Ben and Kate: Series Creator Dana Fox and Star Nat Faxon Talk Writing vs. Acting; Polar Opposite Siblings and the Amazing Maggie Elizabeth Jones!

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One of the new season’s few bright spot in sitcoms is Fox’s Ben and Kate (Tuesdays, 8:30/7:30C). The series focuses on polar opposite siblings – the ultra-organized and seemingly together Kate (Dakota Johnson) and the walking hot mess that is her brother, Ben (Nat Faxon).

Ben is full of wonderful if bizarre ideas and is willing to just go there and do that; Kate is the responsible, grounded sister who’s one mistake was a doozy – getting pregnant – but otherwise seems to be really together and a whole lot of no fun. When Ben returns home to attend to unfinished business, he decides to stick around and help Kate out – and forms an immediate rapport with Kate’s now eight-year old daughter, Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Hinjinx ensue.

Last week, series creator Dana Fox and Ben, himself, Nat Faxon took a few minutes to talk about the show – and to give us a bit of insight into its genesis.

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Nat Faxon: Absolutely.

So Dana, the relationship between Ben and Kate is such a great one. How closely does that resemble your own experiences with your brother?

Dana Fox: I would say that that is kind of the part that is the most based on true life. The character just sort of became a character because it is based on my brother when we were younger, but Nat has brought so much to the table that the character has just kind of changed and grown and become something different from that. Definitely, the relationship between Ben and Kate is for sure based on me and my brother, and, you know, we are in each other’s lives constantly, we talk to each other at times and it is just one of those relationships where you can pick up the phone and you start in the middle of a conversation and you yell at each other and stop in the middle of a conversation.

It’s kind of been like that for a long time, so I would say very closely based on our relationship. People who drive each other completely crazy, but we love each other and we support each other, and that was one of the reasons I was really excited to do this show, because there is a certain level of kind of like wish fulfillment in that, that you would have a relationship with someone where you can, like, say exactly what you’re thinking all the time and then you can get in fights, but you’re always going to stay close and that’s kind of—yes, so I would say very closely.

And Nat, you had an extensive background in improv with Bobby Peru and the Groundlings. Do you get to improvise a lot on Ben and Kate, or do you have to stick with the script for the most part?

Faxon: No. There is quite a bit of improvising and it is fully supported by Dana and Jake Kasdan, the other executive producer, so as an actor, it is so wonderful because a lot of times, there is no need for it because the writing is so strong. Then other times, it’s just, you know, it’s more just encouraged in the sense of if something else comes to you, throw that in there, too. It’s never to really replace anything that’s not working, it’s more just to add to what’s already there, but it’s really encouraged and it is supported. It’s really fun as an actor to sort of have that leeway and to explore different things that might come to your head at the moment and it’s really freeing and liberating and provides, I feel, such a fun atmosphere. You sort of feel safe that you can throw things in without worrying about it.

Fox: And I think that’s being really polite, because I’m on the phone, but it’s like we would be crazy not to use him in this way, because he is a world-class, amazing, insane, ninja improvisor, and he is absolutely incredible at it. To me, the biggest compliment to the writing is if he feels like it inspires him to go off book actually, and do something that’s better than anything that we could have ever come up with, partly because when you’re watching a TV show, a lot of TV shows are, you know, they’re very slick and like everything feels really, sort of overproduced. For me, what’s exciting is when I’m watching a show and I feel like something is actually sort of happening in front of my eyes and it’s almost like live, but not really.

That is sort of what I strive for on this show, is for you to feel like you’re watching something that’s happening at the moment. So we really love it when Nat can go on a crazy, insane run, and we’ll look at it and go "Oh, my god. That was incredible." Okay, now we have to figure out how to work that into the next scene and we have to call that back because that was so funny and so weird. It becomes part of the writing and so, to me, it’s like it truly is the greatest compliment to the writing is if he feels like he is inspired to improvise.

The show is a lot of fun and I can’t wait to see more episodes. Thanks a lot.

Fox: Oh, thank you so much. We’re really excited. Thanks for watching and I think you’re going to like the new ones coming down the pipe. We’re really excited about those, too.

Nat, question for you. Basically, why do you want to do this show and what do you like and don’t like about Ben?

