Multi-talented actor Ben Mehl (“The Good Wife”) is starring in his first series regular role opposite Penn Badgley in Netflix’s popular series “You” which returns for its highly-anticipated 3rd season. Developed by Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti, You is based on Caroline Kepnes’ bestselling books You and Hidden Bodies. In the third season, Joe and Love are married and raising their newborn son, Henry, in the Californian suburb of Madre Linda. As their relationship dynamic takes a new turn, Joe continues to repeat the cycle of obsession with a burgeoning interest in Natalie, the next-door neighbor. This time, Love will flip the script to ensure that her dream of having the perfect family will not be torn away so easily by Joe’s compulsive actions. Mehl plays the role of ‘Dante,’ a confident, independent, but fallible human being who has found extraordinary ways to adapt and continues to be a librarian even after losing his sight. A veteran whose eyesight was damaged, Dante is a dedicated family man with a husband and two stepchildren who longs to expand his family, and delights in helping his friends with their children. Season 3 of YOU premieres on October 15th, 2021 on Netflix.
Although Mehl plays a blind character, Mehl is not totally blind, he is legally blind. He was diagnosed with a rare genetic form of macular degeneration called Stargardt’s disease which causes one to lose central vision. He was told the condition was progressive and there was no treatment or cure and eventually, his vision deteriorated to the point where he could no longer read normal sized text or recognize faces. This led him to rethink his career, but he came out of this deciding to not let this disease define him but would try his absolute best to learn what it meant to be an actor.
In order to prepare for the role of Dante, a blind character, Mehl trained with an orientation and mobility specialist to learn the proper techniques for using a white cane. At times, he felt like he was preparing for what his future may hold for him. He spent hours observing and taking notes outside a building for blind residents in New York and gained a deep appreciation for the skill it takes to navigate the world without sight. His character was inspired by Sera Gamble’s godfather who was blind and created this character because she believed even those who are blind deserve to be represented. Recognizing his privilege within the community of not being completely blind, it was important for him to do his research and portray this character accurately.
We caught up with Ben for an exclusive interview with The National Post…
Firstly, what inspired you to get into acting, and what was the first moment you realized that this is exactly what you wanted to do as a career?
A: My parents always said, “oh you’re such a performer” whenever I did silly things to try and make them laugh. Then I auditioned for a public arts school, Claude Watson School for the Arts, and got the one available opening for 5th grade. There I really got to explore that side of myself. I also loved science in school and wanted to be an astronaut. I applied and was accepted to a few aerospace engineering, and physics programs for university, but there was something inside me that couldn’t let go of acting. I ended up choosing the only school where I could double major in astrophysics and drama. That was the University of Toronto, and ever since that moment, I knew acting would never really be something I could let go of.
You were born and raised in Toronto where you majored in Astrophysics and Drama. Is there a part of you that is a scientist in the making waiting to come out?
The thing that drew me to astronomy was the vast mystery of it all. It puts everything into a larger context, what Neil Degrasse Tyson calls the cosmic perspective. We used to think everything revolved around us, then we realized that we revolve around the sun and so on… We are just a tiny, tiny part of this much larger universe. And it’s not just space, but time as well, in terms of the history of the planet and our species, and how we are just a blip in the continuum of an ever-changing planet. And while these things make me aware of how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things, it also makes me aware of how precious life on earth is, and that with this understanding, we must be responsible for it.
So far, you are best known for your role in The Good Wife. Talk us through how you landed that role?
Auditioning, being rejected, auditioning, being rejected, auditioning, being rejected. And then auditioning for this part for the Canadian version of the NSA, and I happened to mention, “by the way, I actually am Canadian” and I got that part. So I’d say to all my fellow actors out there, keep showing up, because you never know when you will be right for the part.
What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment as an actor?
What I have always loved about acting is the challenge of transforming into another human being, and bringing my empathy to imagine the circumstance of someone else, and then believing myself in those circumstances fully. I always wanted to be able to transform into vastly different characters in my career, and I have been able to do that in the theater, playing dramatic and comedic roles, classic and contemporary, leads and servants. I loved playing four different servants in Red Bull Theatre’s School for Scandal and getting nice mentions in the reviews despite having the smallest part in the play. I wouldn’t have traded that role for any other. Another stand-out experience in my career was working on David Levine’s Habit, where I and two other actors lived in a house that was constructed for the project, for 8 hours a day, being watched by people through windows as we lived in a play on loop non-stop. We ate, used the washroom, and even took a shower if we dared.
You are starring in the forthcoming series of YOU which hit all the headlines as one of the most talked-about Netflix series debut in recent time. How and when did you find out you had got the role and what was your reaction?
I got this audition in September of 2020. It was totally unexpected. My dear friend Anne Troup helped put me on tape, and I had a blast recording the audition. A couple of weeks later, I had just come home with my twin daughters, who had just turned 3, and was giving them a bath when my phone rang and it was my agent, Ken Melamed, to say I got the part. It was a moment in my life that I never knew would come, I was beyond excited, my heart was racing, I’d wished for this so hard, and faced so much rejection for so long, and I told him, “Ken. I can’t talk about this right now, I’m bathing my daughters. I will have to call you back.”
Can you tell our audience a little bit about your character in the series YOU, Dante ?
