Jodi Benson: The Industry, Motherhood & The Little Mermaid
Jodi Benson is a Disney Legend, successful voiceover actress playing iconic roles like “Ariel” in The Little Mermaid, “Barbie” in Toy Story 2 & 3, “Thumbelina” in Don Bluth’s Thumbelina, a Tony Award nominated Broadway actress, mother, and wife. I asked Jodi to share her journey with TheatreArtLife, she graciously agreed and during our candid two-hour interview, she opens up about her life as a working actress and mom. Jodi Benson shares everything from important advice for millennials, insight into homeschooling kids and teaching Honor Chemistry, gives advice for a long and prosperous career and most importantly, steps to lead a joy-filled life with no regrets.
TheatreArtLife: You have had incredible longevity with companies, a 31-year relationship with the Walt Disney company, various networks, and symphony orchestras around the world. What actions and steps have you taken to ensure a long career?
Jodi Benson: I think the first thing is that I have to sound like Ariel to keep my job. So for that, it needs to be rest and hydration. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I try to eat as healthily as I possibly can. I have an amazing vocal coach, Joan Lader in New York that I’ve been with since 1983. She has become the vocal coach to the stars because she’s so incredible. I can Skype with her when needed, but I also have all of my tapes and everything that I do with her embedded in my brain as far as warm ups go. I’ve learned a lot about reflux over the years. If I ever get reflux, I know the different things I have to do to take care of the problem. Taking care of my voice is pretty important because I won’t have a job if I don’t sound like the characters that I’ve created.
From Left to Right: Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive: Jodi with Buzz Lightyear and Woody; Joan Lader with her Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre, 2016.
As far as connections go, I would say keeping my relationships strong with people that I work with strong and genuine, and really caring about that. That’s where Ray is so good as my husband and manager. He stays connected with everyone. He’s really great at trying to stay connected with producers and directors, people that we work with on a regular basis and those that we work with seasonally or every other year. His gift of being able to demonstrate genuine concern for people, like asking them how are they doing and what is new in their lives? That centers around our faith. For me, God is my agent, my Producer, my Casting Director, and my Vocal Coach. I figure as long as I’m following Him and following my faith I know that Jesus will be leading, directing and guiding every step. That’s what I rely on.
It certainly isn’t anything of me that has kept me going in the business for all these years. It truly isn’t. I mean, I can’t take any credit for it. It’s important to me I can keep going, take good care of myself, available and ready to go and have a good work ethic. I’m a hard worker and I think everybody knows that when I work with them. Employers know that I deliver, that I bring the goods to the table, and that I do it with a happy heart. I’m not a whiner or a complainer, not a diva. I think I’m a very low maintenance person when it comes to work situations.
I’m incredibly flexible. That’s something that I’ve learned. I just roll with whatever happens. I learned that from choreographer, Susan Stroman. During Crazy For You, I went back to college to finish my degree and for my final paper, I did an interview with Susan. I asked her some of these kinds of questions and that was one of the questions I asked her.
Susan Stroman embedded in my mind, she said, “If I have to choose between two actors or two actresses, I will find out what their personality is, how easy the are to work with, how flexible they are, if they have a happy heart when they come to work, if they have a diva attitude. Then if they’re equally talented, it’s a no brainer. I’ll even take the one that’s a little less talented if they’re easier to work with and they’re teachable.”
I remember her saying that in that interview and I pass that on to students when I coach them. You know, it really goes a long way if you have a reputation to be easy to work with. That probably lends towards the longevity for me, but again I need to be able to deliver the goods because otherwise you won’t have a job.
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive: Graduating from Millikin University
In your opinion, what are the keys to a long and successful career for a person starting out in the business?
I need to say this to the millennials. You need to work hard and lower your expectations of being deserving of things.
It is really different now and I don’t know if it’s because of American Idol and all of these television shows, that make everybody famous. Not everybody’s going to be famous nor should everybody be famous.
