by Emma Loggins
In Plain Sight follows the story of a Federal Marshall with the Witness Protection program who must hide her high-risk, high-impact job from her family. To those that know her, Mary Shannon is a glorified meter maid, but her real job is much more dangerous. She must oversee federal witnesses who have been relocated through the Witness Protection program and make sure that they stay safe.
We had the honor of sitting down with one of the stars from the series, Paul Ben-Victor. Here’s what he had to say:
Can you tell us just a little bit more about your character on In Plain Sight?
It’s an interesting character because, in the first season, I’m sort of sprinkled in around the show. I’m not as present as I think I’m going to be in the second season. But basically, it’s a comedic character. It’s definitely geared toward the comedy of the show; there’s a lot of terrific banter between the two leads. I’m sort of Mary’s reluctant boss and I think I probably have some sort of fatherly kind of, parental caring for her. I’m sort of like a dad figure and he’s very caring and very careful for Mary, but she definitely wears the pants in the office and we’re all sort of tip-toeing around waiting for her emotional levels to change. So, we’re sort of following her lead.
Now the show is filmed in Albuquerque compared to Los Angeles or New York. I’m sure there were some differences and I wondered if you could just talk about that, what it was like going to Albuquerque and doing the show there, compared to the other places?
Most of the work I’ve done over the years has been on the road. I enjoy being on the road. It’s a calming place to be. You’re away from home; you can really focus on your work. There are so many interruptions when I’m at home with phone calls and meetings and stuff like that, so it’s kind of a pleasant get away to be on the road and working on a show. And Albuquerque, as you may know, you’re right near Santa Fe-beautiful country there and beautiful places to visit – so I enjoyed New Mexico quite a bit. Like I said, I just love being on the road. But the other great thing is that it’s also just a hop, skip, and a jump back to LA. So, it’s definitely a convenient place to be as opposed to shooting in Canada somewhere, or Europe, or god knows where you could be sent in this business. It’s definitely a wonderful place to shoot and I’m looking forward to it again.
With the cast being a bit isolated from LA and New Mexico, have you found that you guys have gotten a chance to bond a little bit more, and spending more time together away from home?
Definitely, we have a great time. That’s the most important thing, if you’re doing a series, that you chum up with your cast mates, because you are isolated, as you say, and you’re tucked away. You’re not really with your family and your best friends who you hang out with every day, so you hope to have some chemistry with them. We’ve had some great parties, some great nights out and some great dinners together. Mary is an incredible host, hostess, I don’t know what the politically correct term is these days, but she’s great. And we’ve had some wonderful times in our house in New Mexico.
Fred and I laugh all day long and do Christopher Walken impressions… sort of dueling Chris Walken’s, that’s our little game.
Nicki and I have become good friends as well. Nichole Hiltz. She’s a blast. She’s definitely the life of any party. And we’ve remained friends and have been hanging out here in Los Angeles as well, along with everybody else. But definitely good friends with Nicki, Mary, and Fred; on the set, we’re having a good time.
Why did you originally want to play this character, how did it come to be, and then, how different is this character from other things you’ve played?
You know, for me, I just go to work. I’ve always enjoyed the Christopher Walken philosophy, which is you take what comes next. I am a big fan of his work ethic. So, this came next. A few years ago this meeting came around. It definitely had, you’ll see in the pilot, something I was able to sink my teeth into and bring something to. I definitely sensed the humor in the writing and I think they were looking for someone to really make that happen. So there was a nice marriage there.
Every character’s different and they’re also very similar in many ways. A while ago, I did a show called The Invisible Man on the Sci-Fi Channel, and a friend of mine said this now is like Bobby Hobbes older brother. It’s kind of like Bobby Hobbes has grown up a little bit, been given a raise, and now he’s working at another out-of-the-way, off-the-wall, obscure office in the middle of nowhere. It relates to that character I think a little bit. And the writing is terrific. It’s definitely something that suits me, I think. I’m looking forward to doing more of it.
So, Bobby Hobbes older brother?
P. Ben-Victor So you all hear this stuff. Do you remember Bobby Hobbes?
Absolutely, that show was awesome.
