As a 26-year-old actor, Ben Lawson, a graduate of Australia’s prestigious drama school the National Institute of Dramatic Art, found himself on the set of Neighbours, one of Australia’s two iconic, long-running suburban-set soap operas.
Both are machines, cranking out TV Week cover stars – Melissa George, Margot Robbie, Jessie Spencer, Chris Hemsworth, Kylie Minogue and many others – like tins of beans. It’s a relentlessly tough system: some survive, some do not.
To Lawson’s surprise, he was outpaced by one of his teenaged co-stars. “It’s the job I will always credit for teaching me camera technique,” he says. “The 13-year-old kid on the show was showing me up and I realised I need to learn how to get on top of my shit.
“It was like a post-grad course in camera technique for me,” he says. “After that I felt so much more confident about going across to LA to take a swing.”
Ben Lawson plays the role of action hero in Designated Survivor. Photo: Entertainment One
And take a swing he has. His early credits include guest roles in Bones, 2 Broke Girls and Modern Family, and a role in the sitcom Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23. He now has leading roles in two major dramas, the political drama Designated Survivor and the Netflix teen mystery 13 Reasons Why.
He has, to borrow a cliche, arrived.
Not bad for a boy who grew up in Brisbane with four brothers – one of them is the actor Josh Lawson, whose credits include Sea Patrol, House of Lies and the feature film The Little Death – and aspirations of being the next Cary Grant.
“I loved Cary Grant, he is my idol,” Lawson says. “I don’t know any self-respecting leading man who wouldn’t want to be Cary Grant. To me, he’s just the master. He has everything that a leading man should have. He had it all.”
Much of the 37-year-old man who sits here today is owed to the four brothers, Lawson says. “When you’re young you sort of have an environment where it’s just like so much teasing, rough housing ??? but we all are super close, especially now,” he says. “We were always, have been very, very close.”
Lawson landed in Los Angeles in 2008, initially excited to see in the flesh iconic locations known only by name and still image such as Santa Monica Boulevard and Venice Beach.
“And then, very quickly, that kind of wears off,” he says. “You look around for what else there is and I think that chasm between the bright lights and a meaningful life in LA is very difficult to negotiate,” he says.
“I’ve got a lot of things to thank LA for and I actually love it but it’s taken its pound of flesh. People who don’t like it there, I totally get it.”
In 2017 Lawson secured his most substantial breakthrough role: that of district attorney Peter Garrett (and love interest to transgender lawyer Cam Wirth, played by Laverne Cox) in the CBS drama Doubt.
The series, from Grey’s Anatomy writers Joan Rater and Tony Phelan, was groundbreaking, particularly because it was on America’s oldest, most conservative network CBS.
Ben Lawson, whose early credits include guest roles in Bones, 2 Broke Girls and Modern Family, and a role in the sitcom Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23. Photo: Supplied, Channel 10
Cancelled after only 13 episodes it was, for Lawson, a lesson in the best, and the worst, that Hollywood can offer an actor.
“That was a real disappointment; I loved that show,” he says. “Not only did I love the work I had to do on it but I loved the people. It was such a joy. Everything about that show was a joy. And they were really good to me.”
In particular, Lawson praises the show’s bravura in taking a transgender story to middle America. “That had never happened before and we thought, ‘oh my God, the way that America is right now, that this is a real victory’,” he says.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in anything that actually meant something … it sort of sounds pretentious but this was a story that really touched certain people, it was extremely important to them [and] I was just very grateful to have been able to be a part of it. And to be a part of that conversation.”
What follows, however, becomes the confirmation of Lawson as a leading man on American network television: he is cast as MI6 agent Damian Rennett in Mark Gordon and David Guggenheim’s political thriller Designated Survivor, opposite actor Kiefer Sutherland, which is filmed in Toronto.
Living proof that it never rains but it pours, Lawson has also landed in the second season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, which is filmed in San Francisco.
“In both places that I’m working, neither of them is my home,” he notes. “Because I have no life in either of those cities, the busy times feel incredibly busy and then at the same time I feel as though I’m very idle.”
For a guy who, by his own admission, has spent his US career playing “man in suit”, the role of action hero in Designated Survivor is one he’s enjoying.
“When I first got to LA and I was in my late 20s I think I played a succession of these lady-killing douchebags, I played three in a row and I was like, what am I doing? Is this what I do now? And then I watched that change.
“You have to be conscious of your casting and the way people perceive you and, at the same time, you always want to be pushing against that and trying to do something different,” Lawson adds. “This show might usher in a period in my career that I don’t wear suits for a while. We’ll see.”
And as an action hero, Lawson says he’s very happy.
“I’m not pro guns at all but it’s been enjoyable to live in that kind of action man archetype,” he says. “It’s kind of uncomfortable to start with because you’re very self aware saying, I look ridiculous. I’m not this cool. But the more comfortable I become with it, the more I enjoy it.”
And the future Cary Grant? “If they make a biopic of him one day and I’m not in the running, I’ll be making a call to my agent,” Lawson laughs.
WHAT Designated Survivor
WHEN On Netflix
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.