By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—For four seasons, Julie Benz played Rita Bennett (later Rita Morgan) on Showtime’s acclaimed crime drama series “Dexter.” Being the unsuspecting girlfriend/wife of the titular serial killer antihero was a memorable experience, one that Benz still recalls fondly seven years after the series ended.
The gifted actress has since gone on to appear in several TV series, notably “Defiance” and the rebooted “Hawaii Five-O.” She now has stars on the CBS police drama “Training Day,” in which she plays the girlfriend/informant to Bill Paxton’s morally ambiguous police detective.
“I like those types of characters where you’re not sure whether you should root for them or not,” says Benz by phone.
The Pennsylvania native plays another flawed character in “Havenhurst,” a horror film checking in to theaters. As Jackie, she is a recovering alcoholic who leases a spooky old apartment high rise, where the previous tenant—a friend—has vanished without a trace. Managed by a stern landlord (a chilling Fionnula Flanagan) aided by her two creepy adult sons, Jackie is warned that she can remain at the spacious apartment indefinitely as long as she abides by the rules, namely don’t fall off the wagon.
It doesn’t take long for Jackie to suspect that the apartment building isn’t quite the safe haven it proposes to be and, in fact, has a connection to a sordid historical figure. As other tenants start to disappear and her friend’s disappearance goes unresolved, Jackie becomes concerned for the safety of an adolescent neighbor (Belle Shouse, “A Million Ways to Die in the West”) whose bickering parents wind up dead. Jackie determines that the only way to get to the bottom of what’s transpiring at Havenhurst is to break the rules, which could result in her permanent eviction.
Canadian director Andrew C. Erin initially wrote “Havenhurst” to be a TV series. Benz, 44, says Erin’s decision to turn the material into a feature film only made the story and the characters more developed than other genre movies from the outset.
Q: What did you like about the script when you read it?
Benz: It seemed everything had a purpose and a reason. There were no rewrites on the script as we were shooting it. I loved the drama element to the horror aspect. It’s a horror movie but it operates on a deeper level. I loved the whole historical element of this script with (notorious serial killer) H.H. Holmes. I was a big fan of (Eric Larson’s non-fiction novel based on Holmes) “The Devil in the White City,” so I liked that tie-in that the movie has.
Q: Your character, Jackie, purposely goes off the wagon to try to find out what has happened to her friend.
Benz: In Jackie’s case, it wasn’t just the choice of purposely falling off the wagon. It also represented her addiction that resulted in the death of her child. It was a much more emotional moment for her to make that decision. She figured the only way she would find out what was going on was to take that step. When I read the script, I really loved that aspect of when we meet Jackie, she’s the walking wounded. She has to bear the burden of having caused her daughter’s death because of her addiction. You see it in every breath she takes and every movement she has. The turning point is when she makes the decision to just get real and find out what’s going on. There’s some serious stuff going on at Havenhurst, so she makes that decision. It’s a really tough decision to make because she doesn’t know if she’s going to come back from it. Aside from putting her life in danger, she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to get clean again.
Q: What was it like working with Fionnula Flanagan? Your characters have such an intense adversarial relationship?
Benz: This is the second time I’ve gotten to work with her. The first time was on (the Syfy cable series) “Defiance.” She played my mentor on season one. I love Fionnula. She’s so elegant and a stunningly gorgeous woman. She has this amazing presence on-camera and off-camera that makes you want to sit up straighter and be your best around her. There’s a scene in the movie where I have to take her on, and she left me shaking, because she’s like a wall, an unmovable force. It took every ounce of energy I had, and that Jackie, the character has, to just hold my own against her. She’s one of the best actresses I’ve gotten a chance to work with. I feel lucky I’ve gotten to work with her twice in my career. I hope I get to work with her again.
Q: Did you offer any advice to your young co-star Belle Shouse, who plays your neighbor Sarah?
Benz: No, she’s pretty savvy. She didn’t need any tips from me. But you have to be aware that she is young. There were certain elements that were scary to her. We were doing one stunt that really frightened her. She was expressing her fear but I felt they weren’t listening to her so I pulled her aside and we talked about it, and we made it so she wouldn’t be scared.