Alright. You’ll have to see for yourself, but it rings true a little bit of Bobby Hobbes, a little bit of he’s not completely grounded all the time. But he’s definitely a good cop, he’s a good marshal, he’s a good boss.
Do you think a job like being a federal marshal for the Witness Protection Program can be done without bending the rules a little bit?
No, you have to bend the rules. He’s definitely bending the rules and breaking them wherever he has to. He’s a straight up guy, but he has to take care of his people, and that comes first. Just to make it exciting I think you have to take some theatrical, poetic license and do what you’ve got to do.
As you get older, how is your approach different to playing cops or law enforcement?
P. Ben-Victor Well, that’s interesting because that relates to your last question a little bit because they just flow through you as the years go by. People say, “Well how did you prepare for this character?” And I say, “Well, I’ve been preparing for it for 20 years” because I have done so many detectives and cops. Obviously it’s make believe but, in some ways, I feel like a seasoned veteran cop because I’ve shot more guns I think than anybody, and I’ve handcuffed more people, and gotten in more fights, and been killed more than anybody else. So, you just show up and it begins to be another suit that you put on and you don’t think about it as much. You just do your work and it just becomes easier over the years. It’s less work and more of just bringing your instincts to it more and more as the years go on, I think.
How do you feel the role of playing, say your old character on The Wire as a crime boss, differs from your more cop-type roles and your more comedic roles?
This one is definitely lighter fare. There’s definitely some heavy moments that you have to play, there’s some life-threatening and life-saving moments in the show. Generally, I do gear toward comedic characters. Or, if they’re not, I’ll try to find the comedy in there because I just like making people laugh. It’s just something I need to do.
In The Wire, that just wasn’t there. It just wasn’t even hinted at obviously in the writing, so there was nothing funny about that character. And so, I just dive into the drama of it and try to make it as chilling and as scary as I possibly could with doing very little. So, that was my task in The Wire. I was trying to do as much as Michael Corleone, as simple acting as I could but keeping the weight and the power and the danger under it all somehow. Again, I’m not sure how I do it. I just sort of feel it.
In our previous interview with Paul Stupin and David Maples, they mentioned that their advisors with the Witness Protection Program there were a lot of things they just couldn’t tell them when they were writing, so is it difficult to play a character when you can’t always know everything about what they do and their background?
No, I find I don’t need to know that much. I’ve always felt it’s for the viewer to sort of figure things out and to think about and to try and analyze. For me, as a performer, I do almost none of that. I just work pretty instinctively and work pretty much with the text. If there’s something I don’t understand as an actor instinctively and my body as a performer, I’ll go research it. For instance, an accent or if there’s a certain way to physically handle someone, especially as a cop. There was one role I did a few years ago playing a cop in a pilot and there were some professionals on set that would give us advice and little tricks… how you would put your hand on somebody’s lower back to guide them and make them go where you want or sit them down the way you want them to. A little bit like Kito techniques.
So there are things you need to learn along the way, but I don’t really need to know so much about the book, the textbook information, about these guys unless it’s in the script. I pretty much use the script as a guide.
What is your favorite episode of In Plain Sight is and why, either personally as an actor or just that you enjoyed watching maybe?
I definitely liked the pilot. The pilot was a lot of fun because there’s a very funny, it’s in the clip I think in the commercials that you’ve been seeing, where I think I say something about a shoe. I think they use that clip where I’m saying “Do you think Mary will like this?” I’m talking about a shoe. Very funny. The pilot is just juicy and wonderful and I’m really looking forward to seeing it. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve seen little clips of it.
What else was a fun one? The last two episodes for me were juicy and beefy. I had a lot to do. But I haven’t seen them all yet, so I really couldn’t tell you what my favorite is yet. But we’ll have to revisit that question after the first season, then we can talk about what our favorites were.
You’ve been in so many different shows and just done so many different things. I was wondering, what, from your career, what are the stand-out moments to you? Do you have one or two things that you’ve done that really meant a lot or that were kind of more important than the others?
