Exorcist · Press

How To Fight A Demon: Ben Daniels Talks ‘The Exorcist’

by Brittany Frederick, November 4, 2016.

‘The Exorcist’ star Ben Daniels is giving the most fearsome performance of the fall. He talks with Hidden Remote about the making of Father Marcus Keane.

There’s no bigger badass on TV right now than Ben Daniels. As Father Marcus Keane on Fox’s The Exorcist, he’s battling the forces of evil every week and making it look like Tuesday. How is he able to pull it off? It’s a combination of brains, guts and some help from his friends.

When The Exorcist returns tonight, Marcus is behind bars after the police arrested him in the middle of the exorcism, but don’t expect him to throw in the towel. Ben explained there’s nothing that he won’t do to beat the demons lurking in Chicago. “I don’t think there is,” he told Hidden Remote when we spoke with him last week.

“I absolutely love playing him,” he enthused. “He’s such a great character and they’ve given me so much input. He feels very close to me. He’s got a little bit of fear now, that he might kind of screw things up, but I love the fact he generally isn’t afraid of anything. It’s really, really good fun playing someone like that.”

Ben has played his fair share of tough characters over the years, including an MI6 agent in the BBC’s The State Within, chief prosecutor James Steel on ITV’s Law & Order: UK and ruthless ballet company leader Paul Grayson in Starz’s Flesh and Bone. He knows what it’s like to put up a fight, but his work on The Exorcist is on a whole other level.

Part of that comes from the fact that he worked with the writers’ to develop Marcus’s tortured backstory, including the murder of his mother and that he was battling demons going back to his childhood. This is not a character who’s ever really seen what a normal life looks like and it’s vastly impacted him as a man.

“Obviously it all starts with the script,” he explained of how Marcus came together. “I read that pilot and I knew where he came from. When I was originally up for [the role], I did a self tape which was sent off to Fox, that they responded to favorably. Then [creator] Jeremy Slater phoned me up before I went in to meet them and he said I’m going to fill you in a bit more.

“He said we’ve got this image of him but we haven’t quite worked it out yet, where he goes into a room as a young boy with someone possessed in the room and he’s told he can’t come out of the room until he cured them, and  he cured them. There was no explanation as to why. So I sort of sat and mulled it over.

“I became very obsessed with the fact he pulls a gun on Bennett in that first episode,” he continued. “I said this is a kind of man who is used to violence. I needed to get him from his parents, to be put in an orphanage somehow or a boy’s home, so I came up with the idea of the dad killing the mom and then him being put in an orphanage to which he’s taken by the Catholics to be trained to be an exorcist.”

“When you see him as a man, I wanted you to look at him and you would see that he carries the weight of his life around with him and you get a sense of that,” Ben told us. “All he carries around with him are the tools of his trade; he has no roots really. I also wanted that violence and aggression to be simmering under the surface, which would make him very unpredictable.

“I wanted to give him the most fickle start in life and come from a very abusive and violent environment,” he added, “so by the time he enters the room with the demon he’s filled with such rage and pain that he can cure whoever he’s put in the room with. And I thought that pain and that rage would be the most powerful generator of that aggressive behavior to fight those demons. I also wanted that to bleed into who he is as a human being, so he’s very confrontational and in your face. Like a pit bull or a rottweiler of a man.”

There’s no doubt that Marcus is a force of nature, and for that you have to give a tremendous amount of credit to the man playing him. Even if you’ve seen Ben Daniels before you’ve never quite seen him like this. It’s like he’s on an absolute tear, and when he speaks you’re compelled to listen, which is perfect for a character who’s supposed to be commanding the attention of demons and the hopes of the Rance family.

Yet all that sound and fury wouldn’t mean much if it didn’t signify something, and the extensive work that the Exorcist writers and Ben did on Marcus’s character comes through constantly. As much as you’re in awe of this man for what he does professionally, you never lose the sense that this is a man who’s got an equal turmoil going on inside him personally. He’s not going to leave Chicago and go on a vacation. Being an exorcist is who he is, to a fault, and it’s those more vulnerable moments that Ben particularly relishes playing.

“What I love is when everything falls away from him and you see someone very broken. I really like those moments,” he said, “and I really like that he’s had to work together with this man who he’s been thrust together and neither of them know why. But they both bring out new sides of each other; Tomas definitely opens a more humane, emotional side in Marcus and I like those.

“There was a monologue in the second episode where he talks about what happened to him as a child. It was a four-minute monologue and Fox kept it all in which I think is fantastically brave in a network show. That wouldn’t normally happen. This particular writer, Heather Bellson, was incredible. She was very in tune with where I wanted to take Marcus so I particularly liked that. What’s great about the show is all the characters are in extremis at all times, so the dramatic content is really, really high and you get to play all that in a very realistic way.”

What makes The Exorcist work, though, is that it’s got an amazing double act. Marcus finds himself in a constant push-pull with the Rance family’s parish priest, Father Tomas Ortega, played by the equally brilliant Alfonso Herrera. They are two completely opposite people – and in fact the two actors’ performances couldn’t be more different – but they come together to create this new partnership that has just about everything except the kitchen sink in it.

