“Make Me Famous:” The Vision of ACTORS Auteur Betsey Brown

Acclaimed actress Brown’s directorial feature debut is a breakout cult hit

Last fall, I saw a small indie film that floored me with its gonzo humor, incisive satire of “terminally online” culture, and truly unique perspective on sibling rivalry.

That film was Actors, the directorial feature debut of acclaimed New York indie actress Betsey Brown, best known for her work in daring underground films such as The Scary of Sixty-First, All Jacked Up and Full of Worms, and Assholes, the latter of which was directed by Brown’s brother, Peter Vack. As an actor, director, soon-to-be-published novelist, and Instagram meme king, Vack is the hip renaissance man of NYC’s Dimes Square scene. Actors stars Brown, Vack, and their parents as fictional versions of themselves. Desperate for clout and celebrity, Peter cynically reinvents himself as blonde starlet Petra Vack.

As an avid enjoyer of “shitpost”-style humor, I was an easy mark for Actors‘ sheer audacity. Months ago, I slid into Brown’s DMs with a nerdy fan message. To my surprise, Brown not only responded but became a genuine friend. Earlier this month, Actors was screened one final time at Cinema Village to mark the film’s online launch. I had the immense pleasure of making the pilgrimage to New York for the screening, where I finally met Brown, Vack, and their parents in person; alas, I fell violently ill halfway through the screening and had to be transported to the emergency room. I felt far livelier during my subsequent interview with Brown–where we discussed the journey of Actors and her new short film Bits, which premiered at SXSW 2024.

This interview has been edited and condensed for time and clarity.

Emma James: So, between the recent SXSW premiere of your new short Bits, directed by Lillya Scarlett Reid, and the digital release of Actors, it seems you’re having quite a moment.

Betsey Brown: Yes. (laughs)

EJ: Assholes received the Adam Yauch Hornblower Award at SXSW in 2017. Being that Cinapse is an Austin-based publication, what can you tell us about your experiences at the festival over the years?

BB: I’m feeling very emotional because I just got back from South By Southwest, I probably haven’t had that much sleep, and I just feel this moment has been very intense. So, sorry, I’m just gonna probably cry a little bit.

EJ: Oh no, you’re good!

BB: SXSW is an extremely important festival to me. This was my fifth time at the festival, but only my second time being connected to any film. The first time was with Assholes, and then this one, Bits. But I went as Peter Vack’s little sister three times before that, and I sort of just went to all the screenings and the parties with him, and met people as just Peter’s little sister. No one really knew that I was an actress or a filmmaker, and to see the evolution of my place there has been really touching. This time around, I felt really seen and respected for my abilities, whereas at the first couple, I never even imagined that I would be able to be there without my brother bringing me around. The festival has changed, but it is definitely an amazing jumping-off point for independent filmmakers. It’s kind of a beautiful place where people get to meet as many people as possible, and everyone’s very open and welcoming. And Austin’s very cool.

I actually came up with the idea for Actors at South by Southwest the year that Assholes played, because I was feeling a particularly strong amount of sibling rivalry. No one really gave me any props for that role, and all the attention was going to Peter. I was always a very supportive younger sister, I was super in awe of him; but when I thought I had something to offer and people would see it, and it wasn’t being seen, I started to feel competitive. I put those feelings into the script for Actors.

EJ: You definitely deserved a ton of attention for Assholes. I mean, Peter directed it, but you and [co-star] Jack Dunphy had to do so much wild and extreme shit. It’s a great movie. I’m glad it’s found its following over the years. I’ve got the Blu-Ray somewhere around here. I feel like it’s one of the more significant underground films in recent years.

BB: Thank you, I really appreciate that.

EJ: And then every time you guys make a movie, you just kinda keep making the concept bigger. Like, with Actors, and then [Vack’s upcoming sophomore feature] www.rachelormont.com, it keeps expanding.

BB: Yeah, that’s true.

EJ: In Bits, you play a troubled young woman who learns that she went on a date with a serial killer, and her feelings about this are perhaps more complicated than they should be.

BB: (laughs)

EJ: This is just the latest of many bold, provocative projects that you’ve undertaken. What is it that attracts you to such intense artistic visions?

BB: Well, you might not be able to tell right now, because I’m having quite an emotional day, but I’m actually a very grounded person in real life. I’m mostly quite happy, and in real life, I’m very light. But you can’t only have lightness and happiness: you have to balance that out with some darkness, and I have been really lucky to be able to channel most of my darkness into my work. That’s what attracts me to these dark characters; it allows me to feel grounded in my real life. I love to exorcise demons through art and sort of be a transgressive channel in the work, so that I can be my best self in my day-to-day.

