Alex Casey talks to Ben Daniels, star of new gritty drama Flesh and Bone, about working with both Breaking Bad writers and broken ballerinas.
Watching Ben Daniels as Paul Grayson, the toxic artistic director in ballet drama Flesh and Bone, it’s impossible to avoid comparisons to Sparky Polastri in Bring it On. He brings with him the same venomous intensity, a terrifying singular focus to succeed and a barrage of pithy insults to match. Just swap the spirit fingers for pliés.
Flesh and Bone, the latest brooding drama to come to exclusively to Lightbox, begins with aspiring dancer Claire holding back tears. It’s the moment of reckoning on the audition room floor, and Paul is barking at her to perform a solo adagio. As she fearfully floats through a perfect performance, it’s clear that Paul has found his new lead soloist of the company. Thrusting her into the twisted upper echelon of the ballet world, Paul reveals his own hunger for power and possession over Claire. “Never forget,” he whispers, “you are mine.”
Paul’s gripping bursts of vigour and malice keep Flesh and Bone electric, unpredictable and – primarily – very, very screwed up. I spoke to Ben Daniels about his previous roles on television, and how Flesh and Bone breaks the conventional mold of what it means to be a woman in modern society.
First of all, you’re quite a fancy theatre actor. Just thinking of other prestigious actors like Mark Rylance making the move to television in Wolf Hall, do you think that there’s a changing attitude towards television as a lower art form for actors?
Personally, I’ve always loved television. When I was a kid there was no theatre, I’m from a very small working class town in England and there were absolutely no theatres around me at all. My introduction to drama was predominantly through television and then film. Even the local cinema had to close down when I was still at school, so television was always big for me.
I think the writing in television is just really really great at the moment. There’s nothing better than opening a script and being blown away and having your acting juices flowing. There’s just such good television out there, which has started over in the States but we’re seeing everywhere now. There’s a wonderful trend towards television becoming riskier, moodier, and more confident to tell the arc of a character over a few hours. I think that’s why we see a lot of these actors taking notice.
You starred in the first two seasons of House of Cards, which strikes me as having a similar darkness to Flesh and Bone. How do you think the shows compare?
Because of the nature of the dance on Flesh and Bone, the actual filming process was a much more flowing experience. You’d be in a room with the dancers and the crew would have to be very mobile with the camera. House of Cards was very static. Completely brilliant and wonderful though, they are both high octane dramas with fantastic lighting and fantastic direction.
I remember when House of Cards was originally on in the UK. I watched four hours of it, just glued to the television. They did an incredibly job of adapting that satirical English world into current American politics. I knew straight away it was going to blow people’s mind.
Did you feel the same excitement towards Flesh and Bone in the early stages?
Oh my god, as soon as I read it I couldn’t believe it. I was aware of Moira [Walley-Beckett]’s work already on Breaking Bad. Someone told me there was a script coming from one of the Breaking Badwriters and I said “what episodes?” As soon as they said ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘The Fly’, which are two of the most fantastic episodes of the show, I knew it would be brilliant.
I was just blown away by the writing on this show, so fearless and bold and audacious. It’s not afraid to wallow around in the darker recesses of the human psyche, and mine that drama. It’s a brilliant exploration of what it means to be a women in modern society, finding out who she is on her search for normalcy. It rises above the world in which it’s set, which is really exciting.
What do you think the general fascination is with the ballet world?
It’s such an extreme world, the life of a dancer is like lightening in a bottle – you only ever have five minutes to shine. Because it’s about the pursuit of physical perfection, everything is really heightened within that world. It’s a really heightened art form as it is, using your body alone to tell stories. I just think it lends itself brilliantly to the same heightened drama.
I’m not from a dance background at all whatsoever, when I first met those dancers it just blew my mind. The things they can do with their bodies! I sat in on a class, and they have to start the day with a 90 minute warm-up. They start off very gently and slowly becomes more and more vigorous.
You are sitting on the floor within hopping distance of these people who are literally flying and leaping and falling, performing these feats of human magic. It just doesn’t seem physically possible when you see it up close. It’s absolutely mind blowing, endlessly fascinating and endlessly beautiful to watch.
When you spend time in the rehearsal room, you start to see the impact on their bodies when they stop dancing. You’re suddenly aware that you are watching an athlete, you see them double up in the wings as their bodies are just screaming in agony. It’s fascinating, I loved working with the dancers every day.
Did you get to see broken toenails and bleeding feet in real life?
You wouldn’t believe the way that they just work through their injuries. It’s such a competitive world, so they just learn to cover it all up. They’re like cats, you know how a cat can hide if it’s got a broken leg? That’s what it’s like being in a room full of dancers. Nobody will admit their weaknesses, they are all so strong-willed and strong-bodied.
Did you encounter any Paul Grayson-like characters in the rehearsal rooms? I’m terrified if so.
Nobody in the room no, but all of the dancers told me that they have had experiences with people like Paul Grayson. Unfortunately, that type of power hungry character is very common in the ballet world. Often when we were going through the script that dancers would groan “no, that happened to me” and the stories they’d tell were just awful. The level of physical and emotional abuse in that world is just huge. For some it’s a nurturing place, but all of them encounter their own versions of Paul, at some point.
How do you feel about the early comparisons to Black Swan?
Honestly, I don’t think it’s a fair comparison at all. Black Swan was a man’s view of the ballet world. More of a horror movie about a pretty girl descending into madness. I think Moira, with her own experience, wrote a show that is ultimately about what it means to be a woman in our society. They are two very different stories.
That’s interesting because it feels like Breaking Bad, above being about meth, is about this weird struggle with modern masculinity. Flesh and Bone has taken the same interest with women.
Absolutely. I’m from a family that’s predominantly women, my Dad and I were always in the minority. I saw how hard it was for the women in my family to do something other than what was expected of them, and to negotiate the world of men. Whenever I read or see something like Flesh and Bone, I’m reminded of the women in my family, and the importance of telling stories for women.
How was it playing such an aggressively unlikable man?
The thing with me is that I take my characters home with me in the evening. I’m always pulling sections of myself forward to put into characters, and I struggle to push them back at the end of the day. I know some people can forget about their characters once they take their wig off, but mine always hang around. Which can be awful.
The thing about Paul is this: he doesn’t know he’s awful. He sort of borders on the sociopath in that he has no empathy for anyone else at all. That enables him to do awful things without even thinking twice about it, or being aware of what he’s doing. It was actually quite good fun.
There is a backstory which he is complete denial about, when we get to around episode four. You’ll see that there was something in his life which shattered his world as a child. There are darker elements in his past, but he doesn’t dwell on them so, as an actor, you aren’t allowed to dwell on them either.
One more question: Ben Daniels can you ever have a nice night out at the ballet ever again?
I have a completely new appreciation for it. I’ve always thought of it as beautiful and elegant and joyful, but now I watch them and I know that as soon as they go off, they will be bent double and gasping for breath with various parts of their body screaming in agony. I know how hard they’re working now, and it’s beautiful to see them mask that.