Once a promising actress with a recurring role on the hit TV show The Wire, Brandy Burre is now stuck in the routine of life as a suburban housewife and mom, in upstate New York. In his captivating new documentary Actress, Robert Greene offers her a chance to perform as herself in all her roles—partner, lover, mom, thespian—at a time when she is getting back into the world of auditions, and while her relationship with the father of her children is disintegrating.
Beyond simply observing the struggles women face in their desires for career and family, the film explores the nature of performance. Blending melodrama and cinema vérité to perfection, Greene delivers a film that under all its theater, is just like its actress, raw and intimate.
I was lucky to catch Actress at its much talked-about premiere at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, and caught up with Robert later over Skype.
Valentina Canavesio (Rail): You’re one of True/False’s darling filmmakers. How did that relationship get started?
Robert Greene: I sent Chris Boeckmann, who is now the associate programmer at True/False, my first film called Owning the Weather, and he sent me the best rejection note ever. And in that rejection note he was really respectful, and I was impressed by how original it sounded. And I wrote him back and said, “Hey, you guys do things the right way, I’d love to submit a film to you in the future.” And Owning the Weather went on to have its own life and it was definitely not a True/False kind of film. But when I started Kati with an I, I immediately thought of Chris as someone who would be interested in that kind of movie, so I sent him an early email and he was interested, and he sort of latched onto the movie and became its champion. It got in and, you know, that was the first of three films. I went two years in a row with Kati with an I and Fake It So Real, and then the next two years I didn’t have a film, so I did whatever I could to stay involved with the festival. I went and talked to students, did Q&A’s. And then Actress was sort of a no-brainer for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it is the type of ambiguous film they like to show. They were supportive from the beginning and we thought that it was the right place to go.
Rail: I love the article you just wrote about True/False, “unclean cinema,” and what it all means. Can you elaborate on that and where you think nonfiction film is going?
Greene: The piece I just wrote is in response to Jill Godmilow, who had just written a critique of The Act of Killing, and called it pornography, and attacked it, among other things for being “unclean.” It was very “unclean.” So, I started thinking about the True/False logo—a T, an F, and a slash in the middle—as sort of a representation of that unclean idea. But my point was that documentaries can’t be “clean.” Like, what is this idea? Basically, it’s a muted, weird way of talking about objectivity or something. I think the most interesting films are reveling in their own constructions, or are breaking the rules, or are being a little bit dangerous. The movie The Act of Killing is a dangerous film. It’s a very troubling film, not just because it’s scandalous or because bad things happen, but because it doesn’t do the work for the audience; the audience has to work, you know?
Greene: And as an art object it’s very disturbing. So, I think that’s what’s happening. I mean, The Act of Killing is a great example of what’s happening on all kinds of levels with formal ambition. Although avant-garde filmmakers have always been breaking these rules, it’s just that now more people are breaking them, and doing so more loudly, I think.
Rail: How does that apply to Actress?
Greene: Actress started as a formal idea and then evolved from there. One thing was just that I’m in my mid-to-late 30s, as is my friend and neighbor Brandy, and I see what it’s like to balance being an artist, living and making money however I can, making films, and being a parent. And I see how my wife has to give up much more of her life than I do. And I saw the same thing in my friend Brandy, and the challenges she faced in putting herself out there. Women aren’t usually talked about at the age of 35 to 40. And Brandy had babies and put everything on hold, and now she was feeling the itch to be creative again, but she was really stuck and she didn’t know what to do. So that was a big part of what I wanted to explore. But at the heart of it was what do you do with a person like Brandy, who is a theatrical performer by nature?
All my work is really concerned with training a camera on social performances and watching people reveal the sort of social things that we all take for granted. But then if you cut it right, and you film it right, you can really see people performing these identities. So, I was really thinking a lot about performance, and nonfiction, and how everyone’s performing, and performance in social situations, and I just thought it would be amazing to make a cinéma vérité, direct cinema, sort-of stylized thing, with a performer. And then when we started filming, life took us in a direction that was radically different than we expected. The serendipities of documentary stepped in, and she went through this amazing experience where those performances suddenly combined with this painful thing that was going on in her life, and her self and her performance really got compressed into one thing, and sometimes we couldn’t even tell, ourselves, what was going on.
And so the goal—the formal goal—of the movie is to sort of reveal these layers while speaking more truthfully about what it’s actually like to be a woman going through these things. And I really want it to do both. I want it to be interesting on a formal level by incorporating these melodramatic elements and observing this performance, and also just as gripping as it was to experience it with her.
Rail: Can you talk about these melodramatic tools you use in the film, and what purpose they serve?
Greene: A lot of that stuff is instinct. We use big melodramatic music and slow-motion. The slow-motion sequences sometimes are stagey-looking, but sometimes they’re completely accidental, they’re actual observational things that we just filmed in slow motion but that become stagey-looking when you play them with theatrical music. All the time you’re watching the movie the goal is to question the levels of reality that you’re seeing. And Brandy is a melodramatic person—I think a lot of actors are, and I mean that as a compliment. She’s just a powerful force of a human being, and then she started going through this sort of cataclysm in her life and there was no real line anymore between what was reality and what was melodrama, it was just all very dramatic. So our goal was to use some of these techniques that we discovered along the way to heighten that and to really talk about how, especially if you’re an actor, you start to see life as a movie playing out in front of you. And so your decisions become movie-like decisions, and then you add a camera to that, and it’s like you are literally in a movie and your life is a movie. You can just really see her mind working on how to handle this reality and how to create an experience for herself and how to create, how to tell the story in the most cinematic way.
