Diligently striving to achieve your own personal and professional goals, while also persistently protecting and guiding the people you care about the most, can be a strenuous but equally rewarding experience. But actor Jonathan Bennett effortlessly and captivatingly proved he could achieve his own ambitions and support the people he cares about, as both a versatile performer and as his latest character, in his new thriller, ‘Submerged.’ The drama proves how the actor, who’s mainly known for his roles in such comedies as ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Van Wilder: Freshman Year,’ is diverse in his performing abilities, and adaptable to instantly connecting with his co-stars and filmmakers. In ‘Submerged,’ which was directed by Steven C. Miller, and IFC Midnight will release into select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, Bennett enthrallingly plays an ex-soldier turned bodyguard who fearlessly does whatever it takes to protect his family and clients.
‘Submerged’ follows Matt (Bennett), a limo driver who’s the first to regain consciousness after his vehicle was forced off a bridge and into the below water by armed assailants. He desperately tries to wake up the passenger in the seat next to him, Jessie (Talulah Riley), who’s the daughter of local corporate tycoon Hank Searles (Tim Daly), for whom he works. While trying to wake Jessie up, Matt realizes that he has a leg wound that’s inhibiting his movements, and the limo’s electricity has stopped working.
Matt also tries to offer help to Jessie’s friends, who are the passengers in the back of the limo. But in the process, her boyfriend, Brandon (Caleb Hunt), soon begins fighting the hostile Todd (Giles Mathey), who he believes may have been somewhat involved in the thwarted kidnapping. The other couple in the back, Amanda (Rosa Salazar) and Eddie (Denzel Whitaker), are also in such a panic about trying to save themselves that they do little to help find a way to escape.
While Jessie’s friends are busy arguing over the best way to escape and save their lives, Matt reflects on the events that led up to the limo crashing, as well as his relationship with his younger brother, Dylan (Cody Christian), to whom he’s a father figure. If Matt doesn’t figure out a way to help everyone escape the limo, as there’s no guarantee that anyone is coming to rescue them, the car, whose airtight oxygen supply is continuously dwindling, will be swept out to sea.
Bennett generously took the time recently to talk about portraying Matt in ‘Submerged’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the actor discussed that he was drawn to showcase the emotional and physical struggle the thriller’s protagonist goes through in order to survive, because being trapped underwater is a universal fear that everyone can relate to; how he was happy to follow Miller’s direction, particularly because he appreciates the stylistic style the filmmaker incorporates into his shots; and how he immediately formed a close connection with Christian as they were building the bond between the brothers.
ShockYa (SY): You play Matt, an ex-soldier turned bodyguard whose limo is run off the road and underwater by a gang of ruthless kidnapper while driving his boss’ daughter, in the new thriller, ‘Submerged.’ What was it about the character of Matt, as well as the script overall, that convinced you to take on the role?
Jonathan Bennett (JB): When I first read this movie, what drew me to it is the fact that being submerged is a globally recognized fear. Everyone knows how scary it would be to be trapped in a limo underwater. No matter what country you live in, or what religion you are, being trapped in a car underwater is really scary. So everyone will be able to relate to this story.
SY: Did you do any additional research before you began filming the thriller, besides reading the script, to better understand Matt’s mindset, and that universal of being trapped underwater, as he tries to escape from the limo?
JB: Well, I didn’t really do anything crazy to get ready to play this character. Just being trapped inside the limo as we were shooting those scenes was the main preparation I needed. That fear was increased on set, because I was buckled into the seat and wasn’t able to move, especially when they started filling the car with water. The fear was there; that wasn’t acting. There was a slight chance that we really wouldn’t be able to breathe.
SY: During the majority of the scenes in the thriller that are set in the present, Matt is trapped in the front seat of the submerged limo he was driving. How did the physicality of working in such a confining place influence the way you approached portraying the film’s lead character?
JB: It was just a challenge overall, as we were all in the car for weeks at a time. The biggest challenge for me was the marathon of filming the movie; we were in the car all day, every day for two weeks straight. Eventually our bones got cold, and everything started to shut down in our bodies. It wasn’t so much as a mental challenge as it was a physical strain to get through the shoot.
SY: There are several action sequences throughout ‘Submerged’ that Matt is involved in, both as he tries to escape from the limo and during the flashback scenes, as he tries to protect Dylan and Jessie. Do you enjoy performing your own stunts in your films? What was the experience of creating those action scenes as you were filming?
JB: I absolutely love it. What guy doesn’t want to carry a gun under a cool suit, and then pull it out to shoot the bad guy? That’s just fun.
SY: What was your experience of collaborating on the drama’s story, as well as Matt’s backstory, with the film’s director, Steven C. Miller?
JB: A big thing I love about Steven is the stylistic style he includes in his shots. One of the two things we always had to focus on was, how big were the underwater scenes going to be, since we were trapped in the car. We were in this confined space, so we had to find the right level of emotions for our characters.
The other thing we had to focus on, which Steven mentioned after we finished our first day of shooting, was to make sure that everyone doesn’t think of Matt as Aaron Samuels from ‘Mean Girls.’ Steven said, “When people see this movie, I want people to think of you in a whole new way, and not even recognize who you are. I want them to be surprised and excited that this guy, who’s carrying a gun and is being a badass, is the same guy who Lindsay Lohan fell in love with.”