So, that’s what attracts me, but then I think it’s also kind of a two-way street. My boyfriend came to SXSW with me, and after Bits ended he was like, “people just like to put you in their darkest thoughts, don’t they?” And so, maybe it’s that balance, because I have this look of a nice, wholesome girl, but then my willingness to go dark places is unlike other people’s willingness.

I actually want to do more. I would love to be in a rom-com or something where I get to play more wholesome, or just less crazy dramatic, crazy intense darkness stuff, but I also do love going [there]. It’s like going to the gym: exorcising the darkness is something that makes me feel better as a person.

EJ: I love the [Buffalo Bills NFL] shirt you’re wearing right now, because it’s giving me a major Vincent Gallo Buffalo 66 vibe.

BB: My boyfriend’s from Buffalo, so yeah.

EJ: I’m just a huge fan of both of [Gallo’s] movies.

BB: Me too. Which one do you like better? Hard to say, they’re both so good.

EJ: They’re both major five-star movies for me, but probably Buffalo 66, because I think the ending is incredibly beautiful. The dynamic between them has totally shifted by the end of the movie, and he gives up this violent pursuit because of love. Just the idea that love can provide redemption for someone is a really powerful notion. I love that movie.

BB: Me too. So much.

EJ: Having hit the festival circuit in 2021 and already developed a cult following, Actors has finally seen home release via the launch of its own digital platform. How do you feel now that your movie is out in the world for all to see?

BB: I feel so moved and touched that people are actually going to the website to watch it, because the movie has always had a very punk, underground energy to it. It went to two festivals, but it wasn’t super accepted into the festival circuit. We found our own way with theaters reaching out to us from across the world. Making my own website for it, where it wouldn’t be offered up through an algorithm, [it] was definitely a risk, but it was a risk that I really wanted to take for this film. Landing on Amazon or something like that felt like it would take away that punk rock energy, and I wanted to keep that through and through. On the other hand, it’s hard to get people to make the actual concerted effort to go to a random website–so the fact that people are doing that is really, really inspiring to me and moving, and I don’t take it for granted.

I also feel like it makes my job still not done, because it is a completely word-of-mouth endeavor. I have to continue to be shameless in my self-promotion with the film. No one’s going to promote it but me and now other fans of the film, like you, so thank you so much.

EJ: Happy to help!

BB: I really appreciate it. I feel like the people who are big fans of the film are also my distributors, in a way. I also couldn’t imagine it in any other way for this film. It feels like the truest way for it to be born into the world.

EJ: I think it was smart to distribute it this way, because you’re ensuring that Actors is not just another piece of streamed content. It’s not getting lost in the shuffle, like so many things streaming nowadays. A Netflix show premieres, and then the next week, it’s cancelled. Now Actors, having a more word-of-mouth, DIY approach, won’t just immediately sink into the void like that.

BB: Yeah, and people see that it’s a new way. I think people have been inspired through this whole run by the newness of our approach and putting it out, and to continue that in its release was super important to me. I feel like people are more okay with spending the five dollars because they know it’s going straight to the filmmakers. They know that the movie needs help. I feel like people think of the movie as like “the little film that could.” It just feels truly independent in a way that I always wanted.

EJ: The way you’ve released it independently reminds me of when Radiohead dropped In Rainbows back in the day. They were the first ones to really do the “pay what you want” model for an album, and that eventually led to the success of Bandcamp. So you might be onto something here.

BB: I’ve already seen that happen with the way we did our theatrical run. A couple of movies that didn’t necessarily get the festival attention [they] might have deserved, like Dogleg [and] Salamander Days, they took control of their own screenings and built an audience that way. I can’t help but think that Actors was a bit of an inspiration for that, so I’m really proud of that aspect. And I think Rachel Ormont will probably have a similar run to Actors, because there is something about our films that is outside the festival acceptance, so we have to just find ways to get people to see our films.

EJ: That’s one of the things that’s so brilliant about what you and Peter, and some of the other Dimes Square filmmakers like Dasha [Nekrasova] and Eugene [Kotlyarenko] do. You’re making real independent films, the kind of thing that would’ve been popular back in the ‘90s when that was just what independent films were. But now it has become so homogenized and so watered-down that it’s mostly A-list actors in middlebrow Oscar-bait movies. When you said “punk” earlier, I think that’s a very accurate summation of what you guys do. It is very DIY, very punk rock, just putting real art out there.

