It’s a calm, sunny afternoon in Newport Beach, California, but Jonathan Bennett is bustling. The mercurial actor and host of Food Network’s Halloween Wars is on the garden deck of my Montauk-styled home, feverishly stuffing pink gift boxes with my wife, chef Nikki Martin. In goes mini bottles of Summer Water rosé, Glow Recipe Watermelon face masks and the highly anticipated hero of the loot, a copy of The Burn Cookbook: An Unofficial Unauthorized Cookbook for Mean Girls Fans, cradled in pink tissue. Bennett and Martin are scrambling to get troves of these gift boxes off to the post office in time for the book’s launch on National Mean Girls Day (October 3rd, of course). On the recipient list: Maria Carey, Britney Spears and Katy Perry—all megastars who reportedly hold the 2004 cult classic dear to their hearts.
It’s been fourteen years since the movie, written by Tina Fey and based on Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 novelQueen Bees and Wannabes, hit theaters. Since then, Bennett hasn’t seen a day without being called out for his role as Lohan’s on-screen love interest, Aaron Samuels. It’s taken nearly as long for Bennett to come to terms with the fact that, no matter how much success he achieves, he’ll always be recognized as the high school jock who turned around in math class and asked, “What day is it?” — four words that would change his life forever.
Bennett booked his role as North Shore High School senior Aaron Samuels, his first movie credit, at age 22 and a year after he moved to Los Angeles from New York City, where he had filmed All My Children. (He played J.R. Chandler on ABC’s long-running soap.) While legions of fan may agree he was perfectly cast, he was quite different from his character. “There’s a line in the film that goes, ‘All he cares about is school and his mom and his friends,’” says Bennett. “And that’s true for both of us. But Aaron played soccer and they had to bring in a soccer coach to teach me how to kick a ball.” Instead, Bennett describes his high school self as a “drama nerd.”
I’ve had a weird career and I’ve done projects in every single demographic, but I still have women from age 13 and up approaching me about Mean Girls.
The film launched the careers of Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lizzy Caplan and Amanda Seyfried. McAdams has gone on to become an Oscar-nominated leading lady, Caplan nabbed an Emmy nomination for her role on Showtime’s Master of Sex, Seyfried has starred opposite Meryl Streep and Lohan—well, we can only imagine she’ll soon be launching a new fragrance called Mykonos.
Bennett’s career has flourished, too. He has appeared in dozens of films and television shows, competed on Dancing With the Stars and hosted more than 200 episodes of Cake Wars and its seasonal spin-off Halloween Wars, which just debuted its eighth season. Even so, it’s nearly impossible for Bennett to order Starbucks (venti salted cream cold foam cold brew, for those interested) without the barista writing “Aaron Samuels” or a quip from the movie on his cup. “I mean, I still laugh every time someone says ‘because I’m such a good friend,’” Bennett tells Playboy. “That’s just really funny to me. And it’s actually picked up even more in the past five years. I’ve had a weird career and I’ve done projects in every single demographic, but I still have women from age 13 and up approaching me about Mean Girls.”
Bennett’s embrace of his cinematic doppelganger is fairly recent and can be traced back to, of all places, an Applebee’s in Nashville, Tennessee. “My dad had brain cancer and only a few months left to live,” he tells Playboy. “We were sitting at dinner when these girls came up asking for a photograph. One girl was so excited she was shaking and crying. I was in a dark place and reluctant to get up, but my dad made me do it.” After leaving the restaurant, Bennett’s father told him to look back inside the restaurant window, where the girls were hovering over their photos and glowing with joy. “When was the last time you saw people that happy?” his father asked.
Jonathan Bennett has a billion things happening at all times in his brain and when you watch me, you get to see that come to life.
So Bennett called on Martin, a fellow Food Network personality whom he had befriended. Martin diligently recreated some of Bennett’s recipes; two of Bennett’s favorites made it into the final edit. “The rest of the recipes are from Nikki,” says Bennett.
Bennett’s mother was his biggest fan, and super protective. “My mom was very loving and didn’t want me to get hurt. I was a premature baby and almost died when I was born; and she almost died having me.” It was ultimately his mother who drove through the night to New York City when he got his first acting agent at age 20. After two years of working on All My Children, with an in-between spot on Law and Order, Bennett felt ready for Hollywood.
Bennett had to keep faith and take any work he could get while auditioning. A few months later, he nabbed an audition for Mean Girls. “Once I did the screen test for Aaron Samuels, I went to see the movie Freaky Friday at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, so that I could see who this Lindsay Lohan girl was,” he remembers.
Although Bennett has taken on a wide variety of acting jobs, there is one steadfast ambition he harbors: hosting television and events. “I love hosting because I get to be me,” he says. We were shooting Halloween Wars and one of the assistant directors said to me, ‘Don’t worry, Jonathon, we’ll get you out of here as soon as we can.’ And I was like, Why would you do that? I’m doing what I love and living the dream I’ve had since I was five. And I’m doing that on one of the biggest networks in the world, on my own show, where I get to have free reign. I don’t want to go home. The host you see in Halloween Wars or Cake Wars is the real Jonathan."
Bennett may never escape being the omnipresent dreamboat who looks sexy with his hair pushed back, but his recent self-discoveries has brought him face to fact with humility and gratitude and steered his ship toward bright opportunities. “After years of acting, I discovered that I was dumbing down all the funny and quirkiness that makes me me, to get to play the role of your basic hot jock that doesn’t have a lot going on upstairs,” he says. “But Jonathan Bennett has a billion things happening at all times in his brain and when you watch me host, you get to see that come to life. That is my gift—my quirky, funny and weird personality is what makes me special. I learned recently to just sparkle and let it shine.”