Tony Nominated Denée Benton on trusting her instincts and her journey to success
Tony Nominated Denée Benton on trusting her instincts and her journey to success
At just 25 years old, Denée Benton not only found her calling as a Tony-nominated actress and singer, but figured out a way to be immensely successful in the arts when she had no roadmap to get her there. Growing up in southern Florida, it wasn't figuring out her passion that was difficult, but it was staying committed to her path that led to her success on Broadway.
What does she attribute her success to? learning to trust her instincts and knowing what's right for HER. period. even when she wasn't sure how she was going to accomplish her goals.
Benton is best known for her Tony-nominated performance as Natasha Rostova in the 2016 musical of Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway, and she just landed the much sought after role of Eliza Hamilton in the smash hit HAMILTON. And what do you do when you are already on top of your game at 25 in a industry where few women succeed? you use your success as a platform to show that it can happen for others and help them understand how to traverse their own path.
Tell us a little bit about you.
Denée: I grew up in Central Florida, in the Orlando area. I always loved singing and dancing around my living room and performing. I did school choir, school plays starting in elementary school. I was obsessed with it but I had no clue how any of it worked or how you got inside the TV screen or on the big stage.
My junior year of high school is where I learned that you could really train and go to school for this. By then, I had already seen all the colleges I was applying fo [for traditional academia] but then I scraped it and decided I was going to go school for theatre. Once I got to Carnegie Mellon (which is where I got my BSA), I felt like I really got an understanding for what it meant to make a life and career of this - that’s where a lot of my real training really began. I was also fortunate because I had incredible high school theatre teachers.
What lit the passion for you?
Denée: I just felt it was meant to be. I remember watching the Brandy/Whitney version of Cinderella when I was like 5 and I was just exploding - I was crying. It made my chest feel so alive. I think I chased that feeling a lot. When I realized that it was something that could be done, it was life changing.
I have always been a very big picture person, a big dreamer. If I was going to be a doctor, I needed to be like the head surgeon. If I am going to do something, I need to do it a the highest level possible. I never had issues dreaming it was all possible once I decided it was what I wanted. That was really helpful. I was never really afraid of it. Being out in the industry definitely humbles you a bit, but at that time I think I had that blind optimism to just really go for it.
What is something people would be surprised to know about Denée Benton?
Denée: I am very, very insecure about my singing voice and it’s something I work through constantly. It’s funny, because technically I am this Tony nominated actress but everytime I go in for musical, everytime I go in for an audition, I am always concerned that my voice isn’t good enough. That self doubt and those comparison never really leave you even when you check those boxes of accomplishments
You've seen a lot of success as an actress. What we don't often see is the struggle to get to that success. Tell us a little bit about the failures, the no's, and the bumpy path to get to where you are today?
Denée: I think it’s a balance of a lot of things. I was raised in a really spiritual home so I think from a young age there was always an understanding that the gifts that I had to give were given to me, they are divine and they are part of my life purpose to share them. I feel like a lot of the times when I get really down, afraid or my ego’s really bruised… it’s always been helpful for me to remember that it’s not all about me.
Particularly with something like my role as Natasha [in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway] and getting to play a role like that. I remind myself what that would have meant to my 12 year old self, as a young black girl.
Understanding that there are so many people affected by what we do, especially in the performing arts industry, because you can reach so many people. When I came to have some perspective and remember these incredible moments of coincidence that had to happen to get me to this point… there were some bigger things a work than just me.
Since the show closed, I was really trying to focus on film and television and then I made it to the final 2 or 3 of about 10 projects this year and i didn’t get any of them. Each one was more devastating than the last.
The big word for me this year is “surrender.” I can be such an ambitious person but there is a point when you are showing up and you are doing your best but you have to surrender and trust that the things that are meant to come to you will or else you are going to drive yourself crazy. I feel like every person has to understand what surrender feels like in your body because there is only so much that is in our control.
This year, there has been a lot of conversation and evidence of women breaking their silence and breaking boundaries in Hollywood? Can you talk a little about your feelings on this.
Denée: It’s so obviously vital to me and it’s insane when I think about the great deception of the patriarchy and how they have oppressed half of the world’s population. It’s so bizarre to me. We have a lot of women in high places of power in my industry that are using their voices, but it’s still so insane how few women producers I know, compared to how many male producers I know. How few women directors I know, compared to how many male directors I know. I know a lot of female actresses, but if you even look at the ratio of how many roles are for men and how many are for women it’s absurd to see, even though we may be a little bit more than half the population. The numbers game doesn't add up. These things are really taboo conversations.
I am an extreme fan of ideas of things like affirmative action. I think you have to be really mindful when you want to change a system that has not been designed to work for a group of people. You have to make the choice to seek out people, to give people the opportunity to have the credentials to do their jobs well. There are so many women with the credentials. We are more educated than the men in America, statistically.
For the entertainment industry, we have such effects on the culture and the mainstream ideas of what’s accepted and what’s not accepted that I feel like it is our responsibility to lead the charge because it trickles down to society in such powerful ways.
What is a piece of advice you've received that has never left you?
Denée: I don’t know if this is the most powerful piece of advice I’ve ever received, but it’s just what’s coming to me. In acting school, in my movement class, my teacher would say all the time “hold tightly, let go lightly,” which is the idea that you have an impulse, you hold on to it and you make a choice. but then when something inevitably changes, being able to let it go lightly and having the grace to welcome in whatever is coming. I just feel like it’s a life principle. We have so little control, you have to show up to that 10th audition, give it your best and find the skill to release it just as quickly. It’s something I am still working on and it’s a daily practice of what it means to fully give yourself to something while being able to also surrender.
If there is one thing that you could be remembered for. What would you want it to be?
Denée: I am such an ambitious person, so I always thought this would be some big Oprah answer, but I really want kids someday. I started therapy a couple of years ago and you just realize how profound the impact is of your parents on your life. It shapes everything before you can even speak and I have great parents. It’s just a really big responsibility. I would want to be remembered as a good teacher and mother to the people I bring into the world or adopt - ultimately, that those people I mold feel like I did them well.
If you had one piece of advice you could give a the younger version of you starting out on your journey. what would it be?
Denée: I would tell her to just trust herself. I liked to follow the rules, I liked to get things right - it was easy to get advice from people that were not really my instinct even if it was people who loved me. Deep down even if I was terrified, but I would still follow my instincts with stress and terror. it always ended up being the right thing for me when I followed my instincts. There really is an inner voice that tells you what you need and what you don't need a million other people to validate it or to invalidate it -- just trust yourself. Everything that I felt at that time is manifesting in my life now and I feel like I could have saved myself a lot of tears and stress if I had just trusted that voice in the first place.