Director Ondi Timoner describes documenting the comedian’s attempt to foment an improbable revolution.
Where in the world is Russell Brand? The comedian-actor has kept a low profile in the past year, making only flitting appearances on talk shows and on his own web series, The Trews. At some point between 2009 and now, it became more common to see him sparring with political commentators on TV or in the throngs of anti-austerity protest than it was to see him on the red carpet. He speaks grandly of a nascent revolution brewing among the disenfranchised masses to overthrow a system he holds responsible for global economic and social inequality. And while he still takes the stage from time to time to entertain crowds with his signature brand of comedy, his subject matter remains squarely focused on issues of social justice and anti-capitalist rebellion.
A new film called Brand: A Second Coming documents the man’s mission to reinvent himself as a champion of the common man, bucking his reputation as a frivolous actor and womanizing entertainer. Directed by Ondi Timoner, a two-time Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, the film captures his arduous and often painful journey to change public perceptions of himself and get people to take him seriously. He’s penning op-eds for The Guardian and showing up on the Parliament floor to testify about drug addiction. He’s making documentaries for the BBC and debating with Newsnight hosts about the merits of voting. Who is Russell Brand, if not the clownish actor who once starred in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and divorced Katy Perry via text? Timoner depicts him as an emotionally vulnerable figure who is struggling to reconcile the contradictions in his own life and career: a millionaire who espouses socialist ideals; a celebrity who shuns tabloid fame and lambastes the media machine; a self-proclaimed feminist who disposes of women as quickly as he falls in love with them. GOOD spoke with Timoner about her new film and tells us why Brand couldn’t stand to watch it.
Director Ondi Timoner
The documentary didn't start out as a film about Russell Brand. How did it come to be a biography of the entertainer?
He was approached by Oliver Stone to make a film about whatever he wanted because [Brand] had hosted the VMAs and he had made such an impression on Stone. They were just like, ‘What do you want to make a film about? We'll make a film about anything with you.’ He was flattered and I guess he was just starting to become famous, so he decided he wanted to make a film about happiness and the meaning of life. He thought he would be happy if he became famous and that would take away all his troubles, and that wasn't the case. He was feeling disappointed, I think, at that point, and started going around talking to other celebrities about what makes their lives meaningful.
By the time I got to the film, four years later, I wasn't thinking that it could be a film that I could make and do any justice to it. I was going to pass on it, but I went to the meeting and Russell was there. He was incredibly charismatic and impressive in the room. I didn't understand how none of that genius that I experienced that day was inside the footage that I had watched. It felt like a travesty to me, honestly.
He wooed me at a stand-up show. I went in, and he was comparing himself to Malcolm X and Che Guevara, but through their most human, most flawed aspects. He was also looking at how we co-opt anything and everything for our consumer culture. It seemed to me that he was struggling with this kind of fleeting tabloid fame, versus the immortal, everlasting fame that these people had. That was interesting to me, and the fact that he was starting to look at these kinds of icons that have achieved a certain immortality, a kind of lasting fame that's no longer available to us today. I thought, I could actually look at something very powerful by looking at Russell's story here and pulling the veil back on his creative process. What I’ve got to do now is get him to allow me to make the film about him. If he agrees to that, then I'll make the film.
I went back to him. I said, ‘I'll do it, but only if it’s about you, and only if I have creative control.’ And he eventually agreed to both.
How was it interviewing him, knowing he was hypersensitive to his image and to how he’s portrayed in the media?
Every day, almost, I had to remind him that I wasn’t the paparazzi and that he actually invited me to England. I think as somebody who’s been famous for over a decade, he’s quite used to people taking a piece of him. He’s actually an intensely private person and what he keeps private is actually very important to him. That’s where he is now, in terms of him being uncomfortable with the film. He wanted all of it kept private. He didn’t want any vulnerable moments. He didn’t want anybody to see him in a bathroom, scared, or concerned about ‘How am I going to talk about revolution to the American public on a talk show right now?’ But that’s where the audience is going to be able to relate and feel for him and root for him. He doesn’t want that. He wants to be able to come across as impenetrable and infallible, in order to become an icon, to be a hero.