I never wanted to be famous, if people asked me what I wanted to be, I’d say I want to be a working actor, I want to sing, dance, and act and make a living pay my bills. Do what I love and do my craft, because I felt like that’s what God had gifted me with and I wanted to use my gifts. I never said, because I want to make money or because I want to be famous.
I don’t even know what that means, what does it mean to be famous like to be a household name? I don’t really want to be a household name. I want to have a life and be a mom and go to the grocery store. I notice high school and college age kids right now are all about mostly money and fame, and that is such a destructive path to go down because you’re going to be miserable. You really need to find what your passions are, you need to find that sweet spot.
You have three circles: you have your gifts, you have what you’re passionate about, and then you have this circle over here of how you can pay your bills. When you connect your three circles, there’s your sweet spot in the middle. It’s not about being rich and famous, it’s about paying your bills and having a lovely life, a joy-filled life.
That would be my encouragement to people starting off now. Please don’t start for the wrong reasons, because that is not what’s going to propel you to have a contented life filled with joy, peace, and purpose.
There is no purpose in being “famous”, there’s just not. It’s going to be really painful when you get to that place and somebody is famous and they’re miserable. If you talk to people who are celebrities, I don’t really know if they’re happy, I really don’t know.
Do their marriages survive? Are they with their children? You know, when you get to the end of the life, are you going to wish on your deathbed that you would have made more money or wish for a better resume, or wish you would have landed five more Broadway shows? No, you’re going to say to yourself, who are the people around me and did I love them well and did I use my time wisely and did I make relationships a priority? I think if people are going into the entertainment business, they need to look at the reason. Is it because they have gifts and talents and passions that need to come out or they’re going to explode? Because that’s what it was for me, I felt like I had specific gifts, talents, and passions that God had given me and if I didn’t use them I was going to explode.
I never asked myself, am I going to be able to make a certain salary? I really didn’t. I had a hundred dollars in my pocket when I moved to New York and I slept on a sofa. Ten days later got my first Broadway national tour, and it doesn’t happen like that for everybody. I just really felt like, I need to go and not have any regrets when I’m sixty-five – that’s the other thing I tell kids, please don’t have regrets of not wanting to try because you were afraid or because you thought you’re not going to make a lot of money.
If you are asking yourself, am I going to make a lot of money, you’re in the wrong business and you need to go find something else to do. Those are my words of wisdom.
How did you get started in your career?
I started singing pretty much when I came out of the womb. I sang around the house and then at church. When I was nine and my sister was fifteen, she taught me how to play the guitar and then we sang together at church. I didn’t really do any theatre in grade school except for maybe a little variety show in middle school. If I remember correctly, I think it was a show telling fairy tales like Rumpelstiltskin.
In high school, we didn’t really have a choir but we did put on one musical per year. It was around that time when I was twelve or thirteen when I realized, that theatre was really fun so I participated in whatever they had at our high school, which unfortunately wasn’t a lot.
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive
By the time I graduated from high school, I had done West Side Story in the summer where I played “Maria”, and it was at that point that I thought that I should maybe go to school and study theatre. Because my parents were divorced and I had to pay for my own school, I needed to stay in-state, so I went to Millikin University in Illinois. They actually did not have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre program until the year that I began school.
When I started, I had no idea if I was good or what the talent pool was like. I had come from a small town where there weren’t a lot of opportunities to grow. I hadn’t done that much, except a few dance lessons here and there.
When I decided to go to college, Millikin offered me a very nice scholarship and I thought, “wow this is amazing!” and decided to go there. I auditioned for the first musical of the semester, The Boyfriend, and when I got the lead, I remember going up to the director saying, “I’m just a freshman, I’ve really only done a couple of things and there are some senior girls that are really great and talented. Are you sure?” The director looked at me and said, “no, this is the part for you.”
I think it was at that point that I realized, I guess I can play in the talent pool.
