UnREAL’s Denée Benton on Why a Character Like Ruby Is Important and Representation in Hollywood

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Perhaps the best thing about UnREAL’s uneven second season was that it introduced actress Denée Benton. Her character, Ruby, quickly became a fan favorite for her honesty, activism, and the way her story line resonated emotionally. She was one of the few contestants during the second season who actually felt like a real person. We spoke to Benton — who will also star opposite Josh Groban on Broadway beginning this October in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 — about why Ruby is so important to the television landscape, whether the show pulled off its police-brutality story line, and what’s next for her career. 

Ruby became a fan favorite this season. How do you feel about her arc and that she actually ends up with Darius in the finale?
I actually really love it. I like it for multiple reasons, mostly about what it represents that someone like Ruby gets to be the center of a love story. It’s something you don’t get to see very often. For representation reasons I care. Then for feminist reasons I was like, Does she even need a guy? But as far as Ruby and Darius, I think they’re actually pretty good for each other. 

It may seem minor, but seeing characters like Ruby on a show like UnREAL affects things. A black woman with natural hair getting her own happily ever after is rare.
Definitely. That was probably the thing I was most excited about.

I think someone like Ruby winning does mean something very different. She has integrity and was well-adjusted. Also, she didn’t play the game. She wasn’t getting super-glammed up and she was pretty much the only person who didn’t start doing something shady behind the scenes.
She really was herself. And what it says to people is that you can get what you want and be yourself at the same time — I think we live in a society that doesn’t necessarily preach that message. 

What is your favorite aspect of Ruby?
I would have to say her honesty. I feel like I’m personally the type of person that would really protect people’s feelings and not always say what I think. Whereas Ruby is really confident in the fact that she trusts the truth that she believes in and makes everyone she’s around meet her at that level. She doesn’t deal with a lot of bullshit, and she’s not disrespectful about it. She almost can’t help but be herself.

Why do you think she decided to give Darius another chance despite everything that happened?
I think she actually does love him. And as much as she didn’t like what he did in that crappy diner, in private she wanted to hear what he had to say. Also, when she comes in the last episode, she’s opening herself up to them continuing, but I also don’t think she expected she’d be proposed to. He does what she asks him to do, inadvertently. Don’t just tell me, tell the 16 million people that I’m worthy of this, and that gesture meant a lot to her.

What was your favorite moment as an actor when playing Ruby?
It was simultaneously my favorite and it made me so nervous. The fifth episode was so challenging, going from our love story to doing my first sex scene to dealing with that emotional interaction with my father. And Ruby and her dad are very similar to me and my dad. Me and my dad have a very close relationship. He pushes me to be my best at all times. When I read those scenes I thought, This poor woman. I know exactly how she feels to disappoint someone like that. I feel like as an actor, it was terrifying, but also a treat, and to do all those things for the first time on camera felt like a great challenge. At the end of the day, I felt like I ran a marathon. 

That’s what I like to call emotional whiplash. It was one thing after another for Ruby.
And then when Darius cut her I was just like, Oh my God, Ruby.

I got to interview Meagan Tandy, who played Chantal this season. She mentioned something I thought was surprising — that there is quite a bit of improvisation on set. Were there any moments you improvised that you’re fond of, whether or not they ended up on air?
Yes, there is actually one moment that did end up on air. In the fourth episode when we were all in those [skimpy] football outfits and all of us actresses felt so ridiculous dressed like that. [Laughs.] It was cold in Vancouver, but ended up happening to be one sunny day. We were all just goofing off completely. And the director was like, “Okay, just talk to each other,” and the characters were supposed to be kind of drunk. There was one moment we were supposed to be stretching and I just decided to say I was going to be a doctor, as Ruby. Kim [Matula, who played Tiffany] spit her water everywhere. It was a really funny moment that we just made up and ended up in the episode.

UnREAL has gotten some blowback on how the police-brutality story line played out. Do you feel they pulled it off?
It was an interesting feeling since I am personally really passionate about the movement for Black Lives and the complete epidemic of police brutality that has been in our country for the past 400 years. I appreciate the courage it took to bring it up. But I don’t think the creative team could have ever known it would have been happening the week after the two latest incidents that happened. I think everyone’s emotions were so raw that it would have been hard to get any type of real positive reaction. Something I longed for was more of Darius and Romeo. There used to be a scene between them I really liked that got cut, I don’t know for what reason. I think it’s a challenge since Rachel is our protagonist and everything has to come through her lens. I appreciated them having the courage to talk about it even if it wasn’t perfect, because I don’t know what a perfect version of this conversation looks like. But I do wish that I had seen more of the actual victims involved and what their stories were. In the media a lot of time that’s what we’re missing, because we don’t necessarily get to hear from them [since] they don’t survive. I appreciate it because the demographic of people who watch UnREAL aren’t having these conversations.

It is a really tricky story line to pull off, and I don’t think any show has. I don’t even know what the perfect version of this story line would be. I’m not sure if TV shows can grapple with this in the right way.
Unless it’s a TV show that is completely devoted to the issue. Anybody who is really grappling with it either for personal reasons or empathetic reasons isn’t going to feel like enough time was spent on it since we haven’t solved it.

What happens is it won’t be the main story line of show. So it ends up feeling like an after-school special even when there is care put into it, but they have to move on.
Exactly. I’m interested to see Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new show, Shots Fired. I’m really intrigued to see what that conversation looks like when they have more time to give to it.

That will be really interesting to see. Especially when there is consistently a new story of a black man or woman being shot and killed.
I got to see Ragtime on Ellis Island [recently]. Ragtime is a musical about the turn of the century. One of the main female characters is Sarah, a black woman. It takes place [around] 1912 and she gets beaten to death by the police. I did that show in high school and it never resonated with me like it did last night. And I was like, Oh my God, this literally happened last week. But this musical takes place in 1912.

So, you’re going to be on Broadway in October. Congratulations.
I’m very excited, to say the least.

Can you tell us a little about the role and what to expect?
It’s a new musical called Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. It’s like a rock/pop opera that’s based on a small sliver of War and Peace. Dave Malloy, our creator, is a genius and wrote this amazing musical about it. I play Natasha. It’s a really magical show. It’s not immersive, but the audience is onstage with us. Natasha is an ingenue, Russian countess, she makes some mistakes along the way. It’s really unique. It’s definitely a dream role. Between her and Ruby, they’re both ingenues. For Ruby to be an ingenue — this black girl with her natural hair who has a really strong point of view — is amazing. For me to get play a Russian countess, which doesn’t happen very often, is amazing.

You mentioned that both Ruby and Natasha are sort of ingenues. What other kind of roles are you interested in playing?
I love a good biopic. I would love to play one of the women who inspire me, from Michelle Obama to Diana Ross. I think that would be a really cool thing to cross off my bucket list. I’m sort of in a place where two really big things are happening in my career. I’m curious to see what comes my way.

This interview has been edited and condensed.