Exclusive Interview: Maurice Benard on Playing Sonny vs. John Gotti
General Hospital actor talks playing a mobster in primetime.
It’s no secret that Maurice Benard plays the role of a mobster well. He’s in his 26th year playing Sonny Corinthos on General Hospital so it wouldn’t seem that hard to slide into the role of the real-life American crime boss, John Gotti, in Lifetime’s Victoria Gotti: My Father’s Daughter. However, it was more challenging than Benard ever expected. In a recent interview with Soaps.com, Benard shared the doubts he had about playing the role, how he overcame those obstacles and what he learned about himself from working on the Gotti film. He was refreshingly frank about exploring the character of the mobster and how he came to appreciate his position on General Hospital even more. Benard was handpicked by Victoria Gotti because of his work as Sonny on General Hospital. She felt he had the gravitas that was needed for the role. Once he found out he had the job, he only had 48 hours to prepare for the role. Gotti wasn’t the easiest character to slide into with so little notice.
“There were other actors who read for it, but somebody at Lifetime and Victoria were my fans in a sense. They really helped me get the role and it was a very difficult role because you are playing someone very well known,” Benard explained. “I’ve done it before [Desi Arnaz] which was incredibly difficult and didn’t turn out the way I wanted it. This one was maybe more difficult because I put a lot of pressure on myself to be great. If it wasn’t for my wife, I might not have been able to do it.”
Benard’s wife, Paula, was the support system he needed on days when he had self-doubts. He even had to take a different approach in working with the script.
“I basically said, ‘Get me on a plane back home,’ like twice, three times. She said, “You can’t do that, it’s your career. You’re going to hurt yourself.’ So we would run the lines and I’m not someone who runs lines, any actor will tell you,” he shared. “I must have run the lines 30 times before I would do the scene. I channeled John Gotti.”
Benard found a way to tap into Gotti through the love of his family, even though he had a streak of violence in him. Those two conflicting character attributes gave him a great place to start.
“I wanted to play that he had an animal unpredictability inside of him and I could connect to that. I had to connect the love of his family, the love of his people and friends. He was a man of the people and I tried to incorporate that as much as I could. Look, if I had more time I would have liked to gain 25 pounds. But when you’re on a soap, [GH executive producer] Frank [Valentini] wouldn’t have liked me to come back 25 pounds heavier,” he laughed.
The end result was one that Benard was really proud of. He explained, “The pressure I put on myself and the difficulty of the role, I think made me do better. I had so much angst, but I had to play calm and cool with angst. Someone said to me, ‘You were out of your comfort zone.’ And that’s what it was, but people may not think that because I’m playing a gangster.”
Benard has had the luxury of understanding and developing his GH character for several decades, but Sonny is a lower-level gangster in comparison to Gotti. He didn’t even realize it until after he had left the set to return to General Hospital.
“The last day of shooting, I had to go straight to General Hospital. I got in around 6:00 AM, I went to set and while playing Sonny I realized he’s in first or second gear,” said Benard. “Gotti is in third, fourth or fifth [gear]. That’s when I realized I did better than I thought. The energy was totally different.”
He also appreciated his soap job even more after filming the Gotti movie. Benard was grateful to Valentini for making the opportunity happen — not every executive producer in years past on GH would have let him go off to shoot another project. “It’s a testament to Frank, who has let me do quite a lot in the past couple of years. It’s incredible,” he praised the GH executive producer. “I’ve been on the show many years. In the past, there’s no way they would have let me do this. Frank is fantastic.”
As for his current Alzheimer’s disease storyline with Max Gail, Benard applauds the realism the writers have given to both characters. It feels authentic to him in a very powerful and meaningful way.
“It’s all been positive. Max and I have chemistry. He’s my father on set. They dress him like my father. They put a hat on him like my father. Sometimes I touch him on the shoulder and he has the same jacket as my father. It’s like my dad’s on the set,” he confessed. “It’s not acting, it’s just living.”
Victoria Gotti: My Father’s Daughter is running all month on Lifetime and is also available on demand.