“Theatre can be flesh and blood”: An Interview with Admission’s Ben Edelman

Sahil Sama 20 May 2019
Image credit: Johan Persson

“It’s about pushing yourself, seeing how far you can go”. Ben Edelman, actor in the upcoming production Admissions, speaks with such zeal that I know this philosophy applies to more than just his character. While the tin-can quality of the audio makes it feel as though I’m talking to Neil Armstrong at times, even over the phone the sheer passion the actor exudes is really something.

“You’ve got to ask yourself just how far you can take it. In this interview, in this role, in life.” With exam term in full swing, no doubt this is a question many of us will be asking ourselves. But, as we’re constantly reminded, there’s always the risk of pushing it too far. “My character, Charlie, is someone who walks the line between wanting to be a really great person, and something else, something… uglier and scarier”.

Ben, (famous for his roles in The Good Wife, Instinct, and Dot, among others) only developed an interest in theatre in his late teens: “I went to this summer camp, called French Woods, where they have everything you can imagine. They have woodworking, and geometry, and rock-climbing, and sports, and skateboarding, everything! But the main thing was theatre. It wasn’t really until high school year, that I actually, consciously, started acting. I kept going to that summer camp, doing everything but theatre, and I was ready to retire from it. At the last minute, I thought, ‘I should really give theatre a shot’. So I auditioned, and I was cast as the bad guy in this political play, and from that point on I really fell in love. I loved being inside of something… of a person, a costume. At the time I thought of it as, like, it’s me, but it isn’t me, and I loved it, I loved it, I loved it!”.

What’s interesting about Admissions is that Ben already, in many ways, embodies his character. I ask Ben how he sees Charlie: “He’s wild at heart. He’s very precocious, he dreams of going to Yale, but beyond that I would say he dreams of having a great life. And not just in a fame and fortune sense, but like a life of greatness, of emotional greatness, of being someone, and not just being given something but pushing himself to his limits.”

Ben points out the parallels to his own life. “My parents both went to Princeton, so the Ivy League was very much in my family. I was very precocious, super, super interested in learning about math and science. Even the things I didn’t like as much, I still liked. More than any of that, I liked participating in class. I was a very talkative, opiniated person. I was really intellectually curious, I had an affinity for monologuing (as you can already tell), but most of all I had an interest in every little thing that’s going on, around me, and through me, and in me.”

Most of these descriptions are probably sounding very familiar to Cambridge students, but both Charlie and Ben’s stories diverge. “What I did not have was the actual, material means to be a real candidate. I wasn’t a grade-getting hard worker; I didn’t do my homework, I was a slacker. It was actually around that time that I discovered acting, as a career. I put myself into a different sort of playing field entirely, and I’m very thankful that I did.” But where Ben’s life diverges into a successful acting career, Charlie’s story, meeting failure, takes a darker turn.

“The inciting incident, at least for me, is when he gets deferred from Yale. He joins school, for years he works toward this goal single-mindedly, and his friend gets in, his best friend! He goes completely insane, feeling like it’s not fair, what does he need to do, what’s going to happen to him… If you go to the show, you’ll see, it’s beyond what I can describe in this conversation, he goes crazy”.

Photo: Chasi Annexy

Our conversation shifts towards theatre more generally. “I see actors as people who play out their personality”, Ben remarks. And, if our twenty-minute conversation is anything to go by, Ben’s personality is, in a word, fiery. Spectator reviewer Lloyd Evans describes Ben as “so intensely committed to the role that at times he seems to be at risk of exploding”. The biggest challenge in acting, for Ben, is “taking things as far as they can go”: “It’s about accepting my own cowardice, my own demons, my own sense of what’s going to happen to me.. am I about to embarrass myself, am I about to do something really stupid that I regret and I can’t take back. It’s easy to see what really scares you, in your classrooms, in your conversations, in life; now imagine going straight for that thing. That’s the greatest challenge for me, really going after that thing, every day, not just following a routine. And this goes within the character too, for Charlie, not just putting up with a boring life because it’s easier. Because it’s not easier emotionally; emotionally it’s terrible”.

I ask Ben what might surprise people about Admissions. “I think that people are very often de-sensitised, to things in general, but especially for theatre. People think of theatre as sort of old-timey or Shakespeare, which is great, they both can be really great, but there’s a certain, distance, I think. People don’t realise that theatre can be flesh and blood, like really hitting you, hitting you, not just some abstract ideas. I think what Admissions does really well is it speaks in the voice of a generation which maybe doesn’t realise that theatre can be for them. It hits things from all sides, in a way that any great play does, and in a very visceral way, not an intellectual way. I think people will be taken by surprise, whether they like it or not.”

Admissions, as a play about someone who fails to get into University, might seem ill-fitted to a Cambridge audience. But failure is something everybody deals with. As Ben puts it, “It’s not just about rejection and the people who got in. It’s about identity, and education, and family, and belonging, and heavy passion”. And, most crucially, what kind of person you ought to be. Ben himself admits that he loves to monologue, and after our conversation I couldn’t help but love them too. I have no doubt that anybody who goes to see Admissions will love watching them even more in person.

Tickets for Admissions, from Monday 3rd June at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, are available here