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive
Would you tell us about your career journey from Illinois to New York to Los Angeles and then to Gainesville, Georgia and everything in between?
I grew up in Rockford, Illinois and went to school in Southern Illinois at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois which is the “soybean capital of the world”. Then, I got my first professional job, started dating my husband Ray at the time, and then went on tour. Ray moved to New York first and landed the first national tour of Oklahoma and then I came to New York a year later. The one person that we both knew was Barry Moss, the head of Hughes Moss Casting. On my tenth day in New York, I booked my first Broadway National tour, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Ray. I was able to get my Equity card and we toured for a year together. It was great!
We stayed in New York for a good couple decades, bought our apartment in 1984 and Ray and I got married.
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive
We got married when I was 22 and I was still a kid and had a lot of growing up to do. I also wanted to do eight shows a week and do all of that crazy Broadway stuff. Later on though, we started talking about starting a family and I knew that my friends that were on Broadway being moms were miserable. They would be crying Friday night because they missed seven-year-old Heather’s first sleepover, they would be crying in the dressing room on Saturday afternoon because they missed Tommy’s baseball game, they’d be crying on Sunday matinee because they missed the ballet recital. So, for four years, I witnessed all that. I said to myself, I’m not doing that. I’m not doing eight shows a week being a mom. That’s just not happening and I’m not having a nanny.
I had started working with Disney in 1986 and by the mid 1990s The Little Mermaid was a huge hit, so it was a natural progression for Disney to suggest that I come out to LA. I had just finished my contract with Crazy For You and Ray and I had gone on an international tour of My One and Only together.
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive: My One and Only International Tour
We had experienced everything we needed to experience in New York and we wanted to start a family. We really never imagined raising children in Manhattan, even though my best friend Kathy did with her three kids. We just could never see ourselves raising children in New York City, nothing against it, it just wasn’t for us. So we did end up moving to Los Angeles in 1996 for the prime purpose of starting a family.
In LA, I was able to jump into voiceover full-time which works completely around a mom’s schedule. I was even able to bring the kids to work with me.
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive: Left photo: Jodi & Delaney Benson on set. Right Photo: Jodi Benson, McKinley Benson and Tom Hanks at the premiere of Toy Story 2
In 2003, we went to Alpharetta, Georgia to work on a large Christmas show with Perimeter Church, where my sister-in-law was on staff, on a large Christmas show. The kids were one and a half and three and it was so fun for them to play with their cousins, visit their aunt and uncle. Ray has such a lovely family and we thought, “Wow! This is pretty cool to raise our kids with family around.”
After the show ended, we returned to Los Angeles but Georgia was still on our mind.
The next year, Perimeter Church asked us to return for the Christmas show again. This time, we ended up staying for six weeks and really got a taste of what it might look like to live in Georgia. After the second go around we were thinking, we can do this, we can move. I spoke with my agent and to Disney and just asked, “What do you think about us moving to Georgia?” They were all very supportive and told me that it would be fine. They advised that I install a studio at home and work with their sister studio in Atlanta. They said, “We can make it work”.
Around this time, I was working on a series called Camp Lazlo on the Cartoon Network, which is based in Atlanta. They also said moving was fine because I could go to the studio in Atlanta and they would patch me into the rest of the cast who was working in LA. “It’ll be like you’re right here in the room with us,” they explained. This was great news for me because I still had another year on my contract with the show and we had just been nominated and later, won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program.
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive
Everything fell into place for us to move to Georgia, in 2005, when the kids were four and six. We left LA after we found a great place north of Atlanta on Lake Lanier in Gainesville. That journey of all our moves was directed by the kids, wanting to have children and then wanting to raise children with family nearby.
Can you tell me how the voice-over industry has changed over the past 10, 20, 30 years? The technology, the studios, the locations?
I would say in the last 31 years, since I’ve been working with the Walt Disney Company, that things have changed drastically.
