It's been about seven years that London-born Ben Barnes has called Los Angeles as home, and almost 10 years since he’s played an Englishman on screen.
So, it was interesting for the actor to return to Britain for the six-episode BBC series Gold Digger in which he not only plays a Brit but plays the character in a British setting.
“It was lovely to go back and shoot in England, with an all-British cast, in this this kind of very intriguing small domestic style of storytelling, ” said Barnes, speaking on the phone from LA, where he is adhering to California’s stay-at-home order which is set to go on until May 15.
He started out in the British theatre scene – “My first ever job, that I got paid for, was playing the drums in a musical when I was about 15” – before going into films, most notably as Prince Caspian in the 2008 film The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian.
In the last few years though, he’s mostly seen in American productions like the 2014 film Seventh Son and TV series Sons Of Liberty, Westworld and The Punisher.
In Gold Digger, the 38-year-old plays Benjamin Greene, a copywriter, who meets divorcee Julia Day (Julia Ormond) on the day she turns 60 years old. He asks her out for drinks and, since she’s all alone on her birthday – with her children too busy to celebrate with her – she accepts his offer.
As time goes by, Julia and Benjamin become a serious couple. The series then explores the significance of this relationship – a woman in love with a much younger man, which is still deemed as a no-no today – from various points of view including Julia’s three adult children.
Her two sons are especially suspicious of Benjamin, as the mother is quite well-to-do and they feel it is their manly duty to protect her.
But is Benjamin really the bad guy the Day family makes him out to be, or is he sincerely in love with Julia?
It was Benjamin’s duality that made the prospect of playing him appealing to Barnes, as it offered the actor the challenge to interpret Benjamin in more than one way throughout the series.
“I had to kind of prepare every scene in two ways. In one way, he would seem like he has ulterior motives – like he might be a con artist of some kind, and might be trying to get something out of this family.
“And then another way, that he’s just a very open-hearted, open-minded character who has a past which informs the way that he behaves with other characters, and he really does just fall for this woman who is 25 years older than him. It was a really interesting adventure for me.”
When asked if it was a coincidence that both Ormond and Barnes share the same first names as their characters, Barnes confirms it really is just that.
He, however, cheekily adds he isn’t sure if that was one of the reasons the casting director chose him.
“I was actually keen to be called Benjamin as the character because everyone calls me Ben, or some people call me Benny, but not Benjamin. That is only something that I was ever called when I was a kid when I was in trouble.
“But for Gold Digger, it felt like this guy is in trouble, ” he clarified.
“There is a moment in the show where one of the sons calls me Ben and I say it’s Benjamin because it was something that was kind of important to me, so I just corrected him and it stayed in the show.”
Gold Digger isn’t the first series where Barnes is exploring a character’s duality.
In Westworld and The Punisher, his characters were one of the good guys in the beginning, only to be the exact opposite as the shows went on.
In The Punisher especially, the slow turn from a good guy to a villain was subtly performed by Barnes in the series’ two seasons.
According to him, playing a character with so many layers is just something that he finds alluring as an actor.
He said: “It’s very difficult to describe any one human being in just a few words. I like digging deep. I like having deep, meaningful conversations with people when I’m getting to know them.
“I like to know what makes people tick. I like to know the things that they are proud of about themselves. I like to know the things that they’re ashamed of about themselves, or the things they would like to improve about themselves.
“I think that’s one of the things I like to try to do with those characters, if he seems like a villain on the page, (I think of) what makes him feel heroic; if he feels powerful on the page, what makes him feel vulnerable; if he feels melancholy on the page, what makes him feel joyful.
“So, for me just finding the opposite in the characters is something that I’ve come to find appealing.
“When I was starting out, I thought all I have to do to make the scene believable is just believe that I’m in that situation. When I was filming the Narnia movies, I was like, if I believe I was talking to a badger... then that will be enough.
“And I think for those kinds of characters, it probably is. But as I got older, I want to explore the nature and psyches of characters in a fuller way.”
Having said that, Barnes continues that he has not given up on playing another heroic role, just to see what he could bring to the role after having the experiences of playing the opposite type of characters.
“I would love to go back to playing a character who is mostly, you know, more heroic and see what are the grey areas that I can find within that character, rather than doing it the other way around. I think that’d be really interesting.”
Choosing to take on these layered characters have definitely paid off for Barnes, as more and more roles are coming his way.
Just before he came back to LA last month, he was in Budapest, Hungary, for six months filming the Netflix fantasy series Shadow And Bone.
“I’ve been very busy the last few years, which has been amazing. When I started out, you get a job and then you maybe wait four or five months, and you go for auditions, then you get another job, ” shared Barnes.
Over the years too, how Barnes chooses his next projects has shifted as well. In the beginning he was just grateful to have a next job and to be part of that story.
But as he moved forward in his career, his objective also included if the character he’s playing would challenge him as an actor.
Presently, that has changed too.
“The stage I’ve sort of entered now is, is this story worth telling? And what is it about this story or this character that makes it interesting to make it now? Does it have something to say?
“I sort of made a rule for myself that I would like to be in things that I would like to watch. And so that’s the one that I come back to, at the end of the day, would that appeal to me as a viewer?”
He added: “I just love to do this job. I feel so privileged to be able to just tell stories for a living and explore characters for a living.
“In a time like this, with this pandemic and people are stuck in their homes, I think TV shows are a big part of what’s keeping people kind of entertained and sane.
“I don’t think it’s heroes work, that’s doctors and pharmacists and people who work in supermarkets, and wherever, but it certainly helps me to keep sane watching shows.
“And it makes me feel hopeful and, so to just be a part of this kind of life, it is something that I enjoy so much. I feel really lucky to do this as a career.”
All six episodes of Gold Digger are available on BBC First (unifi TV Ch 481) and BBC Player.