Interview: Mark Gessner of IFC’s hockey comedy “Benders”

Mark Gessner of IFC's comedy "Benders" [Photo by Patrick Harbron]
Mark Gessner of IFC’s comedy “Benders” [Photo by Patrick Harbron]

Mark Gessner has scored his dream role. A lifelong hockey fan, the New York-based actor plays Dickie Litski, a hard-drinking hockey player, on the new IFC comedy series “Benders.” Or more specifically, he plays a really bad hockey player on a really bad beer league hockey team. Ironic, considering that Gessner, 35, has played hockey since his childhood. “Benders,” produced by Dennis Leary, follows four friends who are obsessed with two things: playing hockey and getting drunk at the bar afterward.

Gessner was both an actor and a hockey player during his high school days. He has appeared on “Orange is the New Black,” “Veep,” “The Blacklist” and “Law and Order: SVU,” among other shows. Gessner recently talked with us about his role on “Benders,” playing high school hockey and the rigors of making rec league hockey look bad.

benders_posterSal Barry: I’ve really enjoyed “Benders” so far. I play beer league hockey, and the jokes really hit home.

Mark Gessner: Nice. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

SB: How would you describe “Benders” to someone who has not yet seen the show?

MG: Basically, “Benders” is about four guys who have totally different jobs and are from totally different walks of life — but the one thing they can all agree on is that they love playing for their horrendous men’s league hockey team. It’s where they all intersect and where they all get along, and their friendship extends off the ice, as you often find in real hockey settings. It’s one of those sports where you become tight-knit playing it.

My costar, Andrew Schultz (Paul on “Benders”), came up with this analogy: it’s like “Entourage,” but as if they never left Queens, and then crossed that with a show like “The League,” where there’s a shared interest in a sport.

SB: And how would you describe your character, Dickie Litski?

MG: Dickie is a hedge fund manager, so he has all the money in the world. He spends his money on a fancy car, a nice apartment and really good hockey equipment. But ultimately all that matters is him hanging out with his three best friends.

SB: The four characters are kind of jerks, and yet we like them for some reason.

MG: They’re animals!

SB: How do they get away with that?

MG: If you’ve ever been in a locker room before, on any kind of rec league hockey team, these guys exist. They’re not made up out of nowhere. And you’re right — they definitely have moments where you don’t know why you like these people, because on paper they are the worst. But when you see them all together, they become a likeable bunch. They’re greater than the sum of their parts.

[Photo by Patrick Harbron]
Chris Distefano, Ruy Iskandar, Mark Gessner and Andrew Schultz from the hockey comedy “Benders.”  [Photo by Patrick Harbron]

SB: There’s definitely a great rapport between you your co-stars (Andrew Schultz, Chris Distefano and Ruy Iskandar). You all click real well.

MG: I’m really glad that comes across, because you never know how the show is going to be received. You put your heart and soul into it and hope for the best. But I will say that it is to the credit of [“Benders” co-creators] Tom Sellitti and Jim Serpico, and all the people at IFC who approved all their casting choices.

SB: Let’s talk some hockey. How long have you been a fan?

MG: Since I could walk.

SB: What’s your earliest hockey memory?

MG: I grew up in northern Vermont, and it’s very much hockey country up there. I’ve been playing since I was a little, tiny kid. What I remember really well is watching players, from the high school that I ended up going to, get off the ice before us little kids played. I remember thinking they were just the size of trees. I couldn’t imagine ever being that big.

And then, I remember very distinctly when I was playing high school hockey, getting off the ice and seeing these little kids staring up at me like I was a tree, like they would never be that big. So a little full-circle action there; kind of warms my heart thinking about it.

SB: Growing up, did you have a favorite team?

MG: I have a lot of extended family throughout the New York area. So when I was a kid, I gravitated more towards the New York teams than I did the New England teams, which got me a fair amount of friction with my fellow sports friends up there. Back then, it was Canadiens and Bruins territory, and I was following the Rangers in the newspaper.

gretzkySB: Did you have any hockey heroes growing up?

