A lot of the time, you don’t get the feedback that might be very valuable and you won’t know exactly what got you the part.
From disrobing encounters to endless family strife, Tyler Perry’s eight-part Too Close to Home is a soap-y enterprise with intertwining stories and over-the-stop flourishes. Far grimier than your traditional soap fantasies, the show is entirely shot at Perry’s own film studio in Atalanta, Georgia.
It’s a tale of two houses: the White House and the Dirty House. Anna (Danielle Savre)—a perennially woeful intern who managed to build up a life on Capitol Hill by fooling everyone into thinking she’s the scion of a wealthy family—gets caught up in a Monica Lewinsky-style scandal with the President of the United States. When POTUS suffers a heart attack during one of their late-night rendezvous, the thundering don’t-fuck-with-me First Lady (Heather Locklear) sets out to destroy Anna who’s now “forever known as the dumb hick who sucked off the president.” In truth, Anna comes from a dirt-poor clan in the backwoods of Alabama, so cue her running back to the dowdy trailer park she so eagerly left behind. Consider Anna’s controlling mother Joelene (Trisha Rae Stahl), overburdened sister Bonnie (Kelly Sullivan), drug-addled sister Shelby (Brooke Anne Smith), high school love Brody (Brock O’Hurn), and resident troublemaker J.B. (Brad Benedict)—it’s a riot in both tone and style. It all feels very Tyler Perry and rightfully teeters on the absurd.
If you’re not yet familiar with newcomer Benedict, he’s the antithesis of the unpalatable guy on Perry’s new series. In the tradition of profiling up-and-coming talent who have their own stories to tell, this is an intimidate excavation of the Southerner’s past and present, and unknowable future.
Too Close To Home airs Mondays at 9 PM ET/PT on TLC.
You’re back in Atlanta to begin shooting season two of Too Close to Home. How does it feel?
Oh man, it’s awesome. We had our first day yesterday. I definitely had the chance to explore Midtown, which is where I’m staying and my sister has a condo here. I’m feeling like I’ll have to become bicoastal at some point. There are so many restaurants and the culture is cool. This past Sunday, an actor from a different Tyler Perry show took me and my co-star Brock O’Hurn biking through Piedmont Park where they’re building this thing called the BeltLine. They basically paved over an old train track for new stops with restaurants on it and it goes through the city. It’s really neat! So I’m feeling like I need a place here in Atlanta to be closer to my family and to work.
That would probably balance you out, too. L.A. is sometimes too much.
Definitely. The East and West Coasts certainly have different vibes. The one thing I would love to have here is some sort of body of water, though. Other than that, it seems to have everything. I grew up here in the South in the suburbs of Atalanta, so it definitely feels like I’m coming home. It’s a nice little getaway from the busy L.A. scene, although it’s pretty busy in Atlanta nowadays. The film and TV scene is just blowing up here. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s even more active compared to how New York is these days. There are a lot of work opportunities here in Georgia.
How much of J.B.’s story arc are you privy to right now for the second season?
Had we met up last week, I would’ve known nothing. I’ve since received all eight scripts for season two. I had the chance to read six of them and just got the last two. I’m definitely familiar with everything, but still sort of processing it. I shot stuff from the first episode yesterday, so we’re just getting back into the swing of it. Everything will ramp up next season. We get a little bit more of the backstory on why these characters are the way they are and certain secrets will be revealed that are set up in the current season. With the new episodes being shot, we’re starting to get some of those payoffs. My character is definitely getting himself into deeper trouble, I’d say. J.B.’s a bad boy. He makes some bad decisions and that certainly doesn’t change this go-around.
With television, it’s not always the case that actors know the destination of their characters from day one. What are some advantages to knowing that from the get-go?
I think it allows you to develop an even more finite arc for the character because you know where you’re starting and ending up. For me, it affords you the opportunity to make sure that the character ends up in a different place from where they started, with learned lessons. It’s more like shooting feature films in that respect. We also shoot out of order because we shoot everything really fast. We shot all eight episodes of season one in a couple weeks and I think that’s allowed because Tyler Perry has bought and started to build out his own studio. Everything is controlled and outside interferences are totally mitigated. For example, we can shoot everything inside May Sally’s Diner in one day from all the different episodes instead of spending time moving from one location to the next. It’s so much fun to see it all come together because you’re not shooting in sequence. With that said, it’s more of a challenge in your preparation to make sure that you know exactly where you were in every moment. When I prepare for scenes, I keep a log of where I am—my state of mind—in every moment so I can jump right in there and be ready to bring it.
Thanks for that segue. I do want to talk about Tyler Perry’s—I want to call it a compound.
[Laughs] I think that’s a very appropriate word.
This was once a military base?
Well, that’s one of the coolest things. Most studio lots that I’ve been on are in Los Angeles. They’re expansive and spectacular in and of themselves, but here, I think Tyler Perry has about 350 acres of land that he bought. It was the Fort McPherson [military base]. Interestingly, my grandfather was a two-star general who was stationed there. I’m shooting right near where my grandfather used to live and work, and where my uncle used to live in the area. It’s pretty neat.
