Emily Branham is a director, producer and editor in NYC who makes films about artists and creative thinkers. Her debut feature documentary, Being BeBe, about BeBe Zahara Benet (winner of the first season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race), is out now on VOD through Giant Pictures and airs on Fuse on June 21. Her short documentary Legend: a film about Greg Garing won the jury prize for Best Film of the International Doc Challenge at Hot Docs in Toronto, then screened at Sheffield Doc/Fest, IDFA, Nashville, Big Sky, Rooftop Films, and on the Documentary Channel. Originally from Minneapolis, Emily was a child actor who earned her SAG-AFTRA card at five years old, and found her happy place both on- and off-stage at the Guthrie Theater and Children’s Theater Company. When she discovered that filmmaking combined all of the many varied art forms she loved, she studied Radio/TV/Film (on the directing track) at Northwestern University and has been happily behind the camera & edit suite ever since.
I am a documentary filmmaker now, but growing up, I was a child actor. I don’t remember it, but when I was about four, I was scouted by a local photographer at a shopping mall with my mom, which led to some modeling gigs in print ads for local companies, including Target. Eventually I was repped by a couple of local agencies that put me up for commercials, voice-overs, the occasional movie that was casting far afield looking for “fresh faces.” I never landed an actual movie, but Minneapolis is a famously great town for theater, and I started doing plays at the Guthrie and Children’s Theater Company. I enjoyed lead roles in shows with star-to-be Josh Hartnett, and voiceover gigs with Vincent Kartheiser. I completely loved it. It was my happy place, my “sport,” my social activity. I thought acting was what I wanted to do when I grew up.
Then I got to college, and I felt out of place: the introvert who discovered that I became cripplingly self-conscious in auditions once the stakes were more real. I found it excruciating to be judged, especially for things outside my control like how I looked. I was a hard-working, creative person who loved making things, and realized I was never going to be satisfied waiting to be chosen by someone else. I simply didn’t love the craft of acting enough. I switched my major from theater to film halfway through my sophomore year, and never looked back. Until, that is, I took a class at Anthony Vincent Bova’s Bova Actors Workshop, while I was making my debut documentary feature, Being BeBe, about drag performer BeBe Zahara Benet.
The first class cracked me wide open. I wrote in my notebook: “This stuff is a sledgehammer to a whole lot of bullshit.” Anthony’s superpower as a coach was personal feedback identifying whatever obstacles he felt was most holding you back from authentically “being” the character. A lot of “the work” then involved irreverently violating whatever norms and self-imposed rules you have about those things. Pushing past propriety. Doing the thing that probably terrifies you most – in a safe space – and realizing not only that the world doesn’t end when you do, but that going to that place and working those “muscles” is actually where your strength and power come from. It’s a system influenced by Meisner and “Method” acting, and it provides a variety of tools for sense memory work.
Bova Actors Workshop was based in a cozy black box theater space off of Times Square. I remember observing flashing neon lights hitting the windows and sirens in the distance during the first group ice-breaker exercise we did, called “Anti-social.” The objective was for everybody to say the most rude, nasty and anti-social thing that popped into your mind, directly to each person in the class, one after the other rapid-fire. I’ve never been called a nerd to my face so many times in my life.
Then we moved on to one-on-one workouts. I was so nervous leading up to my turn that my head, stomach and shoulders ached. I watched a lanky, really nice, Kenneth-the-Page-from-30 Rock type guy from Florida do a “Raunch & Sleaze” exercise, in which he pretended to masturbate, take a dump on the stage and make a slew of other generally gross gestures.
When it was my turn to take the stage, Bova thought for a moment in his director’s chair, then asked me to list everything I was passionate about. I thought I was getting off easy – I built up momentum, got really positive and upbeat about the whole thing. Declared my passion for great music, great movies, the way the natural sunlight pours into my beloved office space, making things, my friends, my family – and then he cut me short. He directed me to now describe my sexual fantasies using only sound. No words, just sounds. “Really?” I blinked. “Really,” he confirmed. Good grief.
I dug deep, closed my eyes, and basically built up to a When Harry Met Sally-level orgasm in front of this whole room of strangers. Then Bova told me to open my eyes, make eye contact with the person in the room I was most attracted to, and keep going. I was mortified. This was killer fucking hard. But I went for it. And the world didn’t end. I walked out of class glowing, surprised by myself, completely spent, and filled with self-confidence.
