Reel People: When Ben Ratner met Jennifer Spence

Inside the marriage of the Leo-nominated power couple

When Ben Ratner and Jennifer Spence arrive in the lounge of the Sylvia Hotel for their Reel People interview, he’s carrying a mint green suitcase and she’s clutching a big bag of potato chips.

As soon as the interview is in the can, Spence — who’s played cyber specialist Betty on Continuum since the sci-fi procedural premiered in 2012 — will be on her way to the exotic location of Hope, BC, where she’s filming a Movie of the Week (hence the luggage and road-trip snack).

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It’s only been a couple of days since Ratner returned from New York City, where Down River, the critically acclaimed film he wrote and directed, screened at the SOHO International Film Festival.

Such is life for one of the busiest couples in the biz: auditions, acting gigs, screenings, teaching, travel, and fleeting moments of togetherness.

It’s challenging, but they’re making it work. For proof, one need look no further than the 2014 Leo Awards, which will be handed out this weekend at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Ratner’s Down River is a contender for a whopping 13 awards, including Best Motion Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenwriting, and Spence is nominated for supporting performances in Down River and Continuum

Theirs was a relationship born in acting class. It was borderline scandalous, given that Ratner was the teacher and Spence the student (but they’re quick to point out that they didn’t actually get involved until after she’d left his class).

“In almost 20 years of teaching, I got involved with one student, and I married her,” says Ratner, laughing. “I want to see that in print, because that’s a fact.”

Ratner was initially attracted by Spence’s pleasant disposition (“as my grandmother would say, she’s just very easy to like”), while Spence was drawn in by Ratner’s openness and worldview. They met in 2009, and married in 2011.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2012, when cameras rolled on Down River. The feature-length drama was inspired by the life and death of Babz Chula, the legendary Vancouver actress and Ratner’s longtime friend; it revolves around a woman who learns that she is dying, and the young women who rely upon her to be their touchstone.

Down River was Ratner’s second go directing a feature (of his first, 2003’s Moving Malcolm, he says,  “I was also acting in it in almost every scene, and that was an experience I would never want to do again”).

His cast included acting heavyweights like Gabrielle Miller, Colleen Rennison, Helen Shaver, Ali Liebert — and Spence, as quirky artist Aki.

The 16-day shoot and limited budget didn’t leave much breathing room. When exhaustion nearly knocked Ratner off of his feet (“He was white as a sheet and his eyes looked all weird,” says Spence), his wife was on hand to buoy him.

“The whole time, we had each other’s back, and I’ve never had that experience on set where you have somebody you can be that intimate with,” says Ratner.

While Ratner knew what to say to get the performances he needed out of all of his actors, his abilities were heightened when it came to his wife. “I know how to push Jen’s buttons, and by that I mean that I know how to help encourage and provoke different reactions,” he says. “I’d ask certain questions and just roll camera and get things to a certain stage, and that was a luxury.”

Spence savoured the opportunity to observe her husband in the director’s chair. “There’s still something about watching him work, and watching him interact with people where it’s just like, ‘wow, he’s really something special, and he really gets it,’” says Spence.

Down River — which premiered at the 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival and was the Vancouver Film Critics Circle’s top pick for Best BC Film — has screened in Toronto, Calgary, Newport Beach, and at New York’s SOHO International Film Festival (where it won the award for Best World Showcase; Ratner received the news during the interview), and will soon screen in Portland and Philadelphia. “We sit in theatres everywhere we’ve been and we’ve seen that it hits people,” says Ratner.

It’s an experience that Ratner and Spence are enjoying together, even if they’re not always in the same city at the same time.

“In our profession, there’s challenges, and with our personalities, there’s challenges, and it’s not always smooth, but the most important thing in a marriage as far as I can tell is that, if me and Jen, if we could pick one person to go the movies with, it would be each other,” says Ratner. “If we could pick one person to go on a walk with, it’s each other.”

“We’re each other’s favourite people,” adds Spence.

QUOTABLE QUOTES

Ratner on directing women: “I have a lot of experience directing women from being an acting teacher. In my acting class, and in most acting classes, there will be seven women for every three guys. Women in this industry work harder, I think, because they know they have to. There are fewer roles. Their career span can be shorter, and they just have a better work ethic. So I get it. I get where they’re coming from. I can’t say that I understand women, but I understand actresses. I understand their obstacles.”

Spence on finding her husband “sleep directing” in the middle of the night: “Right after we wrapped, I found him in the kitchen, naked, at three in the morning. He’s tidying up and I’m like, ‘what are you doing?’ And he said, ‘have we put you in the wet suit yet?’ and I’m like, ‘sweetie, we’re not shooting anymore.’ And he’s like, ‘the crew is in the other room, we’ve got to go, let’s go, let’s go.’ And I’m like, ‘we’re not shooting any more, it’s time to go back to bed’, and he said, ‘but that doesn’t make sense, why are we still here if we’re not shooting?’ And I said, ‘because we live here, sweetheart,’ and I led him back to bed. He was asleep and looking at me in the eyes while he was talking to me. It was really bizarre.”

Ratner on Down River and success: “One of my favourite writers, John Steinbeck, once said, ‘don’t be seduced into thinking that something is without value if it doesn’t make a profit.’ And Down River isn’t going to make millions of dollars because it doesn’t have that kind of profile, but every single experience from pre-production to showing the film I’ve been reminded over and over again that this film has value, and that’s the best you can hope for.”

Leo Awards weekend is here! For the first time in its history, a record 102 Leos will be handed out over three nights — and Sabrina will be present for all of it. Keep an eye on @sabrinarmf and @wevancouver and WEVancouver.com for red carpet pics, real-time results, and exclusive interviews. 

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