Actor Benjamin Rigby on breaking into Hollywood
We meet in a cafe that is both unpopular and inconvenient to get to. It’s 3pm and as the waiters hurry us through our order, both of us are silently questioning our decision to conduct this interview here. I’ve known Benjamin Rigby for the past five years and during that time he’s been an actor in the same way I’ve been a writer – both of us trying to find space for our non-lucrative creative pursuits between work that actually pays a living wage.
I told Ben I chose this spot because it’s just down the road from where his first photography exhibition was held, but that’s not the full truth. We’re here because this cafe is a haven for both of us. Neither wants to admit it, but we’re too shy to conduct this conversation in any place where our mutual friends might overhear.
This meeting happens a few weeks before the release of Alien: Covenant, by all accounts Rigby’s “big break”. After years of sporadic theatre roles, commercials and a brief appearance on Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Rigby auditioned for the Ridley Scott film and suddenly he was on a plane, whisked off to a location he contractually could not disclose. Then he was back home, as if nothing had changed, and in the strange limbo of time between filming and the movie being released.
Like most actors, Rigby has spent the bulk of his career oscillating between lots of work and no work at all. After finishing drama school in Queensland, he quickly got an agent in Melbourne and moved south. But roles were few and competition was fierce. Through drama school, Rigby worked closely with his friend Belinda Misevski, who moved to Victoria a few months after he did. After their initial optimism had worn off, however, both were experiencing what seemed like an endless corridor of closed doors.
“We weren’t being seen at all by people. Casting agents didn’t know who we were,” Rigby says. Despite their frustration, they decided to focus on finding a solution. “So we said, ‘Hey, we know all these actors we’ve met though auditions, why don’t we just put on our own shows?’ I had a little bit of money I was saving to go overseas with and decided to put it towards the show instead.” From there, the pair launched Exhibit A: Theatre, a small company that put on five plays over the course of two years.
When a friend is an accountant or an architect or a doctor, you tend to accept that information and move on. When a friend is in a creative industry – a musician, an actor, a writer – it’s almost impossible to quash the question that flashes across your mind. Are they good at what they do? It’s drummed into most of us at an early age – that there are “responsible” and “safe” jobs, and then there’s “the arts”. Competitive. Not financially rewarding. Better left as something you do as an aside to your real job. I ask Rigby if he experienced the familiar advice to keep acting as a hobby when he first decided to pursue it professionally, and he replies: “Sure, I mean people still say that to me. People will always say that to anyone in the arts, until they have something to claim from them I think, but that’s what every artist faces. That’s what I’m facing now – I haven’t had a job since Alien. It’s like, ‘Oh god, I have to work other jobs to sustain myself.’ But everybody does.”
Exhibit A: Theatre’s first show broke even. With a little bit left over, they immediately decided to put on their next show. Rigby was still working other jobs, appearing in short films, exploring his photography, slotting shiftwork in between his theatre commitments.
Apprehensively I headed along to one of the performances – I’d heard that the play was good, but was worried. What if he’s terrible at doing the thing he loves? About 10 minutes in, I was completely engrossed. I’d forgotten that the people on stage were people who also existed in my real life. In an intense scene where Rigby’s character was reaching breaking point, pouring out accusations towards a man who may or may not have been his father, I stopped and thought, Wow. He’s really good. He’s making me feel an emotion even though this speech is 90 per cent about underpants.
After a hectic two years “there were no other plays that were sticking out unless I wanted them to be on a more grandiose scale,” Rigby explains. “So I decided to say, you know what, I’m going to invest what I have in my energy and put it into just trying to get film work.” Rigby got work in an ANZ ad – “which haunted me for years, people calling me Sam in the street” – and that gave him a bit of financial breathing room. He headed to America, ostensibly to attend the New Orleans Film Festival where a short film he starred in, Rigor Mortis, was playing, but also to take some meetings and to expand his career options. He returned with US representation, a new pool of movies for which to audition, and several rolls of film that would later become his Greetings from California exhibition.
He started sending off audition tapes. In the year he landed the role in Alien: Covenant he’d made, edited and submitted about 70 self-tapes. “I was a professional auditioner,” he says. Auditioning is an open-ended business, and doing it via video doubly so. Often you never hear back.
