But part of our narrative is tragedy. Part of our narrative is shame. Part of our narrative is also joy and normality.
For some lucky actors, there are moments where their careers shift into higher gear. The right parts materialize, the world takes notice, and suddenly, they’ve crossed an impossibly elusive and storied threshold. Luckier still, if after a lifetime of being marginalized for simply wanting to exist in your own body, that fortune favors the bold, after all. For Ben Aldridge, this has everything to do with coming into his own as a leading man in studio films—and coming out, portraying his own sexuality. Of course, that transformation did not happen overnight. Better late than never, they say.
An established theater actor out of London, Aldridge has up to this point been most widely recognized for his recurring role in Fleabag and a more substantial part as Thomas Wayne in HBO’s Pennyworth. The Los Angeles Times recently profiled the actor, writing that the 37-year-old is “on the cusp of stardom.” We’d have to agree, and even if there was no such evidence to back up that claim, we would simply wish it to happen because, surely, there’s some truth to the old adage that good things happen to good people. As you’ll soon find out, this is an easy guy to root for.
On the big screen, Aldridge most recently starred in Michael Showalter’s Spoiler Alert for Focus Features, portraying the late Kit Cowan, a photographer whose romantic relationship with real-life pop culture journalist Michael Ausiello (Jim Parsons) was abruptly challenged following a cancer diagnosis. Next, he will try his damndest to survive M. Night Shyamalan’s apocalyptic horror Knock at the Cabin for Universal Pictures. Aldridge and Jonathan Groff play two gay dads vacationing at a remote cabin with their daughter, when they’re all unexpectedly taken hostage.
Knock at the Cabin is in cinemas on February 3rd.
I saw your glowing profile in The Los Angeles Times. You’re “on the cusp of stardom.” It’s quite an endorsement. I did wonder, though, if it might be weird for you to read stuff like that because, as you say in that very piece, you’ve been acting professionally for 15 years.
We paid him a lot of money to write that article. [laughs] Of course, it’s a really lovely thing to read. I think I even said in that article, “My feet are firmly on the ground after doing this for 15 years.” I’ve had a lot of friends being told they were about to become movie stars, and that something would make a huge difference in their careers and then that not quite happening. You just never know how something’s gonna land. So I think it’s really gratifying to read that, but then there are no expectations. If I’m to give you a mantra, I’m very much like, “Expect nothing, except everything.” What I’ve tried to focus on, with both Knock at the Cabin and Spoiler Alert, is to think about the rewards of the creative process, rather than the potential rewards of what they do when they hit cinemas because cinemas are in a tricky place as well right now. I’m like, “Oh my god, yes. I’m doing the feature films I’ve always dreamt of doing and it feels great,” but at the same time, I don’t have expectations of what comes after that. But it’s lovely to read those words.
This is reminding me of a roundtable discussion I watched recently, where Jane Fonda was basically saying that, despite all her accomplishments and all the peaks and valleys she was made to navigate throughout her career, to this day, she never feels settled. For actors, that seems like the great equalizer—this idea that there is no threshold for success or fame or creative fulfillment that, once you cross it, you’re comfortable for the rest of your journey.
The same goes for all of us in life, right? It’s the consumer-based capitalist world we operate in: “Once I have this, then I’ll be happy. When I achieve this or when I get this apartment.” Like you said, that’s never ending. That’s a bad sum, and it doesn’t equal happiness. I think I’m really learning that right now. Not that I’ve made it like Jane Fonda has, but I’m realizing there is real value in the life of being an actor, as much as there is in being in a film with a premiere, etc.
The thing that maybe feels different in more recent years is that your narrative in the media has shifted with your coming out publicly, and with movies like Knock at the Cabin and Spoiler Alert, where you’re playing queer characters openly. It’s a celebration of your core identity. Does it feel like a new chapter? How would you characterize it?
It really does feel like a new chapter. I’m having a much more rewarding time doing this work, telling stories, and playing characters. My 20s were kind of about escaping and playing away from myself, and I would still love to do that. That’s the joy of acting. It’s creative and you can potentially play something you don’t quite understand yet. It’s something to shapeshift into or at least learn about with a lot of research. So my 20s were about proving to myself that I could play those alpha males and romantic leads and do period dramas—despite feeling quite differently on the inside—whereas my 30s have been about claiming my identity. There’s loads of stuff inside me that I want to explore, and there’s been a real joy in playing gay men. I really care about these projects because of what they could potentially do for our community, and because of what they mean to me. Understanding the interior life of gay characters has been a real gift. It’s really liberating. I’ve learned so much more about myself in the last three years. It’s a life-intensifier.
The authentic self, and the desire to present yourself to the world as such, is so fundamental.
