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The Gloriously Bizarre Genius of Benny Safdie

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Benny Safdie is having an unparalleled 2023, co-starring in both the year’s best film (Oppenheimer) and television show (The Curse), the latter of which he created with Nathan Fielder, and which stands as the most daring, original, and mind-boggling series in recent small-screen history. It’s a triumphant twofer for the 37-year-old multihyphenate and, when coupled with his exceptional supporting work in April’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., it establishes the writer/director/actor as one of Hollywood’s ascendant talents, as adept in front of the camera as he proved himself to be behind it with 2017’s Good Time and 2019’s Uncut Gems.

That Safdie has been cast in varied roles by Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza), Claire Denis (Stars at Noon) and Christopher Nolan (Oppenheimer) speaks to his acting ability, but it’s The Curse (weekly on Showtime/Paramount+) that affords him his greatest opportunity to show his dramatic stuff. As Dougie, the producer of an eco-home-renovation HGTV program hosted by Fielder and Emma Stone’s married couple Asher and Whitney, Safdie comes across as an off-putting creep. Nonetheless, there’s more to Dougie than meets the eye, and the actor gradually reveals layers of dysfunction and despondency that, in a manner similar to Fielder and Stone’s weirdo protagonists, mark him as a deeply flawed, authentically inauthentic individual.

Safdie’s turn in The Curse is like the show itself: hilariously awkward, consistently cringe-worthy, and totally unpredictable. Better yet, it only gets more surprising as the series proceeds towards its jaw-dropping conclusion. Coming on the heels of his two great cinematic performances, his portrayal of Dougie is a one-of-a-kind, and so too, for that matter, is Safdie, who over the past decade has carved out a uniquely versatile and eclectic career. As a result, we were thrilled to speak with him about all things Oppenheimer and The Curse—save, that is, for the season finale he can’t wait for people to see, but won’t dare spoil.

This interview has been edited for length.

Richard Foreman Jr./A24/Paramount+/Showtime

Was transitioning to acting from directing always the plan, or was it a matter of circumstance?

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It’s just circumstance. I love directing and I love acting. I see no difference between the two, personally. When I’m acting in somebody else’s thing, I want to do the best for them. There’s room for you to do what you do, and you can work with other actors and you can scratch that other itch. And what I love about directing is performance.

COVID hit, there was nothing on the horizon, and I had gotten a lot of amazing opportunities that I didn’t want to pass up. When PTA [Paul Thomas Anderson] is like, “Hey, will you read?” Yes! I had such a great time on Licorice Pizza, and that was at the height of COVID. Then Jim Brooks calls me and he’s one of my idols, and Kelly [Fremon Craig] is incredible, and Rachel is an incredible actress. How am I going to say no to that?

It would be pretty hard to.

All of these things were happening and I was like, I think this will be good for me because I want to know how other people work and function. Even on Oppenheimer, I was seeing how Chris was working, and you can’t help but learn certain things. Paul pushed me to be better. I mean, I did a fine line performance of this one thing, but it was a subtle, fun competition that he brought out of me, and I was like, oh, that was great! There are little things that you learn. Claire Denis says, “Hey, will you be in my movie, it shoots in Panama?” Yes! How could I not?

How did those roles (actor, director) inform your work as a showrunner on The Curse?

With this, as a showrunner, it was a different experience, because Nathan and I really got into this thing together, and the motto was always: “Let’s agree.” I could get thick-headed, and Nathan would always be like, whenever we both agree on something, it’s always better. That was our mantra going into it. While we were writing, we had a lot of ideas about the pacing and how it was going to work and look. I would send him things from these old black-and-white Candid Camera episodes I watched where they’re shooting from across the street, and you see the mechanic—who’s the mark of the joke—walk this way across the frame, and they’re just on the edge of the frame, but then, the car [with the camera] just moves. It just slowly drives, it goes past the light post, resituates, and gets a better shot. Why can’t you do that in a narrative?

What that the main inspiration for the show’s look?

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Yes. A lot of that comes from, how do you show real? There have been many different conversations about what realism looks like, and this is another idea. Altman used this style a lot. We talked about Three Women, The Player. There’s a lot of that in there, where you’re just existing in these worlds. It was definitely part of our discussions going into it, because you had to have a game plan. For me, it was a really fruitful collaboration. I’ll text with Nathan all the time being like, I can’t believe it’s worked. A lot of the stuff is working the way we planned it.

Did your approach evolve as you began filming?

