When the English actor Ben Daniels read the script for Flesh and Bone, the new miniseries on Starz about the seedy underbelly of an elite ballet company in New York, he was intrigued — and hesitant. The colorful description for his character, Paul Grayson, the company director, ended with: “dance background a plus, nudity and sexual situations necessary.”
So was the dancing scarier than the sex? “Oh my god, yes!” he tells Out while in New York for the show’s opening night (it premieres Sunday, Nov. 8). Daniels has had a long career on stage and screen in both the U.K. and America (recently featured on House of Cards), but he doesn’t have dance training — after landing the part, he spent a week with a private ballet tutor in London to learn the basics.
Grayson is a former ballet star sidelined by injury and still craving approval who founded the fictional American Ballet Company as a competitor of real NYC-based companies American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. Flesh and Bone investigates the world he created — a competitive one without rules and, seemingly, without an HR department.
“This guy has deep insecurity,” says Daniels. “It actually comes from having no power at all. [The dancers] are an extension of him, it’s how he gets his validation in the world.”
Into this world comes Claire Robbins (played by Sarah Hay, an American dancer with the Dresden Semperoper Ballett in Germany), a wide-eyed, timid and unsmiling ingénue fleeing an icky family situation in Pittsburgh. She wins over Grayson at an audition and scores a spot in the company. In her beauty and innocence, Grayson sees opportunity.
Like a true sociopath, he’s skilled at exploiting others’ weaknesses to get what he wants. “Because he has no empathy, he can do it without consequence,” Daniels explains. “So he’ll be homophobic, he’ll be racist, he’ll be sexist, as long as it provokes something in a dancer that makes them better.”
The same holds for Grayson’s personal life. Early in the series, Grayson calls upon Eduardo, a rent boy, for some release. With Eduardo bent over a desk, Grayson yells demands into a speakerphone — an explicit and succinct illustration of the relationship between sex and authority. “It’s all about power,” says Daniels. “He gets what he wants when he wants it.”
In the show, Grayson is bisexual, which allows him to shoot his sinister sexuality in all directions. And he has no soft spot for the company’s gay dancers (“All the height in the world won’t mask a faggot in a pair of tights,” he tells one in episode 3). In real life, Daniels has been out for decades, finding success in an era when the prevailing wisdom suggested that only a closeted actor could advance.
He recalls working with a gay director on one project but being passed over by that director on another one. A friend of his involved in the casting shared that the director had said, “I don’t want Ben because he’s gay.” So he can relate to, if not understand, what he calls the “gay-on-gay hate.”
On another TV series, his character slept with a lot of women. When it came time to promote the show, the producers asked how he was going to handle publicity, meaning, of course, whether he’d come out. “I said, ‘I’m not going to lie,’ ” he recalls. “I just get it out there and it’s not a question.”
That decision required a degree of self-knowledge and self-worth that Paul Grayson would never understand. But that’s also what makes him so fun to inhabit, and also why it was so tempting to go big. “I wanted to play him as flamboyantly as I possibly could,” says Daniels. “We’re so used to underplaying on TV and restraining. It’s scary to go out on a limb and be so huge.”
Part of this over-the-topness (throwing tantrums, demanding champagne at a reception rather than Prosecco, screwing a guy on his desk during a call) gives the show a campy sensibility. (Tovah Feldshuh as a Russian ballet mistress named Ivana who is always petting a small white dog certainly adds to this.) It is clearly an exaggeration of ballet, a melodrama that picks up where Black Swan left off.
But unlike that film, Flesh and Bone insisted on one key area of authenticity. Creator and writer Moira Walley-Beckett, an Emmy-winning writer on Breaking Bad insisted on casting real dancers in the title roles (Black Swan used body doubles), and the show has the confidence to spend a lot of time in the studio watching them rehearse. For Daniels, this was a highlight of filming.
“There’s that brilliant Einstein quote: ‘Dancers are the athletes of God,’ ” he says. “It didn’t land with me until I watched these people dance and the almost trance-like state that dancers go into.” But embodying a former professional dancer while surrounded by real ones was intimidating, he admits. “It was kind of terrifying to move amongst them and pretend to be one of them.”
In the first episode, Grayson demonstrates a slow, graceful combination for the dancers. “Oh my god, it took me hours and hours, and I was terrified,” Daniels says with a laugh of learning that short sequence. “To get my head into a position or an arm or a hand that looked right was really tough.” On set, former ABT dancers like Irina Dvorovenko and Sascha Radetsky, who play characters in the show, gave him helpful tips.
While developing an outward grace, Daniels also had to find an inner monster. In an early episode, to convince Claire that she should sleep with a wealthy patron for the good of the company — and her career — Grayson swipes a birds nest with two hatchlings off a window sill. The moment was telling for Daniels in gaining insight into his character, and is representative of a male-dominated power structure in the ballet world that for centuries has subjugated women, something Daniels discussed with his co-stars.
“I kept saying to the dancers, ‘But why do you put up with that? Why is that accepted?’ ” he says. “And they’re just like, ‘Well, it just is, it just is.’ ” But whether Daniels likes or understands Grayson and what he represents is beside the point. “As an actor, you can’t judge your character, you just have to justify them.”