Robert Greene and Brandy Burre Talk Subjectivity and Performance in ‘Actress’
Actress is a documentary following Brandy Burre, who had a role on HBO’s The Wire before she quit acting to start a family. Director Robert Greene follows Burre as she tries to restart her career, facing hardships and obstacles from the industry as well as her personal life.
Greene uses Burre, a captivating and sympathetic subject, to make Actress a documentary more about provoking questions than providing answers. Is Burre performing for the camera? How much of what we’re seeing is real or fiction? These are some of the basic, larger questions Actress brings up, but Greene also delves into the idea of performance along with the roles we play in our everyday lives. Through all of this, Greene makes sure to never lose focus on Burre or her story. Some of her actions might not make her likable, but it’s hard not to feel for her as she tries to simply do what she loves.
Earlier this year we sat down with director Robert Greene and Brandy Burre after seeing the film at the Hot Docs Festival. Since then, Actress has gone on to get US distribution from Cinema Guild, who are releasing the movie on November 7, 2014, in New York City for a week-long run. Read on for the full interview with Greene and Burre, where they discuss the process of creating Actress along with some of the film’s major themes.
Robert, you have this hook in your documentary of filming an actress and getting into the idea of performance. Did you have any concerns going in about whether or not what you ended up with would resemble what made you want to do this documentary in the first place?
Robert Greene (RG): Of course I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. I think the way it registers now is more of a psychological performance than a theatrical thing, but even if Brandy played to the camera way more than she actually does that would have been really interesting. What actually happened, what makes the movie the universal story that gets told, we obviously couldn’t have predicted that, but I knew that we would come up with something interesting with the idea. I didn’t know how long it would take. It could have been a process that kept going, but I knew that our collaboration would have gotten something. That’s all you really need to start a documentary. It’s not like “I need this to get this place or else it’s not a movie.” It’s more like “Let me put us in a situation where we’ll create scenes and capture images that will register.” I don’t have any big overarching ideas on how it’s supposed to be. I just want it to be interesting.
In the film we see Brandy trying to get back into acting and coming upon different limitations. When Robert came to you and offered you to be the subject of your own film, did you ever think of participating in this as getting a role?
Brandy Burre (BB): He approached me saying he had this idea that’s not fully realized yet. One time he wanted to have three actors. He said “If you ever get back into acting maybe I can follow you.” I wasn’t really intending on doing that. I thought I would fail him.
RG: You thought I was going to be let down by the actual process.
BB: Because it’s not as exciting as one thinks, and I didn’t want to promote the acting industry because I’m not that kind of actor. I didn’t know what he wanted, so at first I said there’s nothing interesting there. But when he said “Who cares what it is?” I thought about showing a different side of it [where] I had some say. I figured I’d show it to him, and if it’s not interesting then he can decide if he wants to make it a movie. That’s when I said yes.
For me it was about the process. I never, ever thought we’d be sitting here. He knew we’d have a movie some day because he’s been through the process. It felt like him making home videos of me. I never saw the footage. He would go home and do whatever he does. When he left, it was over to me. I really never pictured it as a role. I think it transformed into one, because when the camera came on the spotlight came on every time, and as an actor I became aware of that. I became aware that I had something to say.
RG: At some point when we started figuring out what the movie actually was, I think we did start talking about it. I started talking about some of the more dangerous ideas that I hope are in the movie, like about exploitation and self-exploitation. I said at some point that I want people to think Brandy did this whole thing because she wanted to get into acting. Imagine how challenging and weird that would be. Not as the final thing they think, but throughout the process and what we capture, put [the viewer] in a position where they’re like “Maybe she’s doing this whole thing so she can go back into acting.” And then you’re like, “That’s not it.”
BB: Because why would you do it? [Laughs] If I was that smart I certainly would have put on make-up, I wouldn’t have had a cold sore, I would have chosen better outfits. To me it was like being really raw, and we never talked about that. He’d call and ask to come over and film, and I’d say okay. I had this real fight with myself because I really do try to be authentic as a human being. I actually think actors are trying to find empathy with other human beings. They try to strip away personas in order to put on others’ personas. I feel like I certainly act less than most normal people that get up and go play a role at their job every day.
I watched the film with someone who actually turned to me at one point and said “You think she’s doing this to raise her profile?”
