Emily: How are you being pompous?!
Brandon: I don’t know, sometimes I think I can gab on a bit sometimes.
Emily: You’re just fine!
I spent an evening with Brandon McClelland finding out about his current work in theatre and on screen as an actor and producer. But our conversations pushed far past the line of artsy chatter and reached the realm of the deeply personal. He shared with me about his own difficulties managing mental health in the past, his creative mentors, and even faith and spirituality. He also told me about fortuitous opportunities on Hollywood film sets and his opinions about the bastardisation of the Method, amongst many other issues. Through all of this, he displays deep conviction and yet simultaneous humility. It’s a wonderfully fascinating interview, read below.
PART 1: Producing Theatre, Mental Illness and the Bastardisation of the Method
Brandon: At the moment I’m rehearsing for A Midsummer Night’s Dream with STC, directed by Kip Williams. [The show has since opened on 17 September since date of interview]. Also on the side I’m gearing up to produce a short film which I will do in the one month in between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Present [heading to Broadway for a new season of the 2015 STC show].
Emily: Yes! Which I did see! I loved The Present. What ideas have you been exploring in this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Brandon: Kip’s really exploring the ideas of the dangers of repression and regression within a patriarchal society, and it’s all supported within the text which is the most fascinating thing. Also the terror of sexual awakening and sexual exploration. It’s amazing. Going through the text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s amazing how closely it borders a tragedy. We think of it as upstairs-downstairs bedroom farce, ‘isn’t that funny that she’s in love with a donkey!’ But think about how extraordinarily awful and cruel it is that Oberon says to Puck, ‘make sure that she falls in love with a beast’. Puck transforms a man into a donkey and she falls in love and consummates a relationship with a donkey. Just think about how horrifying and cruel that is. We’re really exploring that element of the play, and I don’t think it is often explored. It’s interesting that at the end of the play, everything is meant to go back to the way it was before. But one of these characters is still under the spell, he’s not himself. Demetrius does not get the love juice removed from his eyes so the love that he feels for Helena. You’re left to question, is that real? Are we seeing the real Demetrius or are we seeing a version of him? I think Shakespeare is such an amazing writer and a classic liberal, dealing with ideas of free speech and free will – all these taboo topics.
Brandon: It’s essentially being a dramaturg and casting agent, and trying to get a bit of money together, putting it into a kitty to put into the film.
Emily: I’m always curious about producers because they always seem to do slightly different things depending on the project, from what I can tell.
Brandon: Yes, I think the hardest job is to produce theatre.
Emily: You co-produced Fracture, as well as acting in the play, didn’t you? [Read my review for Fracture here, the show played at the Old Fitz in August this year.]
Brandon: I did.
Emily: With Lucy Clements, who is also your girlfriend-
Brandon: She is my girlfriend indeed, she produced, directed, and wrote the play. But I would say co-produced is somewhat a disservice to her because I would say she did most of the producing. It was really her baby. I think I focused more on being an actor. It was after Fracture that I said I don’t know if I could do the two roles at once in terms of producing and acting. It’s extraordinarily difficult. You’re kind of balancing two worlds. As an actor your job is pretty much to throw yourself into the world or the established circumstances of what the piece is, and you really have to focus on that. But if you’re also dealing with insurance and making sure people are reimbursed-
Emily: I would find that so hard! I’m not business-minded and I hate paperwork.
Brandon: It’s ridiculous, nor am I! Well thank goodness Lucy is very good at it. I’m actually the last person on Fracture to send an invoice through to her and she’s just in bed saying ‘um, you should get an ABN so I can pay you for what you did’.
Emily: Did you have some personal experiences with what your character went through in Fracture?
Brandon: Yeah I did, not to the extent that my character Charlie did, but I think it’s pretty rare for anyone in this industry not to be touched by mental illness, if not personally, through a friend or family member. I had a pretty bad struggle with depression towards the end of last year, and it doesn’t seem to be brought on by any singular event. I think it could be a culmination of years of different things that I’d failed to face. It wasn’t tempestuous or anything like that last year, but it was definitely a low point for me, which thankfully my family, Lucy, people who are very close to me, very good friends, were able to help me through. Continually as an actor you’re trying to work out the character’s obstacles, and so to sit with a character whose obstacles were completely created by himself, they were perceived, they weren’t real, it was an excellent exercise for me because it helped focus for me that the obstacles in my life were completely perceived. It was really, not cathartic, but there was a release, it was amazing.
Emily: I feel that there can be a danger when something is too close to your personal experience that it can be very painful, so I’m glad that it was that way for you.
Brandon: I think if you indulge in it. There’s a danger in method acting, where people say I had a rough childhood, so I’m going to draw on that.
Emily: It’s so draining.
Brandon: Extraordinarily draining, and at some point the oil runs dry and you get half-way through the season and what do you draw on now? It becomes kind of chalky to you.
Emily: And exploitative of what that experience was.
Brandon: Completely, and that experience is not just your experience, there are other people in it, so essentially you’re exploiting someone else’s experience without any permission to do so.
