A Special Conversation: Ben Jeffrey

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In “The Circle of Life,” sometimes paths cross when you least expect it. Postcards received the unexpected opportunity of visiting with Broadway actor Ben Jeffrey when he returned to his alma mater for a visit. After graduating from Abilene Christian University in 2006, Jeffrey went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from Rutgers State University of New Jersey in May 2009. In 2010, Jeffrey landed the role of the loveable warthog Pumbaa in The Lion King, and he has been an audience favorite in the production since.

Where are you from originally?

My dad was in the air force when I was a kid, so I was born in Madison, Wisconsin. Then we lived in Colorado, then in a suburb about an hour outside of New York. We ended up in Kansas City when I was about six, and I grew up there. My parents and younger brother still live there.

How did you end up going to school in Abilene?

My older brother Nathan was looking, well, we were both looking, for a collegiate theater program that had a Christian ethos. Nathan found Abilene Christian University. He checked it out, and we found an incredible program in the middle of this little town in Texas. He went to school there and graduated, and I came in the following year. I wasn’t planning on going to Abilene, but visiting the school as a prospective student, looking at the scholarship options, I just thought it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

What do you miss most about Texas?

The wide open spaces. Driving from Dallas to Abilene to come back to ACU was just gorgeous. Driving into the sunset, the world is on fire, and it’s so open. There are a lot of great things in New York, but I miss that most; everything being so packed together is not my favorite thing. I love that we went one hundred sixty miles in less than two hours. In New York, it would take me two hours to go five miles. Also, I love that the people are so open, kind, and warm…southern hospitality can become a joke, but it is such a beautiful thing that people are so willing to think good things about everyone. That takes an active will…an act of goodwill.

Lion King NY

Lion King NY

It’s a long way from Abilene to Broadway. How’d you end up in New York?

Ummm…practice, practice, practice…(laughs) No. My junior year at ACU, I had a talk with the chair of the theater department and said, “If you don’t think I have the chops to do this professionally, tell me now. I’ll finish out my degree and figure out what I am going to do with my life. And he said, “I absolutely think you do. I think you are young for your type, so I think grad school is a good option for you.” So, when I started checking out grad schools, I knew I wanted a recognizable school, and I wanted a place that had a good connection with New York City. I got accepted into Rutgers University, which at the time was a top five theater school in the country. They had a showcase at the end of my time there, which is where actors do a small performance of various scenes for an audience of agents and casting directors. I had some interest there and was able to meet the same agent I have now. Then I went back to Kansas City and did a couple of small things…like get married to my wife Christina…no big life changes or anything. We both moved to New York in November of 2009, and I booked The Lion King in April of 2010. I have been doing the show now five and a half years.

Wow! Only four months later?

Yeah, which is crazy! It felt really, really long in the middle of the New York winter, when you’re broke and living in a terrible apartment in Brooklyn. But four months is nothing; some people come here for twenty years and never get that opportunity, so we were very blessed.

What’s your favorite thing about playing Pumbaa?

What I love so much about him is that he is my best self. He is very loyal, extremely compassionate, he has great sense of humor, he can take a joke about himself—but more than anything else, he’s a guy you can always depend on to show up for you. When I am being the best version of myself, that’s what I do. As far as performing in the show, I mean, we get to come out screaming, literally screaming, and we get to hear the audience, especially the kids, squealing and laughing, because these characters are so beloved. It is really lovely to be able to tap into that energy and history and just get to make people laugh.

How do you keep it from becoming boring? Doing the same show over and over?

Well, it is a job, and sometimes, you have to push yourself like anyone else would. I am sure there are days when a banker says, “I don’t feel like crunching numbers today. I just don’t feel up to it today.” Some days my body just feels so beat up and I do not want to do the show, but I keep in mind that so few people get to do what I do. And The Lion King is an institution. A family from the Midwest may have been saving for years to come to the city and see the show. I don’t want them to see me punching a timecard; I want them to see a living, breathing, beautiful version of a really great story. And the show itself gives you energy. Also, I am blessed to work with a great group of talented people, like Fred Berman (who plays my partner in crime, Timon). He’s a prince among men, and he is constantly trying to do new things to keep it fresh and alive. We try to work off each other in that way, to focus on telling this story in the best way to each other, and then the rest happens.

What advice do you have for others who want to pursue this path?

Soak up everything you can, even math. Soak up all of the experiences and everything you can learn. I never thought I would use physics in a play, but I have. I have done all kinds of things, and it gives me an idea of what the rest of my production team does. You cannot stop exploring humanity and the world.

Ben-at-ACUWho inspires you?

I get inspiration from a lot of different places. I always thought Anthony Hopkins was a really incredible actor, and I would love to do the kind of work he does. I am inspired by people I work with, my family; I also think the theatrical community, people working together to create something, is an inspiring thing. As an actor, you have to keep experiencing things and being a sponge. Part of what we do as actors is translate really important moments in life, so our inspiration and art comes a lot from you, the real person behind the fictional character.

How does your faith impact your career?

I don’t know that it affects my career as much as it affects my life. On good days, when I am trying to live my life more like Jesus, I am nicer to people, kinder to my friends, more considerate of my wife, I work harder, and I am more willing to contribute more of myself. When I am being a better lover of Jesus, I am then being a better actor and better person. When I am behaving any less, I think I live in a less healthy, less productive way. Especially being a Christian in this industry…no one has ever resented me here for being a Christian. I work with a lot of people who have been burned by the church; they have been told they do not matter and they are going to hell. But none of them when they found out I was a Christian have returned that towards me; they have waited to find out whether or not I am like that. They find out I am a nice person, and I want to treat them like Jesus would treat them. They don’t care our beliefs are different. It’s about loving those people where they are. When I read the Bible, I see the story is about this guy who came and said, “We are going to do things a whole different way, and it is going to be better for us.” And it was. His whole thing was going up to people and saying, “I know you feel terrible, but I want you to feel loved. You hate everything about yourself, but I don’t.” If we can all do that, then we are doing what’s required of us.

What’s your favorite thing about living in the Big Apple?

The great thing about New York is that there are so many cultures and groups of people from different backgrounds, and whether you want to or not, you have to interact with them. I think that makes you a better person. Millionaires and homeless people all ride the subway there. Also, you can do whatever you want pretty much any time of day, because it’s New York City.

image2What does a normal day look like for you?

Usually, we get up with the baby earlier than I would like, because I don’t get home until eleven-thirty or midnight from the theater. Then we play or go for a walk, and the gym is a big part of our lives. If I don’t stay healthy and exercise, the puppet starts to break me. I must stay in shape in order to keep my work. Sometimes I have a commercial, TV, or film audition, and I will go do those if I have them. If I don’t have anything, then I will work on my voice or things to stay artistically fresh. Then I go to the theater. I usually get there about an hour before the show starts. I warm up my body and my voice and do the show. And then I go home and start it all over again.

How do you handle family life?

Fortunately, my wife has a lot of flexibility in her schedule. I have Monday off so we get to be together, but we try to arrange it where I watch the baby during the day and she does at night. We just try to spend as much time as we can as a whole family. The hardest part is having friends outside the theatrical community, because they get off work when I go to perform the show.

What do you wish people knew?

It bugs me when I hear people say actors have it so easy doing what they do. I have repaired knee cartilage to prove it’s not. People think, “You only go to work four hours a day, that’s easy.” It is four hours for a show, but I do eight of them a week, and the amount of energy I expend at any given show is staggering. We love doing it, it’s a pleasure and a gift, but it’s also a lot of work.

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