Mayim Bialik is now a director with the recent release of her latest film, How they made us, and we discussed the project with the film’s executive producer, Jonathan Benefiel. Prior to his work on the film, Benefiel had started his career as an actor before moving into producing work. That led to this new movie which paired him with Bialik and Dustin Hoffman, among others.
How they made us hit theaters, digital and on-demand this month. The film follows a divorced mother of two who struggles to find sanity in her dysfunctional family after learning that her father (Hoffman) has a degenerative disease that he and his wife (Candice Bergen) refuse to accept. Read on to learn more about Benefiel’s involvement in the new feature.
MovieWeb: We’re talking about How they made us, but first let’s set the scene a bit. You started out in the industry as an actor before moving into production. What made you want to work more behind the camera in production?
Jonathan Benefiel: I started my career as an actor in 1986, at the age of 23, which is a bit late to get into this profession, but that’s a whole other story. Over the years, I’ve had some success, but I’ve never had that key role that launches careers. I spent many years trying to figure out the secret sauce to succeeding in the industry. I got the big head shots. I have the agent. I have the manager. I got all the things people tell you you need to be a successful actor, but success has always eluded me. So I decided to take a break from the business. I got married and focused on family life, but the acting bug never left me. So I decided to come back to the company with a new attitude. Instead of waiting for the phone to ring from my agent and manager, I decided to take control of my career by creating my own opportunities.
In 2017, I got together with my longtime friend of 33 years, Eric Seltzer, and asked him if he would like to be in a short film with me. Eric had always wanted to play the role of Lenny in Of mice and Men, and I thought it would be cool to reinvent that movie and modernize it for today’s audiences. So we did a similar scenario, set it against a mafia background, and Protecting Tony was born. Setting up the elements to make this film gave me the production bug. The film went on to win 32 awards and five nominations on the festival circuit, so it was the universe’s way of saying I was on the right track. After the success of this film, I started to fully and partially finance other short films with talented actors that I had met during my travels. Then came the John Leguizamo BTS documentary, John Leguizamo’s Road to Broadway.
John and I had been in the same acting class together in the mid-80s until he got his first major role in Victims of war in 1989. After that, we lost touch. But I have always admired his artistry and his immense talent over the years. When the opportunity to be an EP on this documentary presented itself, it was obvious. The fact that the massive contributions of the Latin people to our country and our culture have been completely ignored in our collective American history really touched me. So, I felt compelled to jump in and contribute in some way. This documentary went on to win an Imagen Award, so once again the universe confirmed that this was the right way for me to go.
Shortly after, an acquaintance of mine on Facebook, a producer by the name of Cary Anderson, told me that the producers of The Chicago 7 Trial was looking for equity financing and wanted to know if I would be interested in investing in the project. When I found out that Aaron Sorkin was the writer/director, I was immediately fired up. I mean, the guy just doesn’t know how to write a bad script. Then when I found out who was in the cast, I got even more excited. Sacha Baron Cohen is a genius of humor. He’s like Andy Kaufman on steroids, always pushing the envelope and sometimes putting his own safety at risk. So when he decides to be part of a project, you know he’s going to be brilliant.
Then you add the rest of the stellar cast and, again, that was a no brainer for me. The icing on the cake was the subject. The bitter division that has gripped the politics of our country has been quite heartbreaking to watch. When I read the script, I saw the parallels between what was happening then, with what is happening now. As George Santayana once wrote, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” So that was it for me. Of course, we all know how well that movie worked.
Mayim Bialik and the excellent cast lured Jonathan Benefiel to As They Made Us
MW: Can you explain how How they made us came your way?
JB: Again, it was Cary Anderson who told me that the producers were looking for equity financing.
MW: What attracted you to the project?
JB: Dustin Hoffman, Dustin Hoffman and Dustin Hoffman. All kidding aside, Dustin Hoffman has been my lifelong idol. There’s a very short list of actors that we all collectively recognize as royalty, and Mr. Hoffman is on that list, in spades. Candice Bergen is another. Add in the incredible talents of Diana Agron, Simon Helberg, and the creative mastery of writer/director Mayim Bialik and it’s a success, in my opinion.
And the subject of Mayim’s film is universal. I imagine that many of us, if not all of us, have experienced some form of abuse, physical or emotional, at one time or another, from people who are supposed to love us, myself included. And I don’t know anyone who can say that his upbringing was absolutely perfect. And if you happen to be one of those people, consider yourself lucky. Many who have suffered from parental abuse in one form or another carry these scars with them throughout their adult lives, and it can have a devastating impact on their ability to function in a healthy way, especially when it comes to relationships. . That said, being a parent doesn’t exactly come with a set of instructions. And so it is important to also find forgiveness, if possible. After all, we’re all imperfect and we do our best to navigate this crazy thing we call life.
MW: Mayim Bialik seems like someone who really excels at everything she tries. What do you think of Bialik putting on her director hat for the first time with How they made us?
JB: Mayim is a powerhouse. She just exudes ability. Why this is, is indefinable. It’s a quality you either have or you don’t have. And she has it. I’m really happy for her and her success. After all, the reason we tell stories isn’t just to entertain – it’s to tell stories we can both relate to, as well as stories we can’t, in order to elevate our collective consciousness and develop a sense of empathy for people who may not look like us, think like us or have the same experiences as us. So in that vein, I’m saying the more unique creative voices we can include, the better off we’ll all be.
The Mob Kid could be Jonathan Benefiel’s next feature
MW: So what’s next for Jonathan Benefiel? Can you tell me about other projects that you currently have in progress?
JB: On Good Friday morning 1973, I woke up to the screams of my mother, who was desperately trying to resuscitate my stepfather, Frank Vestri, who had suffered a heart attack. Unfortunately, his attempts failed. He died at the age of 42. Frank was a crooner in the style of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, with a twist of Mario Lanza. He had recorded an unreleased album called “Meet Frank Vestri” several years before his death. And that album was all I had left of him.
Fast forward to 1989. I was on the set of Freedmen do extra work Copacabana in New York—a club my stepfather had played many times. Scorsese was filming Jerry Vale syncing his song “Pretend You Don’t See Her” when I suddenly had this urge to talk to him about maybe putting some of Frank’s songs on the Freedmen soundtrack. Of course, I didn’t, for fear of being kicked off the set. But the idea of having Frank’s music on a movie soundtrack never left me. In my opinion, it was the perfect vehicle to get his music out to a wider audience, or any audience, for that matter.
One day I was daydreaming on my way home from work, trying to think of a cool idea for a mob comedy that had never been done before, when the concept of a soul-swapping movie between a brutal life-changing gangster soul with her sensitive, overprotected and harassed son hit me like a flash. And The child of the mafia was born. If the movie gods permit, I hope to start filming in the fall.
How they made us is now available theatrically, digitally and on demand.
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