Ben Aldridge Finds Dignity in the Dark in new film ‘Spoiler Alert’
Matthew Priestley/Sibling Artists
A charming accent and cheeky smile accompany Benjamin Aldridge’s sunny demeanor—almost comically ironic given the fate of his latest character Kit Cowan in this month’s new Michael Showalter-directed flick Spoiler Alert, based on the best-selling novel (Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies) by author Michael Ausiello, co-starring Jim Parsons.
Born in Exeter, Devon, England, the English actor counts buzzy series Pennyworth and Fleabag as projects under his skilled belt. The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art alum energetically answers questions about the heavy-handed material with ease and a deep understanding of the source material. One can tell an immense amount of carefully crafted detail went into his preparation for the role—one he calls the honor of a lifetime.
We welcome the actor into the fray, as we sat down to talk to the thespian about bringing dignity to struggling cancer patients, his endearingly off-the-charts chemistry with Parsons and how to dig deep in not falling prey to portraying the victim in a seemingly hopeless scenario.
Your on-screen chemistry with Jim Parsons—it’s extremely tender and it’s stunningly authentic. How did you two go about getting to know one another prior to filming?
He sent me an email and said ‘Let’s start’ and was like ‘We’re diving into the deep end on this’. It turned out because of schedules that I was going to have one day in New York before we started on set. So we were only really meeting on set for the first time. But it was about eight weeks prior to that, I think that we started this kind of pen pal-ship of emails back and forth. We probably sent two long emails a week that were just asking questions about family, our partners, our journey with our own sexuality—sometimes we talked about the project, but it was kind of just getting to know each other.
Jim writes an email exactly how he speaks—which is quite unique. He’s such a good email writer with very funny exchanges. I think we just got to know each other. We’re very, very open with one other, like we were asking some pretty hardcore questions as well as really fun stuff. I think that was really helpful because we didn’t go in cold. We knew each other reasonably well, even though we didn’t know each other in the flesh very well. However, I knew a lot on day one. I think it just meant that we reached a level of being comfortable with each other quite quickly and were able to be really candid with each other. I think because the script is also fun and playful—Michael and Kit had such chemistry, which was about humor, and being snarky and kind of being shady. We were playing that a lot of the time and we also had that between us. But then we also had the opposite of that work, which was like, the depth of the story and the suffering and the pain and we’d be walking a tightrope between the two things in the space of a day.
What can an actor hope for when dealing with this sort of heavy and potentially upsetting material?
I just think we had to be super vulnerable with each other and trust each other—and we both repeated that a lot of the time. It sounds a bit kind of ‘wah, wah’, but it was taking each other’s hands and jumping off the edge of a cliff and not quite knowing where it was going to land, but knowing that we kind of really had each other through it. I’ve never felt as believed in as I felt Jim believed in me playing Kit. That was really transformational for me actually, but also as a person that’s been really valuable to me.
I love that you use the word ‘vulnerability’ because that segues right into my next question, which is your depictions of cancer. They’re particularly raw, and show a lot of vulnerability that a patient goes through. There’s a shower scene that’s particularly difficult to watch. How did you continuously bring dignity to such situations?
I think that’s really to do with the fact that Kit is very dignified in the book and according to Michael Ausiello, the author, was extremely dignified in his journey in that he never wanted to be a victim, never wants to pity himself. I think he really clung to the writing of the script, (written by David Marshall Grant and Dan Savage) knowing that Michael was watching me play him, it didn’t ever feel like it could ever kind of go there really. There’s an element that none of that stuff was hard to play. It wasn’t like it was a challenge. It was like there was some kind of weird privileged beauty in getting to portray that part of of his history that I felt very protected and I felt very honored. I felt very honored to be telling that story about him all the time. That was always something that if I had a moment of wavering self-belief, I would just think about the honor of getting to do it and just try to do my do my best.
