When an actor plays a famous person on the big, small, or very small screen, the goal is to faithfully embody that person and to entertain an audience. No actor hopes to inspire hate. But that was the response when the actress Laura Benanti put on an accent and a lot of makeup in 2016 to play Melania Trump on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, a role she’s been reprising regularly since then.
Upon her first appearance as the first lady, Benanti, who grew up in Kinnelon and currently lives in Montclair with her family, received threats on social media—and the hate continued each time she played the part.
For an actress, to go viral is a thrill. But the death threats tempered the excitement. “I had to move in the middle of the night because people threatened to kill me and my family,” she says of quickly and quietly moving from one New York City apartment to another.
Despite hateful rhetoric and threats, Benanti has continued to do her Melania Trump act. She appeared on Colbert’s show in April and performed a skit and a medley of songs as the former first lady onstage at the Out Montclair Pride festival in June. She is committed to the bit because she doesn’t avoid controversy when she believes in something.
“I don’t understand how anyone can not be political,” she says. “I’m so tired of being told to, like, shut up.”
In certain circles, Benanti is a household name. She has been nominated for five Tony Awards, winning in 2008 for her portrayal of Louise in Gypsy on Broadway. She is a regular on stage, has recorded albums, and appeared in films and on television (Younger, Nashville, Tick, Tick…Boom!). Next up, she appears in season 2 of the HBO hit The Gilded Age, which debuts on September 11; a tight-lipped Benanti would only say her character has a “secret“ and “scandalous” relationship with one of the show’s main characters.
These days, Benanti is perhaps as well known for speaking out about politics and her personal life and supporting community causes.
On a sunny afternoon in May, over an iced latte for me and green juice for her, Benanti described what life as a successful, working performer and parent was like. She was about to start an Off Broadway run of the play Love Letters, starring opposite Matthew Broderick. A new film alongside Jennifer Lawrence, No Hard Feelings, would be coming out in theaters shortly.
But politics and people were what really got her riled up. In 90 minutes, we covered the climate crisis, juggling career and parenthood, bodily autonomy, media literacy, local politics, national politics and former President Donald Trump. When the fact that many women supported him in both elections came up, she sighed, saying: “It is so sad. And infuriating.”
Benanti is also well known for speaking out about issues that many deem too private for public airing. In April, she wrote an Instagram post about having a miscarriage in the middle of a concert performance on a cruise ship. The post went viral, with pretty much every entertainment and news outlet in the country writing about it. She says she went public with her experience because it’s the sort of thing that should get talked about, but doesn’t.
“There is so much shame around women’s bodies and women’s issues. I was literally singing for 2,000 people [when it happened]. I was devastated,” she says. “But in a weird way, it was like I was singing this little being home.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to have an abortion, was a moment that activated Benanti. She has been very vocal about her own difficulties getting pregnant—including having multiple miscarriages, going through in vitro fertilization (IVF) and using a surrogate to carry her second child—and she says she felt a need to help women at that moment in time. “I feel like, in this case, it is doing a service to women to talk about these issues,” she says. “And in particular right now, women are being punished.”
Benanti is a Jersey girl through and through. She grew up in Kinnelon and, during the pandemic, moved from New York City back to the Garden State, citing her family’s well-being. “I had told myself we would never live in New Jersey ever again,” she says, laughing. “I’ve grown to love it.”
She and her husband, Patrick Brown, have two daughters: Ella, 6, and Louisa, 1.
Benanti says there’s no doubt her Jersey background has given her confidence. “This is how I’ve been my whole life. I’ve always had a strong sense of what I feel is right or wrong. People don’t have to agree with me, but I have always had a strong sense of justice,” she says. “That was very encouraged in my home and in my school.”
But Benanti, while proud of her outspoken nature and devotion to doing what she sees as the right thing, also muses that it may have had an effect on her professionally. “I feel like, in many ways, I have shot myself in the foot career-wise,” she says. “I am not good at schmoozing. I am not good at being a good soldier and toeing the line. I am not interested in, you know, showing only glamorous, Photoshopped pictures of myself. I think I could have had a more visible career if I had just been pretty and quiet.”
One of Benanti’s fiercest champions is her Gypsy co-star, stage and screen legend Patti LuPone. They met in 2008, both won Tonys, and they have been friends ever since. LuPone, who calls Benanti a “unique woman,” says that she is proud of her for her outspoken nature. “More people should be outspoken the way she is,” LuPone says. But she also says she can relate to the challenges it might present: “Women who are outspoken get a terrible reputation.”
But being quiet is not exactly what people from Jersey are known for. As Benanti describes it, “Jersey people don’t all agree on the same thing, but there is a passion with which we pursue whatever we think is right.”
Benanti says she never saw herself leaving New York City, but the return to her home state has been natural and a positive move for her family. She has met a community of like-minded people, and even other musicians and performers that have inspired her.
“[Montclair] is a community in a very different way than I experienced in New York,” Benanti says. “It’s a small-town feel, and I didn’t know how much I needed it.”
Benanti is active in her community. Peter Yacobellis, Montclair Township council member, mayoral candidate and director of Out Montclair, says the star’s presence in town can be felt in many ways, from attending council meetings to performing at Montclair’s Pride festival for the past two years to attending a fundraiser “where she was managing this bouncy house where adults had to climb in, and she had a Whac-A-Mole thing where whoever got the most Wiffle balls wins a prize.”
Adds Yacobellis, “She’s the real deal.”
Two days after the Pride festival, Benanti had a cold. And no wonder—she had just wrapped the play in New York with Broderick and also performed at the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence fundraiser—not to mention her daily mom duties.
But still, she talked with enthusiasm about what’s to come. She is planning to do a musical-theater workshop with fellow local mom and musical-theater writer Miranda Ferriss Jones. She’s writing an audio comedy and music special for Audible that’s in the early stages of production, and she will appear in the upcoming film Goodrich alongside Michael Keaton, out this December. Of course, she will continue to do all she can for the sake of her daughters.
“They are entirely my dedication to changing whatever I can, even if it’s in my one-mile radius,” says Benanti.
Georgia Kral is a professor of journalism and communications at Saint Peter’s University and a regular contributor to New Jersey Monthly.