People ask me a lot of questions about it and I sometimes have to make up answers because, to be honest, I don't remember.
Aaron Samuels Jonathan Bennett comes up for air in Steven C. Miller’s high concept Submerged. Think Panic Room, underwater, with a home invasion angle. In it, Bennett plays Matt, a bodyguard and former Army Ranger tasked with babysitting a despised businessman’s daughter Jessie (Talulah Riley). It appears Matt isn’t very good at his job: In the opening scene, we find him regaining consciousness inside a souped up limo, having driven Jessie and her friends off a bridge during a high-speed chase. Putting their posh ride to a screeching halt is a gang of kidnappers who then dive in to finish what they started. It seems lucky—no doubt strange—to have diving gear handy for moments just like this. Then again, stranger things have happened. Ask Bennett.
Submerged hits selected theaters—also available on VOD—November 27.
Steven C. Miller seems to have great affinity for films with foolproof loglines—the high concept. Submerged, certainly, but this is the same guy who made a movie about a killer Santa Claus [2012's Silent Night]. Are you a big fan of the high concept yourself?
I fucking hate high concept movies. I prefer the really shitty ones. [Laughs] No—of course I love high concept movies! I think they’re great. Steven does such a great job at taking the high concept and bringing truths to it. A lot of high concept films are too far-fetched. Submerged could actually happen to you. I think a lot of people get scared driving over high bridges and stuff like that—I know I do. It still freaks me out going over the George Washington Bridge or anything like that.
I can see how this movie might incite claustrophobia, which I don’t have, or thalassophobia, which I most certainly do have. Do you have any phobias you’d care to talk about?
Snakes. I already told my agents and managers: “I don’t care if it’s with Steven Spielberg for the biggest movie ever. I won’t do movies with snakes!” I can’t stand them. It’s my biggest fear.
You could combine that with a myriad of other phobias and star in Snakes on a Plane 2.
No Snakes on a Plane. There will be no snakes on planes.
So you’re also one of the executive producers on Submerged. How did this one come to you?
My managers at Primary Wave brought the script to me, saying it would be perfect for me and we should put it together. It was really fun to executive produce something like this. We went after really good actors. I think everyone in this movie is so good, and there was no stunt casting involved or anything like that. It’s just quality actors giving quality performances.
Matt is a bodyguard, an ex-Army Ranger. Does your experience working on something like Memorial Day give you a leg-up in this kind of situation?
That’s the greatest part. Shooting on Memorial Day, I got to go and train with the actual Army Rangers over in Minnesota. Living with them, getting to know how they work and what they’re about—I was diving into the character really deep. Doing Memorial Day made this job a lot easier.
You knew how to shoot a gun then. Did you also know how to ride a motorcycle?
I’m not really good at riding motorcycles. [Laughs] That was a stunt guy. Here’s something funny: I carried around a gun so much in this movie—Matt Anderson, our stunt coordinator, was making sure I was holding the gun just right—that when I went to shoot a similar gun for the first time at a firing range months later, I literally hit the bullseye six times in a row. The guy next to me said, “Wow, you’re really good for a beginner.” I don’t normally shoot guns. I pretend to in movies.
It seems to me that you’ve veered into a lot of darker material over the years.
Hmm. I mean, I like doing everything. [Submerged] is my first foray into becoming an action star, if you will. Very few actors do as many random stuff as I do. I think it’s so funny to go from doing Dancing with the Stars to doing an action film, you know? It’s crazy.
Well, I was going to bring that up as well. You’re also on Awkward. right now.
I’m on Awkward. where I play this eccentric, over-the-top character. I have this action movie. I have two shows on the Food Network where I make jokes about cakes. It’s very weird.
What excites you most these days? Is there a primary passion?
What really gets me going is never being bored. Every day, it’s a different set, a different atmosphere, and a different environment. Every day it’s: What are we doing today?
It’s been ten years since Mean Girls. Is there any running away from Aaron Samuels?
There’s no running away from Aaron Samuels. When you’re Aaron Samuels, you’ll always be Aaron Samuels. People ask me a lot of questions about it and I sometimes have to make up answers because, to be honest, I don’t remember. I mean, tell me details about what you were doing ten years ago. How do you remember this stuff? It’s definitely fun and definitely flattering to be a part of pop culture, and I would never change it for the world. That’s what makes Submerged so interesting because it’s like, “Oh man, he’s not Aaron Samuels anymore.” You’re seeing me in a completely different light here. This is as far away from Aaron Samuels as it gets.
When a movie and a character becomes so much a part of the pop culture canon like you’re saying, that’s a double-edged sword. How do you reconcile the actor who’s hungry for a role like that with someone who maybe wants to sever that strong association moving forward?