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive (From Right to Left: Rich Moore, Jodi Benson, Clark Spencer)
Are some of the changes good? Yes. All of the technological changes are great because you can all be in the same room from all around the world and that’s pretty cool, but the things that I miss, especially with feature films and we still do this with television and episodics but, the thing I miss is being all together. At least for the first read through, getting all together because you get a sense of what they’re playing and where they’re going with their character and then you can investigate some new things.
When you’re all by yourself, you just kind of have to go for it and you hope that you’ve connected the dots for the director to then put the pieces together. The good directors, Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks, know how to play all the parts so they can read you in and out and they can play everybody.
That’s what Howard Ashman was really good at, he was such a genius in that for The Little Mermaid, he could play all the characters because he was all the characters. When I would be by myself, I really wasn’t because I had him and he played everybody.
Left Photo: copyright HowardAshman.com: Howard Ashman and Jodi Benson in rehearsal for Smile Right Photo: Jodi Benson and Howard Ashman recording “Part Of Your World” for The Little Mermaid
Now you can pretty much record from anywhere, I can see my directors wherever they are, sometimes they’re not in the same place, you don’t really record with anybody any more. I’m usually always by myself. I really do miss recording together. I loved that!
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive (Photo taken at Doppler Studios in Atlanta)
Your husband, Ray Benson, has been your manager for over 30 years and you just celebrated your 33rd wedding anniversary. Would you share the positives and obstacles that you have experienced working so closely with your spouse? What has surprised you?
Well first of all, my husband is an incredible man of God, integrity, character, honesty and loyalty. He’s an amazing husband and an amazing dad, an incredible manager but in his own right he’s a very talented actor with an incredible voice and he’s an amazing dancer. The best hoofer around. I don’t know if anybody has the sounds that he has at tapping, even as he’s about to turn sixty, he still is an incredible tapper.
I think having the opportunity to work with him side by side as actors, touring together, doing shows, playing opposite each other, now as manager and client, we make it work. We’re together pretty much 24/7 unless I’m out of town and my family’s not with me, but I would say for the most part we’re together all the time and we figure out – and yes, there are pros and cons to that, sometimes you run out of things to talk about because you’re experiencing everything together. It is nice to have some time away so that you can come back and say, “hey I talked to this person and I had this great conversation, or I learned this about myself today.”
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive: From Left to Right: Ray Benson, Jodi Benson, Alan Menken at The Little Mermaid Live Concert at The Hollywood Bowl, 2016
That’s where you have to keep working at having a date and then sitting down across from each other to talk about something besides the kids or the industry. We have learned to say, ok how can we connect as people and as best friends?
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive
I think those are probably the challenges that you experience when you’re together 24/7, you have to dig a little bit deeper.
The positive thing is that you know you’re a team all the time. You’ve got each other’s back and there are no worries or concerns. When I get a job, I never ask, how did that go or what’s up with this contract or what are the points to negotiate? I never ask a thing, I just ask when to show up. Ray handles all of those things and then he passes to me the wardrobe, pick your songs, touch base with the director directly, and that way he can take himself out of the loop.
He does all the grunt work in the front, because I say, I’m on a need-to-know basis, just tell me what I need to do and I’ll show up. I’m talent, that’s all I do. I’m talent and I just show up, do my thing, get out of there, bring home the pay check, and pass it on to him. I think we’ve got a really good way that we figured out how to make it work after 33 years.
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive
Did you ever feel like you might need to hire a manager that you were not related to or did you feel so secure that another manager might not have your best interest in mind; was this ever a concern?
It’s interesting because I’ve never thought about it in all these years, but Ray has many times. He will come to me and say, “I’m wondering if you should get a real manager?” I disagree and say to Ray, “I’m fine, I’m totally fine.”
Once we had the kids, I wasn’t motivated to work nonstop until we were empty nesters. My first priority is being a wife and a mom and my job is second. For me, I have worked the perfect amount over the years. I think sometimes for Ray, he feels like he may have held me back but we just have to have faith that God’s in control. God’s in charge of our resume, He’s in charge of our pay checks. I’m not going to worry or fret about that kind of stuff. Can we work more, sure we could probably work more but there’s always a sacrifice in that.