I was surprised at how deeply therapeutic, personalized, sensitive and connecting the work was. It begins by walking into a room full of people you don’t know, and ends with you feeling close, connected and practically in love with all those strangers because of the vulnerabilities and deeply human truths you’ve all shared with each other. Community and closeness are not the point of it, but man is it a powerful by-product. I wrote in my notebook, in big letters, underlined three times: “Now this is cinematic.”
The reason I was taking the class was because I had a hunch I might encourage BeBe to take the class. I figured, if I truly believed BeBe would benefit from “baring all” emotionally – and I really, really did – I should be courageous enough to try it too. I had started filming BeBe (aka Marshall Kudi Ngwa) eight years prior and when he won the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009, I thought that was my ending. But as we started to edit together all the footage, I realized I wasn’t seeing the real him on screen. BeBe, who was originally from Cameroon, told me in one interview about his childhood, and one thing he said stuck with me: “Yes, I got called names. Yes, I got bullied sometimes. But I always found a way to be the star. Because I felt as a child that being the star protects you.” For his whole life, his performative outer shell had been his coping mechanism.
However, when he told me one day that he wanted to put on one final show before leaving New York, called Reveal, I sensed a chance to finally see all of BeBe. “I want it to reveal new parts of myself to people,” he told me. “It could be something different that I reveal every night – different stories, different songs – whatever they are not expecting of me. What do you think of the title: Reveal? Doesn’t that sound intriguing?”
I tried to downplay my enthusiasm – but yes, the process of creating a new show where you’re pushing yourself to take new risks and peel back more layers of the onion that is BeBe sounded like a terrific idea. And like a movie I’d want to watch.
Now that I had taken the class, I knew BeBe had to take it too.
BeBe did not exactly jump at the opportunity. He had a lot of other priorities that summer – including rehearsals for Reveal, producing and filming a reality TV sizzle on spec, continuing to pursue representation for his music, and eventually moving away from NYC altogether. But his Reveal show directors agreed with me that the classes could be really valuable, and together we helped BeBe get on board.
Bova organized the course that we filmed into a two-week intensive format. At first, even just observing the other students took more emotion – and more different colors of emotion in a short space of time – than BeBe thought he could bear. On Day One, he was so moved by an exercise in which a young actress from Brazil expressed the love she had for her family, and the things she feared missing out on back home, that he needed to take a minute in the hallway. Over time, Bova guided BeBe through areas of sexuality, family, anger, sorrow and self-acceptance. An exercise I was surprised to see BeBe flat out reject was called “Silly Dilly,” which involves being the silliest, stupidest, ragdoll side of yourself that you can muster. “Oh, hell no,” he said to that one, more than once. There was something about being seen as ridiculous and undignified that he was absolutely allergic to – until something finally clicked on the last day. A seasoned actress needed help transitioning out of a dark and painful energy after improvising a devastatingly sad scene. BeBe was visibly moved by the scene and gave her the feedback she needed – a Silly Dilly workout – then joined her on stage as they shook it right on out together.
BeBe told me afterward that he really needed the reframe the courses brought to him – especially at that moment of shifting career prospects and relocation back to Minneapolis from New York City. He said he wished everybody could go through that type of experience. On the last day, he shared with the group, “Honestly, I am gonna miss this place [Bova Actors Workshop]. Because mentally and spiritually, I was coming into this thing and I wasn’t sure. But every single day that I was here, I learned so much about myself and the things I have been fighting. This is Reveal to me, and I’ve revealed a lot of myself to myself. And watching every single one of you work was just such an inspiration – it was such a driving force. … The energy I found here is so pure. I’m just, I’m grateful.”
Ultimately the acting class makes up just a handful of minutes in the final film. And they’re not wildly dramatic, spill-your-guts kind of moments. That’s not who BeBe is, and the rest of the film lays out more backstory into why that may be. But the acting class scenes do beautifully and effectively shed light on several facets of BeBe’s protective shell, and even show the smallest of cracks starting to appear. Most importantly, I know the process of that collaboration and experiment was deeply cathartic and transformative to both BeBe and myself, at a time we both really needed it.
Featured image shows BeBe Zahara Benet at the Bova Actors Workshop. All images courtesy Emily Branham.