Behind The Nerd Who Won Your Heart In "Pitch Perfect"
Ben Platt, the actor who played lovable roommate Benji Applebaum, talks about postponing college for Pitch Perfect, what to look forward to in the sequel, the "Cups" craze, and, of course, magic.
It's hard to stand out in a chorus, let alone in performances as big as those in the climactic moments of the 2012 smash hit movie Pitch Perfect, but that's exactly what Ben Platt managed to do. He might not have become a household name as a result of the movie, like say, Rebel Wilson, but Platt's character Benji, the dorky, magic-obsessed roommate of leading man Jesse (Skylar Astin), stole audience's hearts when he was finally given a chance to (literally) take center stage, and sing with the a cappella group that had previously rejected him: The Treblemakers. Benji was no longer sitting alone in his room, under his TIE Fighter Star Wars mobile, playing with his magic rainbow handkerchief — he was on the rise.
And though Platt might not have the same passions — or make the same decorating choices — as his character, who will have a much bigger part in the Pitch Perfect sequel that is due to hit theaters on May 15, 2015, he understands where Benji is coming from. He can't do any magic tricks in real life and has never seen a single Star Wars film, but, at a diner in New York City's Theater District, Platt easily channeled Benji's enthusiasm when talking about acting and singing, skills he gets to use both in the Pitch Perfect franchise and eight times a week on the Broadway stage in The Book of Mormon as Elder Cunningham, the part originated by Josh Gad.
"I kind of always pretend I'm talking about musical theater when my character is talking about how much he loves Star Wars because I feel as nerdy about that as someone might feel about Star Wars," Platt said. The 20-year-old actor, who laughed about how his grandparents were coming to see him in the hilariously vulgar Mormon for the first time that evening, is still getting used to being asked for his autograph at restaurants, but is incredibly comfortable on stage. Like the B.o.B. song he sings in that fateful Pitch Perfect scene, Platt definitely has "got the magic" in him when talking about performing.
The actor's love for musical theater runs deep: His parents were both singers, his father produces musicals, and Platt is the second youngest of five siblings, all of whom participated in after-school music programs while growing up in Los Angeles. When he was 9 years old, Platt's after-school teacher sent him on a casting call for a production of The Music Man at The Hollywood Bowl and he won the part of Marian's awkward little brother Winthrop, alongside Kristin Chenoweth as Marian and Eric McCormack as Harold Hill. And with that, Platt said, "I just got bitten by the bug."
Platt, a self-described actor who sings (rather than the other way around), spent the next decade doing theater in school, getting cast in more performances at The Hollywood Bowl (including Camelot and The Sound of Music), and joining the national tour of Caroline, or Change at age 11.
And just two weeks before he was set to move across the country to New York City to attend Columbia University, he was cast in Pitch Perfect. "My voice teacher said, 'They're doing this a cappella movie and you should probably ask your agent about it,'" he recalled. "They said, 'There's this one nerdy character in it, but you're not really right.' And I said, 'Well, let me go in and do my own take on it.'" The actor, whose bags were already packed for college, joked sarcastically about how easy it was to just redirect his plans and plane ticket to head to the Pitch Perfect set in Baton Rouge, La., which also meant deferring his admission to Columbia. (He did eventually enroll after filming wrapped, but less than two months later, he was cast in the Chicago production of Book of Mormon, before eventually winning the part on Broadway.)
Once he arrived in Louisiana, Platt worked with Pitch Perfect director Jason Moore to refine the character of Benji. "At first, it was very much a cookie-cutter, nerd character. It literally said: McLovin type," Platt said. "Jason said, 'I really want to make sure this character isn't just like a forgettable nerd character like in every other teen movie and I want him to be an interesting specific guy.' We decided the magic thing was an interesting, specific narrative we could latch onto and made that more his focus so he wasn't just a nerd with all these interests." But that meant Platt had to learn a lot about magic and handling animals. "It was tough. I had to learn to put the bird in a little tube and the bird's in my cape. In the second film, there's more animals," he revealed. There's also a lot more Benji. "Benji, in a way, is one of the hearts of the first one because he's someone that you're rooting for and finally, he has this moment in the end — it's a very nice payoff for the character," Platt said. "It obviously sets up that he'll get to be in The Trebles this time around, which is nice and fun."
While more animals and "higher-budget magic tricks" presented a bigger challenge for Platt when filming the sequel, the movie also allowed him to thrive in an area he loves: a cappella. Platt had a brief stint in an a cappella group during his short time at Columbia and he's a huge fan of Pentatonix, the a cappella group that won NBC's The Sing-Off, became a YouTube sensation, and has a role in Pitch Perfect 2.
As for the narrative of the sequel, Platt said everyone has grown up a lot, Jesse and Beca (Anna Kendrick) are "thinking about their futures," and Benji might be in for some romance of his own. "[It's] very much the same formula," Platt said. And the same faces, including Brittany Snow's character Chloe, who was supposed to graduate at the end of the first film, but is still around in the sequel. "It's a very Chloe situation," Platt said. Did she fail a class? "Something like that," he teased with a giggle. "It's like [Van Wilder], very much that kind of thing. And, of course, there will be another riff-off." And, Platt noted, "some form of 'Cups' will make its way" into Pitch Perfect 2.
Like with Moore in the first film, the sequel — which was directed by Elizabeth Banks, who played competition judge Gail in the first movie, which she also helped produce — also gave Platt an opportunity to bring his own personal creativity to the story. "Elizabeth Banks is very cool about making sure we all get to throw our own material in and improv. She knows when moments are good for bits and when to let things keep rolling," he said. The actor took advantage of that, throwing his own lines in throughout the filming process.
Platt has already written a solo show, which includes an array of musical melodies and comic skits, that he will be performing on Aug. 18, Aug. 25, and Sept. 4 at 54 Below in New York City. And he would love to take that a step further and write an original script for film or television of his own, perhaps with his co-star Astin, whom he met a few years before they were both cast in Pitch Perfect, while doing a workshop in L.A. They fell out of touch but reconnected when they were cast as roommates. "I get down to Louisiana and I said, 'Who's playing my roommate?' I still don't know who was playing the lead guy. They said, 'It's Skylar,' and I said, 'That's my friend!' It was a really fun surprise and ever since then, we've been really close. It was bashert!" Platt said, using the Yiddish word for "destiny" in an adorably Benji-like moment.
Platt's current contract with Mormon runs through January 2015, and he was just cast alongside Meryl Streep in the movie musical Ricky and the Flash. In between projects, he's binge-watching Orange Is the New Black, which he'd also love to appear on. ("I'd play a janitor just to be around those girls," he joked.)
But no matter what the future holds for Platt, he is incredibly proud to play Benji and to be a part of the Pitch Perfect phenomenon. "It was this crazy gradual change. No one knew about it, and then slowly, people started to recognize me. And then it was on HBO, and the DVD went crazy, and there was 'Cups,' and we were on the MTV Movie Awards — it just became this phenomenon. I'm still not used to people knowing who I am," he said shyly. "Nothing will ever be like Pitch Perfect because it was such a surprise and came out of nowhere. We didn't know it was going to be a big deal. We just thought it was this little, fun thing we were doing and gave it our best in this little, indie, cult-y comedy. There will never be another moment like that, but I think we've done a really good job in the sequel. We didn't change anything that's not broken."