There are times to choose work, but I won’t choose work over family, that’s just where I personally draw the line. There are other people that I work with where their work comes first before their family and I think they may have regrets in the future with that choice.
I don’t have any regrets, so I can lay my head on the pillow every night knowing I have absolutely no regrets. I haven’t missed very much of anything in my kids’ lives and there’s not a lot of people that can say that. I don’t want to miss out on those things; now granted there might be a few soccer games here and there that I missed. Recently, I missed one half of my daughter’s run of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I was there for closing night. That was a tough one for me. You know, it’s her high school show and Delaney said, “you’re going to have more, I’m going to have more Mom, its ok!” For me though, that hurt, but I had a very important job, I did need to take it. I did make it work and compromise where I did do the job, flew on a plane, had hoped that the flight would be on time, made it to her final show matinee and felt like, ok I did try to make both things work.
Let’s talk about social media, especially since your niece (me) “encouraged” you to use platforms more. How has social media changed the game in your life and what are your thoughts on young stars that have to work so hard to manage their social media presence to remain competitive to land gigs in the industry?
I’m not a huge fan of social media. I reluctantly jumped into that pond when my niece forced me to do it a year ago, but I guess I understand that things have to change and grow with technology, but I guess I’m still old fashioned and believe that talent, tenacity and hard work gets you the job more than a social media presence. I can see how social media has to happen, but I think it’s a lot of work and takes away from working on the craft, working on projects, and working on your skill set. It’s almost like a whole different full-time job, so I’m not a huge fan of it. I do enjoy looking at my friends’ kids’ pictures and it helps me keep in touch with family and friends, and I like to share what’s going on in my kids’ lives with family and friends. It’s kind of a quick and easy way to bring everybody up to date with what the kids are doing, what they look like right now, and what their activities are, and share special occasions. Social media is an easier way to share the pictures with friends and family so even though I’m not a big social media person as far as work goes, I think it’s kind of neat to use as a mom. I am starting to understand that fans enjoy my posts, especially surrounding large events and so I am learning to post more on social media, but it’s taking time.
You have always been very open and honest about your strong Christian faith. What advice do you have for others that may feel nervous about sharing their faith in any religion publicly for fear that their openness may affect getting jobs or publicity?
That’s a really normal question to ask and we all asked it at some point. I think for both Ray and I, it was pretty early on in the business. For Ray, I think it was 1981 and for me it was 1982 that we decided to go ahead and made a stand right away. We just went ahead and made a stand and everybody knew, and no one asked any questions.
There was respect there, because it had been established in a really easy way. We’d be going to church or we’d have a bible study or we’d pray before the show, and we would just say to our show mates or we put it up on the board, that if anybody wants to join us for prayer at five-minute call, we’ll be over on stage left. Then they would come or they wouldn’t. There would be some regulars. For Ray and I both, in each show, we would establish a prayer time before and it wasn’t really a big deal.
As far as, did I lose jobs? My agents, they knew and still know and there weren’t really any issues. They would call and say, “hey, we got this script” and I’d say, “how does it look?” They’d say, “it’s kind of iffy” and I’d say, “ok, well let me just take a look.” If there was any concern on my end, I would tell them that I did not want to be a part of the project.
When you’re talking about Broadway musicals, like musical comedy, you’re pretty home free, except for some of the newer edgy stuff now, which is well past my prime of time. I don’t really have to worry about them pushing the envelope with me now. I’m sure there’s a lot of things these days that I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable with, but as far as theatre goes, I didn’t really have to cross that line.
Voice over work, it can get edgy and it still does. Most of the time, a director will let me change language if needed. You can get across your feelings without having to use the Lord’s name in vain and that’s where I draw the line. I’m ok with using the “D” word or the “S” word occasionally, if it’s really necessary in an animated situation, and really that’s going to be more with gaming than it would be with a feature.