I always treat young actors as colleagues because they are. They have a certain level of knowledge to even get the job. They have to know what they’re doing. At the same time, you have to understand that they’re young and they can become more frightened and terrified of certain things, so you have to be sensitive to that.
It was a scary movie to be in. There were moments when I was truly terrified so I had to make sure she was emotionally all right. But she’s a tough little girl. Don’t get me wrong. (She laughs.)
Q: Jackie’s apartment has no modern technology. She doesn’t own a cell phone. Is there some reason why she doesn’t have modern technology?
Benz: It was a conscious choice that Andrew (Erin), our director, made about that. We wanted to the movie to have a timeless feel to it. We wanted a bit of the isolation element about it. I wondered at first why she didn’t have a cell phone. It’s a bit of a style choice. I think it adds a timeless element to the film.
Q: What was the most challenging scene for you? Did you sustain any bumps or bruises?
Benz: I don’t bang up that easy. I’ve been an athlete my whole life; I’m pretty physical. But one of scariest things I had to do was when I was being chased and the floor dropped out from underneath me. I had a specific mark I had to land on and they’d pull the floor out from beneath me and I dropped quite a distance onto a giant pad. It was a trap door, basically. I was terrified because when I was a little kid I fell through a trap door in a barn and got hurt pretty bad, so that brought it all back to me. Plus, knowing I had to go to a mark without looking down, my heart was pounding so hard I was afraid the microphone would pick up the sound. I was literally shaking anticipating the floor being ripped out beneath me. I felt like I blacked out because I was running and then I was on the pad. I had to do it a couple of times and I was afraid every single time. If I missed the mark, I could hit my head or knock a tooth out. That terrified me.
Q: How do you like your new TV series “Training Day?”
Benz: It’s fun. Working with Bill Paxton is a treat and an honor. I’ve been a huge fan of his for a long time. It was one of the reasons why I took the role. It’s a smaller role for me, I’m a supporting character but I was really interested in working with Bill. Also, playing a madam interested me as well because she’s a businesswoman. She’s morally ambiguous. I like those types of characters where you’re not sure whether you should root for them or not. The relationship between my character, Holly, and his character, Frank, is very complex. It’s not your typical love story. She’s his informant but she’s also his girlfriend. They both have a lot of baggage in their relationship. They’re both damaged people so it becomes very complex.
Q: Between “Havenhurst” and other roles you’ve played, such as Rita on “Dexter,” you’ve spent a lot of time with serial killers. Why do serial killers fascinate people?
Benz: Maybe it’s because they exist in real life. You’re always wondering if the person next to you is a serial killer. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a skeptic after all these years. What was interesting about Rita on “Dexter,” had she ever found out the truth, I don’t think she would have ever acknowledged it was real. I don’t think she would have believed it. When you create a life with someone and love someone, and then you find out he’s a serial killer, what does that say about you? What did you miss?
We see those stories all the time on the news. Turns out your neighbor has three girls kidnapped in his basement, and no one knew about it. He seemed like such a great guy. There’s a whole fascination with that. What if I were in that situation and discovered that the person I was sharing my life with was a serial killer. That’s what I loved about the show is that it left you questioning your own moral code. If I found out I was married to Dexter and he was a serial killer killing other serial killers, how would I feel? I don’t know. I’d probably report him because it’s the right thing to do. Killing is still killing even though he’s killing the bad guys. You’re like a hamster on a wheel never really finding out how you would respond. If I report him, am I going to end up dead? It’s a horrible thing. That’s the great thing about entertainment is that it presents you with scenarios that hopefully you won’t be faced with in real life.
Q: Do you stay in touch with Michael C. Hall and your other “Dexter” co-stars?
Benz: We stay in touch as much as we possibly can. We’re spread out across the country. I’m on the West Coast but when I’m in New York, we try to connect. I see C.S. Lee (Masuka) a lot because he’s also here on the West Coast. I see James Remer (who played Dexter’s father Harry Morgan) a lot too because he’s here. But the rest of the cast are all East Coasters. We can go a long time without seeing each other and then we see each other, we pick up right where we left off. We were a close cast on “Dexter.” They’re like family to me.