Suzanne Smart appeared in Marvel's Daredevil on Netflix as Shirley Benson, the hospital administrator who tried her best to help out Ben Urich and Claire Temple. We talked about getting cast for the role and her work with Vondie Curtis-Hall and Rosario Dawson. Many thanks to Ms. Smart for the interview!
Kuljit Mithra: When I first got in touch with you about doing the interview, you mentioned "Shirley Benson" was a relatively minor character... but I think you're underestimating how important she is to the show. Your scenes with Vondie Curtis-Hall in Season 1 and also with Rosario Dawson in Season 2 help round out those characters (Ben Urich and Claire Temple, respectively). Without you, their story arcs are not complete. Or are you more surprised I wanted to discuss Daredevil with you considering you were in four episodes?
Suzanne H. Smart: To be honest, I was very surprised to have anyone reach out to me since I do consider my role to be relatively "minor". Also, having only been in 3 episodes in Season 1 and 1 episode in Season 2 (which I was soooooo happy they brought Shirley back for one more!!!) I thought the character's impact wasn't that strong. The way that the production company works, we only see the scripts for the scenes we're shooting; not the entire script for the episode. I totally understand why; they want to protect story line and confidentiality. So, the "thru line" that I created for myself had a lot of back story with both characters so I could bring a more fully dimensioned texture to Shirley. Ironically, I actually don't have Netflix! All of my devices are too old and are not compatible, so I've never been able to see the whole series. But my one nephew is a TOTAL Marvel fan and completely freaked out when he saw me! I hadn't told him I was shooting it (actually, couldn't tell ANYONE!) and my cell phone BLEW UP with texts when Season 1 was released! It was so funny! I'm very happy the series hasbecome so well-received by the Mavel "Purists" and seems to have a great following!!
Mithra: Can you briefly talk about how you got the role? I know you've worked on other Netflix shows, so was it a case of being in the right place at the right time?
Smart: Actually, I booked Daredevil first, then Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, then OITNB. Ironically, none of them had anything to do with each other. They were all booked out of different casting offices with different producers, so it was just a really cool blessing that they all booked in that summer of 2014! The initial audition was in Julie Schubert's office and put on tape for the producers to review. My agent at the time, Paula Poeta (at The Mine. She's awesome! She's since moved on to become a manager and I'm now repped by her awesome
assistant, Amanda Kouri, now a full-fledged agent!) got word almost before I left the building that I was called back. The call-back was 3 days later (on Friday, 7/18/14) and both Adam Kane, the director, and Samantha Thomas, one of the producers were in the room. I had a BLAST working with Adam! It was the most fun I've had at a call-back in a long time! He kept giving me really cool nuanced direction for different ways to do that very first scene with Vondie in episode 3. By the time I got back to my j.o.b. doing books at a small restaurant in the East Village (about 20 minutes), my agent had already gotten word that they were putting a 'pin' in me! That means they were super interested and I was now on the 'short' list! The fact that it was a Friday SUCKED 'cause I had to wait the entire weekend and just try not to think about it! Luckily, relatively early on Monday morning, I got the call that I'd booked it! I was sooooooooo excited!!! Plus, I knew I had already built a nice rapport with the director so I felt really good about how the shoot would go. At that point, Shirley's role was not necessarily a recurring role; it only had the possibility of becoming one. We shot episode 3 in July and I didn't know if I would be coming back or not. The shoot went really well and it was an incredible honor to work with Vondie Curtis-Hall! I've always been a fan of his work! Didn't hear anything for a long time and then they brought me back to work on Episode 106, which I shot in September of '14. That was a tough shoot. It was the scene in the ER after the bombing in Chelsea. It was a loooong shoot and my scene was at the end of the day. Everyone was tired and it was a complicated shoot. I hadn't met that director before and there was no time to establish rapport. It was my first time working with Rosario Dawson. She's a delight! But after that shoot I thought, "Man, they are NEVER gonna have me back!" As I said, it was a rough shoot. But they did have me back at the end of October to shoot that short scene in Episode 110 where I have to break Vondie's heart about the appeal being denied. Since he was killed off at the end of the Season 1, I didn't think there'd be any way to bring Shirley back since most of her interaction was with Ben. I was so surprised and super happy to get the call in November of 2015 that they were putting me into episode 11 in Season 2! And what fun it was to do those two meaty scenes!! And NO, Shirley did NOT get Claire fired!! She was trying to help her KEEP her job!
Mithra: How would you best describe Shirley Benson? She seems like she's got to be
the tough boss, but is torn between being that boss and being a friend to those
who need her help.
Smart: That's a very keen description of Shirley, I think! She DOES have a tough job. She's constantly in the position of having to deliver bad news. She's a tough woman who does her best to do the best job she can.
The back story I created for her for myself (Please be VERY clear that this is my own actor homework and has NOTHING to do with anything Marvel has created for this character!!) is that she's got two teenage children and she's in a
loveless marriage. She's too tired from 'doing it all' and that's why she can sometimes 'crank out' at people. The way the health care system has gotten so skewed away from patient care to numbers and profits makes her very sad. When she sees good people put in bad situations (like Ben), she knows there's only so much she can do to cut through the red tape. But like she says in Season 2, "I don't know about you, but I need my job." pretty much sums her up. She will do what she can, but can't afford to lose her job; she's looking at 2 kids to still put through college with not much to depend on from her husband. However, BECAUSE she's good at multi-tasking and mediating, that's what makes her so effective at her job. Does she love her job? I don't think so. But she always takes pride in doing the best job she can, no matter what the situation. She's definitely caught between a rock and a hard place!