It’s outstanding what the human spirit can muster up in times of life or death. Are there any other sources used to convey how brave these individuals are?
Specifically, there was a documentary that helped really get me to grips with the kind of the journey of what going through loads of chemo can be—a Netflix documentary called Christina. I find it so informative. It’s about a script supervisor, actually—so somebody who works in the film business. It’s about her second battle with cancer, which she loses. It’s a beautiful portrait of that time. I just thought it’s so beautiful. It takes you right to the end moment where her family is around her and she’s in her bed, and they’re singing, and they’re saying goodbye to her. That was such a helpful reference point for me, and she’s also very dignified. That really really helped prepare me to play those things.
Given that this movie is based on real-life characters, and Kit unfortunately is no longer with us. What kinds of prep were you able to do without having the person you’re portraying available to speak with?
I think first and foremost, adapting the book is really helpful. It’s a great portrait of him, written by the person who knew him best. The second I knew I was going to be playing him I was sent lots of home video footage. Michael and Kit used to record each other on a little old-school handheld camera at various milestones, but also some normal things in their life, like going to Disneyland or as a whole long in depth thing about Kit doing an informational video about how to potty train your cat to go to the toilet in a real human toilet. Just really interesting.
Who did Kit become to you?
At that point, I was bowled over by him as a person. I find him incredibly charming, unique and idiosyncratic. I was also hit by this overwhelming sense of pressure and responsibility. I had to tell his story and I was really feeling that pressure. The videos really helped me get a sense of who he was. Michael wouldn’t ever want us to be doing an impersonation, but my hope is that I could get the essence of him somehow and that felt like playfulness and wit and confidence. It was helpful to have Michael on set. He would give me very practical pointers over how much pain Kit would be in at certain points in the story.
“I think that’s really to do with the fact that Kit is very dignified in the book and according to Michael Ausiello, the author, was extremely dignified in his journey in that he never wanted to be a victim, never wants to pity himself.”
What other materials did you have to help aide you in tapping into Kit’s life?
I had objects—like the black point and shoot camera that I use in the in the film is Kits’. That was always incredibly powerful and impactful to be handed that for a scene, especially in the burrito scene where I take pictures of Jim. I think that’s the first time that I handled the camera and that was just a very powerful, very strange experience to think I was looking through the same camera doing the thing that he does. I got to feel connected. It felt surreal, like I can’t believe that I’m holding something that was how he observed the world. It was also really helpful that he has an Instagram account with archives, and there’s a Flickr account. His work was very well documented. Kit was really observational and about his wits in how he saw the world and that really gave me insight because I liked looking at them. It was pleasurable to give insight into how he saw the world. I feel like I had quite a bit from him from looking at his photographs. The biggest thing is that I relied upon Jim and our connection and working together as a team.
There’s a hauntingly beautiful scene following your characters diagnosis where Michael and Kit are taking photos of one another. Can you take us further inside that scene and how you went about posing for the camera and showing that dread through photography?
It was a moment you’ll notice that I was trying to do was understand the world better and distance him, but allow him to kind of observe a moment. I think that’s what he’s doing there. In that moment of sitting with a diagnosis and sitting with Michael and taking a picture of Michael I think it’s immortalizing that moment. When the cameras turned around on him, which Michael never did in real life, because he was kind of intimidated to take a picture of Kit, because he was worried he wouldn’t take a good one of him. So that’s a very powerful thing that Michael then takes the camera and turns it back on him. He doesn’t know what to do with that. It’s really them coming to terms with the moment and the severity of the diagnosis and fear. I felt like I was for the first time playing him in the sense that he’s in the world, looking at the fact that he might not always be in the world.
It was an interesting scene on paper. I’d never read anything like that and I didn’t quite know how it would feel to do it, but like I said, with having the real camera and being open to discover what that moment was. It was a very emotional moment. They actually did that in real life as well—there are the real pictures of that moment.