Yeah, and I think we all went through a period of introspection during the pandemic, didn’t we? That was circular. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but then it intensified during that time. A lot of people were on social media during that time, standing up for causes that they really believed in, and coming to terms with or pitching for marginalized communities. I was doing that a bit on Instagram, and then I was like, “I haven’t claimed my community. I haven’t identified as part of that.” And it didn’t really feel like coming out to me. It felt like me saying, “This is who I am.” I think the characters I played earlier on in acting made me concerned because that made people think I was something that I’m not. Fleabag and the BBC shows I was on kind of aligned me with this thing that made me go, “That doesn’t feel truthful. I just wanna be really clear about who I am.” It felt like a calculated risk—it could impact my career. I’d always been led to believe that it could have a negative on my career. So I pushed that button on Instagram thinking, “Well, if this is a negative thing and people don’t wanna work with me because I’m gay, I don’t wanna work with them either. If it lessens my opportunities, then that’s fine.” Like you said right now, it felt more important to be authentic. As a complete surprise to me, it’s changed the direction of my career and the projects that I’ve been considered to be part of to a positive. I’m really thankful.
And you’ve played queer characters prior to these two movies. You did so on stage in a play called The Lyons and you were the first-ever gay detective for UK audiences on The Long Call more recently. Does the creative work feel starkly different as well, doing it as an out man?
It does, yeah. There’s something really empowering and emboldening about it. With The Long Call, I had a husband in that, and in the first five minutes, there’s a kiss. The channel it showed on, ITV, had rarely ever shown two men kissing on the network. I think we were doing it on World Pride Day 2021, which was a year after I had done the [coming out] post on Instagram. It felt very significant, both actors being gay and with a gay director, in a room full of a mostly straight crew. There was something really emotional about it. The process of playing a character that I felt really close to, it was like I was shedding my skin the whole time. I was definitely shedding a hell of a lot of shame whilst we were making that thing. I graduated drama school when I was 22, and I didn’t come out until I was 26. I could’ve never, ever have imagined that I would be playing these parts, that I’d be playing these men. Never. The business didn’t ever look like it would be possible for me to either play them or play them as an out man. So it’s been a dream come true, but I don’t think I ever dreamt of it. It’s definitely enriched my experience and changed my life, I’d say.
You didn’t have visible gay role models doing what you wanted to do?
No, none. I think that’s what was so difficult for me when I was younger. I knew I had these feelings that I was very ashamed of. I grew up quite religiously as well. I just didn’t have any to look at and be like, “So that’s what this means.” The first time I saw two men love each other was in Brokeback Mountain, an incredible and powerful film. I really believed their love, but I think I also struggled watching it because I was experiencing some internalized homophobia. I was 17 then. Even in my 20s, early 30s, I didn’t feel that there were many actors doing it, specifically not in the UK. I feel like in America there seems to be a whole group of them— Jonathan Groff, Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer—who were kind of forging ahead with that. So strangely enough, it had been less UK actors and that’s changed now in the last three years. But I really didn’t have anyone when I was younger where I thought, “Wow, it’s working out really well for them.” Then there’s that famous statement from Rupert Everett in his autobiography where he says that coming out completely ruined his career. I was told as much in my 20s, that it would be something I should keep to myself. I’m so glad that we are here. It’s changed.
Now you’re doing the important work. You’re the role model that you once wished to have.
Me and Jim were talking about this. With Spoiler Alert, we hadn’t thought about the impact it could potentially make. But if it helps people in our community or helps change minds about our community, wow, what an incredible byproduct. It really helps to see yourself reflected back. It strengthens you. It’s emboldening. I think representation on screen has so much power to do good.
What do you think is the next thing to overcome?
As a community, we are incredibly eclectic. There could be a real diversity within the spectrum on screen, and that’s gonna take a little bit of time. So that would be the next stage and it will go in increments, I think. The wave will continue, and that’s what I would want: the full spectrum of us.
Knock at the Cabin is different from Spoiler Alert in that you and Jonathan play a gay couple, but their sexuality isn’t something to point out. We take it at face value, and I always thought that might be one of the big signs of progress. This isn’t Bros or Fire Island or The Policeman.
Yeah, their queerness is integral to the story in terms of who they are, but it’s not the focus. I think that’s absolutely something we want as a community. But we want both, right? I still wanna see specific stories about people coming out or people coming to terms with their sexuality. I think they’re really helpful. I think there’s still a place for us to be watching movies about HIV. Some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about our history is through movies like that. I think there’s still a place for it, and I say that because I know a lot of people are like, “Not another tragic gay story, please.” But part of our narrative is tragedy. Part of our narrative is shame. Part of our narrative is also joy and normality. So I think we need to cultivate a space where we are less judgmental about the content that’s being made. We need to be more accepting. I think it’s brilliant that we’ve got a mainstream horror film from M. Night Shyamalan and Universal that centers on a gay couple and it’s not about their struggle with being gay so much, but I still think the stories of that struggle can exist. I think progress is definitely being made and I hope it continues. We’re getting there.
