Ken Baumann, the spindly-cute Ben Boykewich of ABC Family’s Secret Life of the American Teenager-fame, has spent his life asking the same question: how can I do more? That constant nag has taken him from kiddy school plays in Texas, to Community Theater and Shakespeare at age 12, commercial work and nabbing an agent few years later, and a final serious move to Los Angeles. At 18, he landed a lead on Secret Life and now at 23, the show is rounding the bend on it’s very final 12 episodes. Baumann, in typical fashion, has a steady stream of projects already in the mix. He runs a non-profit publishing company, Sator Press, and his first novel, Solip, is set for release in the spring, a second is already on the way. Here he talks about the last days on set, his fear for Ben Boykewich’s sanity, and auditioning for Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut.
How does it feel coming to the end of Secret Life, you’ve been on it for almost five years now.
It’s interesting wrapping it up and having filmed everything was tough, was more emotional than I thought it would be. I mean, everybody gets along on the show. There are really no contentious relationships on the show. Everyone gets along with the boss Brenda. Brenda gets along with everybody. It’s sort of ridiculously idyllic and Leave It To Beaver-style. And so I think that that just made it really hard, because you know you’re not going to show up to work with people you enjoy working with.
Were there any tears at end of it all?
Oh god yeah. I was there the day Brenda found out, and she gathered everybody on set at Warner Bros. ranch stage. We just filmed at the end of the day, and I was in that scene. So you know it was this dark dingy soundstage and everybody was sort of piling in. Nobody has a smile on their face. And I sort of in my head was going ok, this is it. Brenda started talking and immediately started crying. And then, everyone was crying. It became this little wake set, where everybody was forming a line and going up to Brenda and the writers, and saying they’re sorry. It was really rough.
If you had complete creative control, how would the show end?
You know Brenda told me an ending I really would have liked. I won’t say what she told me, just in case she wanted to keep that private, but it was really cool and creative. I don’t think the network loved it, and I can sort of understand both sides, but what you’ll see on the show now, the final two scenes are really, really sad and good. I’m happy with how it’s going to end. The last scene is totally heartbreaking.
Do you think Ben will ever get over Amy?
In the alternate universe where TV characters still exist? I think not. I think not. I think Ben was a true obsessive. I think that they’re rare, but I think he was a true obsessive. I think with that romance, he’d either jump off a bridge, end up murdering her, or marrying her. [Laughs] I feel like he is that kind of nut, so I’m glad that alternate universe does not exist. I’m glad Secret Life will wrap up in a safe, non-murderous way.
After everything you’ve lived through on Secret Life, two pregnant girlfriends, one stillborn baby, cheating, heartbreak, what lessons are you taking from the show for when your kids become teenagers?
Oh god. You know there’s this saying, Abandon all faith ye who enter here. I feel like that’s what having children is. It’s just abandon faith and hope that they turn out good, and do your best to support them. I feel like I may not be that wise to try to glean parenting advice from a television show, no matter how responsibly-presented, but I certainly feel like I understand the teenage psyche a bit more than I did before I did the show. Some of us were teenagers when we began, so I get it more. But god, that’s sort of a terrifying question.
How long have you been acting?
Since I was 12, so 11 years.
How did you get into it?
I got into it because of school plays, shitty school plays where everyone’s playing animals, and no one has lines that they can remember and the parents are just crying that they’re happy at their kid’s ability to do something complex in public. I got into it really because of that, and I was always a sort of performer and a ham.
You keep yourself busy outside of acting—you have a publishing company, a literary journal, you’ve written a book. If there’s a typical day, what’s it like?
To use a primary example, this is a very relaxed non-work intensive day. My wife and I just got two kittens so today was just hanging out with two kittens. They’re sort of running around.
What are their names?
Kubrick and Bosch. Bosch is like Hieronymous Bosch the painter, who’s pretty rad. They’re both very sweet and right now my wife is holding Bosch and Kubrick, who are both passed out. Today, I posted a short film online which I wrote and filmed. That fulfilled a dream for me, because I always wanted to get something I wrote actually filmed, and actually make it. I’ve been thinking about doing that since I was 14 and I did it. So I was looking at that, posted it online.
What’s it called?
It’s called We Speak. I actually got an audition for Ryan Gosling’s writer-directorial debut, How To Catch A Monster, and part of the audition was like do whatever you want. You can film a scene from a favorite move. You could create an original character. Be creative. Do something. So I took that as an opportunity to write something. My buddy Jesse Grce helped film it, and my wife helped and we made it. I’ve also been reading. I read a lot.
What are you reading?
I’m reading The Revolution Was Televised.
What do you think attracts you so much to printed word?
I fell in love with books. I tell people, books woke me up. Books were the thing that made me think about what it is to be a human and not just live without that meta level of thought. I really do feel like books did it earlier than puberty does for most. I sort of felt like I realized what it is to have a worldview and realize that life can be so extreme , just because of books. And that happened at 10, 11, and 12 years old.
What were the books that had such a large influence?
The two books that did it were Confederacy of Dunces and Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. I think I read Confederacy of Dunces first, and then once I started reading Vonnegut that sort of cemented it. I had always read a lot. Those books really woke me up and cemented the idea that not only do I want to be a writer, which I thought even before I read those, but I wanted to write those books that felt big.
So is Solip, your first book, in that same vein?
Solip is less Confederacy of Dunces. I feel like you can definitely find some Vonnegut in there. That book I think arose more out of my fascination with a few other writers like Beckett and Joyce and this Brazilian woman named Clarice Lispector, who is incredible and is just now starting to get the attention she now deserves in the States. She was a very, very successful author in Brazil.
The final episodes of Secret Life of the American Teenager premiere March 2013. Look out for Baumann’s first book Solip in May 2013.