By Stacey Harrison
We start by talking about what we’re supposed to talk about. What’s Ben up to this coming season? Will he stay with Amy? Sorry, can’t reveal too much detail. Suffice to say, ole Ben is in for some changes. But eventually we get to some topics you might not expect to bring up with a 19-year-old star of a show called The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
Turns out Ken Baumann has quite the literary mind, editing two journals — the online NO POSIT, and the print journal NO COLONY. He is also an aspiring screenwriter, having optioned the rights to adapt Stanley Crawford’s novel Log of the S.S. The MRS Unguentine into a film.
Such lofty ambitions might lead one to believe Baumann would regard his teen-centric day job as simply a means to an end, but it becomes quickly apparent that he is genuinely invested in his character and the show — in which he stars as the lovestruck Ben, who is helping his girlfriend Amy (Shailene Woodley) as she adjusts to her life as a new mom. The baby’s father, Ricky (Daren Kagasoff), has decided to be a part of the little boy’s upbringing, a move that will no doubt lead to some territorial issues between the three of them.
Baumann took some time to chat with us about his wide-ranging interests, and the new season of Secret Life, which airs Mondays beginning tonight on ABC Family.
What’s in store for Ben this season?
Ben is definitely got some trouble ahead of him. I’ll try to be relatively vague here. But some new problems are arising, problems related to being a father — being the quote-unquote father, because the real father is right around the corner — dealing with a … grumpy potential wife, and also there are some family issues that crop up related to his dad. It’s a much more tumultuous season for Ben.
How far ahead do you know the story?
I know a little. I know one kind of huge thing about my character that will primarily come in probably Episode 23. Other than that, I really don’t know. I try to weasel as much information out of [the writers] as I can, but at the same time I don’t want to know too much. I’d like to just be surprised and go along for the ride.
Being in such an ensemble cast, are each of you aware of what goes on with the other characters and their storylines?
I’ll find myself in interviews, they’ll ask a question about another character’s arc, and I’ll just have to think back because it’s all starting to kind of blend together. We’ve been shooting so long it’s like “Oh no, I’m forgetting, this is horrible,” but I think we’re all pretty well aware of what’s going on with everyone else’s story.
Does that knowledge affect your performance?
You know, that is a great question. You try to avoid it affecting your performance, of course, because in your character’s universe you don’t have that information, so you read the whole script and you just section off a portion of your brain to retain the larger arc and then you focus primarily just on your stuff scene to scene.
Ben is pretty mature for his age, but he’s also hopelessly naïve in many ways. Is that balance fun to play with as an actor?
He’s a very, very optimistic idealist. I think I’m an idealist myself, but hopefully I’m a little less naïve. But I’m young, so maybe I’m not. He’s a love-struck idealist, so it’s easy to play. I get it. I get where he’s coming from given his past, it just all makes perfect sense. He’s fallen in love with this beautiful girl, and of course she gets pregnant [from another guy] and he comes from this very loving household and he feels like he has to take care of everyone’s problems, and I identify with that a lot.
What’s been the biggest change in your life from this time last year, before the show premiered, and now?
Probably the [biggest] change is to go out in public and be recognized. I very much appreciate the support that people show, especially when they approach you. It’s incredible, they’re so excited to meet you and they have nothing but nice things to say, and they’re really incredibly gracious. That is a really great experience. But it is odd at the same time losing a little bit of your anonymous nature. It’s weird. I never really thought about that aspect of what I’m doing professionally, and to see it happen is kind of odd, so I’d say that’s the biggest change. Other than that, I’m not going crazy and buying sports cars.
Yeah. I haven’t seen you in any of the gossip pages.
Exactly. I’m staying in my house and reading and spending time with my good friends, hopefully nothing too egotistical yet. Give me time.
You also do a lot of writing, along with editing literary journals, and keeping up a blog and Twitter. How hard is it finding time to fit all that in?
Ultimately, there are a lot of hours in the day. I find that the working hours are phenomenal. I very rarely work a ten-hour day, so I do have quite a bit of time, especially at night. I’m a little bit of a night owl, so I’ll be up till two or three in the morning working on stuff like that. I’ve always felt compelled to write, so I’m equally as passionate about writing and good literature as I am about acting, so it’s all kind of the same path.
Has the exposure from acting helped your writing career yet?
It’s interesting. … I have a Twitter, and that’s kind of the way I prefer to communicate with people online, because I really do like to hear from fans and especially answer questions about the show and thank them for their support. But I also use it as a way to promote a lot of my friends who are writers. I like to promote their endeavors. I have about five hundred followers on Twitter (Note: It’s now closer to 1,000), and I think about probably eighty to eighty-five percent of them are fans of the show, so it’s really interesting. I feel like I’m catering to two audiences. I’ve yet to figure that out, how much I want to merge both portions of my creative work. I’m very, very glad that eventually my writing will be shown more support because of the show and vice versa, too. But it is a fine line, I think. I’m trying to figure it out.
You’re also adapting a book into screenplay. How did that come about?
I read that book [Log of the S.S. The MRS Unguentine], and I absolutely fell in love with the narrative and thought it was a beautiful story and that it could make a great film. So I went about securing the rights to that, and I did, and I plan on working pretty closely with the original author, Stanley [Crawford], and I have I think thirty-two months or so on the option on that to write and eventually sell it. I’m in way over my head, but that’s when I’m happiest.
With all your interests beyond acting, it would make sense to think that you’re pretty interested in the production aspects of your show.
I’m pretty certain that if you asked the camera crew about me, they’d either sigh really heavily or smile, because I probably ask more questions than anyone on the set. I’ve been telling people that recently, because I would like to direct a film that I’m writing now. I told them I want to learn as much as possible about every department so that as a director or producer, or even writer, for that matter, I know the technical limitations of each department. Yeah, I’m using the show, I’m asking as many questions as possible just to soak up all the knowledge I can.
Do your fellow cast members know about your work outside the show?
Yeah, they do. I consider all of them to be pretty close friends. They’re all incredibly supportive; they’re really great people. They are very excited for me and … I tell them they need to kick my ass and make me get to work a little. Make me sit in front of a computer and finish those features before I get into production or direction. But yeah, they’re incredibly supportive and I do share with them.
I spoke with Daren Kagasoff last season before the show premiered, and the contrast between him and his character was really striking, with him being such a nice, normal guy playing a really messed-up guy like Ricky. Is that common among the cast — are all of you really different from your characters?
You’re right, Daren is the prime example. He’s such a nice, bubbly guy, really energetic, always smiling, always laughing, cracking jokes, and he is a schmoozer/dirtbag on the show. Everyone is pretty different. Especially the guys. I would probably say I’m most similar to my character, but there are huge gulfs of difference. But the girls, too, I mean, Megan [Park, who plays Grace] is not at all the Christian cheerleader and Shai [Shailene Woodley, who plays Amy] is not at all the grumpy post-pregnancy teen. But it’s interesting how that works.
Photo: ©2009 DISNEY ENTERPRISES, INC. Credit: Randy Holmes