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Duo returns to roots with HBO’s ‘Girls’

By Kris DiLorenzo
TIM LAMORTE/RIVERTOWNS ENTERPRISE

Sarah Heyward and Jason Benjamin in Boulanger Plaza on Tuesday, Aug. 2.

 

HASTINGS — In HBO’s hit series, “Girls,” Hastings recently was cast as a “quaint town” — the one that happens to be where writer Sarah Heyward and sound man Jason Benjamin grew up. Though Heyward now divides her time between Los Angeles and New York, and Benjamin lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the two were happy to spend this past Tuesday in the village of their childhoods.

It was a quick visit — a one-day shoot for a scene in which the main character, Hannah Horvath (played by series co-producer/writer/director Lena Dunham), strolls up Main Street to sample pizza from Slices, and then onto Warburton to visit The River Roadhouse tavern — but both former residents had much to say about their former stomping grounds.

“I visit Hastings a lot,” Heyward, 32, told the Enterprise the night before the shoot. ”My mother, Jody, who founded the Hastings Education Foundation, still lives here. She went to the Hastings schools; we had some of the same teachers! At the shoot I’m probably going to see everyone I’ve ever known walk by at some point.”

Heyward has been writing for “Girls” since 2012, its first season; the show features a quirky quartet of single 20-somethings. She lived in Hastings until she graduated from Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, and went on to graduate from Harvard in 2006 with a degree in creative writing, and then earned an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City in 2009. (In between she spent a year in New York City as a nanny.) Her siblings — marketing entrepreneur Emily, 36, and corporate headhunter David, 38 — and her father Andrew, former president of CBS News, live in Manhattan. Her significant other is L.A.-based writer/producer Ben Karlin, who has written for television’s “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” and “Modern Family.”

Heyward explained why she loves Hastings: “Hastings is the perfect town. I’m so jealous; I know a lot of people my age are starting to move up from the city, and if I could do that, I totally would. I love that it’s not the typical town that people picture when they hear ‘Westchester.’ I love how small it is, and how pretty it is, and that we don’t have chain stores. I hated that when I was younger, but I love it now. Even when I was in middle school and high school and had little perspective, I still understood that when I was walking home from a party in the woods, I was having some sort of classic teenage experience that not everyone gets to have.”

Her college entrance essay was about how living in Hastings allowed her to become a writer. “I felt that living just outside the city in a small town gave me a sort of outsider/insider perspective. I had access to this theoretically ‘inside’ thing, the city, but seeing it from a distance, and I felt that was what writers have to do.”

Benjamin, 48, also has been working on “Girls” since its inception. (The show is currently in its sixth and last season.) He graduated from the Hastings schools, earned his undergraduate degree in sculpture from Hunter College in 1996, and later an MFA in documentary film from City College of New York in 1999. His parents are deceased; his only sibling, John, 49, lives in Nyack. Benjamin is married to Sabrina Turin-Benjamin, who works for the Sony Music royalties department, and has a stepdaughter, Tatiana, 22, an NYU student, and a son, Lucian, 13, who attends Léman Manhattan Preparatory School.

Benjamin normally returns to Hastings for an annual celebration. “I go back only once per year, to watch the Super Bowl with the same bunch of guys who I’ve been watching it with since fourth grade. I never see them other than this one night a year, but now we all bring our kids, too. One of my friends, Eric Deutsch, bought the house he grew up in, so it’s the same place we always watch the game. It’s been so much fun, it’s such a great day; we all look forward to it. That gives you a sense of how close we feel as people who’ve come through this experience in Hastings, how it ties us together and remains a bond for us all. We’ve had people fly in from San Francisco and other places, knowing that the party will be there, and showing up to surprise everybody. We’re all 100 percent sure we’re going to be there that day for that event. I love it.”

Heyward’s career track is the stuff of a 1940s movie plot. She planned on being a novelist, but was diverted into screenwriting after moving to Hollywood. At her second job as an assistant, which was on “Girls,” in 2010, a short story of hers caught the attention of executive producer Jenni Konner, who showed it to Dunham. Heyward became a writer for the show’s pilot, then joined the team when HBO picked up the show.

Benjamin switched from sculpture to sound as a result of a project proposed by a friend. After he graduated from Hunter, he was working in a welding shop, building furniture. Though he knew nothing about documentary work, he made five trips to Trinidad to direct “Carnival Roots,” a 2002 film about the origins of the island’s world-famous celebration. His current documentary, “Suited,” released in January, can be viewed on the HBO website. The film is about Bindle & Keep, a tailor shop in Brooklyn catering to a transgender clientele; Dunham and Konner were the producers.

Tuesday’s shoot wasn’t the first time Benjamin has worked in Hastings, he said. “Many years ago I did a movie that shot one day on Maple Avenue. We were setting up a shot of the exterior of a house, and had to clear all the cars away from the front of it, put the camera across the street, and get everyone out of the way. As soon as the director said, ‘OK, everyone, roll sound!’ all of a sudden a car pulls up right into the shot, parks in front of the house, and my mother gets out. ‘Mom! Please move your car!’ Everyone turned around. ‘That’s your mother?’ I basically died of embarrassment. I was too old to die of embarrassment, but I still died of embarrassment.”

This week, he has his redemption. “It really is such a sweet thing that I’m going to be in the Enterprise,” he said. “I grew up with the Enterprise on my kitchen table.”

Hastings has been a location for an increasing number of television and movie shoots, including HBO’s “The Leftovers” and the films “Girl on a Train,” “Still Alice,” “It’s Complicated,” “Last Ball,” “Earthly Possessions,” “Nowhere Ever After,” and “8mm,” so Heyward isn’t sure if she had anything to do with the selection of her hometown as the setting for this episode of “Girls.” Barbara Landress, sister of the show’s line producer Ilene Landress, lives in Hastings. “I know that other movies and TV shows have filmed here and have found some advantage to shooting here,” Heyward explained. “I’d like to think that my gushing about Hastings has had some influence.”


Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


 

August 5, 2016

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