“I moved to Beacon. I’m not acting. So this is my creative outlet,” says actress Brandy Burre, sitting in her kids’ room in Robert Greene’s documentary portrait of her life. And then, she says the same lines again, differently. “I moved to Beacon. I’m not acting. So this is my creative outlet.” It’s a simple, seemingly tossed-off moment of cinematic self-awareness: Oh, right, ha-ha, take two, I get it, creative outlet and all that, you think. But then you start to realize that the entire film is dancing on this knife’s edge of real and make-believe. And then you realize that you are, too. Let Actress in, and it will fuck your mind forever.
Before I go any further, I must add some important disclosure: I’ve admired Greene’s documentaries for some years, but over the past year or so, I’ve gotten to know him a little as well, and can now reasonably call him a friend. I’m not going to let that stop me from writing about what is one of the greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen.
Burre was a recurring performer on the HBO series The Wire, doing two seasons as political consultant Theresa D’Agostino, old flame and campaign manager for councilman (later mayor) Tommy Carcetti. She played one of those characters whom you certainly knew, but who was not major enough to enter the pop-cultural lexicon that particular series seemed to generate around itself. The role had been Burre’s first real big break. Then, she got pregnant and decided to start a family, moving to Beacon, New York, to live with her partner Tim, who owns and operates a bar there. She stepped away from acting — or rather, drifted away from the hustle of constantly chasing new gigs, opting instead to focus on raising her kids. To say she “took time off” makes it sound like a luxury. When you’re a parent, you chase other things.
Greene’s portrait of Burre as she attempts to kick-start her acting career again while navigating the life and duties of a stay-at-home-mom is fast, alive, ever-changing. The film, like a performer itself, takes on identities without ever quite shedding them. It mixes vérité immediacy with direct-address interviews, then throws in more stylized passages where the camera wanders, slow-motion, through the spaces of Burre’s life, scored to beautiful pieces of music. The camera even gets into the shower with her at one point. The film constantly pokes and prods our responses to what we think of as “authenticity.” There’s narration, which feels very consciously composed. This contrasts with scenes where something or someone is caught on the fly, just hovering at the edge of the frame like a mistake. But then you wonder if that person is there on the edges on purpose. Meanwhile, Greene’s pixelated, un-sleek images have a surprising glow to them; he captures both the warmth and the fragility of that thing we call home, as if it could all be wiped away in a heartbeat.
Actress suggests that Burre never stopped being an actress, because what is life and work but assuming different identities, moving between different worlds and rituals? A performer is different, to be sure — someone uniquely conscious of the various roles they must inhabit, and trained to do so — but in degree, not in kind. That becomes even clearer as we start to see the strains in her and Tim’s relationship, and — spoiler alert — as they separate. A Christmas gathering at their home with friends becomes a case study in putting on faces to meet the faces that you meet.
But really, how different is that from the more mundane role-play everyone engages in? At one point, Burre stands in her children’s room, organizing the fake money in their fake cash register, moving the fake shopping cart. Elsewhere, she talks of deciding to play house with Tim. What is an actor or actress but a more extreme version of ourselves, crystalizing the make-believe at the heart of how we all confront the real world? That question, of course, is not just at the heart of this movie; it’s at the heart of every movie. It’s the very mystery of cinema itself, and few films embody it better than Actress.