Rigby had dabbled in photography previously. At one party I’d been staring into the distance and he walked up. As a throwaway comment I mentioned that the wall had an interesting design and he peered at it for a moment, brought out his phone, quickly took a snap and then continued with the conversation. Rigby’s photography taps into the same interrogation that his acting requires, looking beneath the surface of things until the mundane becomes beautiful. His work is full of supermarket trolleys, of industrial scenes, of swimming pools – everyday things made somehow sinister. Or pensive. Or hopeful.
“Photography kind of came out of a frustration with acting. Of not having a full process to finish something,” he explains. Over the past few years he has been finessing his technique, switching his focus from digital to film photography. “I think it came from going for all these auditions and developing a character. You only get to do one or two scenes, so you walk out of the room or you send a tape and then you go, ‘Okay, I really hope I get that.’ Because you’ve started all those layers bubbling away inside you. Sometimes you get really great feedback from directors and that’s always amazing, but most of the time you never get a phone call – it’s just silence. When you don’t get a role, it really stunts that process of finishing that character, and they become like a little friend of yours, in a way, that you have to say goodbye to immediately. In photography I had complete control. I would find a subject or a location, I would shoot it, and then I’d go to the darkroom. I’d fully develop it all myself and then you’d see it magically appear on a page at the end.” He pauses. “That way I wasn’t frustrated with acting anymore. It came from a place where I was really angry at not getting these roles – and as soon as I did that it made acting fun again. You shouldn’t hate your job.”
When Greetings from California opened down the road from where we’re sitting, he had recently returned from filming Alien: Covenant. The pictures on the wall were from his initial trips to the United States, where he had turned his attention to film. The room was so inadvertently symbolic of a turning point that if you wrote it into a movie it would seem naff.
In the months following his return we were given progressively more and more glimpses into what he’d been doing on set – first with still pictures being released, then a trailer showing what looked like the moments before a creature would burst from his back. It was surreal. “That was a miracle,” he says of landing the role. “That was actually crazy.”
His big break story is almost textbook. He was at work, received the call, put down the phone, and continued with his shift. When asked about what a big break means in the real world, though, his response is a mixture of optimism and pragmatism.
“I think as an actor you just have to keep auditioning forever,” he says. “It’s a misconception that a lot of actors, and a lot of people outside the industry, have. That, ‘Oh, you’ve got your big break, you’re going to be famous now, you’re going to be rich.’ But I think when you get a break you still have to keep working just as hard as you did beforehand to get the next job.”
Like all industries, getting a break like this as an actor is more of a stepping stone than sledgehammering through a wall and being drowned by a waterfall of gold and plaudits. “I got an agent in America based off Alien and I get in to different rooms that I never would have had I not had that credit,” he says. “But you can’t get complacent because, if you do, you’re not going to do the work. Then other people will see that and your big break will be a missed opportunity.”
Before getting the call, Rigby had written, produced and starred in a short film called Bridge. It was inspired by a visit to a pink lake under the West Gate Bridge on Melbourne’s western edge. Describing it, he says: “It was such an odd location; so big and so small at the same time, and so loud and so soft. It had these huge contradictions and it just seemed like a really amazing place to set a film.” He contacted a director, got a team together and they made the film on a budget of $700 – then entered it for consideration in the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
“We got confirmation the day that I started filming Alien, actually,” he says.
“So that was a pretty good day then?” I ask.
“That was a very good day,” he replies, laughing.
Since then, the film has been screened at HollyShorts and Melbourne Queer Film Festival and has been selected for the 2017 Maryland Film Festival.
I know better than to ask what’s next – there is no way to guess in such an unpredictable industry. Rigby has tentative plans to return to Los Angeles – both for work and for his photography – but beyond continuing to audition he doesn’t have a set path. He is modest about his accomplishments over the past year. It’s probably a defence mechanism in some ways, essential in such a fickle industry. As if on cue, to remind us we aren’t at the centre of the universe, the waitress returns. The cafe is closing, she explains. So could we please leave?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2017 as "Celluloid Rigby". Subscribe here.