Most studios don’t have lakes or rivers. They don’t have hills and grasslands and forests. Pretty much everything you can imagine is all in this one spot. Essentially, any movie that Tyler dreams up can be created and shot here. I think they’re already building a water tank. Right now, there’s a 100-foot yacht on the lot. They dug out the ground and put water in there to host it for a feature film. It really is a compound! [Laughs] He can literally do anything he wants to do, keep his budgets more manageable, and cut the shooting time down as well. We shot the first season in June and since I’ve been back on the lot, I’ve seen them putting up a new neighborhood with three big houses set up. There’s constant work being done. I’m pretty sure that every time we come back it will be built up more and more. I’m just eager to see what it all turns into.
In working with him and in your general observation of him, what’s Tyler Perry like as a person? I’ve been seeing ads for Boo! A Madea Halloween absolutely everywhere in L.A.
First of all, I was at the Boo! premiere and it’s hysterical. It’s the number one movie in the country, even beating out Tom Cruise and Jack Reacher 2. We all exchanged big high-fives with Tyler yesterday for that. He was really stoked about it, as he should be. But yeah, his personality is really interesting. He’s on set directing and running the show, so he’s pretty serious. He’ll crack a joke here and there. Already, for this second go-around, I’ve noticed him being a little bit more relaxed. We’ve all done this before now and formed personal relationships. I’ve used this quote before: “He’s a general out there, but not a dictator.” Everybody wants to work hard for him. The set is just the picture perfect version of teamwork. You can see that he’s always thinking and that’s cool.
A lot of people made a note of the fact that he’s wearing multiple hats on this show.
We don’t shoot the typical scene where you do it all the way through in a master shot and come in to get the coverage. Tyler is editing it in his head as we go along. We’ll get a quarter of the way through a scene, hold the camera, and reposition the angle. Instead of wasting hours upon hours shooting takes upon takes, he sees what he needs for the edit and is good to move on. With that said, we’re moving quickly, but he’s super nurturing and there for you. He has a lot of newer actors on this show, including myself. This is my first series as a regular. He’ll tell you, “Look—if you see something, tell me. If you don’t think we have it, we can do another take, but you can trust me. I’m going to make sure that you look good. We’re going to do this right.” You feel like you’re in good hands, not to mention that he’s 6’5, so you immediately feel safe around him. He’s kind.
Have you ever had the opportunity to ask a filmmaker or a casting director, “Why did you choose me for this role?” If I was an actor, I think I would be endlessly curious about that.
Man… I wish I had the luxury of doing that. It’s very rare that I run into the casting director after booking a job, right away at least. A lot of the time, you don’t get the feedback that might be very valuable and you won’t know exactly what got you the part. All you know is that you got it and you try to do the best you can when you’re on set. As an actor, you’re trying to improve, especially during the auditioning process because that’s a beast. Auditioning isn’t really the same thing as acting on set where you have props, where you’re on location interacting with the environment, and where you can work with other actors. You’re faking that in auditions, whereas you fall into it naturally on sets, and that’s a challenging process. Any time you have the opportunity to get feedback, get it. It was cool with Tyler because he was the one who watched our [audition] self-tapes for the show and he was able to tell us what he saw in all of us. He would say, “I was looking for truths. I wanted to see truth in every moment of the scene. It just felt right.”
So you’re originally from Norcross. I actually know nothing about the place.
I lived in the same house until I left for college, and after college, I went out to Los Angeles. Norcross is about 20 miles outside of Atlanta. It’s not a super small town. There were several thousand kids at my high school. It was definitely not city-living. It wasn’t rural-living, either.
I’m trying to imagine what you might’ve been like as a kid.
I was a handful for my parents, I can tell you that. [Laughs] Naughty. I remember my mom telling me stories about how I would drink up puddle water like a dog or eat wild mushrooms and end up in the hospital to get my stomach pumped. We had a big creek in my backyard so I’d sometimes spend hours digging Georgia clay or catching crayfish. I was definitely a Southern boy growing up. A blessing that kept me out of trouble was my dad introducing me to tennis at a young age. I spent several hours a day training once I got to the age of 11 or 12, so that was my big after-school extracurricular. I continued to play at the University of Georgia. I feel like I was focused on tennis and schoolwork when a lot of my friends in high school started getting into some pretty gnarly mischiefs. I got good grades and ended up studying finance. I had a big job opportunity at the Lehman Brothers right out of college. I graduated early and went out to L.A. to kind of play around in show business for six months or so before I had to go off to Wall Street and start training there. But I just couldn’t get myself to leave. That was about eight years ago and now I’m on a show!
What was your distant childhood fantasy? Was pro tennis your first life pursuit?
I think being in the movies was always a fantasy. But the number one thing I can remember wanting to become was a veterinarian. I’ve always been a huge animal lover. As early as kindergarten when I was 6 or 7, my mom checked me out of school on some days so I could go to the vet’s office and shadow surgeries. I had the mask on, standing two feet away from dogs with leg amputations and all sorts of other crazy stuff. So that was the dream for quite some time. As I got older, I had other interests come. But as a child, that’s definitely where I saw myself going.
Tell me about your first professional gig as an actor.
