Never work with animals or children. It’s the stern warning oft-repeated in Hollywood. Breakout actor Beck Bennett, however, would kindly disagree—with the second part, at least.
Bennett stars in the immensely popular “It’s Not Complicated” campaign for AT&T, a series of ads in which he plays the wry, deadpan moderator of a focus group populated by precocious children. “Do you guys think it’s better to be fast than be slow?” he’ll prompt the kids, gathered around him at a comically child-size table. The kids go on energetic, meandering rants about werewolves and islands made of candy. Bennett blinks in response, unamused. The nation, judging by the social-media buzz and YouTube views the ads receive, is very amused.
“Working with children has done well for me,” Bennett tells The Daily Beast. “I don’t find them intolerable or frustrating. They’re just fun, full of energy, and happy to be there.”
Bennett’s ads—thanks to his adorable rapport with the kids—have been so enthusiastically embraced that AT&T keeps ordering more, most recently a special March Madness edition co-starring a roundtable of basketball legends. As a result, the once up-and-coming actor has been beamed into millions of American households countless times since the campaign’s launch in November. Both ubiquitous and beloved at this point, Bennett has joined hallowed pantheon of cherished ad stars, alongside the likes of Flo from Progressive, Verizon’s “Can You Hear Me Now?” guy, and Wendy the Snapple lady.
“Yes, I’m now in the commercial campaign club,” Bennett jokes. “You get a card. You have to wear badges. And very short shorts with really long shirts. It’s a weird wardrobe.”
That Bennett excels in the smash campaign’s straight-man role makes sense. A member of the comedy troupe Good Neighbor, which he formed with three friends while studying acting at the University of Southern California, Bennett created several Web series prior to landing the AT&T gig. Easily the most entertaining: the talk-show-esque Fresh Perspectives. “Basically I thought of it as Kids Say the Darndest Things meets The Colbert Report,” he says.
Bennett channels the earnest ludicrousness of Stephen Colbert for the series, in which he grills child panelists on egregiously age-inappropriate hot-button issues of the day: gay marriage, Libya, American debt, Trayvon Martin.
“I feel sad for Trayvon’s parents. I just heard on the news that George Zimmerman the ‘sushspected’ killer of Trayvon Martin. Why isn’t he in ‘canscups?’” lisps pint-sized young Adam in the Martin segment. “I hope he goes to the Underworld when he dies.”
“Kids have a weird honesty, especially in their reaction to things, where a lot of older people who have matured have lost that,” Bennett says. Take his favorite “It’s Not Complicated” segment, for example, in which a little girl says it’s better to be faster so you can run away from a werewolf. Otherwise, “you’ll be turned into one, and you’ll have to stay in. And then you’ll have to be shaved because you’ll get too hot. And then you’re like ‘raar aar raar aar,’ which means, ‘I wish I was back into a human!’”
“The werewolf rant is the best because it’s such an outrageous rambling but it still makes sense completely,” he says. “Being emotionally connected to that logic is something that I feel really only kids can have. They can really only think about that situation and be imaginatively attached to it.”
Occasionally, Bennett does act with people his own age. He has some scattered IMDb credits—an episode of Last Man Standing, a movie called The Roommate—but most of his acting gigs come from the YouTube videos he creates with Good Neighbor. The group first gained notoriety in 2007 with the viral video “Pregnant Jamie Lynn Speaks Out.” Shot after news broke that 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears was pregnant, the video plays like it was shot by TMZ, with paparazzi lurking to get an exclusive comment from Jamie Lynn about the baby news. When “Jamie Lynn” walks up, she’s actually a toddler. The clip has more than 6.5 million views.
A follow-up titled “Unbelievable Dinner,” which spoofs the scene in Hook when the Lost Boys eat a meal created entirely in their imagination, won Good Neighbor more fans—including one by the name of Steven Spielberg, who sent the boys a short note of encouragement saying he thought the video was funny. (Spielberg directed Hook.)
“We totally freaked out,” Bennett says. “One of the members of the group printed it out and carried it around in his wallet for a while. Made my year. Made my life, almost. It’s the best thing. I’ll never forget. Yep, got a letter from Steven.”
Spielberg wasn’t the only A-lister to make a mark early on in Bennett’s career. As a favor to a casting director friend, Bennett read Will Ferrell’s part, Ron Burgundy, during casting sessions for the female lead in Anchorman. Bennett’s a glass case of emotion about the experience, especially after watching Ferrell’s performance on film.
“He based it off my Ron Burgundy,” he teases. “I did a Ron Burgundy. Will Ferrell heard about it. I mean his Ron Burgundy is better now, but he based it on my Ron Burgundy. I haven’t gotten a thank-you card yet.”
While Bennett may not have been destined to recite “I am Ron Burgundy” on film, that he would be an actor was always a foregone conclusion. While in high school just outside Chicago, he enrolled in classes at the famed Second City improv school. He played football but decided to quit to spend more time on theater.
His father was so certain that Beck’s passion was acting that he even jokingly offered him a convertible to stay on the football team. “But he wouldn’t have anything to do with it,” says Bennett’s father, Andy.
Of course, Mom and Dad couldn’t be prouder of their son during his breakout moment. “He even took me out to lunch over Christmas,” his mother, Sarah, says. “It was very exciting.”
Bennett claims he’s hardly recognized in public as “that guy from the AT&T ads”—something that’s sure to change soon—but agrees with his mom about the biggest change in his life since landing the campaign: mad money. No more living paycheck to paycheck. No more taking any gig he’s offered because he needs the cash. For an actor, it’s as close to job security as you can get.
But what about the flip side of that certainty, an actor’s biggest fear, typecasting? Is there a danger that, like Stephanie Courtney (that talented actress playing Flo) or Paul Marcarelli (Verizon’s “Can You Hear Me Now?” pitchman for nine years), he will become too identified with his hit ads? Marcarelli, for one, is on record as slightly bitter about the stranglehold his tenure as the Verizon guy had on his life and the mess it left when ties were severed.
“At first, I was worried about getting typecast,” Bennett says. “But this is such a great campaign because I’m playing a character. I’m not looking at a camera and selling a product directly to the audience. I don’t have a catchphrase. It’s not like, ‘Hey! I’m Beck! Buy the new AT&T phone.’ So I’ve been sort of talked down from that fear. So far, this has been only good for my career.”
The career includes a pilot in the works with Comedy Central that he’s developing with his Good Neighbor buddies. Funny or Die’s Adam McKay, who coincidentally directed Anchorman, has signed on as one of the producers. In Bennett’s ideal world, life after AT&T would include that pilot going to series, with some indie comedy roles filmed in his off time.
But mostly? “I would definitely like to start working with more people over age 7.”
It’s not that complicated.