Faxon: I wanted to do this show for a few reasons, the first being the writing and the vision of the show; I loved and I loved the relationship between Ben and Kate. Oftentimes you read things and it’s like a married couple and there’s a lot of, like, banter that goes back and forth, and a lot of, like, fighting and stuff, and you sort of, at the end of the day, wonder why are these people together? I loved that in this show, that it makes sense that these people can have arguments and fights and support each other and in the end, they will always, you know, it’s family. You’ll always be there for one another.

So I loved Dana’s vision and I loved the writing and the character. I was excited, really very excited, to play such a big part in a show. That was really fun for me, and the people, I would say. I had worked with Jake Kasdan on a few projects before this and had such great experiences, and so I was encouraged by that and knowing Dana’s work and just everybody that was involved was something that was very enticing to me. As far as what I like or is it what I don’t like about Ben, or what I like about Ben?

Both.

Faxon: Both. I love Ben’s energy and his spontaneity and his willingness to really go in any direction that he is feeling at the time. He’s never, I don’t think, one to over think anything. He just instinct, you know, trusts in instincts and you feel like you’re sort of on a ride with this character, and you never, I don’t know, I don’t think you ever worry about the results so much. It’s just sort of like you follow him down whatever path he’s going to go down. I sort of love that quality in people, that you can just kind of trust that you’ll have an incredible experience regardless of what happens.

In terms of what I don’t like about the character, I don’t know. I, that’s so hard to say, I guess I would say, maybe, I don’t know how to answer that. I sort of love everything about him.

Fox: What I think is the fun part about that character, too, is that, like his flaws are also his virtues, so like, things that normally you wouldn’t like about a person in real life are sort of weirdly lovable when played by Nat, because his flaws are part of what make him who he is and it’s really fun to watch people be flawed in a way. So it’s like there are problems with the guy for sure. There are things about him that would totally drive you crazy, but he does it with such a full heart, and Nat brings so much charm and charisma and heart to the character, that even when he is doing things that would drive you completely bonkers, you’re like, I hesitate to say that I’m having fun and I love this guy, because I don’t want to encourage him to do stupid … like this again.

Thank you very much. And finally a question for both of you, talk about working with the brilliant Miss Maggie Elizabeth Jones.

Fox: Oh, my god; she’s amazing. Nat, you have experience working with her as an actress. I’ve just been in awe of her sort of natural ability. In addition to the fact that, like, she’ll memorize everybody else’s lines and if you miss your line, she’ll tell you what your line was, which is kind of creepy and wonderful at the same time.

But yes, no, she’s really, like, to me, one of the most special things about her, weirdly, is kind of watching her face on camera when she isn’t totally aware that you’re watching her face on camera, because her natural—just exactly what she does when she is being herself—is so incredible that sometimes I think that some of the best stuff that we get is in between things or before we start rolling. Anyway, Nat, you can probably speak to that better than I can.

Faxon: Yes, no. She is like an eight-year-old trapped in—like eight going on thirty-six. Like she is so mature and smart; both as a person and as an actress. She is really subtle, like Dana said, in the looks that she gives, where she just sort of stares at you, you know, like with one maybe eyebrow like cocked up a little bit, just sort of looking at you like this kid is crazy and acting a lot younger than I am.

But she also provides, like, incredible amounts of energy on set, which is really helpful, I think, because sometimes days get long and you sort of are trudging through scenes and, you know, it’s taking a while and she sort of bursts in with this incredible, adorable energy, and makes you dance around and sing songs. It’s just really fun. It sort of loosens everybody up and I think it’s such a refreshing kind of break, and it kind of gets you out of your head a little bit and allows you to sort of free your mind and kind of recalibrate.

Fox: One of the things that I think is also pretty extraordinary about her is, when we’ll do table reads, if there’s any sort of talk about dirty stuff that a kid shouldn’t hear about, because the show is really edgy. It’s not like a, you know, it’s not like a kids’ show. It’s a show that has a kid in it who’s a really important part of it, but it isn’t, it’s not soft in any way. There’s a lot of edgy stuff around it.

So we’ll have these table reads where adults are talking about stuff that you obviously don’t want this little girl to hear, and so her parents are wonderful people and they come to the table reads; they come to everything with her. They’re with her all the time, and so at the table reads, they’ll put a headset on her in between her lines, so she’ll have her iPod on and she’ll be listening to music in between so she can’t hear any of the dirty stuff.