Rail: Besides audiences in the film industry that know about these constructions, how are festival audiences reacting? Are they familiar with them by now?
Greene: The goal in movies really, if you can say something so bluntly, is to take these formal things and use them in an artful way, so that film audiences, just regular film audiences that just like good movies, don’t have to think about subjectivity, objectivity, or anything, they just get taken on an experience that they don’t usually expect from a documentary. Not that they think like, “Oh that’s so good, it’s almost like a fiction film.” I don’t want that. I want it to be vividly documentary, vividly nonfiction, but at the same time I want it to be an artful narrative cinematic experience. People have responded very positively, and they seem to understand the emotional resonances partly because some of the stuff we captured, in a straight documentary way, is stuff that you just don’t usually get to see, but also because we push past what you would expect from a reality T.V. show into something more genuine.
Rail: Did you any have concerns about filming your friend, especially at that particular time in her relationship?
Greene: Yeah, and I still have concerns about it. I never had Brandy or Tim, her partner, sign release forms until they saw the movie. I think because of the nature of this project it was very collaborative. With Brandy she really looked to the film in some ways to help her get through everything. So, because of that, once we got to a certain point, there was no turning back. And Tim was very supportive of her, which is odd, considering what happens in the movie. Brandy has been nervous about how she is perceived, but ultimately she’s one of the bravest people I’ve ever met. She’s comfortable with who she is. It’s a cliché but the whole movie is really about her pursuing truth, really.
Rail: Beyond what the title suggests, can you talk about the various layers of performance that happen in many ways through the film?
Greene: You know the first layer of performance is when a camera is present; there is always a performance and when an actor is involved, it becomes very conscious. Brandy is always dealing with who she is, the level of authenticity she is trying to find. As she said very eloquently herself, she is not “acting,” she is an actor. She is not “performing,” she is a performer. It wouldn’t matter if the camera was there or not, but in this case the camera is there so she is performing on another level. I think this happens in every documentary. I think in documentaries with scientists talking about things, they sometimes write their answers out beforehand because they have trained themselves to talk about their work in such a way to the public, and that is very much a performance. Or, you know, a cop wearing a police uniform is a performance in the way you have to stand, and you can observe all these things through a camera.
Rail: She also talks about the social roles we’re all expected to play, like that of parent, breadwinner, partner. Is that speaking to your audience, are all of us acting out those social roles?
Greene: One of the defining characteristics of society is that we are forced into roles. What we really need to do is investigate those roles and figure out how they function, why, what do they mean, how do they actually help sustain a cohesive society, and how do they lead toward alienation and a sort of stereotyping or being trapped. Because you can be trapped in your role. There is a lot to say about playing your role in society. I think documentaries are uniquely capable of watching those things transpire. It is a universal thing and it is not just about her being a woman, which to me is the most important thing, but it is apparent to me that she is also saying things that a lot of parents, in playing the parent role, are not ever supposed say. Things like, “I am so happy I am not with my kids today.” That is how everyone feels, like I really miss you guys, but I wish you would fall asleep right now because I am tired of you, that kind of thing, but we are afraid of looking like bad parents, playing that role improperly, we are afraid of saying what we feel. I feel like that is another thing she is doing, puncturing through that. In a way it becomes another layer of the role because she is like, “I am not just a mom, I am a sexy woman.” So you think, is she saying that just because she is a sexy woman? Or to be seen as a sexy woman? So she has gone to another role to be seen in a certain way. It’s the layering of roles and the way we can observe with a documentary camera that is unique and powerful.
Rail: Beyond her naturally dramatic personality, it really seems like she is striving to be authentic.
Greene: Yeah, I think that is her whole goal. We were talking about performance throughout the whole thing, so I think that made her really strive for a deeper level of authenticity. I think it helped push her to braver, extreme versions of herself. Not that I did that, but the filming process. She never wanted to look like a phony. You really see it in every twitch and change of emotion. She just wanted to get to the heart of it and I think that is what makes her so compelling.
Rail: You also give us access to a unique behind-the-scenes of what it’s like to be an actress, far away from the glamour we tend to associate with it, and a reality that’s much more about rejection, looks, and age.
Greene: One of the founding stories was that whole thing about Brandy being rejected because of her age and that a younger woman got the role. She took herself out of the game to raise a family, which was always a goal of hers and she loves her children very much, but then she tried to step back in and she was slapped down basically because she had aged. She was really discouraged by this and it took a lot of courage to say, “Okay, I am going to try again.” We never thought of uncovering the unglamorous side of acting, but at the same time, rejection is sort of desperation and pain, and the whole film really is about how you need someone else to display yourself as an actor—and she found me. You need to put yourself on display and that reignites her own art in some ways, but she is being herself at the same time. Those lines are very blurry in the movie.
Rail: So, can women have it all?
Greene: In some ways what we’re battling against is this idea that we are supposed to have it all. We’re trained to think it is okay to want everything. But our biological clocks are telling us, we have to give up something. Often, you have to give up these other things to have a family. Those things are very painful for men to give up, but for women it’s almost like you have to give up your entire identity outside of being a mother. But it’s not about giving up things, because giving up things is the beautiful aspect of having a family—you give up a lot. It’s more about when you are ready to do other things, how the hell do you balance that? How do you be yourself in such a way that you are being a nurturing human being, a mother or father, and be selfish enough to be ambitious? I think it is harder for women to deal with. What Brandy says in the movie is that we are trained to be selfless, but an actor has to be selfish. Those two things clash. The only way out is to be honest with yourself and with your children and with whomever you are around.
Actress was the closing night film at Film Society of Lincoln Center’s The Art of the Real festival on April 26th. It will be released in New York later this year.