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Rising Star Ben Mehl Of ‘You’ On The Five Things You Need To Shine In The Entertainment Industry

Follow your joy. Let that be your barometer in your work. Your joy is what brought you to this. When I struggled with not having enough acting work to survive, I searched for something I could do that would keep me connected to that joy, and I found teaching. Through teaching I found a way to stay engaged in the thing I love to do even if I’m not in front of the camera or on the stage.

Also, don’t base your self-worth on your success in the industry. You have control over the work you put into your auditions, but not the results. Value yourself for your work and all the other things you do in your life, like the ways you care for yourself, others and the world.

As a part of our series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ben Mehl. Actor Ben Mehl stars as ‘Dante’ alongside Penn Badgley in Netflix’s hit series “You.” The highly-anticipated third season is being released on Netflix on Friday, October 15th. Developed by Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti, You is based on Caroline Kepnes’ bestselling books You and Hidden Bodies. Dante is a librarian who retains his wit and equanimity no matter what the day brings. A veteran whose eyesight was damaged, Dante is a dedicated family man with a husband and two stepchildren who longs to expand his family, and delights in helping his friends with their children.

Born and raised in Toronto, Mehl graduated from the University of Toronto where he double majored in Astrophysics and Drama. He was accepted to both NYU’s Graduate Acting Program and Julliard but received his MFA from NYU. Mehl has performed largely in theater but has also appeared on television such as “The Good Wife.” In addition to acting, Mehl also teaches acting, voice and movement for actors in NYC. He has taught Movement and Shakespeare’s Clowns at the NYU Graduate Acting Program in addition to Voice and Movement, Physical Characterization and Combat at the New York Film Academy.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Thank you so much for interviewing me! I grew up in Toronto in a very loving and supportive family. My parents immigrated from South Africa with my two older brothers when they were very young, and then a few years later, I came as a surprise. I always loved to imitate sounds and hear rhythms in the pitter patter of dogs’ footsteps, or the rain drops on the roof. My mom always told me there was no such word as “can’t” and that I could do anything I set my mind to. I watched my brothers when they did school shows, and I wanted to do that too. My 4th grade teacher at Lillian Public School, Mr. Craigie, heard me singing the national anthem at school, and recommended that I audition for Claude Watson School for the Arts, a public school that required an audition to be admitted. There was only one spot to join in the fifth grade, and I got it. There, I got to explore drama, music, dance and visual art for half the day, and did all my academics in the other half. I loved my time there and continued in the Claude Watson program as a drama major at Earl Haig Secondary School. I did the school shows, I joined the swim team, I joined four different choirs. I enjoyed science too and was particularly passionate about space. When it came time for college, I wasn’t ready to give up on acting, but also wanted to continue studying science and truly wanted to be an astronaut one day. So I went to the University of Toronto where I could, and did double major in Astrophysics and Drama!

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I remember doing a scene in Paul Comeau’s 6th grade drama class, playing Oswald from King Lear. I think this was the first time I felt that while playing this other character, I felt like I was more fully myself. It was a feeling that never left me and would come back every time I got to play another role. I felt like acting allowed me to use myself in the fullest way I knew how. And throughout the crossroads of my life, I have never been willing to let it go. When deciding what to study in college, to rethinking my life after vision loss, to my own common and continual struggle to find work as an artist, to the challenges of raising kids as an actor, there is this passion in my heart for it that I can’t betray.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In my last year of U of T, while I was doing Reefer Madness the Musical at Hart House Theatre, I noticed that there was a spot in front of me wherever I looked, almost like a camera flash in my eyes, following me wherever I looked. I was soon diagnosed with a rare genetic form of macular degeneration called Stargardt’s disease, which causes one to lose their central vision. I was told that it was progressive, and that there was no treatment or cure. My vision deteriorated to the point where I could no longer read normal sized text or recognize faces. I didn’t know whether pursuing a career in acting was possible anymore. How would I read my scripts? How would I see the expression in my scene partner’s face? After taking time to mourn the loss of my central vision and accept my new life, I decided I was not going to let this disease define me, and I would learn what it meant to be an actor with this disability and continue to pursue my dream. So I auditioned for acting schools in the US, including Juilliard and NYU’s Graduate Acting Program, got into both, and chose to go to NYU for my MFA.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was doing a clown show I created with two friends called Paplooey! In the dressing room, I clipped my glasses onto my costume while I put on my makeup. During the show, the three of us are dancing and trying to entertain the audience, and for some reason, the audience seemed much more engaged than usual, and they were laughing and making sounds like they were watching something more entertaining than I thought we were. I soon discovered that our feet had been dancing near misses around my glasses on the floor. Only after the audience let out a loud “AWWW”, and feeling something crunch under my foot, did I realize that I forgot to take my glasses off my costume before the show started. Lesson: don’t make a spectacle of your spectacles!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Tell us about your role on “You.”