As I’m about to ask you this, I’m suddenly very aware people must sometimes falsely assume that all gay actors know one another. Did you know Jonathan prior to working with him?
[laughs] No, I didn’t know him personally. But I was very aware of him from from the age of 21, actually. Whilst I was in my last year at drama school, I started auditioning to play his part in the transfer of Spring Awakening from Broadway to the West End. I spent a year auditioning for it and I workshopped it for a week. They had two casts, but Jonathan’s voice had taught me to sing the entire score. I didn’t end up getting that part, which was an all-time low to be honest, and I had to reveal this story to him quite early on in us doing the work [for Knock at the Cabin]. There was something nice about that. Looking is one of my favorite TV shows. I always admired what he was doing. It’s been really nice to get to know him after knowing about him for such a long time.
On Spoiler Alert, I understand you and Jim started emailing each other to get to know one another and build chemistry. What was your way into the creative process with Jonathan?
Me and Jonathan didn’t do any emailing. M. Night had a two-week rehearsal process, which is a long time for a film or TV project. To my knowledge, you don’t normally get that much rehearsal time, ever. So we really got to know each other during rehearsal, and I would say a key part of our bonding was Kristen Cui. We spent a lot of time with her together. We played Just Dance on the PlayStation with her. We went ice skating with her. There’s just something about an eight-year-old’s energy that makes you all act like an eight-year-old. Therefore, I think we had less self-consciousness. I adore her so much. It was her first film. We kind of formed this little family, which sounds quite strange because it’s not something I want to do, I don’t think, in my own life.
In discussing Knock at the Cabin, M. Night said, “It’s become important to me to work only with people that have a beautiful energy.” How much does something like that account for the attractiveness of a project for you? Is it something you’re on the lookout for as well?
Absolutely. I just wanna work with people who are, like, kind? [laughs] And that doesn’t always happen in this job. I also realize that it’s not always the easiest way to get things done, being nice. I auditioned for M. Night over Zoom and we had a really long chat. I think that long chat is about him trying to get to know the person. He’s almost checking you out to see how your brain works. I think he does only employ people who are really kind and empathetic. This script is so brutal. It’s such a wild ride. It’s a runaway train. I was intimidated, I have to say, by what I was gonna have to play and experience. So I’m really glad that he draws those kinds of people to a project and gets those people onboard. It meant that there was a real lightness around all of the very heavy, dark stuff that we were doing, creating tension in this cabin the whole time. Everyone was just so nice.
Do you have a favorite M. Night movie?
Yeah, but mine is controversial: The Village.
Ben, that’s my answer: “I know it gets so much hate, but The Village.”
[laughs] Mine is The Village and then Signs. I loved The Village so much when I was younger. I rarely rewatch films because it’s a rule I have—there are just so many films to watch—but The Village I’ve rewatched quite a few times. I love the score of it as well. I think the score is so amazing. I really didn’t get why people kicked back on it so much. It’s so good. The twist is great.
Are you at all keen on developing stories and characters of your own moving forward?
I’m looking for stuff at the moment, reading novels or whatever to maybe start thinking about that. It’s been in the press today, which is apparently all rumors, but I have been thinking about George Michael for a long time. I feel like there’s potential to do it a different way maybe. We’ve had all these biopic musicals recently that I think are really great, but he’s so complicated as a person—his sexuality, the shame he felt, and the pop icon that he became. I think he really struggled. There could be a very interesting film there. I wouldn’t mind playing him, singing and doing all of that.
There seems to be backlash about the casting on that George Michael movie.
But that apparently isn’t real—the Theo James thing isn’t real. Someone had asked him if he would wanna do it and he said yes. Then this Internet thing has taken off. Apparently, the project actually isn’t even happening yet because George Michael’s rights are tied up and the music rights are tied up somewhere else. But that’s interesting there’s been pushback. Is that because he’s straight?
That debate is an on-going one, right? My take on that is, we shouldn’t have hard and fast rules. Rules are kind of antithetical to creativity. But I also appreciate the care that’s being taken over authenticity at the moment. It’s a thing we have to be careful with. Ultimately, actors wanna be able to play everything. I wanna be able to play men, whether they’re gay or straight. I wanna be able to play men who aren’t defined by their sexuality but are interesting for who they are in their entirety. The spotlight right now is on gay or straight, and as our stories progress and move forward, I think it will become about other things. We might not be so black and white about who can play what.
Thanks for addressing Theo. I should probably stop staring at the Daily Mail so much, huh?
[laughs] He would probably be really good. But for the record, I’d throw my hat in the ring as well.