The whole thing changed when we started casting, because a lot of people were saying that with TV—because it’s reoccurring episodes, and there’s a lot of block shooting—you need to stick with professional actors. We have a lot of actors in the show, but we wanted people from the area because we were going to learn from them. We would put them in the scene and then have conversations with them, saying, what do you do here? What are the biggest problems you have? Then we’d rewrite and put it in the show. We were literally having an open conversation with everybody we cast. And things changed based on who was cast.

As we were looking to find the Cara character, we interviewed a lot of different Native artists from the area, asking about the struggles they had to deal with and the people they ran into. All of that went into the show. It was all in service of making it feel as real as possible.

Benny Safdie as Dougie in The Curse.

Richard Foreman Jr./A24/Paramount+/Showtime

Those supporting actors really amplify the show’s authenticity.

In order for this to be successful, you had to feel the effects of what [Asher and Whitney] were doing. If you saw what they were doing, great, that would be fine. But because you’re feeling the effects, because you know the place they’re in and the people they’re interacting with and who are being taken advantage of, hopefully, you feel it. I think maybe that’s what people are responding to—you know, this feels strange because I didn’t expect it.

It comes from Nathan sending me this clip of Columbo, where you see him coming down the hallway, stopping at a phone booth, opening the phone booth, it’s a rotary phone, and he picks up the phone, listens to the dial tone twice, dials 1, 2, 3, and then 1, 2, 3, 4, and then answers. You’re like, that was in a television show? Hmm, maybe we can do something like that!

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What was the seed of The Curse?

The genesis of the idea is that Nathan and I were mutual fans of each other’s work. We met in New York and just started to become friends. It’s funny—in 2015, I remember taking a picture of a very specific ad on the train. I had been obsessed with Nathan for You, and here I go, screaming to my wife about these stupid posters I’d been seeing all around the subway for The Blacklist. I was really bothered by the advertisement. I was so upset by it, and she was like, what’s wrong with you? It’s just an ad.

Two months later, I get on the train, and I’m like, what?!? The show that I love did a parody of that ad? I sent a picture to my wife saying, what are the chances that this guy is as upset by the same thing I’m upset by, so much so that he did this? So even before I met him, I had this weird connection to him.

That’s amazing.

I sent him a picture of the ad from the subway, and we started meeting and talking and become friends. Once, I’m in L.A., and we go to dinner, he tells me about the first time he moved to L.A. and what that was like. He said he needed to get a new phone, so he walked to this place in Century City, and there was somebody on the street who was asking for some money and he said, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any change.” They looked at him and said, “I curse you.” He was just like, OK. He walked into the phone store, got his new phone, and then thought, you know what, I don’t need this in my life. He went to the ATM, took out $20, and went back to the person and gave them the $20 and said, “Is the curse lifted?” They smiled and said, “Yes it is.” And that was that.

The show is based in part on Nathan’s real life?

I said, well, what if you got the money and went back and she was gone? Then what? Is your life ruined? You have this thing hanging over you forever, so anything you do that’s bad, you could just explain it away as her fault! That became the seed of something. We didn’t know what it was.

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We began texting with this framework, little silly ideas to one another, almost trying to talk each other out of making something, because both of us didn’t want to make anything. We were just friends. But at some point, we were like, there’s something here, and the conversation turned toward, maybe this is something we can pitch. But if we pitch it, we need to know who it’s about, what it is, what’s the world. At the time, I was really into these real-estate shows, and there was something insidious about them. At first, I was so mesmerized. I loved seeing these people upgrade their homes and move into beautiful places, but they all had a similar look, and something was weird. It almost was like America was beginning to look, and become, the same. It was strange.

I know what you mean.

I was flying to L.A. to meet up with Nathan, and I told him, I can’t believe what I just saw. It was an HGTV ad that said, “If you don’t like your neighborhood, change it.” I was like, what is that message? How could you put that out into the world as a positive? We started sending videos back and forth to each other of the moments when you see the real breakthroughs and could sense the relationship between the two people (they’re always husband and wife), and whether they like or hate each other, and what does he do that bothers her, and what does she do that bothers him. All that stuff is in there. So what if we show that and then actually see it after—the interior lives of these people that we’re not meant to?

I assume finding the right locale was a key piece to this puzzle.

Now that we know what it’s going to be, the question is, what is the area they’re doing this too? Because the [HGTV] formula was, big city, or small city that’s within 20 minutes of one. When we settled on Santa Fe and Espanola, we settled on a whole host of issues that we then had to deal with and talk about. In that area, there’s a lot of Hispanic and Native issues, and cross-conversation, and everyone’s dealing with their own things and problems. Once we settled there, we had to completely reeducate ourselves on the issues that would affect the show and people like Asher and Whitney coming in and doing that.

How’d you go about that?