RG: But why? I think Brandy’s theatrical, so you’re watching it and you think this seems like it’s all kind of unreal, but it’s totally real. For me, I think the content of documentaries, the actual thing that documentaries are by their nature, is the making of them as well. What I wanted to do is put all the things you might be thinking and make them part of your actual experience watching the movie. That’s what great fiction films do. They take the experience of watching a film and make it part of the movie experience. When you’re watching a fiction movie you’re always thinking that [it’s] being fabricated in a certain way to give a certain effect. The trickiness is what makes the movie work. For nonfiction, what makes the movie work is that the camera is in someone’s home. This is someone’s real life, [so] you start playing with that.
But I think it’s a bit of a cop out to say that I want you to be thinking about all of this. I do really think that the movie puts you in a head space to think “What is the motivation behind this scene? Who agreed to what?” I don’t think the movie comes down on the side of “She was doing this to get back into acting,” but that’s what people are going to think, so let’s make it part of the experience. That makes it more interesting, because what the movie is ultimately about is how you have to try and be yourself. That’s the only way to be happy, period.
There’s obviously some experimentation going on in the film. Do you tend to have these ideas come to you while shooting?
RG: All the time. The slow motion ended up working because of what we made out of it. We had this thing where I filmed for an hour and a half to get her kids ready for school, and we had this idea where she was going to say “Now I’m playing the role of sexually frustrated housewife.” She would stop and say this to the camera, but not really to the camera. We shot that twice, but it never worked.
BB: He said he had to somehow get me watching The Wire on film because that’d be interesting, but I said I would never watch myself. But then in the end when my agent said I had to get a reel, I was like “Oh shit, I have to watch scenes.” He wanted [these ideas] in, and whenever it was contrived it didn’t work.
RG: The contrivance came through other means. We were exploring. There are scenes like her walking around the house in slow motion in her underwear that we never used. I think I said to you, “I want you to look like you know you’re being exploited by me.”
BB: I play sexual characters on-screen, and that’s okay. But for me to walk around my house in my own underwear would be weird. It’s okay to be exploited by a machine, by an industry, but in the documentary it’s almost like taking it back for myself. It’s empowering.
RG: Ultimately those ideas kind of got us to where we really wanted to go.
Watching the film made me think about how, when we think of performance, we think of it as a deception. We’re watching a lie. What your film shows, especially with scenes like Brandy entertaining guests at the house, is how that distinction between performance and reality is more blurry than we think it is.
RG: It’s social performance. It’s character creation. We all do that, it’s just that when you see an actor do that you’re aware of it. You’re not making conscious decisions in the same way that she is. We’re all performing these social identities, and the camera is really good at intercepting and perceiving them.
BB: As an actor I’m so amazed at how comfortable people are when they go to pick up their kids. That, for me, is a difficult thing because I’m like “Okay, I got to go play the role of stay at home mom.” Other people seem to be able to put on those roles much easier because they don’t think about that. As an actor, I do think about these things. I know how I’m being perceived because I’ve played roles, and I know it’s a fabrication.
RG: But also not.
BB: I find that interesting because, when I’m being social, that’s when I’m almost putting on a role. As a social creature, if someone comes to your house you’re going to be different than if you were alone.
RG: And then you introduce a camera in it, so there’s another layer. It’s not a negative, it’s not a deception. It’s more of a subjective reality. I think the movie can be looked at as a series of subjectivities stacked on top of each other.
The way Brandy’s husband Tim is portrayed, he’s kind of at the margins of the film. It takes a while before we even see Brandy and Tim having a conversation with each other. When you started filming did you involve Tim more? What was his role like during filming?
RG: I think the character that he is in the movie is a good approximation of who he is as a person. He’s a guy that doesn’t talk too much. We see a more dramatic version of Brandy because she goes through so much, and we see the camera present. We see a more raw, more dramatic, more melodramatic, more over the top, more stripped down Brandy, all of it. All the elements of my friend Brandy are magnified in the movie, and I would say the same thing for Tim. His aloofness, his distance and his coolness is magnified as well. He watched a cut of the movie, and we added a scene of him working at his job after, so he participated in that. He doesn’t really want to talk about the movie that much, but he doesn’t really want to talk about anything that much.
BB: When we started the project, Tim actually told me to do it. He said “Why not? We’re not doing anything else.” But it was always my project, and he would never feel comfortable on camera. So even before it all started going downhill, Tim would just stay out of our way. That’s the kind of person he is. He does his work, and I do my work. We were never much of a collaboration in that sense.
RG: I’m happy that the Tim questions are there because I think what we got a heightened version of who he is. Sometimes it looks like he’s mad at Brandy, but he’s really mad at me for being there. But it works because of the framework of the film.