Melissa for The Laterals

THE LATERALS – To say that Melissa Benoist has range is an understatement. The familiar face from Supergirl and Glee has vaulted onto a dramatic piece on Paramount Network. Benoist plays Rachel Koresh, the enigmatic wife of David Koresh, and the mini-series explores the trials and struggles of the Branch Davidians’ standoff with the Federal government. The storytelling captivates audiences with its raw look, yet approaches the couple’s relationship with a tenderness that is often misplaced. Melissa Benoist has an unrivaled gamut of strength, which cannot be tethered.

There were a few projects before Glee, but the show’s devoted following created a buzz for you. Were there aspects of the show that reminded you of your own high school life?
Quite a bit of that show mirrored my high school experience. I not only considered myself an outsider growing up, but I also basically lived at a local Academy of Theatre Arts studio where I did theatre and we had a travelling show choir. We were all the strangest kids, but that was what we appreciated and supported in each other—our individualism. It was a family, so I definitely had my own version of the ‘choir room’ growing up.

Glee is known for their dedicated fans. Have you had any interesting encounters?
Glee fans are still amazingly dedicated and I’ve had some wonderful encounters with them. I always am surprised by some of the people that are Gleeks. There have been moments where a person I would least expect to be a fan—for instance, a man who was changing the oil on my car at a Jiffy Lube—will come up to me and tell me which songs were their favorite. They’re always unexpected songs, too. Like that particular man’s favorite was “Diva,” by Beyonce.

Supergirl gets you into the coveted DC Universe. Do you enjoy the super-hero genre, and the physical demand that comes with it? 
I never read comic books growing up, but what I’ve learned to enjoy about the superhero genre has been the sort of escapism of it all—how much hope it can inspire with its characters, their respective back stories and powers and the dilemmas they face. You know you can trust that they’ll triumph somehow against all odds. The extent of the mythology is mind boggling to me, as well. Physically, it’s so much more demanding than I imagined it would be, and there was a learning curve to surpass when I started the show. It was more like an inertia-curve, actually, because I had to get used to moving non-stop and using every part of my body for the role. I have learned to enjoy that aspect of it, however; I feel the strongest I’ve ever felt in my life, inside and out.

What do you do (diet and exercise) to keep up with the constant rigors of the show?
At first I didn’t do anything because of how time consuming the show was, but that caught up with me very quickly. Now I try to workout at least four times a week, doing a mixture of reformer pilates, yoga, circuit training, and cardio, and meditation is a component of each workout as well. As far as diet, I have to eat clean or I will get fatigued and not catch up during the week. That means mostly raw, vegan, organic foods, and nothing overly processed. I also had to seriously cut down on one of my favorites—donuts. That was a tough one, but I do cheat sometimes. Everything in moderation!

The success of Wonder Women is proof that there is plenty of room for women in the super hero genre. Do you want to bring Supergirl to the silver screen?
My iteration of Supergirl has her home in the DC TV universe, and I don’t know if she fits the tone and the mold of the DC movie universe. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to see Supergirl in the Justice League alongside Wonder Woman. I actually think that would be amazing! Part of the fun of the genre is that many people can try their hand at portraying these characters and their own interpretations of them across many mediums.

With two hit television shows under your belt you are now on Paramount Network’s Waco. The mini-series looks into the 51-day standoff between the Federal government and the Branch Davidians. What was it like to depart the lightheartedness of shows like Glee and Supergirl into the serious and complex nature of Waco?
Waco was new for me in that I had never played a real person before, let alone someone who had lived and died so tragically and in such unique circumstances. There is a weight to that. It felt to me as if I almost had to use different parts of my brain and heart collectively than I normally do when approaching a role, in order to rationalize and understand what Rachel Koresh may have felt or thought being a Branch Davidian. The complexities of this particular story were very intricate, and the whole cast conversed every day about the nature of the story we were telling.

Both you and Talyor Kitsch add quite a bit of suspense and intrigue to the standoff. How did you prepare for the role?
I searched for any first hand accounts and pictures of Rachel I could find, and would pore over them. There wasn’t much to find about her, and she still feels quite mysterious to me, so there was a lot of filling in the gaps. I also read both David Thibodeau’s and Gary Noesner’s books and watched documentaries about the siege.

From the in-depth news coverage of the standoff the relationship between David and Rachel Koresh seemed endearing and authentic. She was a devoted wife and mother. How important was it for you to tell that narrative through your portrayal of Rachel?
Each relationship that existed within the walls of Mt. Carmel was important, and the whole cast felt the need to portray them with respect and integrity. David and Rachel Koresh’s relationship is fascinating in the way that it seemed like they were a team that lead Mt. Carmel together. She held a power there, because she was his first wife and had his first born child, and she may have been one of the few women that David would actually listen to when it came to the well-being of the women and children. The life she led as a Davidian was all she ever knew, and I found a quiet strength in her.

Because of the emotional and powerful nature of this controversial stand-off are there any scenes that are especially difficult to shoot?
The entire siege was difficult to shoot, simply because how we all knew it was going to end seemed to inch closer and closer as we shot each scene. By far, the hardest scene I had to shoot was during the fire on the last day of the siege. That is an emotional experience that will never leave me.

The abuse and negligence of the federal government in Waco was compelling for its time. Do you feel there are some similar abuses of power in our current administration?

I’m sure that abuse of power in government is a constant, so I wouldn’t pin that on any specific time, but our current administration does seem to exceed the amount of corruption we’re used to seeing as a public. In terms of similarities to Waco, the sheer unbelievability of it all is quite poignant to today’s atmosphere; as well as the miscommunications going awry between citizens and the authorities (or a complete refusal to acknowledge facts), and divisiveness in what you believe in. In 1993 and today, there is also a clear exhibition of the government obsessing over the public’s image of them via the media.

After filming Waco in New Mexico are there any local meals and foods you miss?
There is an incredible Sopa de Amor (Soup of Love) at a restaurant called Sazón in Santa Fe that I loved. Another great spot I would walk to was a farm-to-table called Radish and Rye—they have fantastic Whiskey and an amazing garden. Generally the Mexican food in Santa Fe was delicious, and I miss it!

Supergirl looks physically taxing, while Waco seems to be mentally and spiritually draining. What are some of the things you do to unwind after a long day of shooting?
Reading is my favorite way to unwind. After physically bringing a story to life on a stage or a set, departing to a different world where I can simply relax into my imagination is such a relief. Nothing is off-limits, either. I will read anything. Baths are great, too. I also love listening to classical music or jazz after a long day—my favorites right now are Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6, the Pastoral, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus.

After showing your range with a dramatic feature like Waco what are some projects that you would like to tackle?
I am always itching to get back on stage. I would absolutely love to tackle an Arthur Miller play, Tennessee Williams, or Shakespeare are favorites. I’m also a massive lover or Chekov—that would be a dream.