Despite his memorable role as rumpled, erratic copywriter Michael Ginsberg amid the debonair characters of Mad Men, Ben Feldman himself is a man of refinement: His aunt is the famous chef Susan Feniger; his wife, Michelle Mulitz, is a high-profile interior designer. And in 2005, he and a friend created their own blend of Central Coast Syrah—“A label, man, just a label,” he corrects me, when I mention I heard he was part owner of a vineyard. “If you don’t have a name like Francis Ford Coppola and you’re starting a wine label, you’re screwed. It just becomes an expensive thing to talk about at parties.”
Feldman meets me at a corner table upstairs at Morrell Wine Bar, next to 30 Rock. I’m luxuriating over black truffle deviled eggs and sipping San Pellegrino when I see him moving up the steps two at a time. He walks over in jeans and a grey tee under a zip-up sweat jacket, apologizing profusely for his tardiness. I offer him the wine list, but he declines, a full day of press still ahead. “Deviled eggs?” He says, laughing. “That is awesome.” Guess I missed the mark on my own refinement. There are truffles in them, Ben.
Feldman’s 36 but hardly looks it: His complexion is flawless, and I resist an inquiry re: moisturizers. His dark locks are swept back, revealing a hairline most have never enjoyed, even before Father Time sunk his pincers into us.
We’re here to discuss Superstore, the sitcom on which he stars. The LA Times has called Superstore “one of TV’s best new comedies” and Flavorwirehas said that it is “TV’s most (quietly) revolutionary show.” (Season 2 starts tonight at 8:00 PM on NBC.) Feldman’s character, Jonah, is a wayward grad student who goes for a drive and stops at a Cloud 9 store—think Wal-Mart—before deciding to get a job there. His elitist attitude earns the ire of his coworkers, especially Amy (Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera).
In the show’s pilot, Jonah asks Amy why she can’t find “moments of beauty” at Cloud 9, to which Amy, who had her daughter at 19 and is taking night classes, replies, “Tomorrow is going to be the same as today. And I know that because today is the same as yesterday. So sometimes, it’s just tough to find those ‘moments of beauty.’” After a hoax robbery ends with Dina (comedian Lauren Ash) knocking out the lights, it’s revealed that Jonah’s covered every inch of the store’s ceiling with glow-in-the-dark star stickers. Amy gazes at Jonah, who says, “Moment of beauty?” There’s a confounding event immediately after, though: Amy slips on a wedding ring.
“The writers put a giant obstacle in the path,” says Feldman. “‘Are they going to get together?’ It isn’t about that,” he continues. “I didn’t want to be on the ‘will-they, won’t-they’ show. I wanted to be on the ensemble show where it’s just as good if the whole episode is about a different character.”
Though creator Justin Spitzer was a writer and producer on The Office, this is not Jim and Pam. Superstore employs a bevy of hilarious, endearing characters who might get muted if a relationship took center stage.
Lauren Ash plays gruff and controlling assistant manager Dina, who, after grossly misinterpreting signals from Jonah, attempts a romantic rendezvous.
“That scene was difficult,” Feldman says. “Jonah isn’t disgusted by Dina, it’s the idea of what’s happening. And Lauren doesn’t want to play this aggressive, obnoxious creep, so playing with the levels of what’s funny and what’s real became a nuanced process.”
When wheelchair-bound Garrett (Parks and Rec’s Colton Dunn) remarks that Cloud 9 “Loves putting employees with disabilities on the cover” of their corporate magazine, Jonah excitedly riffs, “And getting a black guy in a wheelchair would be like their Holy Grail.” Garrett feigns anger, and Jonah insists he “listens to Drake” and “watches BET” before Garrett says he’s just messing with him. Jonah admits, “I’ve never watched BET.”
Store manager Glenn (Mark McKinney of mid-‘90s SNL) is a deeply religious man who confers with Mateo (comedian Nico Santos) on how to arrange a section for gay wedding decorations. “People assume all Christians are homophobes,” Glenn complains. “You can’t imagine how hard it is being stereotyped.” Mateo, a Filipino-born gay man, pauses, before good-naturedly replying, “Sure.”
I tell Ben I see Jonah as an eclectic mix of douchiness and lovability. “If you asked the writers to describe Ben Feldman, they’d use the same adjectives,” he laughs. “I’m becoming the character they’re writing, because of me, but I’m more me because of it.” He clarifies: “We do these full-cast interviews and I’ll quote Shakespeare and everyone will throw shit at me. They make fun of me for everything.”
Season 2 of Superstore picks up with the strike resulting from Glenn getting fired in last season’s finale—he bypassed Cloud 9’s no-maternity-leave policy by giving pregnant teenager Cheyenne (Shameless’s Nichole Bloom) a six-week “paid suspension”—but the strike ultimately devolves into shouts about “Making sure that transgender people should not be allowed in the women’s bathroom!” and “Statehood for Puerto Rico!”
“This season, people ask if we’re an ‘issues’ show,” Feldman says. “But if you and I were talking about gun laws or politics, at no point would we say, ‘Wow, we’re very topical right now.’ The writers asked, ‘What do people talk about, and what’s our funny spin on it?’”
Shortly before graduating from Ithaca College, Feldman nabbed a role as an understudy on Broadway in The Graduate. “I had no interest in doing things in front of cameras. Most of the kids, when I go back and talk at Ithaca now, are snob-like in their allegiance to the stage.”
“They think you’re a sellout?” I offer.
“Total sellout. I say, ‘Guys, I promise you, ten years from now you’re gonna be auditioning for Coca-Cola commercials. Get off my ass.’”
Of all his projects, Feldman’s having the most fun on Superstore. “Everybody in this cast is best friends.” He adds, “There are no douchebags. Typically, there’s a cast member everyone’s talking shit about. We don’t have that.” He pauses. “Unless it’s me.”
As I down my last deviled egg, I ask Ben for any final thoughts. With an everyman’s grin, he says, “Just fucking go nuts and watch this show so that we can get picked up for another season.”