There’s an interesting twist to how Kit’s final scene is depicted. How did you approach the material to still give it compassion given its format?
Yeah, that was a bit of a challenge for me because I had to play the actor version of Kit and throughout that scene kind of transition into a version of Kit that was more real. I felt very moved by that being the final goodbye. It’s weird as a final goodbye, but it’s distanced at the same time. I found it really hard to know what to do. What I wanted to do was just cry and cry with Jim and have this really emotional goodbye. The brilliant piece of direction from Michael Showalter was that the moment is about Kit graciously letting Michael go and it’s about showing him love. It’s not about the torment of the goodbye, it’s about the love in the goodbye and the fact that he says ‘You’re going to be okay’. We wrestled with that a bit on set because I was like ‘But Kit is feeling distraught to be saying goodbye as well’. Book Kit is closer to peace at that moment. He’s the one on the journey. He knows that he’s going and so the goodbye really is for Michael to release him back into the world.
It was a really interesting day, but I really like how it plays out and I like how it fits. Jim is so so moving in that scene, and it’s a really unusual death scene, you know? I’m quite proud. I think I’m quite proud of that scene because it’s so unconventional. It was kind of like an interesting dance on the day-of to work out how to play it.
I bet. Speaking of your director, Michael Showalter—he’s had a successful acting career, in addition to his work as a writer and director. In what ways is it different to work with a director that has extensive on-screen experience?
He understands what it is like because he’s an actor. He gets how acting works. He doesn’t ever want you to say a line that doesn’t feel authentic. He would say he wants you to find the way that feels best for you. He’s a true collaborator in that he’s totally in charge and in control of the moment. He wants to hear people’s ideas and workshop things and find the best way around and he wants you to try stuff out. There’s loads of improv in the film. He’s constantly shouting out ‘Oh, it’s like comedy bits’ from the side like sometimes totally ridiculous bits. He’ll even be like, ‘I know, this is ridiculous, but indulge me and just give it a try’.
I think we felt free enough to do that as well. Him being an actor himself and doing comedy and improv sets up a really good environment. I’ve never worked with anyone as collaborative as him and whose willing to hear you out. He’s also really practical, he’s not sentimental and he’s not indulgent. This film really could have been that and he had a real handle on the reins of making sure that we weren’t just always in tears and that it was keeping lightness of touch and playfulness between us all. He was great.
“It was like there was some kind of weird privileged beauty in getting to portray that part of of his history that I felt very protected and I felt very honored. I felt very honored to be telling that story about him all the time. That was always something that if I had a moment of wavering self-belief, I would just think about the honor of getting to do it and just try to do my do my best.”
I loved how the scenes under the Christmas tree were filmed. It raised all kinds of nostalgia. Was that fun to film, given that the angles are quite different to the perspective our audience is usually given?
They were really fun to do. They were really sweet. They were strangely emotional, I think because it’s when Kit is giving the speech about what he would like his Christmas’ to be as he grows old with someone else like that. That’s a time where we as actors knew the outcome. But yet, we’re playing the present moment, which is hope. There was, I suppose, in that moment more than ever a real bit of sweetness to it, because we know that Michael and Kit didn’t get what they wanted. The tree moments were quiet. They were fun, but they were quite tender. I couldn’t even see the camera at all! I could just see the tree and Jim and Jim’s space. So it did feel like it’s already intimate.
The Smurfs make a funny cameo in the film. As Benjamin yourself, how would you personally react to a room like Michael’s bedroom?
I think pretty similarly! I’d probably laugh a bit more. I’d want to burst out laughing because that’d break the tension, but you can’t do that. I’d just be like, ‘Fuck, like, what is this?’ I’d be so intrigued and amazed and kind of love it at the same time. I don’t know that it would freak me out. I’d wonder ‘how have you kept this a secret?’
Catch Spoiler Alert in cinemas in the United States on December 9th. Watch the trailer below.