The first time I got lines and actually spoke was when I did background work. I had just rolled into town to learn how sets work and things like that. The first-ever set I was on was for a movie called Fired Up! in 2008. I wasn’t even really supposed to be there. I got wind that they were shooting this movie and I might be able to get a SAG voucher. You need three SAG vouchers to get into the union and I’d been in L.A. for two months at that point. So I showed up to set curious and sat in the holding area with the other extras. They were calling non-union extras to set and one of the production guys stopped me, like, “How tall are you? What are you doing for the next four weeks?” The next thing you know, he was asking me to be the stand-in for the lead actor. He put me on a mark—I didn’t know what a mark was. I was completely green and right in the middle of it. That was my first education. So I did that for seven days and got my three SAG vouchers, now eligible to become a union actor. Then I slept in, missed the alarm, showed up late, and got fired. I got a quick taste of show business with that. [Laughs] But I was able to get into the guild.
Weren’t you working on a tennis movie at one point? Is that still in development?
Absolutely! I have a writing and creative partner named Jeremy Mitchell. We created a web series together that’s set in the world of competitive CrossFit, which is something we just finished post on and shopping around right now. That was actually a placeholder project for the tennis movie script we have called The Tour. I played collegiate tennis and Jeremy played real tennis, so it was definitely a big passion in both of our lives. He wrote the script and we developed it together. We’re going to start pushing that project again, now that we’ve both learned a lot and produced some other projects on our own that we can sort of use to show investors and producers. I’m really excited about it and that will get made eventually. It’s just a matter of when the right time is.
You had a shark’s tooth around your neck at our shoot, which now I know has deeper meaning. Your nickname is “Shark.” Who gave that to you and under what circumstances?
First of all, my dad had a brother who was 20 years younger than all of the other siblings and he had this crazy passion for snakes. He wanted to be called “Uncle Snake” with his nieces and nephews. It never caught on, but when I heard the story, I thought it was awesome. Now cut to about ten years ago when my first nephew was born and my brother-in-law is also named Brad. We didn’t want that to be confusing and I liked the whole “Uncle Snake” thing. I have a huge passion for sharks, for their conservation, and all of those things combined. So we were at the beach on this big family vacation and it just came up at the dinner table. I wanted to be “Uncle Shark” because I took my nephews fishing and we caught these little sharks off the beach. It started out as a bit of a joke. The next thing you know, I’d come back and there’s another nephew and another nephew. Now there are four boys and my family calls me “Shark,” “Sharkie,” or “Uncle Shark.” It hasn’t really gone outside the family, but I have a very big family and that’s who I’ve become.
I often say that the adorable things will get you.
That whole thing increased my curiosity about the species and I’m studying more and more about how important they are to the food chain and to the ecosystem and just how much they’re being slaughtered off. Ultimately, I want to get more involved with their conservation and creating awareness. I have the shark’s tooth necklace and that’s sort of my thing. I think I have around forty different sharks in my apartment now. I was counting the other day and it’s getting a little weird.
What are you going to name your first boat?
My first boat?! Oh my lord. That’s a great question. I can’t come up with anything on the spot. I’ll panic. I want it to be the perfect name. I’ll have to start thinking on that one because I don’t think it’ll be long… I have a two-year plan to figure out how to be living in Marina del Rey, on a boat.
Brad played tennis. Brad sure is outdoorsy. Brad maybe wants to buy a boat—this is becoming bullet points. Research often feels like I’ve been on too many dating websites.
[Laughs] You’ve definitely been reading up, man.
What’s the most breathtaking thing you’ve ever seen?
There’s so many. I hate answering these types of questions. But one of my top ten days was on the Big Island in Hawaii. We had a local guide who took me and a friend hiking to the volcano. Most tour groups don’t go across the lava field, but he took us on this special route. We were hiking along the coast of the Big Island and there were probably 30, 40 huge waves crashing into the cliff walls. It was beautiful as the sun was setting. Right around the time we got to the volcano, there were around ten different places where the lava was spilling over into the ocean. You could see new land being formed. There was something really special about that moment with nature—a total immersion in nature. It’s definitely something that I’ll never forget and I carry it with me.
I knew you didn’t like those “number one” questions. But I don’t feel bad about asking that.
Maybe I’m just a bad decision-maker. I like that question. It’s nice to reflect on the adventures I’ve had now. It’s definitely something I can firmly say was one of the top ten days of my life.
You do seem very passionate about a number of things that don’t necessarily coalesce into this one giant thing. Don’t you also want to become a country music star?
I wouldn’t say a country music star… I would say I want to play a country music show and sing in front of people on a stage. I think it would be amazing to travel around the world, but now it’s become more about conquering fear. I can go on set and act and cry and yell and scream and bring it—I don’t really get nervous about that anymore. But for some reason, I’ve never been able to feel comfortable with idea of playing music in front of people. So I think, more than anything, it’s wanting to conquer the fear and see where that takes me. Some of the most fun I’m having is when I’m jamming out with my friends and writing music on my own. But as soon as someone says, “Go play this bar!” or whatever, I shy away from it. So it’s definitely a big dream. It’s a big goal.