Benjamin-Shalom Rodriguez

Dara Bankole

Benjamin-Shalom Rodriguez has always navigated multiple identities, as his hyphenated name probably indicates. Less than ten minutes into our first meeting, the LA-based screenwriter and director is already describing an early webseries he made about trying — and failing — to come out as queer to his abuelita. Or, there’s the original play he wrote and produced in college that’s loosely based on his grandfather’s escape from Nazi Germany in the 1940s. But even within the bounds of such serious experiences, the appeal of Ben’s writing is his ability to funnel absurdist, lighthearted humor into heavy and even dark subject matter.

“As far as the webseries with my abuelita, it wasn’t great,” he laughs over coffee at Greendoor in Beverly Hills, where we met for a recent interview to talk about his most recent project, Stoned Breakups. “It was called MARIconBEN which loosely translates to ‘faggot Ben’ — it was playful, I was calling myself that. My parents were always working, so growing up she and I would watch telenovelas together, but there was always that language barrier.” 

The play, on the other hand, is called H.B. after his grandfather, Horst Bachenheimer, and it delved into the legend of the Golem, a mud monster created by a 16th century rabbi to protect the Jewish people from anti-Semitism. Thanks to a grant during his senior year at USC, where he studied acting and playwriting, Ben was able to pull off a loosely fictionalized interpretation of his family’s mystical reaction to the rise of Nazi Germany. 

“The play was basically about the night after Kristallnacht, when my grandpa’s family’s shop was destroyed — which really happened,” he explained. “My grandpa was super scared, he was a child, like thirteen or fourteen, and his dad was like ‘no, we’re descendants of Rabbi Loew, we’re going to do some fucking witchcraft,’ so they created their own Golem.” He cites the success of H.B. as an early moment that introduced him to the addictive magic of writing and directing. 

Growing up in what he calls “a little bit of the hood” near the Long Beach/Norwalk/South Gate area, with an Israeli mother and a Mexican father, Rodriguez dealt with his fair share of isolation and bullying, along with the eternal pressure to follow the rules and make something of himself — a story that the children of immigrant parents know well. “It wasn’t the most creative household, and as a closeted gay kid I needed some sort of outlet,” he remembered. “I loved performing and writing, and I even went to USC for it, but I still never really thought it was a real career that I could do. Between low self-esteem issues and being very fat growing up, I dealt with a lot of self-hatred for a long time.”

Dara Bankole

After graduating from college, Ben began working as a development executive — “I tried to convince myself I wasn’t a writer, you know?” — until he got into the Fox Writers Intensive with a writing partner. That experience spurred the realization that he had to pursue his passion full time, not just making web series on the side, or writing scripts at night. “I had a boyfriend at the time, and we’d been together like five years,” Rodriguez said. “He was super cool, but I don’t think he quite believed in me. Eventually, we broke up, in like 2012. And after that, I quit my exec job, moved into my aunt’s place, and slept on an air mattress in her TV room for like six months. That shift was in 2016, and now I’ve been writing now for like three years, so I’m really hashtag blessed.” 

At this stage in his career, aside from writing and pitching multiple features he’s written, Ben teaches film twice a week in Santa Ana, hosts game nights at private parties, and has been devoting himself fully to a show he created in 2018 called Stoned Breakups. This was the show that introduced me to his work, and immediately got me hooked. Revisiting the old trauma of a long-dissolved relationship through the lens of being very high, all while actors reenact the most dramatic moments in sarcastic and playful ways? The show sells itself. 

“The default or the status quo is that you have to find true love, it has to last forever, it’s monogamy, kids, etc.,” Rodriguez said. “The overall pressure is monogamy, love forever, companionship — but I’ve always been obsessed with breakups. My first two short films were about these boyfriends that kept getting into petty fights, and eventually kill each other. The film was about a gay couple of color, but my way in was that we’ve all been through heartbreak, so I ended up interviewing a bunch of friends about breakups related to that project. Then, I was stoned one night and I was like ‘oh my God, these are brilliant stories,’ and I’m a fan of Drunk History, so it clicked.” 

Stoned Breakups officially launched in January of 2019 and follows a familiar format: first, we watch the subject of the video first get super stoned. Have you ever watched someone, particularly someone who doesn’t smoke a lot of weed, get smoked out on camera? That, in itself, is pretty entertaining. After they’re nice and high, Ben interviews the subject of the episode about an old breakup, while actors reenact the story as it unfolds. Obviously, hilarity ensues. 

The reenactments include elements like role reversals, as in, the asshole guy who breaks up with the girl telling the story is played by a woman, or highly dramatized, surreal versions of what’s being described. “I think it’s funnier, more enlightening and more nuanced to watch a woman play an asshole man than to watch a man do it,” he explained. “So, we try to be strategic about role reversals. I personally gravitate more towards women in comedy, anyway.”

After a year of production, Ben and his crew launched Season One of the show last year, and Cinnamons is premiering the final episode of the initial season today. Season One, Episode Four of Stoned Breakups features Miami heartthrob Daniel F. Pérez relating a horror story about a long-distance romance with a striking model that goes horribly wrong once the two finally get to spend a real weekend together. Check out that episode below.

In the meantime, work on season two of Stoned Breakups is well under way, and the plan is to kick off the next season sometime in late 2020. “There’s a layer of openness when you’re high,” he said. “I’m not saying weed is the answer, or people need to get high to deal with emotions, but we look for a specific kind of story where it’s in the past. Watching and creating these episodes, there’s a process of healing for me. I just feel way less alone.”

This profile first appeared in shortened form via LA streetwear company The Hundreds’ blog for our Hint of Cinnamon monthly collaboration.

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