BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — Actor Ben Daniels ignored the old actor’s axiom – never share the screen with an animal – when he co-starred with a leopard.
The crew and director were locked in a cage while Daniels wrestled, cuddled and coddled a live leopard on the set for 18 months for the film “Passion in the Desert.”
“A large part of it is just myself and the cat with no dialogue,” the British actor recalls. “But I’ve always been really interested in transforming myself physically. Sometimes you can really, really do that because this man turns into a cat. He copies her, lies with her, and falls in love with her. He goes from this uptight soldier to this wild, sort of feline man, and then back into a soldier again. So it was difficult because I was always working with the cat, and she could’ve killed me,” he says over the din in a restaurant here.
And while Daniels insists he does not believe in fate, it was destiny that brought him into the lion’s den, so to speak.
When the script for the film arrived, his friend told him, “You have to flip a coin and you have to go with the answer on the coin.”
“I said it’s not about me, it’s about the CAT. She said, ‘Flip a coin and go with the answer of the coin.’ And the coin said I wouldn’t be savaged. So always in the back of my head – it’s so ridiculous – I thought, ‘Well, the coin said!’”
It was a lucky coincidence, too, that Daniels made it into the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. “I was 17 when I auditioned and I traveled with a friend of mine. They’d given him a recall, and they felt sorry for me because I was going to be with him for the rest of the day in London, and I wouldn’t have had a recall.
“So they gave me a recall as well – just because they felt bad for me. Then I got in, and my friend didn’t. But he got in a couple of years later,” says Daniels who’s wearing a navy blue suit and white shirt with brown buttons, his blond hair in spiky peaks around his face.
Probably none of that was as formidable for Daniels as pretending to be the demanding artistic director of a ballet company as he does in Starz’s graphic “Flesh and Bone.” “I knew nothing about ballet,” he shrugs, raising his hands, palms up.
“At drama school I had a teacher who would say, ‘Darling, if there’s anything in the script that you can’t do, just lie. Just say, ‘Yes, I can do it!’ So this script came and for five minutes I thought, ‘I could lie.’ But when I met with (the producers) I said, ‘Well, I can do yoga.’ They said, ‘We can work with that.’”
“This was a big challenge for me to stand in that room and look like I could’ve danced because (the character) was a huge ballet star, a principal dancer who’s suffered a career-ending injury,” says Daniels, who does it with a flawless American accent.
After all that derring-do it’s surprising to hear that Daniels suffered from a “crippling shyness” when he was a kid. “I was an incredibly shy child, and so I had no voice really and acting gave me a voice. It terrified me at the same time to get up in front of people as a shy child. To get up in front of people as a shy child with someone else’s words, I found very liberating. I could lose myself completely. When I first got up and did it properly was when I did it at school when I was 12.”
The school boasted a new drama studio. “And I loved it,” he exhales. “It was dark and they turned the light on, and we started reading Greek tragedy – which is quite heavy. And I just loved it. I absolutely loved it. And everybody else hated it.”
That childhood trepidation still sneaks into his life. “It will rear its head if I’m feeling low or tired or if I find myself in a situation where I feel like we all do, you feel like that 12-year-old,” he says. “But being so shy as a child made me watch. And that’s invaluable. That’s what actors do. It’s about observing and using that to form characters that you play.”
Daniels ignores another old saw that says two actors can’t live together in harmony. He and actor Ian Gelder have been partners for 22 years. Daniels says two actors sharing a life works out very well for them. “There is an age gap so we’re not up for the same parts,” he smiles.