And so, in a way, I always think, oh, she must just sort of know what she is doing in any one of these stories. One of the really extraordinary things is, like, she will actually be able to stay in character, stay on story, and kind of riff a little bit where she knows what her character would say at any given moment in a scene and do a little improv, and like, that to me is sort of incredible. I think that is an extraordinary thing about her, and it is so rare to find that in an actress as young as she is. I mean, I can’t believe how little she is. So, yes, it’s been really exciting and fun to work with her, for sure.

I was wondering a little bit about the background of the characters and why they were so different. I know you’re going to get into that on the show, but can you share with us about that?

Fox: I think the thing that was sort of interesting to me is that you can grow up in exactly the same house and have exactly the same sort of parents or experience with your family, and as a brother or a sister you could go in completely different directions with it, and that was certainly my experience. I really wanted to explore how the same background can turn two people into very different people. When faced with certain circumstances, I think Kate dealt with uncertainty in her family, and by the way, I have to say, like, that the parents in this show are not at all based on my parents. My parents were very active and raised me and my brother, and they were super, super loving, and active in our family.

In this show, Ben and Kate’s parents just kind of suck, and they aren’t really around as much, and when they are around, they’re fighting and yelling. That was really important to me because I wanted to make sure it seemed like Ben and Kate were really on this island together and they really only have each other, and there’s no one else to sort of come to the rescue. I’m sort of talking about fiction here, but with the characters, I think Kate’s response to having bad parents was that she tried to make everything perfect and tried to sort of, like, you know, if I can just hold back the water here, like maybe I can make everything okay. Maybe I can make them not get a divorce, and maybe I can make them not fight

Ben’s response to it was just to be like, screw it. It’s all screwed up anyway, we might as well just have fun here. So, that’s kind of what I think took their characters on very different paths in life. I think there’s also a thing where when you’re in a family, if one of your siblings is kind of filling up all of the real estate of something, like if Kate’s brother was this larger-than-life figure who was always doing crazy things and was constantly getting them in trouble, I think she kind of felt like, well, he takes up that real estate, now I have to be the one that makes sure everything works out okay and make sure everybody’s safe.

I think that’s why they developed into such different people. But, I think what’s interesting about this show, and I really give credit to Kevin Reilly at Fox for pushing us in this direction, which is, like, we didn’t, you know, people grow up that way, but really, you don’t end up so polarized like that. Like actually, there’s sort of, in every perfectionist, there is a mess. There is like a hot mess inside of every perfectionist, and so, what we were sort of interested in was having these characters both be kind of a mess. And it isn’t the classic sort of stereotypes of, you know, Ben’s a disaster and he comes into her life and he’s a terrible tornado and messes everything up, and Kate is so perfect and keeps everything so organized and Ben is always screwing up her life. Really, it’s like she is kind of a hot mess as well, and she needs him just as much as he needs her.

So, that’s where I think this characterization has become more subtle and it becomes more interesting because you’re not watching these sort of stereotypes or these sort of polarized things that feel kind of fake. They’re actually really real people. Everybody has problems. Everybody has stuff that they’re good at and bad at, and Ben is a mess, but he’s also weirdly together and he’s very smart, and he has really good ideas. Most of the time, his weird, crazy schemes actually lead to something better happening than would have happened if he hadn’t done it. So, there is a method to his madness.

Sometimes if Kate is left to her own devices, if she did it her own way, which she thinks is going to be the better way or the more perfect way or the way that keeps everything organized, you know, it would actually end up being worse than if Ben did it. So, that’s kind of the thing that’s been fun for us both to play with, is yes, they’re very different, but it’s kind of interesting how they have kind of come together a little bit in their hot messiness.

Nat, I wanted to talk about, like, your relationship between Ben and Maddie. Is she turning out to be the more mature one in this is or—?