Mithra: How was it working with Curtis-Hall and Dawson?
Smart: I had a BLAST working with both of them!! When I first saw that I was going to be working with Vondie Curtis-Hall, I was intimidated! I had been a fan of his work ever since Chicago Hope back in the 90's! He's one of those hard-working journeyman actors who is always solid in everything he does! I was nervous, but he was so kind, warm and welcoming on set! He completely set me at ease! He was even kind enough to let me help him run lines! I think he only did that to make me feel comfortable! He's just such a wonderful person and truly talented actor! I sincerely hope the Universe gives me the opportunity to work with him again someday! I can't say enough good things about him!
Now, Miss Rosario Dawson is hysterical! She's got a great sense of humor and she's a very talented actress! I didn't have a whole lot of interaction with her shooting episode 106, but when we worked together again on episode 211, we pretty much got to spend the whole day together on set. She's fun to be with on set and the thing I love about her the most is, as soon as it's time to role, she is ALL business! She's a lovely actor and I had such a good game of "actor ping-pong" with her once she knew I could 'bring it'! Shooting that scene outside the board room before she quits was SOOOOOO MUCH FUN!!!! I really hope I get to work with her again!
Mithra: One of the interesting things from Season 1 was your quick speech to Ben
Urich where you mention a measles outbreak because "idiot parents don't want
to vaccinate". Were you aware of the controversy that line brought? Anti-
vaccine sites said the show had a propaganda script, but others praised the
Smart: No, I totally wasn't aware of that! Wow! I didn't even blink an eye at that because I'm one of those folks who believes in vaccinating our children. Perhaps if my son had developed autism because of a vaccination, I'd feel differently. L&O:SVU did a very good episode on this issue last season, I believe that showed the pros and cons. It's a very complicated issue. I think if folks don't want to vaccinate their children, that's their right, but then they need to be hyper vigilant so that their child does not infect other children. Like I said, it's a very complicated issue pitting person freedom against the welfare of the general population. I think the medical community needs to figure out what the heck the connection is (because there IS one) and do something about it. But that's just my personal opinion. If this episode opened up more debate on a very important topic then I don't see any problem with it.
Mithra: I've always wondered, as an actor, how difficult is it for you to read lines that
may or may not jive with your own views?
Smart: For me, it comes down to creating the character and letting the character speak their own truth. I played a character in a play 2 summers ago who was very much a 'victim' in her approach to life. But that was her world, not mine. Recognizing that dialogue in a script does not reflect one's personal views is very important. Is it easier to speak dialogue that reflect my own views and opinions? Yes, to a certain extent. However, I believe that the actor has to find some piece of themselves in every character they play, even the darkest characters. Let's face it, even the most evil person you can imagine never THINKS they're evil. In our own lives we make rationalizations for our actions so that they will align with our idea of who we are. Once you get to that place, and you're able to just BE the character, personal ideology of the actor really doesn't exist anymore. It's what the character thinks, feels, believes. Does that make sense?
Mithra: How did you find Season 2 compared to Season 1 for your character? Season
2 had more action at the hospital, and Season 1 was more of a quiet tone with
Ben Urich and his wife.
Smart: Here's a question where being able to actually WATCH the series would help in answering! Speaking to just the work I was able to have pulled for my reel, I'm not sure I would say season one had a more quiet tone. I think the energy of my scenes in episode 103 & 106 showed a hustle and hecticness about her world at work that was indicative of her life, in general. For season 2, (having only seen my scenes that were pulled for my reel), I don't know all the action that happened at the hospital, but it seems Shirley was doing a lot more mediating and crisis management trying to help Claire.
Mithra: Last question... obviously you can't tell me if you're involved with any of the
other Netflix shows, but please let the readers know what other projects are
coming up for you and where they can find you on the internet (Twitter,
Facebook, website etc.).
Smart: I have a project coming up this summer, but due to a Non-Disclosure Agreement, I can't say anything yet.
I sure hope Marvel will think about bringing Shirley back for something in Season 3, but I don't know what that would look like since both Ben and Claire are out of the picture in Daredevil. Maybe Kingpin can take me hostage!! I was able to work very briefly with Vincent D'Onofrio in a small role in an episode on the last season of Law & Order:Criminal Intent. My scene got cut for time from that episode, but got to work with him, never the less! I recorded a VO for Burger King for their Philly Cheeseburger campaign that, hopefully, will be rolling out on radio sometime this summer! As for other on-camera things, well, I just keep pluggin' away! Pilot Season Proper was good this year with wonderful series regular roles! Nothing booked, but I did really good work and reinforced the faith the casting directors put in me by giving me appointments. All of that work just keeps moving me forward to an eventual series regular role! Have folks send me positive vibes!! Interestingly enough, I've gotten some fan email from folks because of Daredevil! I appreciate it so much! If anyone writes me, I will do my best to communicate as soon as I can.
Folks can find me on IMDb by searching Suzanne H. Smart.
Oh! And if folks missed it, they can catch me On Demand in ABC's mini-series, MADOFF that was on in early
February! I play Annette Bongiorno, Madoff's secretary on the 17th floor where all the nefarious dealings
Thanks so much for reaching out, Kuljit! This was really cool!
(c) 2016 Kuljit Mithra & Suzanne H. Smart
Daredevil:The Man Without Fear