Denee Benton commanded the small screen as Ruby on season 2 of ‘Unreal’, and now she’s taking Broadway by storm in the role of an enchanting Russian Countess in ‘Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812’. She has an important message about diversity in casting, plus what it’s like to bring a timeless story to life with Josh Groban!
This exclusive interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you speak to the importance of diversity in casting and breaking boundaries?
It’s such an important discussion right now. When you’ve got incredibly xenophobic type of civil leaders, the media and film and theater have the power to transcend that nonsense and red tape. You can make a TV show normalizing the way a family looks. We should never be comfortable with erasing people from color to the story. There’s never been a time on this planet where people of color didn’t fully participate in civilization. I have a hard time of enjoying any type of story that doesn’t include a story of a person of color, because it’s not the reality. I’m really over the Golden Age of Hollywood, a beautiful white woman and handsome white man — I’m ready to see a trans-woman save the world from aliens!
How has playing a Russian aristocrat further shaped how you view the importance of art and theater?
Natasha represents the archetype of the young girl in love, and any 17-year-old watching the story can relate to her passion of love and coming of age, and what it’s like to make that transition. Because she’s such an archetype, any woman can represent her. One of my understudies is white, and one is Indian. War and Peace and the 70 pages we picked are universal themes of love and loss and existential crises and love triangles. They can represent any setting and any time period.
Were you nervous to work with Josh Groban (Pierre)?
Josh is the kindest. His energy puts you at ease. You freak out that he’s a multi-platinum Grammy-winning recording artist, but he’s a theater kid like the rest of us. Our cast is full of so many musicians and singer-songwriters, incredibly music-minded people. It was a perfect fit. And it’s his essence, he’s definitely a Pierre. It’s been wonderful.
What do you do during downtime?
I’ve never been so exhausted in my whole life. I’m impressed with myself if I get off the couch.
Is there someone who inspired you when you were getting started in your career?
100 percent. The list could go on and on. I would say Oprah, as cliche as that sounds. To be a woman, a black woman in charge of her entire empire, I think watching her growing up, she encompassed all of the things that I would want to do. She made an incredible impact. She’s everything.
Would you ever return to Unreal?
If they would have me! I don’t know if Ruby has any plans of making it back. The cast changes every season, but if they’d have Ruby back, I’d do it!
You can get tickets and catch Denee in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway now!