Jonathan Benefiel is a New York-born and raised actor turned executive producer who fell in love with producing after creating and working on the short film Protecting Tony, which went on to win over 30 awards and five nominations. From there, Jonathan began tackling socially relevant inspired films such as Academy Award Nominee The Trial of the Chicago 7 and John Leguizamo’s Road to Broadway.
What makes Jonathan so valuable to each film he’s involved in is that he knows how to make connections and good business decisions in the industry while also working on projects that uplift stories that raise consciousness in society. He has an intuition for projects with social messages and believes producing isn’t just about making money but also about representing a film with an important story. Being on the other side of the camera as an actor for so long also helped him bring a unique perspective to producing.
Most recently, Jonathan worked as an executive producer for Mayim Bialik’s directorial debut film As They Made Us. He will soon begin his next business venture as he works on his own film, The Mob Kid.
PH: Hi Jonathan! How are you today? Can you share what your journey in the world of production has been like?
Jonathan Benefiel: Hi Briana! I’m doing very well. Thank you for the interview opportunity. My journey in the world of production began with the realization that I had to start creating my own opportunities, rather than sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. My closest friend of 33 years, Eric Seltzer, had always dreamed of playing the role of ‘Lennie’ in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. He always thought it would be fun if we could act together in a modern-day remake and thought I would be the perfect ‘George.’ So I approached a writer/director that I knew by the name of Dat Nguyen, and we hammered out an idea to do a reimagination of the story set to a mafia backdrop, and Protecting Tony was born. The short film went on to garner 32 wins and 5 nominations for best short film as well as 17 wins and 3 nominations for best actor and best supporting actor for both myself and Eric on the festival circuit. The experience of Exec-Producing that film and guiding the film from development through pre and post-production, marketing, and distribution, as well as the successful results from it, was all the reaffirmation I needed to know that this was the right path forward for me.
PH: What influenced moving from being an actor in front of the camera to executive producing behind the camera? How are these two roles different for you?
Jonathan Benefiel: The idea was to create my own opportunities. The way in which these roles differ is that Executive Producing allows me the freedom to choose which projects to be involved in, whereas acting only affords me the rare opportunity to audition for someone else’s project in the hopes that I’m the right ‘fit’ for it. And the odds of that happening are like hitting the lottery. I guess I just wanted to feel like I had more control over my destiny, to the extent that one can in this business.
PH: What kind of unique perspective has being an actor previously brought to your work as a producer?
Jonathan Benefiel: I would say that I have a deep appreciation for actors because I know how challenging it is to be an artist. It takes tremendous courage to have the ability to block out all the ‘noise’ and allow oneself to be vulnerable in front of complete strangers and come up with an amazing performance. It truly is nothing short of miraculous. And I take that sensitivity and empathy toward actors into every project I produce.
PH: Can you point to a time when you fell in love with producing? How did you know this was something you wanted to explore further?
Jonathan Benefiel: It was truly the success of Protecting Tony. To take something from concept to screen and see it succeed is a very rewarding experience.
PH: Let’s talk about one of your most recent projects, As They Made Us. What drew you to this film and how did you get involved?
Jonathan Benefiel: I met fellow producer Cary Anderson on Facebook. Prior to accepting his friend request, I checked out his credits on IMDb and noticed that we were both at similar points in our careers, so I accepted–thinking it would be fun to pick each other’s brains in order to see how we might help one another. Turns out that my instincts were right. On one particular day, he reached out to me to see if I might be interested in Exec-Producing The Trial of the Chicago 7. Once I realized who was involved and what the storyline was, it was a no-brainer. After that conversation, I immediately went to work, begging my wife to let me invest in it. She agreed, and the rest is history. After the success of that film, Cary was given the opportunity to Exec-Produce As They Made Us. He asked me if I wanted to jump in, and, of course, I said, “Hell yeah!”. What drew me to the film is the subject matter of family dysfunction and how that dysfunction negatively impacts all of our adult relationships throughout our lives. So I felt that this was a project that had universal appeal. I, myself, have gone through very similar family dysfunction when I was a child. And it’s taken a lot of conscious work and therapy to deal with it in a healthy way.
PH: Finding the right balance in projects that are simultaneously good business decisions yet raise consciousness in society is something you’ve been able to do extremely well. How do you bring these two things together? What kind of line do you have to balance, if any?
Jonathan Benefiel: While I’d like to take credit for finding these socially conscious-raising projects–the truth is that those projects found me. All I did was set the intention, and the rest took care of itself. For example, when the opportunity to Exec-Produce the behind-the-scenes documentary John Leguizamo’s Road to Broadway came my way, I intuitively knew it was a project I had to get involved with because of the socially relevant subject matter. Once that credit hit the IMDb, every writer/producer out there who had socially relevant material started hitting me up. And that created a kind of positive feedback loop, so to speak. Synchronicity also plays a crucial role in my decision-making. When The Trial of the Chicago 7 came my way, I saw the political echoes of the past repeating in this current moment in history. As such, I felt a desperate need to help get the film made because I felt our democracy was on very thin ice. I hoped that the movie might help change some hearts and minds to see things from another perspective. So for me, it’s not about the money. I never make decisions with money as my end goal. I make decisions based on how passionate I am for a particular story. Some of those stories may end up making a ton of money, while some may not. And I’m okay with that. Because I believe that when one follows their passion in life, the universe will provide a way for you to succeed because you are on your correct path. Now, does that mean that every project I do has to have a grand socially conscious element to it? No. After all, sometimes people need an escape from the harsh realities of human existence, and they just want to have fun and be entertained. And that’s okay too.
PH: How do you ensure you’re representing a film with a good story at the end of the day? Do you have certain metrics you keep in mind?
Jonathan Benefiel: For me, it’s all about the story and the writer’s ability to tell that story in the form of an amazing script. Let’s not forget that, while I am a producer, writer, and actor–I’m also a film-goer. If I get excited while reading a script and can envision the entire film in my mind’s eye, that informs me and lets me know that it’s probably something I should invest my time and money into. If the film has social relevance–all the better.
PH: Working in this industry, what’s one of the biggest things you’ve been able to learn about yourself (personally or professionally)?
Jonathan Benefiel: What I’ve learned is that obstacles are really opportunities in disguise. It’s all about one’s perspective. There’s an old saying that goes, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” I guess by that definition, I was insane for a long time. It wasn’t until I started doing things differently that I started to get better results. So if you’re a struggling artist, keep that in mind. Don’t be afraid to venture outside your comfort zone because that’s where the magic is. If you play it safe, safe is what you’ll get. That’s the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t. You have to take risks and believe in yourself fervently. Those that would put you down do so because they don’t have the courage to follow their dreams, and it makes them feel superior to dump on yours. That’s their hangup. Don’t let it be yours.
PH: Are there any other upcoming projects you’d like to share?
Jonathan Benefiel: I’m currently in pre-production on a film I wrote titled The Mob Kid. It’s a tale about a low-level wise guy who magically switches souls with his sensitive, nerdy, and bullied son. Hilarity ensues as they try to negotiate each other’s lives while figuring out how to get back into their own bodies. I would describe it as Freaky Friday meets The Sopranos. Mike Rohl is directing the film. Clay Epstein is the Executive Producer. Clay’s company, Film Mode Entertainment, is the production company representing the film. And J. Todd Harris is the producer. The film is going to feature my late stepfather, Frank Vestri’s music–which was the inspiration for writing the screenplay.