant because we now know recent real life press secretaries have done just that.
DA: There’s this notion that TV shows dealing with weighty subjects like politics need to get it right. What’s your take on this?
BL: I think TV shows, films and plays need to get it right no matter what the subject matter. As artists presenting a “world” to your audience, it is your responsibility to represent that specific world as honestly as you can. Sacrificing verisimilitude for dramatic beats is one of my least favorite things. Just because we all ran off and joined the circus doesn’t mean we have to be inaccurate.
“I can’t say much. ’13 Reasons Why’ has tighter security than some maximum security prisons.”
DA: And this brings us to another meaningful show you’re involved with: “13 Reasons Why.” Is there anything at all that you can tell us about the show’s upcoming season and your role in it?
BL: I can’t say much. “13 Reasons Why” has tighter security than some maximum security prisons. We will see the fallout from Hannah’s tapes becoming publicized and how life at the school struggles to carry on. It’s baseball season at Liberty High and I play as the coach to a bunch of the kids.
DA: We’ve talked with several actors who also appeared in “13 Reasons Why” before and they were unanimous in noting that the show brought about real change—or at least sparked new conversations about some very important issues. Do you agree with this?
BL: Yeah, I think high school can be brutal and opening up conversations that will ultimately help kids navigate those waters a little easier can only be a good thing. Teenagers are like juvenile snakes: They don’t realize how dangerous their venom is yet.
DA: And the show does tackle some really touchy and sensitive subjects. Did you have any misgivings about “13 Reasons Why” before you eventually signed up for the show?
BL: Nope, I like stuff that resonates in a different way because it means it’s doing something that is needed. We need art to evolve and something like “13 Reasons Why” helps us even if it’s by degrees.
DA: If you would pardon the (totally intentional) pun, what would be the best reason why people should look forward to the new season of “13 Reasons Why”?
BL: Simply because it’s the same show you binged last year in 2 and a half days!
DA: Will we see you appear in any other movies or TV shows in the months to come?
BL: I’m about to go to Dallas, Texas, to shoot a pilot epidsode for an ABC show called “False Profits.” Cross your fingers that the network picks it up and you’ll see it on air later this year.
DA: So, you’ve been acting professionally for a quarter of a decade. What, would you say, has been some of the biggest changes in the industry during those 25 years?
BL: That’s a tough one. I was 12 when I started acting, so I probably wasn’t too aware of anything except the joy of doing it. But even in the past five years, we’ve seen a growing focus on giving representation to groups who have only been narrowly represented before. This is another example of how art helps us evolve.
DA: So far, you’ve appeared in everything from “Time Trax” (which was quite popular here in Indonesia) to last year’s “Doubt,” this year’s “Designated Survivor” and later on in “13 Reasons Why.” Which title—or titles—do you see as the biggest milestones of your acting career?
BL: I was very proud of Doubt. It portrayed transgender folks in a way they had never been portrayed before on network TV and I still hear from LGBTQIA folks to say how much they appreciated that show.
DA: And what new milestones do you want to tackle next?
BL: I also write. My next big goal is to get a feature film I’ve written and produced. I don’t want to say much more about it at this stage, but I’m excited to get into the nitty gritty of what it takes to make a movie from scratch.
DA: Do you have any regrets? Career-wise, that is. Missed opportunities, perhaps, or projects cancelled despite its potential and so on.
BL: Of course! There are things I’ve said “no” to that I ended up regretting. I just try to remember that the road is long—which is sound advice for most aspects of life). As for cancelled projects, I’ve had more of those than I care to remember, but that’s more or less out of my control. So, the less time worrying about that, the better.
DA: Outside of your work as an actor, what do you see as your biggest accomplishment?
BL: Hopefully just being a good friend and a good son.
DA: How about your biggest passion outside of work?
BL: I’m not sure about my biggest passion, but I just rescued a puppy that’s taking all my love and attention at the moment. Highly recommend for practically anyone who likes happiness.
DA: Last question: What do you consider as the most important thing in life?
BL: Elvis Costello said it best in three words: peace, love and understanding. It shouldn’t be hard. Maybe one day we’ll all figure out how to do it.
Outdoor Photography Mitchell Nguyen McCormack
Indoor Photography Pedro Correa
Styling Courtney Leday
Grooming Elie Maalouf at Tracey Mattingly Agency
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