Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge thrilled at ‘normalizing’ queer characters in genre films
We couldn’t resist referencing the coveted roles that Broadway star Jonathan Groff and British actor Ben Aldridge became famous for when we spoke to them last week. The interview was arranged to discuss their pivotal roles in M. Night Shyamalan’s critically acclaimed latest movie, “Knock at the Cabin,” described by some critics as a “return to form” for the filmmaker.
Jonathan worked his way up from stage to screen with his celebrated portrayals in theater musicals like “Spring Awakening” and “Hamilton,” movies like “Frozen” (as Kristoff), and TV productions like “Glee,” “The Normal Heart” and “Mindhunter.”
But we’ve also been following Ben’s career, having watched him chew “dramedic” scenery as Arsehole Guy in “Fleabag,” the dashing Thomas Wayne in the Batman prequel series “Pennyworth,” and the cancer-stricken same-sex partner in last year’s “Spoiler Alert.”
Other than their backgrounds in theater, both actors are 37 years old and come from religious families. Ben was raised as a born again Christian, while Jonathan’s paternal grandfather was a Mennonite minister. They also happen to be openly gay: Jonathan “came out” during the National Equality March in 2009, while Ben announced he was a member of the LGBTQIA+ community on Instagram on the occasion of National Coming Out Day in 2020.
In “Knock at the Cabin,” four strangers (Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn and Fil-Am Dave Bautista in the most acclaimed portrayal of his acting career so far) barge into the cabin where gay parents, Eric (Jonathan) and Andrew (Ben), are staying with their 7-year-old adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui). The couple must decide to kill one of their own as a sacrifice to stop the coming of the apocalypse.
Of course it shouldn’t matter whether Ben and Jonathan were gay or not. But the fact that they portray a happy same-sex couple in a major film bodes well for LGBT representation in mainstream Hollywood.
“Ben and I are both in our late 30s, but it was distinctly different when we were growing up 20 years ago,” Jonathan mused. “Acceptance of sexual identity was in a completely different place at the time, and we’ve come so far since then. “We are pinching ourselves that we get to be in this Hollywood horror movie by M. Night Shyamalan as gay actors playing gay characters. This would not have been the case 15 years ago. Things have certainly changed in 2023. We get to ride this wave generated by all of the work that’s been done before us to get us here. And that progress that we’re benefiting from is not lost on us.”
In Ben’s case, winning the role has also been an important part of his coming-out journey. “It’s exciting! Only in the last three years [after I came out] have I really been playing queer characters, and that has added a new layer to my work as an actor,” he admitted. “I relate to these roles in a slightly different way, and it feels like I’m sharing and exposing more of myself through them.
“If my 20s were about escaping into acting and becoming characters that aren’t who I’m not, which I also enjoyed creating, the last three years have been about playing roles that I understand from the inside out, and relating to them in a very emotional and authentic way.
“But what ‘Knock’ shows is, it could happen to any loving family, which instantly gives it universal appeal. It’s about love, so it’s very relatable and progressive in that way. It just happens to involve two gay dads and their adopted daughter.
“However, it doesn’t erase the queer narrative and even honors the queer experience in a very gentle way. It treats related themes like homophobia with deftness and lightness of touch—and I love the film for that.”
Asked if they thought putting a loving gay couple in the central conflict of the film would help eradicate the hate attacks directed at LGBT members, Ben asserted, “People turn out en masse to watch Night’s films, so they’re seen by such a cross-section of moviegoers.
“If people see single-sex parents in a way they never have before and believe in the love they share, I would think that it could change minds and illuminate issues hurled against the LGBT community. The purity of their love helps heighten the stakes in the situation the family finds itself in.”
Our Q&A with Jonathan and Ben:
We’re thrilled to see “King George” and “Arsehole Guy” in one movie together. And we find it truly telling that both of you could also trace your roots in theater and religion. Were you hired because of that? And for a more obvious question: If it were you, how would you address Eric and Andrew’s Solomonic dilemma?
Jonathan: It’s funny because Night told me when we met at the audition that he came to see “Hamilton,” and he wrote my name down on a piece of paper. Who knows if he’s really telling the truth, because he can really tell some tall tales (laughs). So I think that’s what got me in the room.
