2014 Best Student Actor Nominee Interview: Ben Salus as Tom Whitmore in Boston University CFA's "The Whitmores"

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews. 

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

Photo by Jun Tsuboike

Photo by Jun Tsuboike

Ben Salus joins us from London, where he is studying in the Classical Acting Diploma program at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art ("LAMDA").  As a junior in the Boston University College of Fine Arts' BFA in Theatre Arts program, Ben shone as the charismatic and manipulative Tom Whitmores in the original play by Ben Ducoff, The Whitmores, at Boston University.  In his interview, Ben describes the process for rehearsing a new play, the rigorous but fulfilling theatre program at Boston University, and some of his favorite productions in 2014. We wouldn't mind sharing a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats with Ben!

Tell us about yourself, Ben.

So, I’m originally from Philadelphia, and I’m currently in my third year at Boston University pursuing my BFA in Theatre Arts. Right now, I’m in London studying Classical Acting at LAMDA, but I’ll be back in Boston for all of my senior year. My Mom and Dad support me so much in pursuing theatre (they knew nothing about it when I into college), and so does my sister, who graduated with a BS in Bioengineering. My friends from high school keep me sane and they’ve shaped my sense of humor and sense of joy. I spend most of my free time listening to Kanye West, Mozart, or Dave Matthews. I’m a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan and could talk an ear off about random sports history. You may have seen me either in a BU production or on Boston Harbor, as I was a tour guide in the summer of 2013 for Codzilla. I really like gummy bears and, to top it all off, I drive a 1994 gray/purple Toyota Camry.

What is your professional training?  What does the program at BU College of Fine Arts ("CFA") involve?  What are you doing now in the program?

Apart from BU, I’ve trained at the National High School Institute at Northwestern University the summer before my senior year in high school. Also, I’m completing the semester-long Classical Acting Diploma at LAMDA. Regionally, I’ve been in two shows, Our Class with the Boston Center for American Performance (BCAP), and Les Misérables with Cortland Repertory Theatre in New York.

In the Theatre Arts track at BU, I not only have the opportunity to study Acting, but I’ve also taken courses in Directing, Musical Theatre, Playwriting, and many other facets of the theatrical art. Right now, I’m gearing up for a packed senior year. First, I will be in STAMP (Senior Theatre Arts Major Productions) in which the Theatre Arts BFA class of 2016 will produce a full season of theatre, which will be coming in April/May of 2016. Also, I’ll be prepping for our showcase in New York City in March. In the meantime, I’ll be in shows at BU, and hopefully working a theatre internship this summer in either Chicago or New York City as part of my graduation requirement.

I really have to thank the School of Theatre for pushing me to become the artist I am today and who I look to be in the future. My training there has really transformed me as an individual and it is preparing me to succeed in any field of the theatre that I wish to pursue. It’s one of the best programs in the country and I’m blessed to be a part of it.

Who are The Whitmores?  Describe Tom, your character, for us.

The Whitmores are a middle-aged married couple living in a suburb of Cleveland who simply want things to go their way and go to any means necessary to get them. Tom and Mary love each other deeply, and they are very zany and fun, but I would never want to be on their bad side as they both have a short fuse when things don’t go according to plan. I think that’s all I can say without spoiling the play.

Tom Whitmore is a guy who really loves power. In dealing with people, he has an awareness of status, race, and manners, and he allows the three to flow masterfully in order for him to get what he wants. He is a riff off of any suburban man in this day and age, really. He’s got a rooted traditionalism in the sense that he’s a host and a fun loving partier/conversationalist, and, in that, comes his patriarchal power and force.

Photo by Kal ZabarskY

Photo by Kal ZabarskY

What was the process like for rehearsing a new play?  What were the challenges?  What were the benefits?

It was really cool being a part of a new play development as an actor, especially a play like this where I was in love with both the content and the style of writing.

One of the challenges was that, because it’s a new play, there was no existing definition of what it was. So, every day I had to come in and give 100% or else the production would take a step back, and it was evident when I was “off my game.” There wasn’t really time to take it easy in this process, which left me inextricably exhausted. It took a lot of effort on all of our parts to circumnavigate the process. Patience is a virtue, and really discovered that during this process.

The benefits were huge, so get ready:

I can’t begin to describe how lucky I was to be in the room with this team. Ben Ducoff (playwright) and Michael Hammond (director) really gave me free reign to explore what Tom was and wasn’t through the script. Ben was really open to have a dialogue about the characters and some of the lines. Every so often I would go off of a line, Ben and Michael would hear it out and we’d have a talk about even the smallest choices of words. Ben was really open to collaborate and share his character with me, ultimately letting it build into this monster that I didn’t even realize I had inside of me. Ben’s writing is supreme and I really loved being a vehicle for the words of someone who was in the room.

Getting to play alongside Lucy (as Mary Whitmore) was really a gift. We had some incredible chemistry, and when we were really cookin’, we operated on another level. We pushed each other every day and kept pushing each other’s buttons to get the best work from the other. The play was able to take some pretty huge jumps merely because the entire cast came in ready to explore and trusted each other to play.