I love Dante. He’s a bit like me. He is a step-dad to two kids with his husband Lansing. He is a loving dad, husband, and friend. An interesting thing about him is that he is totally blind. I know a little about that because I am legally blind. I have a rare eye condition called Stargardt’s, a form of macular degeneration, so I have lost my central vision. But for me, I still have all my peripheral vision. So if I look right at you, your face disappears, or if I look directly at something to read, the words disappear. So I look above what I want to see and use my peripheral vision to see it. It’s hard to do without spending your life practicing like I do. However, Dante is totally blind, and yet, like me, he lost his vision as an adult and did not stop doing what he loves when he hit this obstacle. I didn’t stop acting when I lost my central vision, and he didn’t stop being a librarian. He uses bone conducting headphones to hear the books that he scans instead of having to read them for instance. He uses his phone with an AirPod in one ear to scan words and have them read to him.
How did you train for this role to ensure that you represented the character’s utmost potential?
I trained with an orientation and mobility specialist who taught me the techniques for using a cane to get around without sight. I practiced on my own with a blindfold first, which helped me understand how it feels in my body to trust the cane and my other senses to perceive my surroundings, and it became very personal for me, because I felt like I was practicing for what my future may hold for me one day. Then I practiced using the cane without the blindfold to see if I could continue to rely on the cane as my eyes. I also spent hours outside a building in Manhattan that is designed for blind people to live in. I watched people come and go to observe how they move and get around. I gained a tremendous appreciation for this community, because I was witnessing people who have learned to be independent without their sight, just like Dante. And it takes years to become as proficient as the people I studied, so hopefully I was able to portray the skill, poise and confidence I saw in the people I observed and talked to.
Were you a big fan of the series YOU before you got the call and how were the other cast members on set?
As a father of twin toddlers, with a wife who works full time as a healthcare worker, I don’t get much time to watch the shows I’d like to watch. So, no, I had not seen You, or honestly even heard of it. I quickly discovered that I was one of the only people in the world who didn’t know it, or love it, or was eagerly anticipating the 3rd season! The people I got to know the best on set despite strictly isolating ourselves as much as possible in the height of the pandemic in LA, were Tati and Penn. It was an absolute pleasure getting to hang out with them both. Tati is always there to talk to. She loves to listen and share her experiences; she has a joyous laugh and brings such warmth and positivity to set with her. And Penn, despite everything he has to focus on, was so relaxed and open and always happy to chat. He also happens to be rather brilliant and well-read, and deeply spiritual. I was in very kind, warm, funny and playful company. The three of us got deep into conversations about the nature of life and death, and also joked around, and on one occasion had to reset because of a mutual laughing fit we found ourselves in as we were negotiating how to walk through a door together into a shot.
Who is your favorite cast member on YOU and why?
How dare you! I don’t pick favorites! But I do want to take the opportunity to talk about Mark Blum, who played Mr. Mooney in Season 1. He was the director of the Hagen Core Training at HB studio and hired me as the movement teacher for the program. In the middle of my second year teaching there, the pandemic hit, and Mark was one of the first lives tragically lost to COVID-19. He was an extraordinary actor, and a brilliant, caring teacher. I wish I could have shared my excitement over my part on the show, and asked him for his advice. I and so many others who knew and admired him miss him terribly, but also feel so grateful to have known him.
What advice would you give to up and coming actors about pursuing opportunities and their passions like you have clearly done?
Follow your joy. Let that be your compass in your work. Your joy is what brought you to this. When I struggled with not having enough acting work, I searched for something I could do that would keep me connected to that joy, and I found teaching. Through teaching I found a way to stay engaged in the thing I love to do even if I’m not in front of the camera or on the stage.
Also, whether you get a part or not doesn’t make you any more or less deserving of it. Don’t hope to get the part, hope to be ready for the opportunities that arise when they do. Place value on your work, rather than the result. Don’t base your self-worth on your success in the industry. Value yourself for your work and all the other things you do in your life, like the ways you care for yourself, others and the world.
Now, let’s play a game Top 3. Starting with your Top 3 best films of all time?
The Matrix, Jurassic Park, Finding Nemo
Top 3 best actors or actresses that you would like to star alongside?
There are so many, that giving you just 3 names simply feels like you are asking me to leave out scores of actors who I tremendously admire, but who comes into my head at this moment are David Costabile, because I’ve admired him ever since he was my teacher, Ted Danson because of how much fun he seems to have on screen, and Anya Taylor-Joy because of how much she absolutely captivated me with her eyes in The Queen’s Gambit.
Also Bennedict Cumberbatch gets an honorable mention, because in addition to his other work, I saw his portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster at the National Theater, and I was absolutely enthralled by his specificity and commitment. It’s also funny that I’ve seen a number of comments from people when they see the poster for You with me in it, they say “Is that Dr. Strange?” “Is that Bennedict Cumberbatch?” And then it’s followed by terrible disappointment when they realize it’s not. I am not offended by this at all. Apparently we bear a resemblance, which I find extremely flattering.
Top 3 best directors?
Steven Spielberg, whose films I grew up with and continue to love, Alfonso Cuarón, whose images stay with me, and Marielle Heller for Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, because with Tom Hanks, she cracked my heart wide open and I have never cried in a movie as much as I did watching that one.
Watch excerpts of the Interview on Capital TV by clicking here