I call it the Zack Morris syndrome. Zack will always be Zack from Saved by the Bell. That’s just how it is. Dawson will always be Dawson on Dawson’s Creek. But as time goes on and you see them do new things, you start to really appreciate and respect them as actors in a different light. All of a sudden, they’re doing stuff you weren’t expecting them to do or seen them do before.
What kind of roles were you being offered when Mean Girls hit its high note?
I don’t remember to be honest. I have no idea. No, seriously, I don’t remember. [Laughs]
Mean Girls came out in 2004, the same year that Facebook launched. Twitter didn’t start up until 2006. Since you’ve been vocal about having been bullied yourself, both past and present, what are your feelings when it comes to social media? Is it a necessary evil?
The amount of cyberbullying in general is absolutely disgusting. It’s a bunch of cowards with no lives sitting behind their computer screens hurting people. I think the big problem is that it’s so easy to send a Tweet or a post and hurt someone on social media without really interacting with that person. When I was in high school, we didn’t have social media, so people had to say it to someone’s face. You would see how it hurt that person, which is where you develop empathy. With social media now, there’s no empathy. A lot of teenagers nowadays aren’t taught empathy.
I didn’t have social media in high school either and now, if you wind up switching schools due to bullying, if it gets to that, social media and cyberbullying follows you everywhere you go.
Yeah. Yeah, I don’t let it bug me. I have more important things to do with my day than worry about what someone’s saying about me on Twitter. It’s like, “Right. Sure. Great.”
If we could take this way, way back, I’m so intrigued whenever people get discovered on the street—on a train in your case. How did that all go down?
I was on a train and an agent from one of the big agencies in New York saw me going through headshots. He was like, “You have a really cool look. Here’s my card. I would love to have you come in and read for us.” I didn’t know what an agent did, but I knew I needed one. So I call the guy, go in, read for him, read again for him and his colleagues, and he signed me to his agency. I started going out on auditions and a couple weeks later booked my first gig.
The train, though—weird human exchange.
Of course it’s weird! But, you know… Of course it’s weird. [Laughs]
How has your perception of the industry changed since you first started out?
Oh man. The industry that I walked into years ago is a different industry than what it is now. Back in the day, you’d walk into a room and get the job if you’re good. Now, so many stupid factors come into play when hiring people, like social media. It’s such a different world. I don’t think if I started acting now, in 2015, I would be successful. I don’t know how actors out there do it now.
I interviewed this actress a while back and she told me how some producer or whatever told her they couldn’t hire her because she only has this amount of followers. I couldn’t believe it.
It’s a real thing that happens! I know because I’ve been on the other side of casting listening in. Actors would go nuts if they knew how they were being talked about nowadays. You literally have a headshot with the back of it listing the numbers of your Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook followers. If it comes down to two actors, who do you think will get the job 90% of the time?
What’s the most difficult thing for an actor when it comes to their craft? I’m talking about things like maybe getting too attached to roles or scripts that you’re competing for, or all of that unemployed downtime you have to fill between projects.
The hardest part of my job is the inconsistency of employment. I learned from my first acting teacher a long, long time ago that’s helped tremendously: You have to be okay and accept living in the unknown. It’s horrible. It’s the most competitive job on the planet. You have to really love what you do. You have to really love going into rooms, meeting people and auditioning, with the great possibility of being rejected. You have to really love it and want it or you’ll never make it. I think the reason I’ve been so lucky enough to be successful is because, since I was a six-year-old boy, there was no doubt in my mind what I wanted to do for a living. Never. Not once.
I’m going to keep this vague: Looking back at everything you’ve done, what’s that one thing you’d never ever do again and one thing you’d love to do all over again?
There isn’t really anything I wouldn’t do all over again because every single project brings with it this awesome experience. I learn something about myself, something about myself as an actor or about performing, in everything I do. It could be a little project with no money or a big one with tons of money. You learn different skills on each one. But I probably wouldn’t go back on Dancing with the Stars again. That’s something I wouldn’t do because it was so exhausting. I’m happy I did it once, but I think once is enough for everyone. And I would definitely say I would love to do another army film. The fact that you can play dress-up and play army with a whole lot of expensive toys is, for me as a giant kid, the most fun in the world.
What was the big takeaway from Submerged?
Learning to act without speaking because… I’m underwater for most of it. [Laughs] So that was definitely something I learned from this. Also, I didn’t have a lot of lines in the car.
So it was more descriptions than dialogue in the script.
I don’t know how comfortable you are talking about this, but what is it like to work with co-stars and friends, and then to see their mishaps or personal matters splashed across the tabloids? It’s certainly happened to you before. It must be a weird feeling.
It all goes back to the bullying. People are always going to talk shit. You have to let it roll off your back and not take any of it personally. That’s just how people are, unfortunately.