Faxon: I think that happens sometimes, yes, but I just love the way that Dana and the writers, or the direction they’re going with the relationship in the sense that treating Maddie like she’s like my buddy and my friend as opposed to, like, my niece. I think that’s so refreshing to see on TV, as opposed to sort of treating a child with kid gloves, and sort of talking to them in like babying voices and saying "Are you okay?" and all of that kind of—. I so love that I treat her like she’s my age and we’re sort of getting into the same stuff together and like saying stuff like "You got to get your … together, Maddie, like focus. What are you doing?" Like it’s really, it’s so fun to play as an actor, and I just love it. It’s sort of like this buddy comedy within the show that we sort of like give each other … and it’s really different, and I think it’s really funny, too.

Fox: One of the things that are fun about watching that is that, like, because Maggie, the actress, is actually sort of a strong person, you’re never worried about her when Ben is treating her that way. You always feel like she’s totally okay, like, she’s actually completely okay. And so, when he treats her like a buddy and they’re in this sort of buddy-cop comedy within the show together, it actually, what it comes off as is that Ben really respects her.

There’s something really kind of amazing about watching an adult treat a kid with that much respect and then the kid is basically like, I deserve that respect because then I’m keeping my life together and I’m pretty sane and you’re kind of a little bit crazy and I might have some good advice for you. So, that’s the fun thing to see for me at least. I watch it and I think, like, it’s so cool that you’re respecting this kid enough that you’re not talking down to her and you’re not treating her like she’s an idiot. I think it’s kind of a cool message to put out there.

Nat, congratulations on your academy award. You must be getting lots of writing offers. How do you decide between doing writing and acting?

Faxon: How do I decide? I started as an actor. I came out here to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. I majored in college in theater. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, so that’s always sort of been my first love and not something that I think I will ever give up.

I think it’s just a matter of sort of balancing time and schedule. The writing sort of was born out of meeting my writing partner, Jim Rash, at the Groundlings and sort of being frustrated with the things we were auditioning for and wanting to create new opportunities for ourselves. Then it just kind of took off on a life of its own. But, I’ll never relinquish one for the other. I sort of enjoy, I love doing both, so it just becomes a matter of figuring out how to make that happen.

Luckily with movies and for the most part, TV, there are breaks and there’s downtime, and you sort of fill your time as best you can and schedule things in creative ways where you can sort of accomplish all that you want to do. So, luckily I have a writing partner, which is very helpful so that he can kind of take on the burden when I’m super busy and vice versa, so, we find a way to make it work and just kind of figure it out as we go I guess.

Fox: I don’t know about for you, Nat, but just because I’ve only ever worked in features before now, so this is my first experience in TV, but I do find that this sort of immediacy and insane breakneck pace of TV really inspires you to be more productive on your feature stuff. Feature stuff, a lot of times the deadlines are so amorphous and everything takes a really long time to get going, and sometimes it’s actually hard to be sort of maximally productive in that space, because you’re sort of like, oh, I have forever to do this. I’ll just take forever to do this.

Whereas in TV, it’s like we’ve got to shoot this tomorrow because it’s on the air in a week. So there’s sort of a sense that like, Oh, my god, this is really real. For me, at least, it sort of inspires me to be quicker and more surgical and a little bit more productive in the feature stuff as well.

Faxon: Yes, absolutely.

Fox: Not that I have any time for the feature stuff right now, but when I tried to do both for about eight seconds, that was how I felt.

And Dana, you had worked on New Girl last year. How has this experience been different from that?

Fox: Well, I was just sort of helping out my good friend Liz Meriwether, who created that show and runs that show, and I was such a huge fan of the show and of her, and I just love her so much and I wanted to do anything for her. I was just kind of consulting, which mostly meant that they would just sent me cuts and I would do pretty extensive notes on the cuts, and then I would help Liz if she ever wanted to bounce an idea around or anything like that. Mostly I was sort of just working on my feature stuff and doing that whenever she needed me.

So that was a lot less work than what I’m doing now, which is eighteen hour days routinely, and I would say I work maybe twelve hours a day on Saturday and like ten to twelve hours a day on Sunday, so it’s a lot more work. Fortunately I’m madly in love with my cast. I think they’re incredible and I think I have lightning in a bottle, and I feel so lucky to have this group. I feel like I can’t waste this opportunity, so I’m just pouring every last ounce of like life and soul and blood and heart and love that I have into this show.

You only really get one shot to sort of make it, and I feel like we are in shouting distance of something really extraordinary here. It’s rare in this business that you get a chance to be that close to something that could be truly great, so I’m inspired to work as hard as I do, but it’s a lot more work. I feel I’m a huge fan of New Girl and our offices are right below theirs, so I’m around them a lot and we just, we all support each other and root for each other so it’s really fun.

