Actor Colin Morgan: How the Queerly Idiosyncratic 'Benjamin' Spoke to Him

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday August 1, 2020

Colin Morgan in "Benjamin"
Colin Morgan in "Benjamin"  (Source:IMDB)

Colin Morgan stars as the titular character in writer-director Simon Amstell's sweet, idiosyncratic, semi-autobiographical comedy "Benjamin," about an insecure filmmaker trying to resuscitate his waning career (at least it's waning in his mind) after one major cine-indie success. Benjamin is also doing his best to navigate a new relationship with a young French musician (Phénix Brossard of "Departures").

Thanks to the truly endearing, multifaceted talents of Morgan, Benjamin feels like an authentic creation — one that most audiences can empathize with. Sure, he's peculiar, has a legion of self-esteem issues, and suffers from an almost exasperating need for acceptance, as well as an inconvenient talent for self-sabotaging the good in his life. But who can't relate to some or all of that?

"Benjamin" is one of the better queer-themed films to come out in recent years, in large part because it eschews emphasis on the queer nature of the story. Instead, the film is a fascinating character study, with Morgan slowly revealing layers and unpacking Benjamin's emotional baggage.

Morgan is a major talent who has been appearing across mediums in Britain for many years. His London theatre debut was in DBC Pierre's satire "Vernon God Little" (2007), followed by the stage adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar's "All About My Mother" (2007), opposite Diana Rigg. Plentiful and eclectic stage work followed (right up until the COVID-19 shutdown), including Pedro Miguel Rozo's "Our Private Life" (2011), where he played a bipolar gay; Jez Butterworth's dark comedy, "Mojo" (2013); Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," opposite Sally Field (2019); and Caryl Churchill's "A Number" (2020), to name a few.

His TV work includes "Merlin" (playing the wizard himself), "Humans," and, most recently, a very memorable episode of "The Crown." Onscreen he can be seen in "Testament of Youth," "Legend" with Tom Hardy, "Snow White and the Huntsman," and Rupert Everett's take on Oscar Wilde, "The Happy Prince."

He's played a host of gay roles in the past on stage, screen and TV.

EDGE recently interviewed the star of "Benjamin" about the new film and his career.

Why Benjamin?
Phénix Brossard and Colin Morgan in "Benjamin"  

Why Benjamin?

EDGE: What drew you to this project, and were you part of its development?

Colin Morgan: It's always the strength of the script for me on any project, and Simon's script was just so well observed. He managed to combine humor and poignancy in delicate measure, and when I first read it I found myself being both tickled and touched. Then, reading it again from "the actor" POV... I knew it would be a real challenge and uncharted territory for me to explore. I auditioned for Simon and we tried it in different ways, and then when I was lucky enough for Simon to want me on board we began to work through the script together, because it was clear that this was going to be a very close working relationship... it was important for the level of trust to be high.

EDGE: I appreciated that this was a queer love story where the character's queerness wasn't the main focus. Was that also part of the allure of the project?

Colin Morgan: I think Benjamin's sexuality is just quite naturally who he is, and therefore that's a given. We're on his journey to find meaning and love, and there's certainly a freshness to what Simon has written in not making sexuality the main focus.

Great Chemistry
Colin Morgan in "Benjamin"  

Great Chemistry

EDGE: Can you speak a bit about the process involved in working with Amstell on the character and his journey?

Colin Morgan: Simon and me worked very closely over a period of weeks. At that time, prior to shooting, I was doing a theatre project not far from where he lived, so I would go to him and rehearse and discuss through the whole script all afternoon before going to do the show that night, so that worked out well. It's so personal to Simon, and to have had him as my guide and source throughout was fantastic, because I could ask him all the questions and he could be the best barometer for the truth of the character; a rare opportunity for an actor, and one that was so essential for building Benjamin. But ultimately Simon wanted Benjamin to emerge from somewhere inside me, and he gave me so much freedom to do that, also.

EDGE: You had great chemistry with Phénix Brossard. Did you get to rehearse?

Colin Morgan: Phénix is fantastic. Simon and me did chemistry reads with a few different actors who were all very good, but Phénix just had an extra something we felt Benjamin would be drawn to. We did a little bit of rehearsal together, but because it was a relationship that was trying to find itself there was a lot of room for spontaneity and uncertainty between us, which is what the allure of a new relationship is all about, the excitement and fear.

Liberating Process
Colin Morgan and Phénix Brossard in "Benjamin"  

Liberating Process

EDGE: Did your process meld with Amstell's?

Colin Morgan: I've said this a lot before, and it's true: Simon is one of the best directors I've worked with. Everything he created before shooting and then maintained on set was special. We always did improvised versions of most scenes, and always the scripted version, too. It was such a creative and liberating process. That is exactly the way I love to work. And for a director to maintain that level of bravery, trust, and experimental play throughout the whole shoot stands as one of the most rewarding shooting experiences I've had.

EDGE: When I spoke with Rupert Everett about "The Happy Prince," he very proudly boasted about his ensemble. Can you speak about working with Rupert as he balanced wearing a number of creative hats?

Colin Morgan: Again, this was an extremely rewarding project to work on, and quite a similar relationship as with Simon in the respect that Rupert was the writer/director and Oscar Wilde is so personal to him. And then we also had many scenes together in front of the camera, so Rupert and me had a real 3D experience together. It was a long time in the making. I was on board, I think, two years before we actually got shooting, so I had a lot of time to work with Rupert and rehearse. He really inspired me, watching him wear all the different creative hats — such a challenging and difficult job/jobs to achieve, and he really excelled. Plus, we just got on very well.