Much like Marcus needs Tomas if he’s going to beat these demons and gains a respect for what he has to offer, Ben thoroughly enjoys working with Alfonso and is more than happy to talk about just how much his partner in crime brings to the show.

“You never really know when you’re thrust together as actors, if in fact you’ll get on. I totally lucked out as Alfonso is not only terrific to work with – he’s a very present, open and honest actor – he’s also the most adorable, modest, kind human being,” Ben enthused, laughing, “I sometimes feel like a crotchety old Maggie Smith character curled up in a corner while he’s spreading his sunshine around the set.

“I’m normally partnered with women so working closely with another man is a new and very much enjoyable work experience for me. I treat him totally like a younger brother and we take the piss out of each other mercilessly. And we laugh like idiots. Our backgrounds could not be more different yet we share an identical absurd sense of humor.

“I have so much respect for his incredible hard work. As English is his second language getting what’s on the page to a performance level means his workload kind of doubles,” he added. “It’s been an absolute delight getting to know him and at the same time an absolute delight getting to know our characters and sparking off each other when we’re filming.”

The alliance between Marcus and Tomas is the heart of the series, but Marcus’s interplay with the Rance family has been getting better and better each week – and will certainly go up a notch now that certain secrets are public. Ben told us that he’s been aware of the fact that Angela Rance is Regan McNeil, but that it took him a little while to find out.

“We shot the pilot and only Geena [Davis] knew,” he recalled. “But when I watched the pilot and there’s the part where she listens to the voices in the wall, it was around the Comic-Con time and I said to her, so has your character been possessed before? And she went hmm, that was very well spotted. A couple of nights later, Rolin Jones, the showrunner, told me that she was in fact Regan MacNeil and I was like, great!”

Of course, the choice to make the Angela character Regan creates a permanent and major tie to the award-winning film, which is one of the things that continues to be a sticking point about The Exorcist. The comparisons keep coming, but he told us that fans of the movie have embraced its small-screen successor.

“It’s a very strange thing when you’re in a show called The Exorcist because of the legacy of that movie,” Ben reflected. “Like any kind of great work, people have such ownership of it and people don’t want to see it messed around with. What has been brilliant really is seeing people that do love that film going oh my God, this is the worthy sequel to that movie and it’s been really great reading the hugely positive feedback about that. The percentage of the naysayers is so small compared to the positive response that we have.”

“I just think people are doing incredible work in this show,” he continued. “To me it doesn’t look like a network show at all and I think that’s due to the team behind it. We have an amazing writer’s room. Lots of them are playwrights really and the showrunner is very keen on taking away anything you’d see in a network show and aiming to push it more in a cable direction as much as you can, which there are huge restrictions, but I think it really pushes the barriers.”

“It’s a very strange thing when you’re in a show called The Exorcist because of the legacy of that movie,” Ben reflected. “Like any kind of great work, people have such ownership of it and people don’t want to see it messed around with. What has been brilliant really is seeing people that do love that film going oh my God, this is the worthy sequel to that movie and it’s been really great reading the hugely positive feedback about that. The percentage of the naysayers is so small compared to the positive response that we have.”

“I just think people are doing incredible work in this show,” he continued. “To me it doesn’t look like a network show at all and I think that’s due to the team behind it. We have an amazing writer’s room. Lots of them are playwrights really and the showrunner is very keen on taking away anything you’d see in a network show and aiming to push it more in a cable direction as much as you can, which there are huge restrictions, but I think it really pushes the barriers.”

A huge part of that push is down to Ben Daniels. Not to short-change any of his fantastic colleagues, but the amount of intensity that he brings to a role and the tremendous amount of work he puts in off-screen is something very special. Marcus had to be a character just as strong off the page as the demons he’s fighting and no one other than Ben Daniels could bring that energy week after week.

Then to layer in so much underneath that shows how thoughtful and committed of an actor he is, to want to dive as deeply into Marcus’s head and history beyond what most would bother. He’s a true performer, and while he likely won’t be shortlisted for an Emmy on a Friday night genre show on Fox, he should be. The work he’s doing is on par with anything else that’s on television right now, and if The Exorcist is breaking barriers it’s because he’s leading the charge.

Thus as everything could not be going more wrong in Marcus Keane’s world, everything could not be going more right for Ben Daniels. He’s on a brilliantly written television series working with some incredible scene partners, and while we may never have seen him take on a character like this before, in fact we’re learning more about this phenomenal actor in the process.

“I absolutely love it. I think it’s really rare where you can do a job where you can bring so much of yourself,” he concluded. “He feels very close to me as a character and because I love the horror genre so much I just feel like I’m literally living the dream. I grew up watching horror and it was my solace and comfort. To be able to be part of the Exorcist franchise is just thrilling to me.”

And it’s thrilling for the fans, who can’t wait to see what Ben Daniels is going to do next. Whatever it is, he’s going to kill it – perhaps literally.

The Exorcist returns tonight at 9/8c on Fox.

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