SY: ‘Submerged’ is clever in the fact that it chronicles Matt’s motivations, backstory and relationships with his employer and family through flashbacks that are shown during the film’s main storyline. As an actor, how important and beneficial is it for you to showcase your characters’ histories?
JB: It was a cool experience to work with Cody Christian, who plays my character’s brother. We had a really great connection, and became very close. Right off the bat, it felt as though he really was my little brother.
In all of our scenes together, where Matt is giving Dylan a lot of tough love, Matt is coming down on his brother because he wants him to be at his best. That’s very similar to how I am with a lot of my friends. They know I’m going to come down on them if they’re not at their best. If they’re not, I’m going to call them out on it. So in my scenes with Cody, I pulled some of our connection from my personal experiences.
SY: Besides Dylan, Matt cherishes the people he sets out to protect, including his boss’ daughter, Jessie, who’s played by Talulah Riley. Were you able to have any rehearsal time together to work on your characters’ relationships, and show how determined Matt is protect the people he cares about?
JB: We all really got along, and we were a really close cast. We became close really fast, because we were all soaking wet and trapped in the limo. No one was afraid to try new things, and that’s what was exciting on set. Everyone’s so talented, and no one was afraid to take a chance and make a bold choice. You can especially see that with Caleb Hunt when he does his crazy monologue. We were all like, “What’s happening?!?” (laughs)
SY: Besides the scenes in which Matt, Jessie and her friends were trapped in the limo, did you shoot your scenes on location? Overall, do you feel that filming on location is helpful in connecting to the story and your characters’ mindset?
JB: Going out on location to shoot movies like this is what acting is all about. You get to have these crazy and cool adventures that not that many people get to experience. You get to take that experience, and turn it into art, and I think that’s what’s so cool about shooting these types of films.
SY: What was the process of filming the drama, which is set to be released in select theaters on Friday by IFC Midnight, independently, especially since it’s an action-driven thriller? Did shooting the movie independently pose any creative challenges on the set?
JB: Well, sometimes it can be difficult to work on a studio film, as you need to have all these people sign off on things and approve different choices. But with this movie, there was really one choice that we listened to, which belonged to Steven. Whatever he wanted to do was what we did. We just followed and trusted him, and let him do his thing. There weren’t any producers breathing down his neck, telling him he couldn’t do certain things; they just let him run. We were all his loyal followers, as we trusted him.
SY: Did Steven allow you and your co-stars improv, and offer suggestions on your characters’ backstories and relationships, as you were filming?
JB: There was a lot of improv in this movie, because when you’re trapped in a car and freezing, you feel miserable and you’re scared. So things just come out, which resulted in a lot of unexpected improv in the limo scenes, especially when the water’s rushing in.
SY: Like you mentioned earlier, you’re mainly known for your comedy film roles, especially ‘Mean Girls,’ as well as ‘Van Wilder: Freshman Year’ and ‘The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning.’ Since ‘Submerged’ is a thriller, how important is it to you to diversify your roles and the types of stories you star in?
JB: I do every genre because I get bored doing just one. If I do just comedies, dramas or action movies, I get super bored, so I think it’s fun to jump around. I think it’s great that producers and directors trust me enough to jump around in the different genres, which a lot of actors don’t get to do. I feel lucky and blessed to get to do that. But every time you show up for work in a different genre, you have to reprogram your brain. You think, right, this is what happens in this genre.
SY: You gave a captivating, heartfelt and relatable performance as Matt in ‘Submerged,’ and once again proved your versatility as an actor. But after you found success in your comedies earlier in your career, did you worry about being typecast at all? Is that also a reason why you enjoy acting in the different genres?
JB: I think that typecasting does sometimes work in people’s favors. When you’re the guy who does something really good, anytime filmmakers need that type of performance, they’re going to hire you, because they know you’ll bring that.
SY: Since you have starred in so many different genres already, are there any other types of films that you’re interested in starring in next that you haven’t done yet?
JB: I would love to do a horror film. I haven’t starred in one yet, so I think that’s the next genre I would like to tackle. I’m also going to do more action.
SY: Besides acting in films and on television, you have also produced several movies, including ‘Authors Anonymous’ and the upcoming drama, ‘Modern Love.’ What interests you in producing, particularly projects you’re also starring in? Are you also interested in directing films?
JB: I definitely think that I’m going to direct someday. Every director I have worked with has said, “You need to become a director. I have also produced some projects, but I realized that I don’t love it. I would rather be in front of the camera.
SY: Besides films, you have also guest starred on several television shows throughout your career, including ‘Veronica Mars’ and ‘All My Children.’ How does portraying a character over the course of several episodes on a television series compare and contrast to playing a character in a film?
JB: That just goes back to not being bored. I get bored so easily, as I have so much energy and am so hyper. So jumping around and doing all of these projects in the different mediums keeps me excited to go to work.
The two mediums are different because with films, you know your character’s beginning, middle and end right away, when you first get the script. With TV, you don’t know what’s going to happen during the next episode, which keeps acting exciting and fun. Each new detail changes your process as an actor.
SY: Are there any actors who you haven’t worked with yet who you would like to collaborate with on a film or television show?
JB: I would really love to work with Ryan Reynolds (who also played the character of Van Wilder, in the original 2002 comedy that preceded Bennett’s portrayal in the 2009 prequel). I think Ryan‘s so good at acting in comedies, serious action dramas and horror films, and that’s something I want to strive to do.
Check out images of Bennett from ‘Submerged’ below.
Written by: Karen Benardello