As far as clothing or indecent anything, I wasn’t a part of any of that because I wasn’t in the tv and film world. I didn’t have to deal with any of that in theatre, so I set myself up into a realm of doing what I love to do and it’s in the family entertainment pocket which was perfect for me. Working with Disney, of course, it’s just a dream job because we’re both on the same page.
What is the best role/job/gig that you have ever done and why is it your favorite?
Let’s see, well they’re going to be in different areas. For voice over animation, it’s going to be playing “Ariel”, The Little Mermaid, because it was my first time behind a microphone, first animated character, first time to create a role, first time to do everything! That was, of course, phenomenal, because The Little Mermaid took off! We were surprised that it was received so well since we had no expectations about it. We just thought we would record this animated feature film, disappear into the woodwork, and never be acknowledged, never have our names announced. We thought our names would just roll at the end credits. We never thought that it would turn into anything because there were no prior expectations. Then 33 years later having built a career on “Ariel”, it’s one of those wonderful blessings that make that role even sweeter.
Top Photo: Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved Bottom Photo: Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive: Jodi Benson with her two The Little Mermaid directors, Ron Clements (Left) and John Musker (Right)
For stage, my favorite would definitely have to be creating the role of “Polly Baker” for Crazy For You. Once again, I had the opportunity to create a character from scratch that had never been done, start from day one to build a project together, with a team, and have no expectations. In fact, we were expecting the show to run maybe a month or two. I packed a suitcase from LA for two months. I thought, it would be fabulous if we could get a two-month run, I would be thrilled.
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive
I think those are both really sweet projects because there were no expectations attached to them, everything was just great and exciting. Everything extra was like icing on the cake. Four years later, I was still with Crazy For You and taking it down the Tony Awards road and to the Kennedy Center Honors Awards. Just like with The Little Mermaid, the external wonderful gifts that surrounded the projects were unexpected. I think that’s what makes both of those projects so extra special.
What do you think is your best skill?
Right now, I feel like I’m really strong at being a mom. I’ve had eighteen years now really growing and learning how to serve my family – how to meet their needs, love on them, encourage them, how to keep the heart of the home going. I can calm the storms or diffuse the ruffled feathers in the household. I think I’ve learned through the years how to do that, so I guess that is a people management skill. I can read a room when I walk in and give kind words of affirmation or words of life or words of encouragement to help my kids rise above what they are feeling. Not to fix their feelings but just read their feelings.
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive
As far as in the industry goes, I feel pretty strong as a singer/ actress/ dancer.
A skill that I think I’ve learned through the years in the industry that I bring to work, whether it’s with animation or on stage or behind the scenes, is demonstrating authenticity and vulnerability. Those are the things that I really try to bring when I’m in a work environment.
I try to be very real and approachable. I try to be authentic, try not to put on airs or pretend like I have everything in control, because I don’t. I want to be relatable with the people that I’m working with, whether they’re the stage hands, costume people or they’re somebody that just brings the water to the dressing room. I really do think that we’re all on the same level. We are all working on a project together to make it the best that we can. No one is greater or less than anyone else. That’s a skill that I feel that I’ve learned through the decades, how to be vulnerable and very authentic.
What was the worst gig/ task you were given when you were starting out?
I’m very thankful that since I started working professionally when I was eighteen, pretty much everything that I have done has been in the arts, which has been wonderful. Before I was eighteen, when I was thirteen, my first job was as a janitor at my step dad’s construction office. That was really bad because it was really nasty to do the toilets of the workers there.
The other job, that I did in New York City, was work as a shoe model for Bandalino’s Shoes. That was really a weird job because you would walk into a private room filled with people from around the world and model the shoes. It was just kind of weird to have people staring at your feet. I don’t even know how I was a size 6 or 6 ½ because I can’t ever remember being that size, so I must have had to squeeze my foot into the shoes to fit.