Brandon: I read the same one, about how Hollywood has bastardised the method.
Emily: Yeah! But I thought it was an interesting premise in the first place, because I was looking at NYU and there was an associated school that is still teaching the Strasberg Method and I thought that was interesting because there are lots of people that discourage you from using the Method, and yet many also put it on a pedestal.
Brandon: I maintain, and there’s a lot of people who would argue against me, but I feel like the Method has been slightly bastardised in that a lot of people save the money and instead of going to a therapist, they pour it out on stage. But that’s not exactly what the Method is. I wouldn’t classify myself as a Method actor per se, I’d say I borrow very heavily from someone like Michael Chekhov who is more about the imagination – imagine those circumstances, make those circumstances as real as they can be for you in that moment.
Emily: That makes sense to me.
Brandon: I think it’s a lot safer too. There is a danger, and you see it in the slight bastardisation of the Method, in that people end up dredging up things that they perhaps aren’t ready to confront, or are ready to confront but not in those circumstances. And what Jared Leto did with sending used condoms to people… what?! You’re the joker.
Emily: I’ve heard so many bad reviews that I’m not bothering with Suicide Squad, but his performance didn’t even turn out to be anything special anyway!
Brandon: But they talk about it in that article, it’s used for publicity now, ‘look what that actor went through, you’re going to have to see this film now!’
Emily: The Oscars are all about that.
Brandon: Oh God, that thing with Leo DiCaprio, ‘Well he shivered his arse off and he ate some raw meat’.
Emily: And I think it’s the fascination of what goes on behind the screen, because it is interesting, so I understand how it works to create hype. But at the end of the day you can only judge a film by what you actually see in the film.
Brandon: It seems like a way for pretty boys to legitimise themselves as actors.
Emily: Which would be difficult, because on one hand it would be very frustrating getting stuck in that box, and it’s a shame that they feel they have to do that to be respected. It’s such a male thing as well-
Brandon: Oh it’s such a male thing.
Emily: None of the women are recognised in the same way.
Brandon: They don’t. And the article touches on that. If a female actor were to approach the project with the same technique, they’re labelled as ‘difficult’, ‘bitchy’ or a ‘diva’ – how dare you say that. That the double standard is so transparent, it’s infuriating. If anything, the women are actually using the method – the pretty boys are using a bastardisation of it for their own publicity machine.
Emily: Clarification on Fracture – what’s the go? Did Charlie have bipolar? Were Contessa and Tel playing characters that you had created in your mind?
Brandon: We had a definition of it, and we were very careful not to be prescriptive for the audience.
Emily: Yes you were, I was trying to work it out!
Brandon: We settled that he had post-natal depression that had spiralled.
Emily: Interesting, can men get post-natal depression?
Brandon: They can, that’s one of the main reasons we tackled it, because post-partum or post-natal depression is something that is very recognised within women, not enough, but still recognised within women, yet a lot of men actually suffer with it.
Emily: How does that work? I thought for women it was very much related to hormone imbalances.
Brandon: Yes it works differently I believe. There’s a natural proclivity - I hope I don’t come across as boorish or sexist when I say this - but when a child is born there is a natural connection between mother and child. But from research and talking to a couple of men who had experienced post-partum depression, some men experience a complete disconnect to the child. They knew part of that child was theirs, they had a hand in creating it, but they didn’t carry it for 9 months, and they didn’t go through everything that comes with a pregnancy and labour. One of the men I talked to had left his family and never gone back to them, and that was interesting for me, because in my life I’ve had two fathers who have done the same. My natural father left when I was quite young, and then my mother was in a relationship with another man, and then he ended up leaving as well. So I had an instant connection to that, and I was fascinated to ask why. One of the men I was talking to, felt so extraordinarily incapable and so terrified of the fact that any mistake he made, or that his partner made, could spell the end of another human being because the human being is so fragile.
Emily: I have bad dreams like that, where babies’ heads fall off or you’re trying to hold onto a baby and you constantly feel like you’re going to drop it.
Brandon: Oh God! I don’t hold friend’s babies because my little brother is 9 years my junior, and when I was quite young, my mum told me about the fontanelle, the soft spot on a baby’s head, and how it doesn’t develop for like a year or two. ‘Don’t hit him or tap him on that part of the head because you could touch his brain and then it’s lights out, see ya later’. And I’m still terrified of ruffling my brother’s head. And it’s the same thing with post-partum depression, there is a fear that is linked to it. And that’s not to excuse all men who leave their partners and children, but it’s something we don’t talk about.
Emily: No, I’d never heard about it before in men.
Brandon: Neither had I, Lucy had to push me towards it. To actually answer your question, while it wasn’t bipolar depression, the characters represented more the theatrical device of those voices in your head, ‘should I have one more drink?’ ‘no don’t have another drink’ that anyone experiences. And if an audience member sees that as bipolar, or schizophrenia, or what have you, that was fine with us. We were happy for it to be whatever resonated best with the audience.