Is he or isn’t he? That’s the question that runs throughout Gold Digger, the new romantic thriller in which Ben Barnes plays a man who might or might not be one.
You’ve likely seen Screen Actors Guild Awards nominee Ben Barnes in The Chronicles of Narnia films and/or the TV series Westworld and The Punisher. Starting tomorrow, folks in the States will be able to see him as the is-he-or-isn’t-he titular character in the romantic thriller miniseries Gold Digger.
Barnes plays Benjamin Greene, a 35-year-old single man who becomes involved in a romantic relationship with Julia Day, a recently divorced 60-year-old woman played by Primetime Emmy® Awards winner Julia Ormond (Temple Grandin, Sabrina). As Benjamin and Julia’s relationship progresses and grows intimate, it sparks tensions with her three adult children as well as her ex-husband — all of whom believe Ben is after Julia’s money. The plot thickens as secrets of their respective pasts come to light.
In the midst of the pandemic, I had the opportunity to speak with Ben by phone about Gold Digger. Our chat started with Ben sharing his top three reasons for saying yes to the role of Benjamin. (Note that some text has been edited to prevent spoilers.)
“Firstly, it was the quality of the six scripts. Very much like you stayed up watching the six episodes, I was on a plane and I had all six episodes, and by the time I finished on the plane, I’d read all six. I was just desperate to know, on this kind of very soap opera-like level, whether this guy is… someone with an ulterior motive and an agenda and trying to get his hands on Julia’s family treasure, or whether he’s trying to just get his hands on her heart. That was the basic draw through it, which I found exciting.
“And just the fact that it was a story with a woman in her 60s at the epicenter of it, as the protagonist who’s had a very full, rich, deep life as a daughter and a mother and an ex-wife and a lover and someone with dreams and hopes for themselves, for their future. So first was the script.
“Secondly, it was the challenge of the character, about having to be readable in more than one way in every scene because there was no way of saying, ‘Well, in this scene I’m going to be more like a gold digger, and in this scene I’m going to be more like a trustworthy guy.’ You kind of have to blend the two things all the way through whilst maintaining an aspect of being a natural, real person who is just one person. So I thought that was an interesting challenge in terms of the masks that we all wear in front of different types of people and the truths that we withhold or the lies that we tell.
“The third was the thing you just hinted at about how you felt at the end. We actually changed the ending a little bit as we were shooting, and we discussed it, to reflect a bit more what I thought had become the most interesting part of the show, which was the judgment that is cast on the character by the person watching. And how, as you go through it, you’re judging different relationships and different parts of the relationships and whether that’s to do with gender or age gap or family ties or which character you’re relating to or whatever it might be. But by the end, I was very keen for there to be an ending which… different people would be able to read in different ways and really talk about, really get into the nitty gritty of why you felt how you felt about it.
“Those were the things that were really appealing to me.”
In having mentioned the challenge of playing Benjamin, I asked Ben what he felt was the easiest aspect of playing the character.
“Well, it was interesting. It was the first time that I played, actually, a Brit in a decade. I’ve been playing different characters and living and working mainly in the States on TV shows, and so playing this character is very far from myself. It was actually much harder than I thought, or much more difficult to slip into playing somebody who dresses a bit more like me and sounds a bit more like me and talks about things a bit more like how I talk about things. So that was more challenging than I expected after such a long time.
“Just to kind of sit in these scenes and just be there with Julia, going to film in London for the first time in a long time, was just a real treat. And just being at home in those streets was something that definitely made it much easier. I felt like these were worlds that I really had a grasp on and really understood.”
A Brit feeling challenged in playing a Brit, that in itself is interesting. So what in particular about the character of Benjamin did Ben find appealing?
“You know, whilst judgments are cast on him, I definitely tried to have him come across as somebody who is very non-judgmental himself. And as you go through the story, you realize where that comes from for him. But just playing someone who doesn’t really judge other people in the way that everyone watching it is judging him and everyone around him is judging him, I just found that really appealing about that character.”
With Ben and Julia’s characters being the focus of the show, I asked Ben if the two of them did anything in particular to get to know each other to bring their characters and the characters’ relationship to life.
“Obviously we had a lot of these more intimate scenes, and I don’t just mean the scenes of a sexual nature but the scenes where we’re crying with each other or screaming at each other and throwing things or comforting each other — those are very intimate things, too. We definitely had a very nurturing director for the first few episodes, who was keen on us talking things out and talking through the characters and doing some intimacy exercises.
“But for me, what was even more helpful was I hired a car and drove to various country pubs with Julia to just sort of sit and have dinner and drink wine and talk about the characters and how we wanted them to come across and what was important to us about the story. Just getting to know each other that way in the beginning, and just filming some of the montage stuff early on, where we’re just holding hands and walking through London and having people stare at us because you’ve got a film crew. This definitely helped nourish that relationship in real life, so by the time we got to the really dramatic stuff, we were much more comfortable around each other.”
That just begged the question of whether anything in Ben and Julia’s conversations led to any changes in how the show was produced versus how it was originally written.
“I think the ending definitely changed from how it was in the beginning in terms of being very reflective of the story that we’ve told. [Julia] made it so that I was very aware and careful of her agenda in playing a woman of that age. You know, she was very bold in not wanting to necessarily have to come across all the time as the person who is always right — I mean her character is not always right and her character doesn’t always have the moral high ground. She wanted to play a very real character, but also she was very careful about representing such a fully-realized character of a certain age on the screen…
“And I think it was really important as well to find this crucial balance of judgment and tone, and so I definitely think that changed the ending in terms of having that reflect the delicate nature of the relationship that’s been explored through the story. But we also wanted it to be enticing and exciting to watch, so a lot of it was just about balance, really.”
Having told Ben how I was left at the end of the show, I asked how the series landed for him as a viewer (if it was even possible to take himself as the actor out of the equation).
“I don’t really know if that’s possible. I was so close to it, I don’t know if it’s possible for me to invest in the story [as a viewer] if it’s one that I’ve been involved in telling. But I remember reading the scripts for the first time and thinking that the rawness of Benjamin’s history did explain a lot of his behavior, and I found that very satisfying. So hopefully that’s the same thing when you watch the show…
“My hope for it would be that people could have conversations like the one we’re having now about it. I like TV where you can talk about it afterwards rather than going, ‘Huh, that was good.’ So, for me, that’s a win.”
The six-part miniseries features Sebastian Armesto (Broadchurch), Jemima Rooper (Lost in Austen), Archie Renaux (Hanna), Alex Jennings (Victoria), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Hard Sun), Julia McKenzie (Agatha Christie’s Marple), and Yasmine Akram (Sherlock).
Gold Digger premieres in the US tomorrow, May 4, with its first two episodes, exclusively on Acorn TV and its digital channels, including Acorn TV on Amazon. New episodes will debut on subsequent Mondays.
Share this post/page.
Outbound links on this page include non-affiliate links and affiliate links; the latter allows us to earn income for qualifying actions.