New plays are interesting because the story is being cultivated in the room. Ben’s, Michael’s, and my ideas about the story that we were telling are all linked and similar, but definitely different. I really got to find this character and what he was about. I hate to say it like this, but I genuinely think everyone who plays Tom Whitmore will be playing a bit of Ben Salus at the same time. Developing a character for a new play requires putting your fingerprint on the character, more so than any other role. Finding my own way to tell my side of this story, that still agreed with Ben Ducoff’s and Michael Hammond’s, was the coolest experience I’ve had in theatre to date.

What are your biggest challenges as an actor?

Line memorizing. Oh my god. I get distracted very easily, so memorizing lines can get very tedious for me. Past that, I put a lot of attention into not relying on charisma or showmanship to get me through a scene, so that I have to really play from within the text.

What is the best production that you saw in 2014?  What is the best production that you have ever seen?  Why?

Thinking back, there were so many productions that blew me away this year. I fell in love with Finding Neverland at the American Repertory Theatre. I think Diane Paulus is a genius and helmed a gorgeous production that story onto the stage. Also, The Magic Flute presented by the Isango Ensemble at ArtsEmerson was one of the heartiest shows I have ever seen. I love Mozart, having just taken a class on his work, and I really was in awe of their storytelling and passion for the community that was presented on stage. In London, I got a chance to see City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse, and it might be the best production I’ve ever seen. Seeing Hadley Fraser live was one of my favorite theatergoing experiences because he exuded so much ease and really embodied his role.

Waiting for Godot at the Cort Theatre starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart is probably the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on stage. Getting to watch two friends act on a stage together in my favorite play put me in awe. It was so human and so beautiful. The connection they had on stage transcended the script and the performance as a whole and was an exhibition of humanity, which is the root of theatre. It still sends shivers down my spine to think of the final scene between Vladimir and Estragon as they say good-bye to each other. Simply beautiful.

Why do you think that it is important to support university productions and students?  How do you think that the Greater Boston community can do a better job supporting these productions and students?

I’m estatic that ArtsImpulse is including us students in the fray. As a 21 year-old kid that hasn’t experienced that much exposure into the theatre community, it was really cool to see my name on the same webpage as Jeremy Jordan, Kate Burton, and Diane Paulus, among others. That definitely gave me a huge sense of accomplishment as a nominee. That support alone is incredible.

It’s essential that university productions be looked at in the theatre scene because it’s part of the city’s theatrical identity. The idea that we have the space to examine works without pressure of commercial interest is wonderful. In that, it allows us to do our work in the public without fear of criticism, but with hope of praise.

Boston is a fantastic city for theatre, especially in the collegiate circuit. The support from the community is already there and is growing, but I would love to see some more of the professional actors in the area check out our work.

What is the best part about studying in London?  What do you miss about Boston?

Seeing the theatre in London is my favorite part about studying here. The theatrical risks they can take here, because of the government-subsidized theatre, allows for really inventive and beautiful stories to be told on stage. In my classes, I really like the culture behind Acting. They make everything about the work and less about you. It’s very business-oriented without seeming too distant from being personal. Also, professors here are really blunt about everything, which is hilariously intimidating.

I definitely don’t miss the snow or the T, that’s for sure. I miss seeing the familiar smiles of my friends in the halls of the College of Fine Arts and my professors immensely. I miss looking at the John Hancock Tower a lot. I also hope the Starbucks across from CFA misses me as much as I miss it. Oh, and I miss the burritos from the Whole Foods by Symphony Hall. That was my go-to during the run of the show and my secret get-off-campus-and-get-lunch-away-from-everything place.

What is one role that you want to play?  What is one role that you probably would never play, but you would still want it?

I really want to play Sweeney Todd one day. A few dream roles that are a little nearer in the future are Hamlet, Ken in Red by John Logan, and Mitch in Tuesdays With Morrie.

I wouldn’t immediately cast myself as Emile de Becque is South Pacific, but I would love to sing that track one day.

What is your favorite breakfast cereal? Sell it to us.

Honestly, give me some Frosted Mini-Wheats and I’m set for anything. The idea of health and sweetness don’t usually coincide, but the ratio between wheat and frost is sublime. And please, don’t get me started on when the sugary coating melts into the bowl of milk, leaving someone with a mouthful of sweet, sweet victory.

What are your post-graduation plans?  Do you want to stay in Boston?

My plan is to work as an actor and director, wherever that may take me. Hopefully, I can settle down at some point and start a family. As long as I’m doing material that stimulates my own artistry, I’m down for (almost) anything. Even though beggars can’t be choosers, I would love to stay in Boston if the right opportunity arose, but I’m really intrigued by the opportunities Chicago, NYC, and LA might have for me, too.

What is one thing that you want to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Ben Ducoff is a godsend. Watch for The Whitmores to go somewhere. It deserves to.

And thanks, ArtsImpulse, for the nomination and this interview!