The Opposite of Performance: Betsey Brown on "Actors"
At this point, Betsey Brown is probably known best for her breakthrough lead role in Dasha Nekrasova’s The Scary of Sixty-First, a wild, manic performance that feels just as possessed as the character she is playing. Brown is also known for collaborating with her brother, Peter Vack, who has acted alongside her from a young age as well as directed her in his own directorial debut, Assholes. Now, Brown is making the rounds with her own first feature, the aptly titled Actors that casts her and Vack as themselves engaged in what she calls “a race to depravity”. It’s fiction, of course, but that’s too easy an out for a movie that sets out to interrogate the motivations of its competing creators.
The race begins when Peter decides to rebrand himself as a trans artist named “Petra Vack” as a way to avoid fading into obscurity amidst a cultural climate that no longer prizes the contributions of straight cis white men such as himself. Betsey is outraged but soon engages in her own questionable act of performance art when she succumbs to her partner’s wish to have a baby together only once she agrees to document the experience as part of her next project.
A film about the sort of troubling instincts that according to some it is also guilty of having, Actors neither synchronizes with the actions it portrays nor weasels its way out of responsibility towards them either. In fact, it’s a film poignantly rooted in shame and insecurity—a sort of existential exorcism where its staged provocations become pointedly antagonistic to its own human concerns and fears.
I spoke with Betsey ahead of the film’s August 25th Canadian Premiere at Paradise Theatre in Toronto.
Adam Cook: Your family plays a big role in your and your brother’s work. Can you talk about your parents and your family’s relationship to creativity?
Betsey Brown: My family is a big part of why I do anything and definitely why I do this kind of work. My mom is a psychoanalyst who had the calling to be one when she was in the second grade, which is a similar sort of conviction to what I think actors and artists have. There are a lot of psychoanalytic through-lines in both Peter’s and my work.
My dad is a business owner but came to New York to be an actor. For a lot of his young life he was auditioning for musicals. He played the understudy for Prince Charming in Snow White at Radio City Music Hall. Then because he is such a business man he had this side job where he opened up an ice cream parlour and that ended up becoming his real job. When I was in middle school, he returned to making films so my growing up was basically seeing my father struggling to make films. He made two features and a short through selling his business. I saw him living the artist’s struggle firsthand and then go back to business when the money had run out.
Those experiences shaped us so much, first with work ethic, I was raised to love what you do and to make sure you are fully committed to what you do, and with the psychoanalytic background our religion was uncovering layers of ourselves with each other.
Cook: What is the role of performance in your life? How has it changed in the age of social media?
Brown: It’s hard for me to have this label as performer because it comes with shame that I’m not a consistently working actor—which I would love to be—and then it comes with this other thing where I don’t really believe in performing. My interest in performance is getting to a truth and often I feel what I have learned in order to get to a deep truth is that people put on masks. There’s a performative aspect. My relationship to the word performance is charged because I want to get at something that’s the opposite of performance by way of performing.
I feel very strange about social media. In making this movie I realized I do have to perform myself online for anyone to care. When I meet anyone in real life and they ask to follow me I’m worried it’s going to be so annoying for them because I am going to show you this other side of me that’s trying to be shameless, a shameless performer and a shameless advocator of myself because that’s what people are required to do now in this age. I’m trying to figure out how to do that in the most me way I can but I definitely haven’t figured it out.
Cook: Actors feels like part of that figuring-it-out process.
Brown: Definitely, working on the movie and putting it out is part of that process and also that relates to this idea of this tension I have with the word “performer”. I have really had to confront and admit that I am a desperate actor. [laughs] I want nothing more than to be an actor. That’s what every actor who isn’t acting consistently is trying to hide. There’s this cringe-y thing about actors because unless they’re a household name, you know they’re not where they want to be at and you feel sorry for them.
