Cover Story - Andrew Benator, the meek who inherits the Earth

In the late 1960s, Dustin Hoffman transformed the idea of big-screen leading men when he parlayed his Oscar-nominated turn in The Graduate to heavier performances like Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. With the right levels of energy and commitment, an actor you'd peg for humor could carry drama, romance and villainy.

Andrew Benator plays a similar role in Atlanta theater. Skinny, balding and beaky, he's easily typecast (and often cast) as the nebbish. His stage presence, however, can prove too nervy and unpredictable to be confined to silly characters, and he excels in more darkly charismatic turns like the confrontational leading man of Becky Shaw at Actor's Express last year. "It can be interesting to have the guy who looks like the funny guy turn out to be something else," says Benator, who can color outside the lines of a role as written, but still manages to deepen rather than distract from the work itself.

Born in Atlanta, Benator's acting career began when he was a Lovett High School ninth grader in a production of Dark of the Moon. "I learned three chords to play a song on a guitar and got to kiss a senior," he says. "So it was a pretty good deal." Benator eventually followed his acting muse to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, where he earned an M.F.A., and then to New York City, where he spent nine years taking gigs from TV commercials to Off-Broadway.

Six years ago, he moved back to his hometown. "The lifestyle wore me out," says Benator, a soft-spoken man who weighs his words carefully and values his privacy. "I wanted to settle down, get a house and a dog and be a little more of a civilian." He has a German shepherd mix named Lamont and alternates between a white-collar day job and his eccentric onstage alter egos. He's even found a recurring role on Tyler Perry's sitcoms as a doctor of uncertain Eastern European origin, and he currently plays C.S. Lewis in Freud's Last Session at Theatrical Outfit.

One of his favorite roles — and biggest acting challenges — came with the Alliance Theatre's Eurydice, where he played the eerily boyish Lord of the Underworld. He says, "I did not go into Eurydice thinking, 'I've got this.' The Lord of the Underworld was clearly a child. Some of the things he said could've been naïve and childlike, or could've been dark and menacing. Since I was dressed like an English schoolboy and speaking with a childlike voice, dark and menacing made it more interesting."

Despite the importance he places on preparation, Benator's capable of inspired improvisation. He recalls pleading with actress Courtney Patterson while holding her ankle during a performance of Boeing Boeing. "At one point her high-heeled shoe went spinning violently into the audience, and happened to land in an empty seat. I ran out, got it, shouted 'Chivalry is not dead!' came back and did the whole Cinderella bit, putting it back on her foot."

When playing comedic roles, Benator always tries to "land a joke" and earn a laugh when required. However, "I try not to think about anything in turns of 'funny' or 'serious.' Whatever the moment is, I play it for all it's worth." Perhaps that explains why he's so good at being funny and serious at the same time.

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