If you ever happen to find yourself in a tussle with actor Gideon Banner, know two things: He's likely to remain remarkably calm about it, and he's almost certainly going to file away the experience for future use.
"It's a writer's difficulty, and actors can be prey to it, too," admits Banner, who plays a fantastically successful young novelist in Itamar Moses' new play The Four Of Us
, at MTC's City Center Stage II through May 18. "When you're going through a time of great emotion and great difficulty, some part of your brain is thinking, 'I have to remember this.' It can be comforting, but it can also prevent you from fully engaging with what's in front of you."
That, at least, is the only real downside he's been able to find in the character of Benjamin, the precocious and preternaturally unflappable novelist who announces in the first scene of The Four Of Us
that he's received $2 million for his first novel. The recipient of this great news is his best friend David, a struggling playwright--except that the volatile David, played by Michael Esper, doesn't quite hear this as good news but as a goad to his own insecurity.
Banner recognizes the feeling--more from seeing it in others than firsthand. "If a friend has success, it can be very hard," Banner says, adding that it's not at all confined to the creative fields. "I know exists in some other professions, as well. My parents are both academics, and they're no strangers to that. Seeing a colleague with a book published to high acclaim can be difficult.
"But I've never felt that to be a problem of my own, and that parallels my character--he doesn't have that jealousy or that drive to be famous, to have that success," Banner says. "It comes on him unasked for."
Such nonchalance, of course, only enrages envy-riddled colleagues all the more. "It makes them ashamed of their won jealousy," Banner says. So much so, in fact, that they may begin to speculate that there must be a "dark side" to the friend's success--some unspoken toll, some deep secret. That's not quite the case with Benjamin, though: His calm and self-discipline is not a facade for a control freak or a martinet but a genuine temperamental advantage.
"He's so in control, but he's not obsessive-compulsive," Banner says. "So it's that much more infuriating. It's said in the play, when the two have their big blowup: 'You never got angry, you never got worked up.' And it's true; Benjamin is astonishingly even-tempered; nothing fazes him."
But lest Benjamin seem over-idealized, Banner--who first played the role in a production at San Diego's Old Globe last year--now says, "My understanding of my role has deepened. Yes, he can process things emotionally very quickly; it's an admirable quality, but now I see it as more complicated. He does have issues. He's not easy to reach, because of some withholding he does. I can relate to that in my own life: I can be somewhat emotionally distant. It's that challenge of opening up to someone else. I think that's Benjamin's flaw, in the Greek sense: He's not as open to other people who don't have his same emotional skills."
One place that Banner has learned openness was his six-year stint as one third of Blue Man Group
, the Downtown phenom that has turned performance art into a crowd-pleasing attraction.
"It's one of the best acting jobs around," Banner raves. "For one thing, it's a good living with benefits, and it's a pretty flexible schedule. It averages about six shows a week; if you want a night off to do a reading, it's fairly easy to switch in and out."
More importantly, it's strengthened his craft: "There's quite a bit of improv, and it's different people every night, so you learn how other people approach the roles. And it's a wonderful character: so innocent yet so strong. He goes into any situation and turns it on his head, without having to speak."
On a few of his Blue Man off-nights, in fact, Banner performed in one-acts by Itamar Moses, whom he's known since they went to Yale together.
"I generally played his stand-in," Banner says. "They're plays about relationships, really fantastic pieces. Someone should do a night of his one-acts."
So, wait a minute: If Banner was a stand-in for Moses in those plays, how about in The Four Of Us
? There's been a lot of speculation that the play was inspired by Moses' real-life friendship with celebrated wunderkind novelist Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated
"That would be a question for Itamar to answer," Banner says diplomatically. "Having worked on several of his plays, I see elements of him in both characters. He has had some success, and my character is an expression of his success; on the other hand he identifies somewhat with Michael's character, as well."
In creating his character, Banner says he drew mostly on his own inner life. To hear him talk, that's a pretty rich mine to draw from. He concluded with a thought on the topic we started with: the disconnect between observing life as an artist and experiencing it fully as a participant.
"I guess that's sort of the Buddhist challenge-to do both at once," Banner says. "To be in and of the world, but not to be held by it. If the Dalai Lama were here right now, I'm sure he would be correcting me."
Click here for more information on The Four of Us.