Following a breakout year that earned her fan-favorite status on Lifetime’s UnREAL and a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Denée Benton has squarely established herself as a leading lady to root for.
“I always dreamed of playing roles like Natasha,” the 25-year-old actress tells ET hours before kicking off a five-show weekend at the Imperial Theatre. No doubt, she’s not alone. The young, hopelessly romantic ingénue -- conjured by none other than Leo Tolstoy in War & Peace, from which the musical takes its story -- would be a dream part for legions of musical theater school grads. The fact that Benton landed the chance to create the role on Broadway shortly after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University feels like an especially powerful bit of good fortune -- and not just because she’s a black woman.
“I felt like we were kindred spirits in a way,” Benton says of her character, who shares the musical’s title with Pierre (played by Josh Groban), a trusted friend, and maybe more, to the naive Natasha. “Outside of the message that it sends having me play her, it’s even more beautiful because I actually understood her. I get Natasha,” Benton says, confessing that she and her character share the same big, all-encompassing heart that winds up getting Natasha into trouble.
Benton is also embracing her role as a breaker of barriers; for her, it’s all part of the same ambition. “As an artist, that’s always the dream, to get to do what you love but to also get to affect the culture,” she says, illustrating her point with a funny story about her uncle coming to see her in the show.
When an older (white) couple asked whom he’d brought flowers for, they were strangely surprised to learn that his niece plays Natasha: “You know this play’s about Russia, right?” Of course, by intermission, they were gushing over her, telling him they couldn’t imagine anyone else in the part. “How amazing, they came in with one idea in one box, and literally within an hour, they were like, ‘You mean she can [play] human too? We love her!’”
It’s one small example of a broader shift in thinking that entertainment has the potential to affect. “As entertainers and actors, millions of people see what we do, and so we have the power to represent and to show people: Hey, actually, really beautiful, light-filled, dramatic teenage girls [like Natasha] aren’t just pretty and white.” This aspect of her current gig, to which she’s been tirelessly dedicated for seven months, is clearly among Benton’s most treasured. “Having the opportunity to show the world, and even more importantly girls like myself, that they have the right to tell a human story is really powerful.”
Natasha isn’t the only romantic lead Benton’s recently created for younger girls to look up to. Her character Ruby on UnREALhas been heralded as a milestone in TV representation -- an outspoken, political black woman with natural hair who actually lands the guy. “That does not happen” onscreen, Benton says. “It was incredible seeing the feedback on Twitter from other black women, having the experience of feeling seen and feeling heard. Outside of how it affects us, it affects how the world sees us, too.”
In fact, Benton goes so far as to tip her hat to the Lifetime series for ABC’s recent casting of Rachel Lindsay. “I’m excited that there’s a black Bachelorette, which I do sort of pat UnREAL on the back for. I don’t think that was really on the table of a conversation until we were like, ‘Hey, if you’re influencing the culture, you should do that, too.’” While she’ll definitely be watching, Benton admits her time as Ruby has made reality TV dating shows, which she’s always taken with a grain of salt, seem even more farfetched. “I feel like I’m even more jaded now, having been on UnREAL; it’s so formulaic, it’s hard to get lost in it.”
Of course, she has her own dramatic love story to lose herself in eight times a week -- one that involves darting up and down a grand staircase while belting out a high note in a corset. (Eat your heart out, Chris Harrison.)
“It’s all-consuming,” Benton says. “It definitely takes everything that I have to give.” Though her Tony season schedule may be grueling, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “You can’t really complain too much when you get to sit next to Sally Field and discuss acting,” she offers, referring to a recent roundtable discussion with her fellow nominees.