Life & Culture

How Benny Safdie stepped in front of the camera

Benny Safdie, half of the Safdie brothers directing duo, stars in Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which is out this week


Benny Safdie as Herb Simon and Kelly Fremon Craig - Director in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Photo Credit: Dana Hawley

The sky seems the limit for filmmaker Benny Safdie.

Working alongside his older brother Josh, he’s been feted for works including Daddy Longlegs, Good Time and, more recently, Uncut Gems, starring legendary comedy star Adam Sandler as a hapless New York jeweller spiralling out of control.

But the Jewish New Yorker has also carved out a name for himself in front of the camera. His last big role was playing a closeted gay politician in 1970s California in Paul Thomas Anderson’s excellent coming-of-age tale Licorice Pizza.

And we will soon see him playing the Jewish Hungarian-American theoretical physicist Edward Teller in Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited biopic of J Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atom bomb”.

He says it’s an ideal role for him and told the JC: “I love science, and was really very close to becoming a physicist in my younger years.

“When the role came up, I thought, wow, so I can be a part of something my younger self loved as much as film.

“Out of high school, I learned about things like cosmic rays, the speed of light and the standard model with a Columbia professor. I actually understood what e = mc² meant, how you could use that to determine the mass of particles, and with the speed of light… I was really into it all!”

But this week the film Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret opens in the UK, and the role he plays in it could not be more different.

The coming-of-age drama based on American writer Judy Blume’s 1970 bestselling novel of the same name is loved by fans of all ages, but has proved controversial through the decades for its frankness about religion and puberty.

Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, the film stars Abby Ryder Fortson as 11-year-old Margaret, and Safdie plays her father, Herb Simon.

It tells the story of what happens when Margaret returns from summer camp to discover her parents — Christian mother, Jewish father — have sold their New York apartment for a suburban house in New Jersey.

She struggles with organised religion, and her informal chats with God are an integral part of the story.

“I got a call from the producer, Jim Brooks,” Safdie adds.

“He said it was a film he’d been wanting to do for ever, and that he and Kelly were really excited by the idea of me playing the father. I, meanwhile, was pleasantly shocked they’d thought of me.

He loved the idea that he was being asked to play a part that was near to his own life, adding: "I’m Jewish, I’m married, I have two kids.”

He was flattered that they “saw something inside me, understood it. That really meant something to me.”

Born in New York in 1986 to his Ashkenazi mother, Amy, and Sephardi father, Alberto, Safdie’s childhood was divided between Queens, where his father went to live after his parents’ divorce, and Manhattan, where his mother set up home with his stepfather.

They sent him to Hebrew school and gave him a bar mitzvah. He said: “Being Jewish was just part of my life growing up. We celebrated the holidays and I just knew that being Jewish was part of who I was.”

His grandparents were also on board with Safdie adding: “I’d go to temple with them, a Reform one, the strand of Judaism with which I identify today.”

He didn’t grow up reading Judy Blume’s books.

But he says he “felt right at home” working alongside the author who, at 85, is a producer on the film in which she makes a cameo appearance.

He said: “She’s amazing and really helped me understand the role. We talked about and through everything on set, and I’ll never forget when she told me how, when her father would give her a hug, it felt like everything else in the world disappeared. Not only did I understand the feeling, I realised that it meant she wanted me to convey through my acting that the New York father in the film really cares about his daughter.”

On set, he also enjoyed a good working relationship with the producer, who’d been so keen for him to play Margaret’s Jewish father.

He added: “She makes movies that I don’t think people make anymore. I really respected what she was going after.”

He has huge respect for Blume, whose books introduced millions of teenagers to subjects as diverse as racism, bra size, the Nazis and underage sex.

From Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret with its inimitable heroine reciting a rhyme in order to try and increase her bust size, to Forever, a typically forthright story of teenage sexuality that left a generation of women unable to hear the word Ralph (the couple’s pet name for the boy’s penis) without sniggering, Blume did what few authors would at the time: write graphically and honestly about the excruciating parts of adolescence.

Although she is now seen as something of an international treasure, some people are still trying to get her books banned in American school libraries, deeming their content too explicit for children.

I asked Safdie about the controversy that still dogs the book today.

“Yes, it’s strange, because a similar thing happened on Oppenheimer,” he says.

“You know, when you work on something and it feels like it’s so far away from this moment in time… Margaret is a period piece, and when you’re working on it, you would hope that the issues would be fixed and not present today.

“But I feel like it’s just how the world works, because of our collective consciousness … the culture reflects what happens.

“It’s shocking, because while we’re doing Oppenheimer, Russia starts talking about nuclear weapons and it’s something nobody ever thought about.”

Similarly, he says, the lurch to the right in many American states means that book-banning is on the agenda again. “And here again you’re talking about this stuff.”

Intrigued by his ability to feel at home both in front and behind the camera, I ask about his experience working on Licorice Pizza with Paul Thomas Anderson.

I also quizzed him on what he learned from working with a director known for his perfectionism.

He said: “Oh my gosh, Paul was the best. That happened in the middle of Covid and it was such a leap, because everybody was so scared, but I had just such an amazing time working on it with him.

“Again, there was this subtle pushing of each other to be the best you could be. And that’s all I really want.

“I remember I did one take, and I thought I really did it, and he said something like, ‘Oh wow, I don’t know if we can do much better than that, that was pretty good.’

"But I took that as, ‘Alright, let’s go for it, let’s throw it down and let’s just knock this out of the park.’”

Safdie brims with sheer glee at the memory, adding: “It was like so electrifying, and again, he has such a sense of the little things that you’re doing and they don’t go unnoticed.”

Safdie brothers fanatics will be ecstatic to learn that — aside from Margaret and Oppenheimer — Safdie is rumoured to soon be rejoining his brother Josh behind the camera, and perhaps even in front of it, in a new as yet untitled project.

The film is said to be reuniting the duo with their Uncut Gems star Sandler and if their earlier work is anything to go by, this is sure to be another critical hit for the multi-faceted brothers from New York.

‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ is in cinemas from today.

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