Actors' chemistry brings magic to 'Ben and Kate'

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LOS ANGELES — In no time, Nat Faxon and Dakota Johnson were tight.

That’s good, because they star as brother and sister on the new Fox comedy, Ben and Kate.

Ben is a free spirit, a good-cheer gadfly blowing in and out of town without notice. Younger sister Kate is uptight, a bit shell-shocked by life, and no wonder: She’s a single mother struggling to raise her little girl on a shoestring.

What will happen whenBen drops in, decides to stick around, re-establish ties with Kate, play surrogate dad to her daughter and maybe even grow up a little himself?

To judge from the Ben and Kate pilot (Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on WFXG-TV, Channel 54), the result is funny, frenetic and – bottom line – familial.

“It was very natural,” said Faxon, thinking back to last spring when the pilot was shot. “It felt like Dakota and I had known each other a long time, rather than a few days.”

“We have a – is there a word for a sibling sort of relationship?” asked Johnson, who, pretending to consult her smartphone, then proposed: “Siblingry!”

“We are close enough now that Dakota feels it’s OK to say how long my ear hair is, out loud, to a large group of people,” Faxon said. “THAT’S how comfortable we are!”

Co-starring with them on the series are Echo Kellum as Ben’s loopy pal and Lucy Punch as Kate’s hot-chick best friend. Maggie Elizabeth Jones plays Kate’s adorable daughter.

But the magic of Ben and Kate is the connection between Faxon and Johnson, who, joined by a reporter at the Twentieth Century Fox lot for an interview in August, had been freshly reunited that morning to resume the series grind. On the white board in a tiny conference room, they beheld a smiley face accompanying this message: “Welcome Back, Ben and Kate. Season 1 and many more seasons to come!” They had just come from a reading of their first post-pilot script.

The 36-year-old Faxon, wearing chinos, polo shirt and a generously toothy smile, had come to Ben and Kate with credits including the films The Babymakers and Bad Teacher in addition to a short-lived sitcom, Happy Hour.

He said he had auditioned for Ben “early, early on,” then learned he had won the role on Feb. 27 – one day after he collected an Oscar for co-writing the George Clooney film The Descendants.

“I did NOT win an Oscar,” countered Johnson, deadpan, “and I came in super-late.”

She is the 22-year-old daughter of actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith who, building on her early modeling career, has appeared in films including 21 Jump Street and The Social Network.

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