In 2017, actress Betsey Brown was in Austin, Texas for the world premiere of Assholes, directed by her brother, Peter Vack. It was Brown’s first big role, and the buzzy film picked up SXSW’s first-ever Adam Yauch Hornblower Award. In the frenzy, Brown experienced an emotion that she’d never felt before in relation to her actor-director brother: jealousy.
Brown channeled that unique sensation into Actors, her own feature directorial debut, which held its Los Angeles premiere Monday. Red Rocket director Sean Baker was on hand at the sold-out screening to conduct a Q&A with Brown and Vack, in which Brown recounted how she felt back at SXSW five years prior.
“I was thrilled because I thought it was going to launch my career,” Brown said. “And it didn’t. In fact, no one paid any attention to me at South By — no one paid me any mind. People paid Peter mind.”
She reasoned that gender must be the reason her brother was being showered with attention while she felt left out. “I thought, What would happen if Peter was Petra? and then that led me to do an exercise on: What would my worst nightmare be?” she said.
She quickly wrote a screenplay based on that thought exercise, and Actors was shot the following year.
In the film — as in Vack’s Assholes — Brown and Vack play siblings and the pair’s actual parents play their parents. But unlike in Assholes, Brown, Vack and their parents all play themselves — albeit highly exaggerated, fictionalized versions.
Mirroring Brown’s own SXSW experience, in Actors, Vack feels disappointed that winning an award didn’t jumpstart his career. He needs a leg up in the acting world, so he makes the questionable decision to publicly role play as a woman, in order to help him secure roles he feels he could not get as a white cisgender male.
As Brown explained in a 2018 Kickstarter write-up: “This is NOT a film about the trans experience. This is about white cis male fragility, and the lengths some will go to keep their seat at the table.”
Brown added at the Q&A that the filmmakers conducted a focus group with transgender people to aid the screenwriting process, and consulted with an adviser, Benjamin Mintzer.
Still, this is the filmmaking family responsible for Assholes, a film which IndieWire’s David Ehrlich infamously declared “one of the most disgusting movies ever made.”
Brown first caught Baker’s attention with her role in Dasha Nekrasova’s The Scary of Sixty-First, in which she plays a roommate possessed by the underage spirit of a Jeffrey Epstein victim. So it’s no surprise that Actors chooses provocation alongside satire. But at its core, Actors is a sensitive portrait of sibling rivalry and the vulnerability of being an actor in the 21st century. The endless rejections, the unlisted YouTube reel of past tryouts for parts that went to people you know or know of, the hilarity of having your parents hold your iPhone while you act out a lewd scene for a bit part — these small details flesh out Actors with an undeniable authenticity.
Brown said she has no desire at the moment to stop exploring what Vack coined “the Brown family cinematic universe.” Personal stories in which fact is often inseparable from fiction appeal too strongly to her.
“Currently, I’m not so interested in making a normal movie, but I might,” she said.
The Ion Pack is distributing Actors, and also producing Vack’s next feature, which is slated to shoot in July. This new project is actually discussed early on in Actors. In fact, it is Vack pondering the possibility of playing his own female lead, which leads him to ultimately don the disingenuous Petra persona. However, life isn’t imitating art this time: Brown will in fact play the lead in her brother’s new feature.
Brown was feeling down about acting when she first began work on Actors. Now, after a string of sold-out shows in New York and Los Angeles and the lead in her brother’s new feature, she’s thrilled that she can hardly recognize the Betsey Brown in Actors.
“I feel more proud to be an actor than ever. It’s so fun to watch the movie now and feel like I relate less and less to that character.”
Main image: Peter Vack and Betsey Brown in Actors, written and directed by Betsey Brown.