You made the decision to educate your children at home? Would you share the journey regarding how you chose this path?
I was never planning on homeschooling. If you would have told me that I’d be homeschooling my kids since birth, I would have said you’re crazy. Absolutely crazy, I would never do that, but God had a different plan. God just lined it up and it was the option that was really the only option for us at the time.
When McKinley, my oldest, was turning three, his first day of preschool was on 9/11. He went to school for about two or three weeks and he was miserable. He started dumbing himself down because he had already learned to read when he was two. That just comes from reading to him a lot and we read a lot of the same books, so some of it’s memorization and some of it’s actual learning to read. He had a very high IQ and so he went to preschool and dumbed himself down and started saying “wah-wah” and “bah-bah” and dropping all of his full sentences. I went to the headmistress at the time, at the private school to discuss it. Her advice was that he should go to school five days a week instead of two days a week. I felt like that wasn’t the best idea.
When I would drop McKinley off, he would cry and say “I don’t like this”, “take me home” and one day, he looked up at me and said, “If you promise me that today is my last day here, then I’ll make it.” That was pretty extraordinary coming from a three-year-old so I said “Yes, today is your last day buddy.”
I walked into the Headmistress’ office and told her “today is McKinley’s last day.” She told me that I was making the biggest mistake of my life and that he would never get into a Kindergarten or the “right” schools. I just said, “we’ll figure it out.” After we left the school, we drove to Lake Shore Learning Center, which is a teachers’ supply store, and we filled up a cart with everything and then set up a home school room in our bedroom. I started teaching the next day.
We taught them at home until they were four and six, in Los Angeles and then when we moved to Georgia, we could not find a Kindergarten for McKinley. We went and did all the interviews and just did not have peace about it for him, so did Kindergarten at home. When we moved, we had fully anticipated putting him into a Christian Academy where he had been accepted. I went up to the Headmaster and I said this is going to be great, what are you guys doing in McKinley’s age group right now and I quickly realized that McKinley was three grades ahead. Since McKinley was supposed to attend first grade, the Headmaster said he could come to school during the day and then he could be taught at home at his level after school. I was like “you’re kidding me, right? I’m going to pick him up at three and then I’m going to home school? That’s ridiculous!”
In the end, we actually couldn’t find a house in the neighborhood near the school so we moved up to the lake and built a homeschool room on the top floor which was overlooking the lake, and started.
I thought I would probably homeschool until middle school but at the end of every school year, the four of us would go out to dinner after the last day of school. At dinner, we would talk about how the year of school went and we would ask the kids what they were thinking for next year. They’d both agree that they wanted to continue homeschool because we could all travel together as a family instead of being locked into a school schedule.
I use Sunlight curriculum which is all inclusive, you don’t need a library, it’s made for expats and missionaries – people that live abroad and speak the English language. It comes with everything, and it’s foolproof, so anybody can teach it. Grandma can jump in, Dad, Aunt, stage managers, whoever wants to jump in can jump in and teach for a day. If I’m in the dressing room, then somebody can come in and I could say look at page 22, go ahead have fun with that. We were able to travel all around with the kids and choosing homeschool kept us together as a family. It wasn’t the plan at all but here we are almost all the way through high school. Both kids decided to go to a traditional high school for their level of interests, but they’ve done all their schooling at home and then dual enrolled through college, and I’ve been there as their supervisor the entire way. It’s been an amazing journey.
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive: Left to Right: McKinley Benson, Jodi Benson, Michael Keaton, Delaney Benson, Ray Benson at the premiere of Toy Story 3
Copyright Jodi Benson: (L)Personal Photo Archive: Benson Family at Disneyland Paris. (R): Benson Family in Guatemala.
Did you ever think you would be teaching Honors Chemistry?
