Benjamin Bonenfant

Ruby’s Rap by Ruby Comer

Rome, Italy

Photo by Anna Faye Hunter

I gravitate toward the “young’uns” because they have that spirit of life! Now blend that with one of the world’s oldest and most spirited cities—Roma!—and it becomes a bewitching balance.

After arriving by train, I plotz my travelin’ ass down in The Visconti Palace Hotel, a chic place where young whippersnappers bunk and hang out. It borders on Vatican City, where the Pope beds. Though not a Pontiff fan, I marvel at all the arresting art and history behind the confining walls. I unpack in my lively decorated suite and head to the ultra-contemporary lobby, where the furniture is splashed in rainbow colors. The lobby also extends out onto a large cozy patio, complete with a hypnotic fountain, shrubbery, and accoutrements like candles, glass tables, and gray slate flooring. It’s here that I meet Benjamin Bonenfant, a theater student from the University of Colorado—a fellow American!

I always like to hear what young people say and think about the epidemic, as many of them were not around when it first broke. I learn that HIV has personally touched Benjamin, too.

Ruby Comer: Bonenfant. Bonenfant. [I say in a whisper with a ragged French accent, grasping for the meaning.]
Benjamin Bonenfant:
Bonenfant is French for “good child.” [He states with a wide smile.] I come from a predominantly Franco-American part of New England, southern Maine, and my entire family on both sides is of French-Canadian descent.

Oui, oui! What calls to mind when I mention the epidemic?
I think first of Africa, and then I think of the musical, RENT. As I have little firsthand experience with the epidemic, I tend to think of where and how I hear about it in the media.

When did you first hear about HIV and AIDS?
It’s something that I was familiar with at a young age because my mother’s uncle died from it. But I don’t recall the exact moment I heard of it. I just remember being confused by it.

How so?
I don’t remember much of what was said about it as I was only about six or seven at the time. I wasn’t close to him. In fact I don’t think I really knew him at all before he died. From what I understand now, he had a fairly private life with his partner, and I only really came to know him because he died. Not much was said about his death being AIDS-related either. It was all rather ambiguous to me at the time.

Uh, huh. So you’re an actor. What have you performed in?
Well, I’ve played Romeo at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, a role I had been dreaming of since I was twelve-years-old. I made some student films and a

Rooftop terrace at the Visconti Palace Hotel in Roma. Photo Courtesy Visconti

couple of years ago I made a feature film called Strapped, where I played a hustler.

[My ears perk up as my mouth drops and I automatically touch the bottom of my lip with my index finger.] Hmmm, really? So you play a gentleman of the evening…sounds fascinating, Benjamin. What’s it about?
My character searches for his soul. He finds himself trapped in an apartment building after a routine trick with a first-time john and, as he tries to find his way out, he encounters other men and, with each one, he learns something new about himself that he’s been long guarding against. It’s a compelling exploration of sexual intimacy….

Darnit, Benjamin is interrupted by his friends. He bids me “Arrivederci” and is off on the town. We agree to meet up at the hotel’s Rooftop Terrace the next evening. After a walk to the Spanish Steps to get my fix on where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck sat in the film Roman Holiday, I scurry home to my laptop and stream Benjamin’s movie, Strapped. WOW, what a searing performance…and what a physique, too! And that delicious, unpredictable, moving ending….Knockout! This boy is going places, I think to myself, as I curl up in my snuggy bed.

[The next evening after I toast kudos to Benjamin for his sensational performance in Strapped, we quietly look out at the splendid view of Roma from The Rooftop Terrace.] You mentioned last night that you went to Catholic high school in Colorado Springs. Was HIV/AIDS talked about?
We were taught about all kinds of different STDs. When we started sex-education [class], it was coupled, naturally, with pretty heavy-handed messages about abstinence, but they also went into graphic depth about the dangers of STDs and how to prevent them. While abstinence was always touted as the best protection, we weren’t left ignorant about safe sex. I felt the education on HIV/AIDS and other diseases prepared me and my classmates well.

Now, Benji [I grin, then he grins at my endearing nickname for him], have you always used a condom while playing?
No, I haven’t always. [He looks a bit sheepish as he flashes those big puppy-dog hazel eyes.] However, I don’t really play, if I take that to mean, playing around with different people. I have only really ever been involved in monogamous situations, people with whom I have had an exclusive relationship. Though, if things were different and I did play around, I would most certainly [he pauses and takes a small breath] and always use one.

Meraviglioso! Are you currently hitched?
Yes I am. She’s a pretty one, too! [He tilts his head to one side as his eyes
fire up.]

Bonenfant in Strapped. Photo by Alexey Gulenko
Bonenfant in Strapped. Photo by Alexey Gulenko

Do you ever get tested for HIV, Benjamin?
I have been tested, yes, though I do not get tested regularly—as everyone should. But, meeting you, Ruby, has definitely made me feel like it’s high
time to get tested again! [He chuckles.]

Have you ever done volunteer work?
When I was younger I often worked at my old church’s soup kitchen in the spring, but, regrettably, I have not given much time to any particular cause since then. Though I think about it often. There was a long period in high school when I was trying to get involved with Invisible Children, but I lost my job and wasn’t really able to make it work then.

Yesterday you went ga-ga over a photograph of Eddie Izzard you saw in an Italian magazine. Why?
Eddie has always inspired me! The journey he made as a hard-working street performer to the standup that he’s become today is formidable. And I admire his activism in the AIDS community as well. The intellect behind his comedy has always been compelling to me. I think he’s one of the funniest people on the planet, but there are so many layers to his comedy that it doesn’t just make me laugh, it makes me think about the world and the human condition. He can deliver a punch line while offering a lesson about religion or world history. The man is fabulous.

Ahhh, yes, that’s true. He does make ya think….
I really admire his views on sexuality, too. As a straight man who’s known for wearing women’s clothing, he maintains that he doesn’t wear women’s clothing, he wears his clothing. He refuses to accept societal double standards about masculinity and femininity and that is inspiring to me. I think he’s right-on when he refers to “blokes wearing makeup” as a “third millennium thing,” that we’ll see a lot more men, gay or straight, wearing makeup in the future. All told, I think he’s just really cool and way ahead of his time.

Lobby of the Visconti Palace Hotel in Roma. Photo Courtesy Visconti
Lobby of the Visconti Palace Hotel in Roma. Photo Courtesy Visconti

Eddie is truly a one-of-a-kind. And so are you, Benjamin. Thank you for your friendship here in the Eternal City. Good luck in show biz!
Ruby, I’m so grateful to have met you and to have done this interview because HIV/AIDS is not often a part of my immediate experience; it’s easy for me to take it for granted. It remains all the more dangerous and insidious the more it goes untalked about and unthought of. [He quietly sips his amber ale.] The more that magazines like A&U continue to reach out and show the way HIV/AIDS affects the lives of so many people—all over the world, all the time—the more people who might otherwise be ignorant to it have a fighting chance. Prevention ultimately starts with talking about it, so thank you for talking about it with me.

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]

March 2012