But he didn’t talk about the half-Mennonite side of my family and my religious upbringing. What he did talk a lot about was what he wanted from the movie. He then asked me to do my best at delivering the kind of performance he had seen in his mind—and that sums up the process with him. But I do think he picked the right people for all seven of us, truly.
As far as the dilemma in concerned, I want to think I would choose to save humanity. But I have to be in the moment to be able to honestly tell you the truth. I don’t know if I could kill my partner. Also, I have to really see those planes falling from the sky.
Ben: Same. We had two weeks of rehearsals. Usually in theater, what you do in the first week is, you sit down, read the script and talk about how you understand and relate to the material. It can be a bonding experience where you get underneath the skin of the script.
But what Night does at rehearsals is, he shares his love for his characters. He’s thought about them so much and makes us relate to the film through his vision. So it’s not so much a two-way street… so you’re there to realize his vision.
My background will always be a part of me and is so ingrained into how I interpret a lot of what I do as an actor. But Night is not so focused on that. What he’s focused on is you understanding your assignment (laughs) and fulfilling his brief.
And when it comes to making the choice, same as Jonathan. I’d like to think that I would choose humanity over a loved one. But I’d really struggle to believe in the Four Horsemen. I don’t even know if seeing those falling planes would do it for me. Personally, I just don’t believe in that stuff. So if ever, it would truly be disturbing to go through that.
Ben, people fell in love with you as Arsehole Guy in “Fleabag.” He was terribly funny for a few years, until you reached a point where the character became a bit old. But Night’s films are such event movies. Despite “Knock” being horror and suspense, it has nevertheless a beautiful message about how much this same-sex couple loves their daughter. Did you look at this role as a way to draw a line between that role and this new character?
Ben: I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of Arsehole Guy. So I’ll just say that I am so pleased and proud to be a part of that show. I think Phoebe Waller-Bridge is such a clever, smart person.
Night’s reputation and the kind of brand that he’s created are so much a part of the moviegoing experience. So, he’s really known by his name and the controversies surrounding his films. He’ll even say it himself that he is a lightning rod for the press and for all the different reactions to his productions.
But I love some of his films, so it was exciting for me to see an email landing in my inbox, saying, “You’ve got to audition for an M. Night Shyamalan film.” I wasn’t allowed to read the script until I’d auditioned a few times, and then being offered the part by him.
And so, I was turning these pages and was in shock as to what was happening at that point. I take real pride in it and grateful to be playing another gay character. It’s instances like this where we learn not only about other marginalized communities, but about our own community as well.
There’s real power in representation. There’s something powerful in seeing yourself represented in a mainstream, studio-backed genre piece.
Jonathan, we are used to seeing prominent queer characters in dramas and romances, but they’re still rare in genre films. How exciting was it to see that when you got the script? And what part do you hope “Knock at the Cabin” could play in normalizing queer characters in thrillers and horror films?
Jonathan: I was so excited to know that this was not only a horror film, but a Shyamalan movie with a gay couple at the center of it. I grew up watching his films. When I came out in 2009 at age 23, I never imagined that I would eventually find myself acting in movies. This was what I thought even before gay marriage was legalized. So I said, “I’ll just keep doing theater … because I’d rather be out than in.”
Fast-forward 15 years later, Ben and I are playing a married gay couple with an adopted daughter—that’s truly a sign of the times! And for that to happen under the watch of such an iconic film director like Night means that so many people are going to see this movie.
To be honest, when I read the script for the first time—and I must say that the book is also really beautiful and quite different in the plot—I didn’t anticipate how much love was going to be a motivator and an active choice for the characters until we were already playing the scenes.
I kept thinking about survival and family, and “How do we get out of here?” Belief is another big theme. The book sorts out the critical thinker from the believer, and figures out the difference between those two.
During takes, Night would yell over the camera before he’d say action. He’d be like, “Play the love … don’t forget the love!” He’d give us direction, then he would just throw that out. And I would be like, “Oh, my god, yes! I’m in love with Andrew, and all this is about our family!” There’s deep love involved. This couple sacrificed a lot to raise their daughter and be with each other.
Hopefully, that powerful energy is going to be seen by a lot of people when they watch the movie. And I think it’s a beautiful thing. INQ
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