As we were writing, the idea emerged about Whitney wanting to literally reflect the community with this home. Nathan had watched Home on Apple TV+, and there was this one person who had a beautiful house that he’d done in a super-fun site, and it was all environmentally friendly, and he had all these bells and whistles that made him into the best person in the world. But at the end of the day, what was he doing, really, on this show? He was showing off how nice his home was and how much money he had [laughs]. That was it. And that became a very important thing.

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How did you convince Emma Stone to participate? And how did you know she’d be game for it?

Nathan first said to me, she’s really funny and she could be great. This was because we couldn’t figure out who could do this. We reached out to her, because she and Nathan are friends. She will refute this, but she told us, “Oh, I know all about the show and I’m in [laughs].” We pick up the phone thinking she knows about the show and has read it all, and she knows nothing. So now we have to do this impromptu crazy pitch! I’m in the middle of an apple field during COVID, wearing a mask and carrying my son in a carrier, getting sunburned, and we’re trying to tell her about this show. She says she’s in, and then the hard work started, where it’s all about making Whitney real.

D.J. Arvizo, Nathan Fielder, Benny Safdie and Oscar Avila in The Curse

Richard Foreman Jr./A24/Paramount+/Showtime

What was that process like?

That took a lot of conversations with Emma about motivations, and who is she, what is she running away from, where did she go to school, what is it about her parents that she hates, does she like or hate her privilege, is she running away from it, and why is she running away from it. All these things. One of the things we always talked about was, whenever Whitney enters a room, she enters like a computer, scanning and thinking, who is it I need to be? I’ll be this person with this person, and that person with that person. And she can switch on a dime. She’s very capable, and she wants to be liked—that’s all she wants in life.

Emma’s performance is amazing precisely because you can see those minute switches occur in real-time.

Yes, you see her making these micro decisions that only Emma could pull off. There’s a moment in episode two where she’s totally happy, then for a half second she’s totally distraught, and then she’s happy again. You’re like, how the hell did you do that? I was shocked on set watching her do these things. She really has full control over everything she’s doing. There’s a moment where she takes her glasses off to take a picture with the governor, and it was the perfect level of respect for him but glamor for her photo! It is truly awesome to watch her work on such a high level, and also to just dive in with the scenario we put out there, with all these people from the area, and really elevate everybody. She’s such a good actor that anybody who’s with her is going to be better just by proximity.

That is a great moment.

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All three of us sat down and read the entire script, making notes about the character as we went through. It was a long process so that when we hit the ground, we could really get moving. Again, though, there were a lot of things changing as we made the show. Who we cast as the artist depended on the relationship she would have with Whitney. That was all dictated by Nizhonniya [Austin] being a certain way and bringing her experiences with dealing with someone like Whitney, and all the stuff she deals with as a Native artist trying to break through in that community. Emma was totally game for it, and she brought such great ideas and great passion.

How did you and Nathan work on his character?

Then with Nathan, we would push each other to be the best version of ourselves. I really wanted to see Nathan let loose, and he said the other day that I really pushed him to go to places that he might not have felt comfortable going. But I knew he had it in him. It’s just a matter of getting in the right place for it.

Specifically with Emma again, she has such an interesting arc throughout the show. Seeing her go through these phases of self-doubt and then self-gratification, which ebb and flow. I’m really excited to see people follow her. She has a long game in this one, and there’s something special about that.

Emma Stone, Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie in The Curse.

Richard Foreman Jr./A24/Paramount+/Showtime

The show thrives on unusual and charged interactions between different kinds of people.

I once had a teacher and we were watching a lot of early Mike Leigh, and one that stuck out to me was Nuts in May. The way it starts out is, you have a husband and wife going on a camping trip. The husband is very particular about what he wants, and the wife is much freer and open to things. Then they get to a campground, and now they’re sitting next to another guy who’s a lot tougher and harder than her husband. You have A + B + C, and you have a totally different view of everybody. That was how we approached these situations and these scenes. What happens if we throw Dougie or Cara in this scene? It changes everything! You start playing with knowing how people are going to react when somebody’s present. That was key, because each person is going to have a set face or a set mask when they interact with somebody. It’s just human nature.

We really wanted to show these people as realistically as possible. By making the environment they’re in feel as real as it is, you feel like this is who they are. They’re fake! But this is who they are, to their core. That was the drum.

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We can’t spoil The Curse’s ending, but it’s one of the most batshit things in TV history. Are you excited for it to break audiences’ brains?

I have no comment. I’m going to make no comment on the finale [laughs]. Just know that there is a finale! It does end, and I’m excited.

Was that ending always part of the plan?

Always. From day one.

I can’t wait to talk about it. But know that it’s out there!

Source: The Daily Beast

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