VIFF 2010: Benjamin Ratner is in show business for all the right reasons

A show-business lifer, Benjamin Ratner puts his many talents on display at the Vancouver International Film Festival

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      He’s had many good seasons, and some lean ones, too, but Benjamin Ratner has never had a year like 2010. Along with acting in films that haven’t come out yet, and writing and producing new television ventures, he is also in a whopping four features that figure prominently in the 29th edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival, running today (September 30) to October 15.

      Sadly, this is also the year in which he saw his great friend and B.C. acting colleague Babz Chula lose her long struggle with cancer, followed too soon by the deaths of veteran actor Maury Chaykin and the much younger Tracy Wright, both mainstays of the Ontario film scene. So he might still be feeling some queasiness from navigating the radical topography of his career path.

      “I’m in it for the long run,” the 45-year-old declares—a sentiment he expresses on numerous occasions and in multiple conversations with the Georgia Straight, both over the phone and in his off–Main Street home and acting studio, steps away from each other. “I think of myself as a lifer, man, like Babz, and like Jay Brazeau, who has played my father three times now.”

      They are reunited in Fathers&Sons, an improvised ensemble comedy that this Friday and Saturday (October 1 and 2) opens the fest’s Canadian Images series. It’s one of two VIFF films Ratner did with local director Carl Bessai, the other being Repeaters, a spooky thriller showing here October 9 and 14—and debuting in Toronto when the director calls to talk about Ratner’s work.

      Watch the trailer for Fathers&Sons.

      “It’s not just Ben’s acting skills I want for my movies,” says Bessai, who has worked with names like Ian McKellen (Emile) and Carrie-Anne Moss (Normal). “It’s his presence on the set. He’s always strong, and he keeps the other actors thinking on their feet. As he gets older, there’s a little more pathos, but he’s also getting funnier.”

      On top of the screen work, Ratner is increasingly busy with his second career, that of sought-after acting teacher.

      “I came to acting from standup comedy, and before that it was music,” says the diminutive, dark-haired performer, who thumped elemental bass in a 1980s ska-reggae-punk band called L. Kabong. “I had things to say and stories I wanted to tell, and I just never played well enough to do that. With standup, I started getting closer. Then, my first acting class was with Dean Regan, in 1989. I picked a monologue and waited my turn, and all this stuff started pouring out of me.”

      Like Chaykin and Chula, Ratner was born in the U.S. (in New Haven, Connecticut) and ended up in Canada, in his case as an infant. His Brooklyn-born father became a sociology professor at UBC, and his mother, from Saskatoon, was a social worker. His stockbroker brother died three years ago of a heart attack, and Ratner’s sister, adopted from Peru, was diagnosed with autism at age two.

      “I had a good childhood, aside from the usual knocks, but actors are working things out all the time. In Four Dogs and a Bone, John Patrick Shanley has this line about a mother bear with five cubs; she licks four of them clean but is too spent to take care of the last cub. And that’s the one that goes into show business.”

      The ursine theme comes up often.

      “I remember doing a play in Grade 1, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a classic. I was Baby Bear, and it was time to eat the porridge. At the rehearsal, I pretended to gag on it and spit the porridge back out—which everyone thought was hysterical. The teacher took me aside and told me I was being very rude and not to do that again. I nodded and everything, but when we did the show, I spit it out again and got the laugh again. I felt sorry for the teacher, because she just didn’t get it.

      “I’ve had lots of good teachers, but Ivana Chubbuck definitely got me started. She lived in L.A. and taught here part-time, and she asked me to take over her classes in Vancouver when she got too busy coaching Hollywood stars like Brad Pitt and Halle Berry.”

      So was teaching a case of playing it safe instead of attending the umpteenth audition?

      “It didn’t start out as a fallback,” asserts Ratner, who in more recent years was a series regular on Da Vinci’s City Hall and Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital. “I was working steadily at the beginning. I’m not suited to living out of a suitcase, anyway, but I now know that for five hours or so, every week, I’ll be completely engaged.”

      New Yorker Larry Moss, meanwhile, is a connection to the Actors Studio work of Sanford Meisner.

      “His knowledge of theatre is immense, and he taught me to use intelligence as well as instinct. I’ve been teaching for 15 years now, and most of the time I feel like a boxing coach.

      “When I was an amateur boxer, after the third beating from one guy, I asked his coach, ”˜What’s your secret?’ And he said, ”˜No secret, son—just hard work.’ Meisner said it takes 20 years. I’ve been doing it that long, and I think it takes that long to figure out what you stand for.”

      In 1997, Ratner made the inevitable move to Los Angeles, although he then got so much work in Canada that he came back three years later.

      Watch the trailer for Guido Superstar: The Rise of Guido.

      “The best part was being down there with expats like Nicholas Lea, Joel Bissonnette, and John Cassini, who’ve become enduring friends. I have a cameo in the film that John produced,” he says, referring to Guido Superstar: The Rise of Guido, with VIFF showings on October 7 and 8.

      In the case of Amazon Falls, screening here on October 5, 7, and 12, he introduced an improvisatory flair to this otherwise scripted first feature for Vancouver writer-director Katrin Bowen.

      “Ben is a godsend,” insists the English-born Bowen, chatting near the VIFF office, having just returned from screening her film in Toronto. “I mean, he has so much more experience than me, so it would have been easy for him to take over, or at least make me feel like I should defer to his wisdom. But he didn’t put out that vibe at all, ever. Plus it was fun having him play a slightly slimy director—which is so what he’s not!”

      For his own part, Ratner says the two hats can get heavy.

      “Unfortunately, being an actor can go against your skills as a director, where you have to give approval, not receive it.”

      Ratner’s screen breakthrough came with Dirty and Last Wedding, two dark comedies directed by Vancouverite Bruce Sweeney—experiences he calls “among the greatest joys I ever had as an actor”. These successes led to his own directorial debut with 2003’s self-penned Moving Malcolm, which also featured Jay Brazeau as his screen dad.

      “That movie was shot at his parents’ house,” recalls Brazeau, on the line from Saginaw, Michigan, while wending his circuitous way back from the Stratford Festival. “Ben’s actual dad was around, and that was quite touching, because Ben really is like my son. The weird son. And I’d go anywhere to work with him.”

      The veteran actor, who’ll be here for Fathers&Sons screenings, ponders what Ratner brings to the set.

      “First off, he has these great eyes. Then his approach is very serious, so it always makes me laugh. He’s so gentle, but he puts considerable energy into making you feel more free, which makes you a better actor. As far as having a career like mine, well, if he loses some hair and puts on a few pounds, he can go for my parts, no problem.”

      The most unforgiving mirror is death, and Ratner stared into that one last May when he hosted a memorial for Chula (who made a last appearance, as Brazeau’s sister and Ratner’s aunt, in Fathers&Sons) and spoke movingly on behalf of the Babz Chula Foundation, now intended to help artists find alternative health treatments. Lately, he has also been exercising a more private passion for painting—big abstracts that resemble cloudy aerial views of slightly unfamiliar planets.

      “I’ve got big feelings. And they’ve gotta go somewhere. This compulsion to meld the physical, emotional, and intellectual comes out in everything I do. That has removed a lot of unnecessary anger from my acting. You know, it’s about finding a way to release frustration and negative emotions and not put them in the wrong places. The question isn’t ”˜Can I get the job?’, it’s ”˜Can I be the person I want to be?’ ”

      The answer, for gentleman Ben, at least, requires another question: does a bear spit in the woods?