Kim Kurland (Fox): I think we’re going to start wrapping up, but Dana, before we go, do you think that you could at least just maybe touch on some of the guest stars that we have coming up in some episodes, and maybe just touch a little bit upon, like, what the characters they’re playing with Rob Corddry and Rosa Salazar and we see Ben’s ex-girlfriend come back into the picture. I think you’ve got some fun stuff coming up that maybe you could tease a little bit.

Fox: Yes, we have some amazing guest stars, as Kim just mentioned. We’ve got Rosa Salazar, who’s playing a good friend of Kate’s who is sort of like the party girl ghost of Kate’s past, who sort of comes back to wreak havoc in Kate’s life. It kind of gives Kate an opportunity to realize how far she’s come actually in her life. That’s in an episode where Ben decides that he’s going to throw Kate the twenty-first birthday that she never had because she just had Maddie and, of course, hijinks ensue.

That’s actually a weirdly emotional episode as well, where it’s just that moment in their life where you see someone from your past that you’ve been really close with, but now, who you are now, you would never if you met them on the street, you would never become friends with them. You sort of have to face up to that reality, that no matter how much love is there from the past, and how much shared history you have, like you’ve really grown apart. So that’s kind of a cool episode.

We have a great guy, Geoff Stults, coming to play a few episodes with Kate as her potential love interest. He is a tall drink of water, let me tell you. He is kind of a, he’s sort of a Captain America type guy, because, I mean, he looks like he does, so you can’t pretend like he’s not a Captain America kind of guy.

It’s basically about how Kate is trying to get back into the game and has been out of the game for a really long time, and is really sort of awkward in dating, and now she has this additional complication, which is she has her protective older brother there who is completely trying to insert himself, in a loving way, where he’s trying to take care of her and wants to make sure she doesn’t get hurt. Of course, he’s doing all the wrong things and sort of doing things that you can’t possibly imagine wanting your brother to do. It’s like all of a sudden you brother’s like a third wheel on a date. It’s sort of a nightmare scenario.

So we’ve got him coming, and then we have Rob Corddry, who I’m completely obsessed with and he’s like my muse. I love him so much. He is playing Kate and BJ’s boss at the bar and he is just absolutely hysterical. He’s so weird and so funny and so wonderful, and basically, BJ, who is played by Lucy Punch, is weirdly sexually attracted to him because he is really a strange guy, but she just finds him incredibly sexy. She sort of is kind of in love with him and trying to deal with what it’s like to possibly be in a relationship with your boss when all signs point to don’t do this. Of course, she’s like, yes, I want to do this immediately. Did I forget anyone, Kim?

Kurland: I don’t think so. Oh, we’re going to see Darcy again.

Fox: Oh, and yes, and Darcy, the very amazing Lauren Miller. She is wonderful, and she plays Ben’s ex-girlfriend, who he still really holds the candle for. The relationship between the two of them, it’s just, I think everybody knows what it’s like to have sort of unfinished business, and she represents Ben’s biggest unfinished piece of business. She is kind of, she’s somebody that Ben can’t quite close the door on even though she’s married and she’s really closed the door on him, too.

It’s just interesting to see because it’s complicated and when faced with really closing the door on him, she, I think, balks a little bit. So it’s complicated and Darcy comes back and then Lindsay Sloane also is another amazing guest star that we have who is playing an amazing sort of like a stalker ex-girlfriend who is obsessed with Ben, and she kind of keeps coming back into the picture and causing trouble for Ben in sort of creepy ways and she’s a little bit his kryptonite because as much as he wants to cut her off, he just absolutely can’t. She says one word to sort of flatter him and he’s immediately back into it like, oh yes, I’ve been working out, mostly upper body stuff. So she kind of like sucks him back in.

I think there’s going to be a lot of really great stuff to see, and just all those actors that Nat knows and that I know and that the other actors know that are just like incredible comedians. We’re just doing what we can to get as many of them on this show as possible, because we just feel like we’re lucky to know them and we’re crazy enough to use them, so that’s what we’re doing this year.

Photos by Beth Dubber/Courtesy Fox Television