Ben Feldman is a pro at making you pay attention. His quick wit is his superpower. He unleashes it as gratingly helpful Jonah Simms on his NBC series Superstore, and as brash copywriter Michael Ginsberg on Mad Men. And on his Instagram feed, sharing parental pain about the travails of potty training while sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. And in interviews, comparing his home-schooling skills to those of a “lunatic 5-year-old.”
One thing Feldman isn’t laughing about, however? The current news cycle, the crushingly relentless headlines about systemic racism and the COVID-19 pandemic, and how he’s trying to both make sense of what’s happening and explain it to his kids in terms that Charlie, who’s almost 3, and Effie, 1, might possibly understand.
“We recently went to a toy store and the children gravitated to a baby in a stroller that wasn’t white. One of our family members saw a picture of it and asked why would get that baby? They said that that’s confusing for your kids. No. What would be confusing is for them to be surrounded by people of all different colors in their lives but to be told that no, that toy doesn’t come home with us,” says Feldman.
He talks to Fatherly about bonding with his babies, going under the knife, and what he’s doing to teach his son and daughter about diversity and inclusion.
First things first. Because the world isn’t bad enough right now, you’re about to have surgery.
They drill a hole into my neck around the trachea and they’re going to essentially dig out a calcified bone. I’ve been in pain forever. I was shooting a movie when I was 14 and felt pain after being the gym and since then I’ve never not had a back issue. Which is a problem because I love skiing and I generally love doing things where I’m in danger of being kicked from behind.
On the plus side, and this is a very small plus, admittedly, it gets you out of the house. How have things been at home for three months with two kids under age 3?
Charlie will be 3 in October and Effie is 14 months. It’s the worst. It’s Charlie’s second day at his preschool, and we dropped him screaming and sobbing, with his temperature being taken as they dragged him in. I like to schedule interviews when they’re both awake so I can ditch them. But at least I don’t have school to deal with. I don’t have to come to terms or acknowledge the fact that I have the learning capacity of a 5-year-old.
Yeah, remote learning was a delight. Ultimately, screen time was a parental savior.
The kids with zero access to technology who are shielded to pretend it doesn’t exist — they’re weird. They have no screens at all and they’re the fucking weirdos. We have the TV on and my kids pay attention to the TV or maybe they don’t. It’s not a big deal to them. How we can’t adhere to the moderation rule is a mystery to me.
That seems to be the big problem in this country, the inability to face reality and act accordingly. You’ve been very vocal on social media about what you’re doing at home to teach your kids about inclusivity. What led you to start the conversations when they’re so young?
When I was growing up, we didn’t discuss racism or call it out, or race in general. We pretended race didn’t exist. It breeds people who are racist but they have no idea they’re racist. My big takeaway — I don’t want to pretend it doesn’t exist because it’s insane to do it at this point. There were things about me that were ignorant and racist when I was younger and I want to puke when I think about that. I don’t want that to be the case for my kids.
I want them to know and understand. We have a lot of books about inclusion and appreciating differences in people. We do talk to him to a degree. We’ve driven past protesters. When Charlie sees people with signs now, he turns to us and he’ll say, ‘Be nice to everybody.’ I try to teach him basic values. We should be discussing it all the time. It should not have to be a birds and bees talk, and not like, ‘Holy shit, there’s race?’
What’s been the most revelatory thing about fatherhood for you?
There’s a million of them and it constantly changes. When Charlie says ‘I love you’ and it’s not because he wants to stay up longer. Last night he just said it with nothing to gain from it. When I see him share a toy or feel bad that someone fell over crying or when he’s being sweet to his sister, which happens about once of the million times they interact.
Did you feel that connection immediately, when Charlie was born?
No and yes. When a baby is born, for the first six months for me, you understand intellectually that you love them. But the mom has this physical connection that’s built it. There’s a mutual need that a father doesn’t really have. I spent months going, ‘I like this kid, he’s great.’ And then something happened to me at around six months, a switch turned on, and there’s a shared experience. You can share something the way mom does. I realized that ‘Yes, I would jump in traffic for this person.’ It’s a crazy feeling. I’ve been an asshole for years. I never expected to feel like this innate limitless love.
And the flip-side of that love is what?
That cannot be an easier question. Lack of sleep. Today they slept great. When that happens I can deal with everything. They can throw 30 simultaneous tantrums. On the days they’re both having a bad night and wakes up at 4 a.m., it makes life unbearable. Before I had kids, I’d come back from weekends rested. Now I dread them. I can’t wait for Monday when there’s something else to do.
Do you have any updates on Superstore? I know America Ferrera has left the show.
We’re gonna miss her a lot. Not in real life, because she’s on a text chain and she’s part of our lives. On set it will be a void.
Yesterday we got a tentative start date which is sooner than I thought. Right now we’re supposed to go back in the beginning of September. Our writers have been writing. Our show is conducive to the current situation because we shoot on three big wide open lots. We shoot with long lenses. They’re talking about actors having to act through plexiglass. Everyone will have to get temperature checks. We’re coming back. We’ve been really lucky. I have friends who haven’t worked and needed to find something or were doing a big Broadway show that got cancelled.