In Between Us, Ben Feldman plays a mensch, one of those nice, noble guys who would make the perfect husband. Only he may not be prefect. As writer-director Rafael Palacio Illingworth’s new romantic drama opens, Henry (Feldman) and Dianne (Olivia Thirlby) are debating buying an apartment. However, that might be too much commitment for them. They discuss marriage unexpectedly, in a scene where they dance around their apartment chanting “Husband and Wife.” Eventually, their relationship grows and the couple is tested by various situations, such as Veronica (Analeigh Tipton), who flirts with Henry, that help them discover who they are and what they want.
Illingsworth’s film may traverse familiar domestic dramatic territory, but it will likely cause viewers to examine their own relationships vis-à-vis Henry and Dianne’s. Feldman confessed he has seen couples unclasp their hands during screenings of the film. Such is the awkwardness, and the realism, that inhabits the screen. Between Us addresses the power both Henry and Dianne have in their relationship, and both Feldman and Thirlby are convincing in their portrayal of how the characters wield that power, and the shorthand that most lovers use when they’ve been together for a long time.
The affable Feldman, star of the recently wrapped first season of Superstore and who returns this Sunday as lawyer Ron LaFlamme in the third season of HBO’s Silicon Valley, met with me during the Tribeca Film Festival, where Between Us had its world premiere, to discuss the film and how his own marriage helped to shape his take on his character.
Ben, I feel like I should start by asking you about your relationship status.
I got marred two-and-a-half years ago. I couldn’t have made this film before I got married. It would have destroyed my relationship!
How did you identify with the character of Henry?
My wife was my girlfriend for the better part of a decade. It took me seven years to propose. To me, marriage always was this antiquated notion created a jillion years ago when we all lived to be 40 that doesn’t necessarily have room to exist in today’s society—all the typical clichés. I would preach it all the time. What is marriage? Why do we feel we need it? Is it something our parents push on us? And I lived in that world for seven years until, one day, I woke up and thought: I’m an adult now. Why wouldn’t I get married? It’s great, and there’s nothing that I can think of which is really a minus—which is tremendously unromantic.
Rights and legal benefits are a big reason for marriage equality. Your character treats marriage like a piece of paper, but there’s a lot more…
I think that, for Henry, that grown-up moment hasn’t happened yet. He’s still living in romantic poverty, this young artist world. The logistical stuff of paper and legality isn’t relevant to him and his life. There’s no room for that. It makes sense that Henry would fight against that. I was like that. It’s so easy to say that in your 20s. But in your 30s, there’s usually a life to protect.
If the person with the least interest in the relationship controls, who has the power in this relationship: Henry or Dianne?
I think they’re both invested in each other, and the idea of marriage and solidifying something officially, on paper, is its own entity. For Henry, he’s least interested in marriage, but he’s interested in protecting his relationship. That’s the conflict in the film: There isn’t one person who wants out, there’s one person who wants to progress and one person who’s happy where they are.
He has a line where Henry tells Dianne she treats him like her gay best friend and then wants him to be a porn star. She also has the money in the relationship. Do you think she has the power.
It’s not that one has the power. It’s more that Henry doesn’t want to give up what little power he has—forfeit it to the other person. And that’s what would inevitably happen: giving in to her, adulthood, debt, and responsibility.
There’s the idea of managing the needs of a partner. Henry goes along to get along, but at times he puts his foot down. I like that about him; he shows his backbone. What are your thoughts about Henry being selfish or selfless?
With everything, there’s obviously a delicate balance. With every spectrum, you go to one end on either side, but you have to live within both. I went through that struggle with my wife. Now, while I’m working, we’re overcompensated as actors, but I could stop working at any second. I have the most unpredictable career in the world. Michelle [Mulitz, his real life wife] has a family that provides support. I think that was probably something I related to Henry as well, that sort of dynamic. That was a back and forth for me: what is selfless and what is selfish. I internalized a lot of this stuff. The sad thing is, I have no answer. I think I did this film looking for those answers. All it did was confirm to me that other people have these issues, and can relate to them as well, but nobody actually has any idea what they’re fucking doing in a relationship.
I love the mood the film creates. Can you speak to that?
So much of the film was about the way couples communicate via moods rather than words, and saying exactly what they’re feeling, which is why I think I enjoyed the voiceover—which I rarely do. Rafael hates voiceover too. But it’s the only time you hear these characters actually communicate their real thoughts rather than essentially dancing the entire time, sharing emotion back and forth. There’s a scene in bed that Olivia and I really love. She starts humping him, but there’s no real communication. The moment’s past…
...and then there’s the scene where they chant “Husband and Wife.” They’re tremendously connected here, but in the back of your head you wonder what’s going to happen to their relationship.
That’s a tremendously divisive scene. They’re building toward something, but without looking or thinking or talking, and it starts to crumble.
I like the way your body language changes depending on how Henry relates to Veronica versus Dianne. Can you talk about how you portrayed Henry’s relationship with each character?
Both actresses put a lot of thought into creating their characters. Our dynamic—Olivia’s and mine—involved a lot of rehearsals, going deep into our backstory. We talked to Rafael about the first day we met, and our life living together, and how long we’ve been together, all the way to we’re both dead and talking about the day we died, and our life as a whole. With Analeigh, she came in later, and had a different technique. She struggled with playing that character, and she had a guard up that created a less familiar dynamic; there are more walls there. Everything about her, from Veronica’s aesthetic to her taste in art and music and her lifestyle, is completely different. There’s power in the situation that exists between Henry and Veronica, but she holds all of the power. He feels both way too old and the child who doesn’t know anything.
Dianne’s joking, about the ring, for example, is an interesting way of telling the truth and not at the same time. What can you say about Henry’s response to this coping mechanism of hers?
I think a lot of that was just so familiar to me. I’ve been in those situations. The only thing you can do when you feel you have no power, or have no control, is you want to be able to talk and cut out the bullshit and address what it is that you want. There’s a lot of power of Dianne’s not communicating, and hinting and joking.
What can you say about the scene where Henry slaps Dianne? It’s powerful and painful.
If the roles were reversed and she slapped him, would we be having this conversation? Slapping her is one of the most hideous, vulgar, and base things he can do.
You judge the character in that moment…
There’s a connection. She says, [regarding the slap] “You can if you want to.”
She needs to feel punished.
He knows her very well. They’re both saying exactly what’s happening and what they’re feeling and then doing it. They’re on the same page, and only in that situation can a husband slap his wife. It’s unsettling to watch, but it’s perhaps their strongest connection in the movie.
At times, Henry seems uncomfortable in his own skin. He’s very body conscious. Can you talk about this aspect of his character?
The character was written heavier. Rafael wanted me to gain weight for the film, but I was shooting a television show, so I couldn’t put on 10 or 20 pounds. But his body issues can be self-perceived.
Henry’s body issues seem to be more self-esteem issues. It’s another layer of vulnerability for him.
There’s an aging thing. So much of the film is about growing up and becoming an adult. Around that age, you start looking at your body, and wondering who the fuck that person is. That the [image of you] is older than you are. If this is another example of me being an adult, maybe I need to start acting like an adult. Maybe I am one. Maybe I’m in the body of one.