Curiosity led Daniel Benzali to walk into the Gerding Theater shortly after he moved to Portland last fall. A few days later, the accomplished actor signed on to star as Mark Rothko in the theater’s production of Red.
He describes the play as “a powerful insight into an artist’s work and life and philosophy. … What an artist is about and what his artwork says or what he is trying to express through his paintings – I think that is a new experience for theater audiences.”
Sitting in the café of the Gerding Theater, where he brings Rothko to life, Mr. Benzali shared the journey that led him to this role.
Mr. Benzali was born in Brazil, the son of Jewish parents. Acting was in his blood – his father acted in Yiddish theaters across Latin America before moving the family to New York when Daniel was age 3.
The actor began his infatuation with Rothko’s works while living in London in the 1980s as one of the few Americans ever invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. He spent many an hour in the Rothko rooms at the Tate Museum experiencing the artist’s work. During a stint in New York, he performed on Broadway and visited more of Rothko’s work at the Modern Museum of Art.
When Mr. Benzali moved to Los Angeles, he guest starred on numerous television series including The X-Files, NYPD Blue and L.A. Law, before being cast in the lead role of the 1995 series Murder One. He later starred in the FX series Nip/Tuck.
His film work includes co-starring in The Grey Zone, All the Little Animals and Murder at 1600. He also had a role in the James Bond film A View to a Kill.
But he never lost interest in Rothko. After reading a biography of the artist in 2004, Mr. Benzali decided he wanted to do a one-man show on Rothko.
“I loved his art,” he said. “When I read his biography, he had such an interesting life story. His art plus his character appealed to me as a good subject for the theater.”
He began making notes for a script. In a 2008 visit to London, he discovered Red, a new play about Rothko, had been cast. When the play moved to Broadway, it had the same cast.
Last year he decided he wanted to move out of Los Angeles but be close enough to return for subsequent roles.
“The last few years, everything I’ve heard about Portland – the diversity of the city, the people, the culture – everything appeals to me,” he said.
So when he heard Michael Moore call Portland “the coolest city in America” on a talk show last summer, he decided it was time to move.
Exploring his new home, he decided to check out the Gerding Theater. When he saw Red on the season’s schedule, he left a card for the director.
He soon sat down for a chat with Red director Rose Riordan and quickly landed the part he’d long sought.
“It’s definitely serendipity,” he said.