Peter and I used to talk about how when we’d mention to people we’re actors, they would look at us like we just told them we have cancer. It’s kind of embarrassing but I feel like the movie has made me realize that hiding from what I really want will only result in me becoming like the Betsey in the movie which is exactly what I don’t want.
Cook: In Actors, both yours and Peter’s arcs are different versions of that sort of desperation for success and relevancy. Can you talk about putting those parallel narratives in the film?
Brown: The idea came to me because I noticed that I wasn’t feeling jealous of Peter even though we’re both actors and filmmakers and he’s been more successful than me. I certainly do have the capacity for that jealousy. Originally, there was going to be a scene of me walking down the street as credits rolled on screen of real women that I’m jealous of, actors and filmmakers. In asking myself why wasn’t I jealous of Peter, the thing that came to me is that I feel a lack of competition because he’s a man. We’re not auditioning for the same roles and we have very different perspectives. That’s where it started. Something I fear in Peter is his willingness to push the envelope to a dangerous, even irresponsible level. That’s what I was playing with in coming up with his character in Actors’ abhorrent plan to co-opt an identity that he knows nothing about.
By starting with that notion of jealousy, I got to this place of asking what is it in him that is willing to just go places that most people aren’t willing to go and what is my response to it? The response is a simultaneous disgust, fear and a moral high ground, but also an admiration for the sort of conviction that gets you places and that makes new and exciting art.
So, the Betsey character getting pregnant solely for art is a reaction and sisterly attempt to one up her brother in moral depravity. The movie is a race to depravity that Peter starts.
I will never not be Peter’s little sister who looks up to him. That is deeply within me. His bad behaviour also affects me and also makes me be bad. I think it’s really important for me to note that what the Betsey character does winds up being more harmful than what Peter does—he’s mostly hurting and even erasing himself—the Betsey character has damaged her partner and another living person who had no choice in being created. I was getting at this fear that my impulses are purer than Peter’s but I am that influenced by him that I can maybe do even worse.
Deciding to have these arcs in tandem, I was inspired by Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts which puts her journey with pregnancy alongside her partner’s transition. I found this to be a really interesting parallel and that has gotten me into some muddy waters because some have read Actors to legitimize the biology of gender. However, It would be different if I were comparing this awful person to a saint mother but I believe Betsey is just as much as a fraud as a mother as Peter is as a trans person.
Cook: The film is especially vulnerable to an increasingly common tendency to conflate the actions and beliefs of characters with those of the filmmakers. There can be a lack of nuance in how people approach movies.
Brown: I agree and just because you’re showing something doesn’t mean you’re supporting it. However, I want to own up to how Actors leans into that lack of nuance by using real names, real relationships, and intentionally confuse the audience about what is real and what is not. I love to be confused when I’m an audience member. I’m excited when I can’t tell the difference between what is real and what isn’t. That’s why Q&As for this film are so important. You see a different version of me, the truer version of me, and so the identity of the film is becoming confusing too. Is it a movie or is it a performance art piece that includes the Q&As after?
Cook: That methodology can be productive because if you believe with complete certainty either that the filmmaker is completely aligned or completely opposed to what you are seeing, it’s a zone of reassurance whereas lacking that certainty forces you to work through that murkiness on your own. If I don’t trust the work than what do I have to do to make sense of it for myself?
Brown: Definitely and I wanted to strip away the comfort that any distance might have given us. Even though I’m dealing with things that I hope don’t come true with me or Peter, I’m dealing with a grey zone where it’s only a notch or two away from it being possible.
Cook: Many films opt for that kind of distance and as a result end up being condescending towards the subject matter and to the viewer.