BB: Thank you. Yeah, I agree.

EJ: One element of Actors that hasn’t received enough attention is that, beneath the sharp influencer satire, it shows a great deal of vulnerability on your behalf. There’s such a lack of ego. Both this film and your other directorial project, the 2015 short Shegetsey Betsey, are so raw and emotionally honest about your own anxieties. What stood out to me the most on this latest viewing of [Actors] was the genuine underlying sadness of the Betsey and Petra characters. What makes you able to share yourself so openly with audiences?

BB: Probably my upbringing. My mom is a psychoanalyst, and my family had a sort of “you can say whatever you want” kind of energy in the household. Nothing was really off-limits, and we weren’t afraid to discuss taboos. I was very encouraged to get to know myself on a deep level, and I took that really seriously. I feel filmmaking is one of the best tools of self-analysis, even almost sometimes more than psychoanalysis. You’re really just actually watching yourself up there and seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly. There’s something in my core that has always been interested in the truth, and I’ve taken the truth extremely seriously. I feel like it’s a lot easier for others to tell the truth when I am being truthful, and when I’m being my whole self. 

I think my ability to be vulnerable comes from my parents’ encouragement. My dad’s a big crier; he always cried at The Parent Trap. He’s a very emotional man, so that was just encouraged, and I’m really grateful for that.

EJ: I love how supportive Jane [Brown] and Ron [Farrar Brown] are of you [and Peter]. It was wonderful to meet both of them at the screening.

BB: Yeah, they’re amazing. As I said, my mom’s a psychoanalyst, and she definitely encouraged getting to know ourselves deeply. On the other hand, she also has some issues with the films. She can’t really understand how immodest I am, because she’s actually much more private and modest than I am. I really appreciate that I know that she has issues with our films. That’s another example of how honest we are in our family, where she often says to me, “it’s hard on me that you both are actors and filmmakers and have unstable careers. I wish for more stability. I don’t understand why you guys are doing this insane work. I want you to make a rom-com.” 

She says these things, and yet is also completely – I mean, you saw Rachel, she has an even bigger role in Rachel. She has her own preferences, and yet she also steps up for us. She’s just a really big role model. I think it’s important to be supportive but also not lose yourself, and that’s what she does. She shows me that you can be supportive while also bringing your own feelings towards the work. With Dad, he loves it all.

EJ: Good moms always support us, even if they don’t necessarily get it.

BB: Yes, that’s exactly right!

EJ: Your mom has been so nice to me on Instagram. I love her drawings. I hope she puts out a book.

BB: I love her drawings too. I think she will – my dad will make sure of it. My dad is really supportive of everyone–he’s actually the one posting all of them. He digitized all of her work and [posts] them. She’s commenting and responding to the love, but he’s the one posting. They’re adorable.

EJ: Do you want me to not publish that or –

BB: You can. Neither of them would mind. It’s not a secret. My mom’s really computer-phobic, and she’s not afraid to say it.

EJ: Looking ahead, what other roles do you have on the horizon? Obviously, you play a lead role in Rachel, but …

BB: I’m really excited for that to come out. That should be a super interesting run. I really don’t even know what to expect from that. I’m curious to see what people will think–but then, I’m determined to make another movie soon. I have two scripts, and I need to figure out which one I’m going to make next. Especially since I just released Actors, I’m feeling the freedom and the pull to start the process on the next thing, so that’s really the biggest [thing]. Obviously, I have an agent, so I audition a bunch, and I hope something comes out of that soon. In the meantime, I’m getting ready. I feel that itch again. I didn’t feel like I was really able to start the process – other than writing – on making another movie until I released Actors. Now that that’s a thing, it’s go-time.

EJ: As a fan, that’s really awesome to hear.

BB: I don’t know if you’ll be disappointed, but … I do feel like from Shegetsey Betsey and Actors, I have a very strong voice that isn’t really going to go away. But I want my next film to be very different than Actors. I want to explore something completely different.

EJ: That’s what artists do: they evolve, and you challenge yourself to something else. That’s really exciting.

BB: Yeah, I’m really excited about it. And scared. But I know that when I’m afraid to do something, it means I have to do it.

Actors is now available to rent or own digitally via actors.movieBits is on the film festival circuit. Follow Betsey on Instagram.

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