Role: Ben
Project: ‘Ben and Jesse’ (working title), a short student film

Kenny Sosnowski

Kenny Sosnowski

Although 14-year-old Kenny Sosnowski had been cast in several student films since he began acting two years ago, this high school freshman had never had the opportunity to play a high school student on film. That changed thanks to the Back Stage casting notice for Ben and Jesse, a Columbia University graduate short film. Sosnowski saw the ad and knew he could play the lead role of 15-year-old Ben.

“Student films are my favorite,” Sosnowski says, “because it’s such a good learning experience. I get to get close to the crew, and I talk to everyone during breaks. You really connect with them.”

Ben is a put-upon high schooler who has a crush on a girl who doesn’t feel the same way about him, while he’s also facing pressure from an older bully. Pretty much your typical high school experience, right? “I’m in high school,” Sosnowski says, “so I have the advantage of that experience. I know how high school is now: It’s boring.”

Writer-director Eliza Subotowicz originally intended to cast nonactors, à la the Gus Van Sant movies Elephant and Paranoid Park, which have subject matter similar to that of Ben and Jesse. But she was so impressed by Sosnowski’s audition that she decided she would be better off hiring professionals. She then cast Yale drama student Dan Amerman as the bully Jesse and recent NYU grad Victoria Negri as Trisha, Ben’s love interest.

“I was a little afraid that given his age, Kenny might not be able to take himself to the dark place I wrote for my character,” Subotowicz says. “But what caught our attention was that unlike many other young actors, he didn’t try to act. In a way, he was just himself. Many young actors we saw lacked that ability — to just be. Perhaps Kenny is not quite the Ben that I wrote, but he made Ben his own by projecting some of his own personality onto the character.”

“I used what I know,” says Sosnowski. “I just got into high school, and I’m still learning about the school. I pretty much just played me, because the character was me and I could relate to him.”

Sosnowski says he wasn’t intimidated performing opposite older, more experienced actors. But the director saw that the age difference between Sosnowski and Negri had an unexpected benefit: “The fact that she was older gave that relationship a certain flavor. It made Kenny probably a little less confident in their scenes, which only helped the relationship between the characters on screen.”

Subotowicz shot Ben and Jesse in late November in northern New Jersey, with some additional scenes shot in Queens. The film is scheduled to premiere this spring at the Columbia University Film Festival.

In addition to Web videos and other student films, Sosnowski recently shot an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent — scheduled to air this month — and is now eligible to join SAG. So while many high school boys might be saving up to buy their first used car, this one is looking forward to paying his first union dues.

This “Who Got the Part?” column was published in the Jan. 15-21, 2009 issue of Back Stage and online at BackStage.com.

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