Brown: That’s so important to me. There’s definitely a world where I could have made Peter’s character way more of a two-dimensional villain. He has some qualities to him. He’s a powerful performer. It makes it harder to just hate him. There’s also the desperation…There’s a scene where I’m surprised by the response every time where Peter is trying to get me to get pregnant for the second time and he says, “let me talk bitch, let me talk bitch,” and he’s really intense and says, “if I let go of my creative spark I’m dead”. When we were editing I thought that was a really serious scene and I was upset by it every time. Now when it screens people laugh and it's the opposite of how I see it. I’ve been wondering what it is that makes people laugh and I think it's how real it is, how much they can connect to this desperation. It’s almost so uncomfortable that it is funny.
Cook: I think having it being versions of yourselves, these sort of funhouse mirror portrayals of each other, gives it a resonance. For instance, early on where Peter is talking about Assholes with you, and then you start annoying him with the camera, you feel that authentic sibling dynamic. And later when you both are in front of a mirror together and you start crying, it carries weight. There’s an anchor point of emotional authenticity that complicates things.
Brown: I believe that later mirror scene is the heart of the film because it becomes so clear that that while these characters are so deeply obsessed with themselves, the thing that is grounding and transcends that is the relationship. It’s the thing that potentially allows the audience to relate. My mantra when making the film was that this is coming from a place of deep love and I think that that love lives in my family, it’s in the familial bond that makes us continue to work together. It’s the light that shines through the darkness of what we are wading in.
Cook: It’s interesting how the film grew out so much out of this intimate scale of self-interrogation and these personal questions when it ends up really reflecting our culture more broadly. I see Peter’s actions as a hyperbolic version of what many people do in less overt ways in order to stand out in this landscape.
Brown: It started with those intimate impulses and where that brought me was thinking about how this does connect into what is happening right now with this general fetishization of otherness and the way identity politics have been taken to an extreme. When I was writing the movie I had so many conversations with straight white cis male friends where it would come up that they do not feel like they can make art in this climate. I even had a musician friend say he couldn’t be the lead singer of his band anymore. I felt that was basically…funny.
It’s a really interesting thing this certain group is dealing with because of their access to power and it does reveal this fragility that people in power have. It reminds me of billionaires who talk about why they have to penny pinch for some reason.
Cook: One thing I appreciate in the film is how you integrate elements of the indie film apparatus—you cut to Vimeo, to IMDb, to an Indiewire article—which I feel like is such a big facet of the aesthetic of art creation and engagement today. But there’s also something inherently funny about including an Indiewire article. [laughs]
Brown: The scene that includes that is when Peter is talking about this exact thing of feeling like he doesn’t have a voice anymore and can’t make art in the framework of straight white maleness. I found that the easiest way to satirize that was to use the most obvious shit that pointed to him being ridiculous. I have this interesting relationship with being on the nose. I feel like a lot of artists are afraid of being too on the nose and I think what we’re pointing to is where I allowed myself to be as on the nose as I could. I’m going to show his extensive IMDb page and the attention that he is getting to show how ridiculous this point of view is. Again it is taking a little from this mischievously symbolic Peter approach where he says “I don’t do things right, I do them wrong”. So that was my way of not doing things right is in adding in these unaddable things to the movie.
Cook: That reminds me of what I thought was a key line of yours where you say, “I just want to put things out there, I don’t want to give a fuck”.
Brown: That is the exact line that has been going through my head since putting it out. I have been comfortable in what I call the abyss where I have just been making things and holding onto them but this process of putting Actors out there, it’s all in this practice of not giving a fuck in spite of my insecurities.
Cook: You have been working on Peter’s new film, www.RachelOrmont.com. How has that experience been?
Brown: It was the most incredible acting experience of my life. It really confirmed that this collaboration with Peter is what I’m meant to be doing on a profoundly deep level. I feel Peter and I were leaning into an immense amount gratitude we have for having been put on this earth together so we can make this kind of work and it just made me even more sure I want to be an actor. It confirmed everything about my need to tell stories—specifically through acting. I really want to be able to do that more. And I know I’m doing it all wrong by telling everyone!
I’m supposed to act way cooler as an actor but I just can’t. I am dying to do it. I need to.