Fairfield actress Julie Benko makes directorial debut with new short film

As an aspiring actress, Julie Benko usually has to depend on other people’s projects to showcase her talents.

But the Fairfield native recently made her own short film, which has been selected for three film festivals so far.

“The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy” focuses on an Hasidic Jewish couple on their wedding night who are unsure how to consummate their marriage. “The trouble is, no one ever taught them what comes next,” according to the film’s publicity material.

The movie is based on a self-help book of the same name that provides sexual guidance to Hasidic couples.

Benko wrote, directed, edited and co-stars in the short, her filmmaking debut. She described it as “a dramedy — somewhere in between drama and comedy.”

It premiered at New York City’s New Faces New Voices Summer Festival in July and will soon appear in the Online New England Film Festival (running through Oct. 14) and Minnesota’s Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival (Oct. 15 through Nov. 1). The festivals are virtual this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The movie received a New Faces New Voices’ Audience Choice Award honorable mention. Benko won a day of free studio space for her next film project and an International Screenwriters’ Association membership.

Benko, 31, is known for her singing and has appeared on Broadway, in national musical tours, done cabaret shows and released a jazz album.

The 2007 Fairfield Ludlowe High graduate made the movie in February as part of her filmmaking class at New York University, where she’s pursuing a master’s degree in acting.

Benko’s original film idea was to take a darker look at the Hasidic community, such as was portrayed in the Netflix miniseries “Unorthodox,” but she altered the concept when coming across the book during research. “It changed the tone and made it more positive,” she said.

She’s familiar with the Hasidic Jewish community from living in New York City and being a volunteer tutor with Footsteps, an organization that helps people wanting to leave the ultra-Orthodox community. She said she’s seen “up close how little secular education” some in the community receive.

“A lot of people are fascinated with their way of life,” said Benko, who was raised in the Reform Jewish faith. “It’s so insular, kind of like the Amish. They live such vastly different lives but come from the same background.”

She received permission from the book’s two authors — both doctors — for the film project. One co-author now is using the movie short as a teaching tool.

“The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy” was made on a very low budget. It was shot in a friend’s apartment, co-stars a fellow NYU student as her groom, and Benko’s bride character wore a thrift store dress she’d originally bought for a production in high school.

“I left the shooting almost high,” she said of making the movie. “I had so much adrenaline. It was the same feeling I get from a live performance.”

She learned about the differences between filmmaking and theater. “In film, dialogue is much less important,” she said. “You can say so much with just one look. Stillness has a lot of power on camera — it exposes a character’s internal life in a way that would be incredibly boring onstage.”

Benko plans to continue entering the short in film festivals. She thinks it appeals to many audiences, not just the Jewish community, because everyone can relate to a couple’s wedding night. “It’s a general human experience,” she said.

Benko’s life as a student, actress and singer has changed quite a bit due to the pandemic. Her NYU classes moved online, school plays were canceled and her scheduled summer appearance in a rock opera musical in Minneapolis never happened.

However, the pandemic has boosted her writing output. “I try to wake up every day and write after breakfast,” she said. She’s now writing a play set in a New Orleans brothel in the early 1900s, with connections to the birth of jazz.

She definitely misses performing for an audience, whether acting or singing on a stage. “I’m just craving to perform live,” she said. “It’s weird to finish a song and there’s just an eerie silence.”

She and her fiancé, Jason Yeager, have been streaming weekly musical performances from their Manhattan apartment they call “Quarantunes.” Performances can be seen on Facebook and Instagram.

The couple also has done some private musical events on Zoom together. Yeager is a pianist, composer and college music instructor. He wrote the music for Benko’s film.

Benko’s interest in theater blossomed at age 13 when she attended the Fairfield Teen Theater summer program.

She has appeared in “Les Misérables” and “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway, in national tours of major musicals, off-Broadway plays, and regional theaters from California to Vermont. She was part of entourage casts appearing at the Academy Awards, Tony Awards and on NBC-TV’s “America’s Got Talent.”

Making the film has widened her perspective on possible career options beyond musical theater. “After this experience, I can see myself being on the other end, writing and directing rather than acting,” Benko said. “In a dream world, I’d like to create a TV series.”

Learn more about her at JulieBenko.com.