Playing a defense lawyer previously in “The Good Wife” didn’t exactly prepare Ben Rappaport for his new legal role in “For the People,” Shonda Rhimes’ latest ensemble series. In the ABC drama set in the United States District Court in Manhattan, he plays Seth Oliver, a newly minted prosecutor who’s in way over his head.
“He’s a fish who gets thrown into a sea of sharks. He’s a bit overwhelmed at first and he’ll have to prove himself,” Rappaport said, noting that he sat in on a few trials and sentencing hearings for research.
He described the character as “a guy who truly believes in the system. He believes he can do right within the government. He’s an idealist. But on a personal level, he’s kind of a sweetheart. He’s a mensch.”
Oliver also is romantically involved with a lawyer assigned to the defense side, which puts a strain on the relationship. “But there’s always hope for love,” Rappaport said.
“When I was in high school, I saw ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ That was the spark. I wanted to be onstage.” – Ben Rappaport
While Oliver’s religion hasn’t been referenced yet, Rappaport has played several Jewish characters, including Dr. Max Horowitz in Lifetime’s “Younger,” Josh Silverberg in Netflix’s “Ozark,” and student radical Perchik in the 2015 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Playing Perchik was very important to me,” he said. “In researching and preparing for the role, I discovered a lot about my Eastern European roots in Ukraine and Belarus.”
The son of a Boston-bred mother and a father from Long Island, N.Y., Rappaport grew up in Spring, Texas, a Houston suburb. “My dad was in the plastics industry. We moved around a lot when I was a kid. I credit that as the reason I became an actor,” he said. “You’re always meeting new people and observing different ways of life.”
Wherever he was living, Judaism provided Rappaport with a constant, and “instilled the importance of family, traditions and values,” he said. “We were part of a Reform temple. I went to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, celebrated the holidays, did the typical youth group stuff. I have very good memories. I’m very proud of my Jewish culture.”
Rappaport, now 31, decided to become an actor when he was 16. “I was always an artistic kid. I played guitar. I’m a painter,” he said. “When I was in high school, I saw ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ That was the spark. I wanted to be onstage.”
He graduated from the Juilliard School in New York with honors, and pursued a stage career until venturing into television with his first screen role in the NBC sitcom “Outsourced.”
“It lasted just a year, but it was a great time and I met some of my best friends there,” Rappaport said. More recently, he has had a recurring role on “Mr. Robot” and shot two independent films. The first is “Ask for Jane,” now playing the film festival circuit.
“It’s about the Jane Collective, a group of women who started a clinic in the’60s, when abortion was illegal,” he said. “I play the fiancé of one of the founders.”
“Landing Up” marks his debut as a producer. “It’s a romantic comedy about a homeless woman who survives by meeting different men and putting on different identities, played by Stacey Maltin, who wrote the piece,” Rappaport said. “I play a guy she meets and falls in love with, and she grapples with telling him the truth. It was in a few festivals and we’re waiting to hear what’s next for it.”
Looking ahead, he hopes there’s another Broadway musical in his future. “I love Broadway and will hopefully get to go back there someday,” he said, but right now he’s focused on “For the People.”
“I hope this show lasts a very long time. I really enjoy working on this, and I hope to keep doing what I’m doing: Television, theater, film,” he said. “I’d like a healthy balance of all of it.”
“For the People” premieres at 10 p.m. March 13 on ABC.