Twice, I taught Honors Chemistry, and it’s still the bear, it’s so hard! I’ve done College Algebra and Biology twice which about did me in! There were a lot of things I could do with them together with several subjects, even though they are officially two grades apart. Actually, they should have been three grades apart, but I moved Delaney ahead after receiving advice from other homeschool moms that said it would be a little bit easier to connect the dots if they were closer in grades. They were right, so it was an unbelievable journey. I’d never trade it for a million years. But again, this was not my plan, it was totally God’s plan.
Both of your children are pursuing careers in the entertainment industry at this point in time. Would you share what advice you give them and how you encourage them as they pursue careers in entertainment?
We don’t push anything with the kids. Never have and never will. They need to come across their own journey and their own passion, their own desire and so for both of them, these interests have come up on their own. They haven’t come from us. They’ve come from within and that’s what makes them passions because they’re their own passions, not what parents impress upon their kids. I’m really against that and I know a lot of parents that have those expectations, like “you’re going to go to this college”, and so on. For our son, we encouraged him to do whatever he wanted to do, wherever you want to go, and we kept quiet about all of it until God just really spoke to him and he landed at SCAD Atlanta for film production, editing, and directing. Ray and I had no experience in this area, McKinley is self-taught, self-motivated and passionate, so we are all on board. I think the biggest thing that we say to both of the kids is “just keep giving those passions to the Lord and asking God which path to choose. Keep asking, keep listening, and follow in the steps that He has planned for you and He will direct your path.”
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive: From Left to Right: Delaney Benson, Jodi Benson, McKinley Benson, Ray Benson at the premiere of No. 2, a short film directed by McKinley Benson.
For Delaney, this passionate love of musical theatre, acting, singing and dancing that just has recently bubbled up in her in the last few years is great! First, she loved soccer and the idea of being a mom – she really wants to be a mom someday, then she was interested in missionary work – all these different areas. All of a sudden, this bug has bit her and it’s her own, which is awesome. It’s very important for both Ray and I, to step back and when she comes to us, we will throw out some wisdom, counsel and advice, but only if she asks. She’ll come to me and ask if I can vocal coach her which I absolutely love to do.
Copyright Jodi Benson: Personal Photo Archive: Delaney Benson
We are the kids’ number one fans and we will be there for them through thick and thin, we’ll be their biggest cheerleaders with whatever they want to do. We’re all in and supportive, we don’t have personal agendas for either of the kids. If they choose a path to get married, if they choose to be parents, anything, but I’m not going to put on my own agenda because I really don’t have one for them. I just wish them an incredible life. I don’t wish them to be famous, I don’t wish them to be multimillionaires. If that’s what God wants, then that’s awesome and I’m sure they’ll take that platform and use it in the right way. I hope that I’ve modelled that for them, how to be real and authentic and grateful and most importantly thankful for everything.
Everything’s an incredible blessing and we must be grateful for it. Hopefully, those things are inside of them and I believe they’re going to really soar with whatever God has in store for them and we’ll be right there cheering them along.
With everything that you have learned over the years and everything you know now, what advice would you give your 18-year old self?
I would want to make sure that I remind myself that God is ultimately in control and to put aside fret and worry, because He does have a very specific path for my life. As I’m older now, looking back, I think that would have been the advice I would probably pass on to myself.
Take a deep breath, keep my eyes on the Lord, trust that Jesus is going to be the best person to create that path for your career. I would say not to fret or worry so much.
At that time for me at 18, there were all those questions: Do I have what it takes to support myself in this industry? Do I have what it takes to have longevity in the career? There are all those questions, and I think it would have been great to have had a little bit more peace during that time. I do know that I got the gusto out of life during that time and I think I made the most out of all the opportunities I was given.
Savoring the life moments and enjoying them and not wishing them away or wishing to be older or wishing for the next year to come.
Looking back though, the advice I would give myself is to know that ultimately God is in control, the journey’s going to be incredible, take it one step at a time, and try not to worry too far ahead or think too far ahead. Savor every moment!