My role on “You” is my first role where I haven’t had to pretend to be able to see more than I actually can. On the other hand, although I, Ben Mehl, am legally blind, I am not totally blind, like Dante is. So it was very important for me to learn how to be accurate in my representation of him. I trained with an orientation and mobility specialist to learn the proper techniques for using a white cane. I spent a lot of time practicing, first with a blindfold on, to understand how it feels in my body, and then without the blindfold, but just looking into my own blind spot. I normally strain to focus on what I can see in my peripheral vision, but playing Dante, for once I could just let my focus rest in the void in the center of my vision. It was an incredible kind of liberation for me to let go and simply let myself not see. At times I felt like I was preparing for what my future may hold for me. I also spent hours observing and taking notes outside a building for blind residents in New York. I watched how people with experience use their canes. I gained a deep appreciation for the skill it takes to navigate the world without sight, and for the confidence and proficiency I witnessed in people who have learned this skill. I brought all of that into my role.

Something very cool about my role in the show is that Dante’s blindness is kind of inconsequential. Sera Gamble was inspired by her blind godfather, and made Dante blind simply because some of us are blind and deserve to be represented. I also love and commend the decision to cast someone who really was blind or low vision. I did struggle with whether it was okay for me to be portraying someone who was totally blind. I recognize my privilege within this community in terms of how much sight I do have. This is why it was especially important to me to do my research and do my best to portray this character accurately. Dante is a confident, independent, but fallible human being who has found extraordinary ways to adapt and continue to be a librarian even after losing his sight.

You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

Be patient, be grateful and be a good human being. Treat people with respect and dignity and make connections with everyone you can — not only people you think can advance your career. I got this role because an old friend of my wife’s recognized the name of my eye condition and connected me with a masseuse friend of his in San Francisco who has the same disease. Years later I did a show at Berkeley Rep and got to hang out with him and make a new friend. Years later still, he connected me with another visually impaired friend of his, Marilee Talkington. Marilee is an actor and advocate for the inclusion of blind and low vision actors in the entertainment industry. She has dedicated many hours and a lot of heart into helping to open doors for actors with disabilities. Without the work of many disabled artist activists like her, I may never have had the opportunity to audition for this role.

I also have to say, I didn’t know if this moment would ever come for me. But if it hadn’t come, it wouldn’t have meant that I was any less deserving of it, or worthy of it. I never stop learning and challenging myself to grow as an artist. All I can hope for is to be ready when these opportunities arrive. I can’t control if or when that happens, I only have control of my work and my commitment.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Follow your joy. Let that be your barometer in your work. Your joy is what brought you to this. When I struggled with not having enough acting work to survive, I searched for something I could do that would keep me connected to that joy, and I found teaching. Through teaching I found a way to stay engaged in the thing I love to do even if I’m not in front of the camera or on the stage.

Also, don’t base your self-worth on your success in the industry. You have control over the work you put into your auditions, but not the results. Value yourself for your work and all the other things you do in your life, like the ways you care for yourself, others and the world.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people who have helped me on my path but one does stand out in the most personal way for me. My mom passed away almost four years ago, two months after my twins were born. She has been my inspiration and guiding light throughout my life. She saw the struggles in her life as challenges to face. She inspired me to face the challenge of Stargardt’s and to stay on my path. She was always there for me to cheer me on. With her loss, I feel myself reaching out in new directions for help as much as I can. Asking for help can be hard, but especially in this career, you can’t do it alone. Don’t deprive someone of the opportunity to help you. Also, appreciate the many people it took to get you where you are today.

How can our readers follow you online?

I have just started using Instagram! @benmehl

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me. It was an honor.

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