MG: I always liked Mark Messier a lot. I liked Jarri Kurri because he was an incredible passer. And I liked Wayne Gretzky. I used to have that old movie of his, “Above and Beyond” (1990). It was all about Gretzky’s life growing up, how he came up in Edmonton and everything.  My parents had to get me a second VHS tape because I wore out the first one. I used to watch that every day. I would watch the entire thing. I would watch it right now. I’ve probably seen that movie 200 times. I loved that thing growing up.

SB: Do you like any other hockey movies?

MG: Oh, man. I love “Miracle.” I love that film. Every time I see that movie, I cry. Every single time. It’s like as if it is on cue. When Mike Eruzione says he plays for the United States of America, are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? If you do not cry at that moment, I question your patriotism and whether or not if you have a soul.

SB: What about “Mighty Ducks” — or were you too old for that when it came out?

MG: Oh,  no. I was super into the “Mighty Ducks.” Although in the Flying V they’re always offside. That stuck in my craw as a kid, I was like, come on guys, there’s no consultant on the set who could tell you that? Come on.

Mark Gessner [Photo by Emily Lambert]
Mark Gessner [Photo by Emily Lambert]

SB: What were your days like playing hockey in high school?

MG: I was just a huge defenseman. I’m a big dude. A lot of the guys on “Benders” are pretty tall, but I’m a sizeable fellow, so I used to just stay on the right point and thunder slap shots, and then occasionally rattle the boards with a hit. I had cement hands. I was terrible with the puck. But I could shoot it, and I could hit hard. So, that’s what I did on the ice.

We had a team that went through a lot of different changes when I was there. Our sophomore year, we were incredible. We won the state championship in Vermont for Division III.

Then the next year we got obliterated in every game. I think the closest thing we had to a win that season was a 4-2 loss (laughs). Because we graduated 11 seniors, and it was [me and] three of my friends, and the rest were all just freshmen. So we got whupped. But listen, I’d do it all over right now. I loved playing hockey in high school. It was so much fun.

SB: Since you played hockey in high school, how much sandbagging do you have to do when playing hockey on “Benders?”

MG: Well, to be fair, my skills are not what they once were, which is actually a benefit. But when I read the script, initially it did have Dickie listed as the worst player on the team.

The other guys did a fantastic job, but they had no real hockey background at all. So by default, I wasn’t the worst person on the team anymore. So, they just tweaked it so I was a good skater, but the team continues to break my balls anyway, which was very easy for them [to do] on-screen and off.

SB: When you first heard that IFC was making a hockey comedy, how did you react?

MG: I called my manager as soon as I found out. I was in Los Angeles, shooting some commercials. I was all jetlagged and weirded out and couldn’t sleep. I was scrolling through Twitter and saw that Dennis Leary’s production company got this hockey show green lighted, and it had an eight episode order. You have to have quite a name in this business to get that much of a pledge from a network.

I was like, oh my God. Eight episodes. Green lit. Ready to be made. And it’s about hockey.

I called my manager — it was one in the morning — and I said I have to be on that show. I have to. Of course, he’s heard that from me a hundred times. But in this case, I really meant it. Getting the role was a dream come true for sure.

SB: What was it like when production started?   

MG: None of us really knew each other until we did the table read. That was one of my favorite moments of the entire show, when we all sat down around the table for the first time and introduced ourselves, and we started to learn each other’s names. We read a couple of episodes and it just clicked. It was really fun. I was like “Aw, this is going to be great.”

It was one of those moments that you hear people in this business talk about and hope you get a chance to be a part of it. We shot many, many hours a day. So it is priceless to be on a set with people you actually enjoy hanging out with.

And then we got into the flow of the season. Showing up for work every day, as an actor, is such a luxury. I don’t know any other line of work where you spend most of your time trying to get a job, and when you finally have one, it is the most wonderful feeling in the world. To share it with these guys is really fun.