I get asked that a lot. There were little milestones along the way, like little steps, little building blocks along the way. The ones that I get asked about the most I guess are the ones that stand out. One of them is True Romance – a week doesn’t go by where somebody doesn’t mention that. And then there was Mo and The Three Stooges, which is sort of a stand-out time; and then this new character Entourage. The guy that I play in Entourage has definitely been one of the most recognizable characters that I’ve done, so that’s been an interesting role to play. I think those and then the NYPD Blue character gets a lot of attention. Bobby Hobbes on the Sci-Fi channel is also one of the biggies. And I hope this one joins the ranks of those characters. And also The Wire and the HBO shows stand out quite a bit as well. The Wire and then John in Cincinnati last year. I didn’t go very far with that character as well. Those five or six are the ones that stand out.
The other thing I’ve noticed is you’ve done so many different types of work – the film, the T.V., and also the stage work. It’s really exciting to read about The Good Steno, the one that it sounds like you did everything on. Which aspect of the business do you like the best? Then, I’d like to know if you could talk to us a little bit about The Good Steno and what that’s about and how that came into being?
I enjoy film and television the best because it’s calm. You’re in control of it, you can stop it, you can go to your trailer, and you can relax. The theatre is… I have sort of a love-hate relationship with it. I want to throw up every minute before I go on stage. I don’t necessarily, but I want to. I get nerves like jumping off a cliff. Then, once I’m on stage, it’s euphoric in a lot of ways, because you go forget everything and you’re in the moment and you’ve got this audience in the palm of your hand. It’s kind of like once you’ve jumped off the cliff you’ve got that rush of falling or going down a ski slope, it’s really exciting. But if I had one to pick, I would just pick film or television, just being in front of the camera. You could mold and craft that performance and then be done with it and move on and that’s a good feeling.
The Good Steno. My Mom’s a playwright and she wrote many small, short pieces. She’s written some full length plays, but she’s written some one act plays about her days as a stenographer in the 1940’s in the Garment District. I always loved those monologues and one-acts she had about this one character Morty, who’s her boss, who’s this horrible, horrible guy who would try to get the models in the swimsuit factory to go in the back room, if you would, with the buyers from out of town.
So we developed this play, my Mom and I, and I directed it and co-wrote it with her and played this character Morty in this play at the Hayworth Theatre here in Los Angeles last year. And we’re actually talking about doing it off-Broadway with the producers of this new play I just did called Sexy Laundry, also at the Hayworth Theatre. So, that’s where that’s at. That’s an exciting piece because it’s mine. I developed it, I wrote it, created it, directed it, designed the set, did some of the choreography, there’s some dance in it. That’s definitely an exciting piece, a labor of love. I’d like to shoot it one day actually, in film. Hopefully, you’ll be able to see it at some point down the road.
What originally made you want to become an actor?
Back to my roots. Well, I think I always wanted to do it, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I remember wanting to be in school plays, but I ended up building the sets instead. So, I was actually doing set design and wanted to do that professionally.
I went to theatre school at Carnegie Melon for set design and then there I got asIn Plain Sightked to be in a play called Short Eyes because they needed a Puerto Rican guy and there weren’t any Puerto Rican guys. Nobody was even remotely close and I was this New York Brooklyn kid that had wandered onto set. The director of the play asked me can I do that. I said yes. I grew up around everybody in New York. We had every ethnic group around, so I was able to pull it off. And I’ve ended up playing many Latino characters since, which is interesting. So, that was how I got in. I got lured in from the scene shop over to the stage at college.
After that, you know, you get that bug. Once it’s in you, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. It was easier than drawing up light plots and hanging lights and running cables and building sets. I dropped a few lights off the catwalks. I was good at it, but also not very good. I was a little clumsy. I was much happier just being on the stage and performing. That’s where I felt most comfortable and where I could screw up the least amount I think.
This may be one you may not know the answer to, but I was looking at your IMDb Profile and for In Plain Sight it lists your character’s name as John Wilkes Booth. How did that happen?
We need to fix that. Could you fix that? John Wilkes Booth. I think that was in an early draft. I think it was a play on names or something like Marshall is Marshal. Marshall the character is also a marshal. I can only say that I think that was in an early draft and somehow that got submitted. That’s odd that it’s on the roster there with that character. We’ve got to fix that. I don’t know who John Wilkes Booth would be. Of course, we know he is, but I don’t know why that’s in there. Hopefully, we’ll get that changed for you.