He was fine to strip back all those heroes who were dead, his heroes, but when it came to me doing it with him, it wasn't ok. He couldn’t handle it. He called for lists upon lists of changes, and I made as many as I could for him while maintaining the integrity of the film and having it not be a hagiography.
Having embraced all of these progressive values, and having espoused them so passionately, in the film he still struggles with his own sexism and the way he treats women. How do you think he’s negotiated that part of himself with the revolutionary ethos of his work?
I think he struggles with it. He definitely had a sex addiction of some kind. He even checked into a sex addiction clinic at one point. Sleeping with women ... was his way of escaping, for a while, his problems, and maybe the constant running of his head. As a result, he got to be known as more of a lothario.
But his mother is, by far, the most important person in his life. She’s this wonderful, gentle, strong woman who has survived cancer multiple times. He has so much respect for her and so much love for her. And I know he had so much respect for Jemima [Khan], when they were together. I think that he loved that he was with a woman who could challenge him intellectually.
But I felt like, with me, he almost had to desexualize me in order to work with me. He even called me a lesbian once.
I think he wants to respect women. In the span that I was working with him, he fell in love a few times. I think he wants love more than anything. He just goes through them fast. I don’t think he thinks he’s using people when he dates them for three days.
There’s a moment in the film where he addresses you directly, and answers a question you pose to him about whether he thinks he’s better than most people. It reveals some of the tension that existed between you and Brand. Why did you decide to leave it in?
I wanted you to see what it was like to film him. You know, the way he looks up at me from the newspaper, like I’m interrupting him, and he’s really on the brink of jumping down my throat but at the same time he engages in the challenge that I pose to him in that moment. I wanted to make sure that audiences knew that the film that they were seeing wasn't a spoon-fed experience, that he was being challenged. I thought it was telling about the character and the relationship that yielded the film. What did it strike you as?
I thought it was another vulnerable moment for him, because you see him become defensive in a way that anybody would be defensive against an accusation of arrogance. But it was revealing in terms of his hyperawareness of his image.
I was pretty straight-up with him about the role of ego and narcissism being a question that I had. He and I had a similar mission in telling this story. When he called me, upset with the results, he said to me, ‘Incredible film, but unfortunately, it’s about me.’ It wasn't that I hadn't fulfilled the mission.
How can you walk around and say, we’re all the same, we’re one, don’t pursue fame, money, and power, to these kids and at the same time, have pursued it 100 percent? He went for it hook, line, and sinker. And now he’s going to tell people, we’re all the same? I don’t think he thinks that. I think that’s the contradiction that dominates his consciousness and the struggle that he has. I think that’s the key to who Russell Brand is. He wants us all to be on an even playing field, energetically, financially. He wants us to understand that we’re all one. At the same time, he absolutely requires special treatment and has a bit of a fortress built around him. I’m sure he knows he’s smarter than most people.
You also depicted him in the film struggling with the quandary of hypocrisy, how he can be a millionaire but say we should all be paid the same. He was not at peace with it.
Exactly. It’s an ongoing struggle. You might have heard that he’s off social media now and that he’s kind of retreated from the public eye. He stopped The Trews. It might be because he can’t figure that part out right now. He doesn't know what to do or how to accomplish this goal. But I tell you something, I wouldn’t underestimate him, and he works very fast.
I think it’s important that he is flawed and he is in progress. So many times we’re delivered these films that are these neat, nice packages, and here’s how you’re supposed to feel and here’s the straight-ahead hero, and here’s your villain. When you can see someone who is flawed, who is painfully aware of their flaws, get up in the morning and go and try a new thing—start a YouTube channel, fight with Fox News, get out and protest, get called a narcissist—and plow through all that, it’s pretty inspiring to the rest of us, I think, who are crippled by the feeling of not being good enough. To many people, he’s a joke. He’s ridiculed. But he just keeps going.