SB: What was shooting the hockey game footage like?

MG: We shot those scenes on this ice rink on Staten Island. They were lovely to let us take over the joint for a couple of days. It was two really long days. We shot all of the on-ice stuff for the entire [eight-episode] season in just those two days, to give you an idea of how long those days were.

But it was skillfully directed and everyone was aware of how cold it was. They were taking good care of themselves and going at a pace that was fast and getting work done, but wasn’t going to give them pneumonia.

The good thing, too, is that our team was supposed to be lousy, so if the hockey scenes didn’t turn out perfectly, that wasn’t actually so bad. In some cases, that was the whole point — that we’re supposed to suck (laughs). Which is good for us, because we did, in a lot of moments, suck.

Gessner's character of Dickie Litski was originally intended to be the team's worst player.
Gessner’s character of Dickie Litski was originally intended to be the team’s worst player, but his prior experience as a high school hockey player caused the writers to change that. [Photo by Patrick Harbron]

SB: Your character, Dickie, scores a nice goal at the end of the second episode. Was that goal rehearsed?

MG: (Laughs) Yeah, so at the very end of the second day, the directors said, you know what — let’s just drop the puck and see what happens. Let’s scrimmage a little bit and we’ll run some cameras and get some footage. And so, at the end of two exhausting days, we’re just playing around, finally, just like kids.

We score that goal, and that celebration you saw after that goal was the most honest-to-God authentic show of emotion that you could ever ask for on a TV show. We were so stoked that we had scored that goal, finally, after two horrendously long days, to have that moment of celebration.

When we got off the ice, we went over to the camera guy, and we were all asking, “Can we watch it? We want to see it!” So he took out a little monitor and showed our goal to us.

Tom Sellitti comes walking in with a huge grin and says “You know you guys were offside, right?”

And we’re like “Bullshit! We were not! That was a good goal, bro!”

Then Tom says “Oh yeah? Check this out.” And he shows us [on the replay monitor] Chris Distefano’s dumb ass standing 20 feet deep in the zone, not even involved in the play. Oh my God. I was so angry. Tom was so happy it didn’t count as a goal just so he could break our stuff.

SB: Oh man, that’s harsh. So, that was a legit goal? It wasn’t rehearsed?

MG: No, no…that was as real as it gets.

SB: Any word of a Season Two for “Benders?”

MG: No word yet. Hopes are high. People seem to be responding well to the show. Historically, when IFC really likes a show, they stand behind it. And they’re doing that for us. Whatever decision they have to make they have to make for the good of the network. I hope a second season is what is best for them, because it would be a dream come true for the rest of us. They have been a dream to work for. They are so cool and so creative and so collaborative. Whatever IFC decides, I will smile.

But anyone who hears about “Benders” and enjoys it, please pass the word along. Please share on Twitter and on Facebook. Tweet us and we’ll retweet it. The whole thing is getting people watching this show. The next episode (“Fight Club,” premiering tonight) is hysterical. I just hope people love it. If you do, talk about it, tell people, tell IFC, tell everybody, because the more people who see it, the more chance we get to do this show again next year.

SB: One last question — any advice for the beer league hockey player?

MG: Spend money on a good helmet and spend money on good skates. Hopefully, you won’t have to buy them more than once. And sticks have become a huge rip-off, so go basic with the stick. Use a stick you can break and not feel like you want to kill yourself afterward. And remember that none of us are going to make it to the NHL. If we were, we’d already be there. So enjoy the rec league hockey ride! 

“Benders” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m.(ET) on IFC in the U.S. All eight episodes from season one are available for download on Amazon and iTunes. For a behind the scenes look, visit the “Benders” website. You can follow Mark Gessner on Twitter at @thegessnerest.

Author: Sal Barry

Sal Barry is the editor and webmaster of Puck Junk. He is a freelance hockey writer, college professor and terrible hockey player. Follow him on Twitter @puckjunk

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