Haley Bennett, the first recipient of EnergaCamerimage Film Festival’s New Generation Acting Award, will follow Joe Wright’s “Cyrano” with Whoopi Goldberg-produced “Till,” about the infamous murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of “offending” white woman Carolyn Bryant. Her husband and his half-brother were acquitted, but later confessed to the murder.
“In America, it was a reckoning, but I didn’t have a deep knowledge of it. I thought: ‘I can’t be the only one.’ Bringing this story to light again, at the time when we desperately need it, was important to me,” Bennett tells Variety at the festival in Toruń, Poland, admitting that playing Bryant meant “carrying around hate and fear, paranoia and anger.”
“I don’t want to live in ignorance. If I can learn something about the history of America, then I am not standing still. What I loved about this story was the power of mother’s love. Her need for justice ignited a revolution, but there still has not been justice for Emmett Till.”
Admitting there weren’t many clues as to who Bryant was, protected by society and kept out of the press, Bennett has turned to dreams – a technique she has been using for the last couple of years.
“With my mentor, we have conversations about dreams, symbols and imagination. That’s my foundation. I ask for the character to be revealed to me and then miraculously it happens. I pull from something that’s real so that when I am on set, hopefully I am not acting. I am delivering something honest.”
Bennett, who debuted in 2007 in “Music and Lyrics,” calls herself “the most experienced ‘rising star’ that has ever graced the screen.”
“Usually, you give these kinds of awards to someone who has only done a couple of films. But here I am, and I have done 32. I have been called a ‘breakout star’ for over a decade now. It has always been a failure to launch,” she says with a laugh, adding that being able to live her life privately has been “a blessing and a curse.”
“To make meaningful films, you have to be financeable. You need to be in the spotlight,” she says, recalling her first collaboration with Antoine Fuqua on “The Equalizer.” “I was offered a bigger role and it was taken away from me because of the things I couldn’t control. But Antoine wrote the role of Mandy for me and I decided to take that chance,” she says.
“I wanted something more significant but there was grace in that too. And trust that this relationship between Antoine and I will be a significant one. He is such a genuine, spiritual man and I’ve learnt a lot from him, also about having faith in your own path. That’s the advice I would give to young actors: Go all in, because there is no role too small. I have built my career on that.” Later, Fuqua cast her in “The Magnificent Seven.”
On set, Bennett always has the closest relationship with the cinematographer and then the director. (“They have this direct access to your inner world. There is no hiding from that,” she says). Now, in “Cyrano,” she plays Roxanne to Peter Dinklage’s Cyrano de Bergerac, reprising their roles from Erica Schmidt’s stage musical.
“I’ve lived with this character for many, many years. I have transformed from a single woman longing to be on stage to now a mother and a wife, coming into my own power. That experience has been potent. In Telluride, I went to the bathroom after the first screening and there was a line of sobbing women, mascara down to their chins,” she says.
“Roxanne is such an iconic character and we have preconceived notions about her, so it was important to make this character distinctive. I felt she had to be fallible. She was always written as a woman ‘before her time,’ but she was also written by a man [Edmond Rostand] in the 1800s. It was a relief to have a female scribe, someone to reinterpret this classic.”
Next up, Bennett will be featured in Eli Roth’s “Borderlands,” a film she describes as “pure octane.”
“We did a Zoom table read and it was surreal, seeing all these incredible actors from Jamie Lee Curtis to Cate Blanchett or Kevin Hart. I did a tiny little indie feature before [‘She Is Love’] and then a day later I was flying to Budapest to be on the set of this giant action film. I guess it’s something I thrive on.”