Playing Queer Roles
Colin Morgan in the 2016 film "Humans"  

Playing Queer Roles

EDGE: You haven't shied away from playing queer roles. Do you think we've moving closer to a time when a person's sexual orientation is of little consequence to the stories being told, or should it always matter? Or perhaps we need to continue to evolve as a culture for it to matter less or not at all...

Colin Morgan: That's a hard question to answer, I think certainly the shift in people's attitudes has changed considerably for the better compared to 40 years ago, but there will always be resistance to change and acceptance from individuals and groups whether it be sexuality, religion, race, gender - we're seeing it every day.

Evolution is, of course, inevitable, but if we can learn from the past as we evolve that would be the ideal. Unfortunately, we rarely do learn, and history repeats itself.

EDGE: You were featured prominently in one of my favorite episodes of "The Crown" ("Bubbikins") as the fictional journo John Armstrong. Can you speak a bit about working with on the show and with the great Jane Lapotaire?

Colin Morgan: I had an exceptionally good time working on "The Crown." Director Benjamin Caron, especially, was so prepared and creative, and made the whole experience so welcoming and inclusive. It was an incredibly happy set, with extremely talented people in every department, and I admired the ethos of the whole production and have no doubt that's a huge ingredient to its success, along with Peter Morgan's incredible writing.

I was also a fan of the show, and it was an honor to be part of the third season. And I can't say enough amazing things about Jane Lapotaire. We talked a lot in between filming, and I relished every moment of that.

EDGE: You've done a ton of stage work. Do you have a favorite role you've played onstage?

Colin Morgan: I've been so lucky with the theatre work I've done, to work with such special directors and work in wonderful theaters in London. I've worked at the Old Vic and The Young Vic twice each, and they're always special to me. Ian Rickson is a liberating director, who I love. It's hard to pick a favorite, because the roles have all been so different and presented difference challenges, but, most recently, doing "A Number," playing three different characters alongside Roger Allam and directed by Polly Findlay, was a really treasured experience, and I never tired of doing that show, every performance as challenging as it was.

Miss the Rehearsal Room
Colin Morgan in "All My Sons" (2019)  (Source: Johan Persson)

Miss the Rehearsal Room

EDGE: You were doing "A Number" earlier this year. Did you finish your run before the lockdown/shutdown?

Colin Morgan: Just about! We had our final performance, and then lockdown happened days later, I feel sorry for the productions that didn't get the sense of completion of finishing a run. I mean, finishing a full run leaves you in a kind of post-show void anyway, even though you know it's coming, so to not know it's coming and have it severed must be even more of a void.

Memories of performing just months ago seem like such an unattainable thing in this COVID world right now. I can't tell you how much I'm hoping we get back to some semblance of live performance.

EDGE: What was it like to appear onstage opposite Dame Diana Rigg in "All About My Mother?"

Colin Morgan: Well, I think "iconic" is an apt word for both the experience of working with Diana and the lady herself. In between scenes backstage we used to talk a lot, and we got told off for talking too loudly, so Diana began to teach me sign language instead, in the semi-darkness backstage, and we would spell out words to each other, maybe only getting a couple of sentences to each other before she was due on stage and I had to get into position for my next entrance. We did a radio play together two years ago, and she remembered; she said, "Do you remember A-E-I-O-U?," signing out the letters with her hands.

EDGE: None of us knows the future in terms of the pandemic and when we might return to making theatre. I'm a playwright myself, and find it all supremely frustrating, but I'm trying to remain hopeful! Where are you right now in terms of the standstill we are in, and what the future might hold?

Colin Morgan: Yes, I'm so worried for theatre. It's a devastating blow. I'm sure as a playwright you know that the creative spirit in individuals hasn't been diminished by this virus. People are creating important art in this crisis, but we need the platforms to present it and bring people to some light again out of this really scary period — but it needs to be safe, and it's a worrying time. The virtual theatre approach must be looked at, I think. We need to experiment and find new paths at least for the time being.

I'm involved in developing some things right now, and how we can work on things in both an isolated and collaborative way. It's entirely counterintuitive to what the family-feel and close bond of a group in a rehearsal room is like — I miss the rehearsal room so much! — but we can't sit still. We must create, and we must act.

What's in A Role?
Colin Morgan in "Benjamin"  

What's in A Role?

EDGE: Looking back on the great success of "Merlin," what are your takeaways from that experience?

Colin Morgan: Some of the most treasured memories of my life will forever be connected to "Merlin," the cast, crew, production, everyone! The invaluable training of being in front of a camera every day! The chance to inhabit a character and live with him for five seasons! There's too much to list, and words probably won't do justice anyway, but I'm truly grateful for everything the show gave me.

EDGE: How do you select the roles you play?

Colin Morgan: I guess they select me, in a way. I can't play a role unless is speaks to me and provokes me in some way, but ultimately it's the characters that I have a fear about playing, not knowing how I'm going to enter into the process of living them. When I don't have all the answers it's a good indicator of a character I must play. If I have all the answers, there's less scope for exploration and discovery which isn't as interesting for me.

"Benjamin" will be available on VOD on July 24, 2020.

Watch the trailer to "Benjamin":

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy.

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