Britt Rentschler is a film and stage actress to watch. She brings a chameleon presence on screen and stage that is wonderfully affecting, bold and charismatic. As Charlotte in Uncle Frank she plays a wild, exuberant, uninhibited pretend girlfriend to Paul Bettany's character Frank - and we are left wanting to see more of her character. Look out for her in Instant Family The Detour, LA's Finest and Lodge 49.
Interview with Britt Rentschler
Q. Uncle Frank quietly and heartbreakingly examines the discrimination that was endemic in America in the seventies towards the gay community. Given your aunt’s experience of acting as a ‘beard’ girlfriend for gay friends, how did that inform your approach to the character of Charlotte? Your aunt sounds like a fascinating character to spend time with. What will you remember most about her, the time you spent together and her life as trailblazer for women?
A.You know, I can only imagine what her life was like in New York in the 70’s. I don’t have any specifics on her playing someone’s girlfriend or wife as Charlotte does, but she was certainly the first person who introduced me to an openly gay couple. Her best friend from college, and his partner. They came into the restaurant where I waited tables, in Alabama, and they were so kind — asked me everything about the theatre I was doing at the time and tipped me more than I had ever been tipped! It was just another small way that she opened up my world. She had a love of the arts, and love of her friends, and while I didn’t get to know intimate details, the way she chose to live her life informed mine.
For example, having access to Manhattan, Broadway —that was huge. She would save me Playbills and trinkets from The Tony’s, and she sent me a book of plays written by female playwrights. The first time I had sushi was in her apartment on 66th and Columbus Circle — visiting New York opened up so much for a curious child! She was such a fascinating woman. It took a lot to leave her small town in Alabama and start an entirely new life in New York, but she did it and seemed to never look back.
She was the National President of WNBA (Women’s National Book Association) for a time— and while she was never imposing or outspoken, she actively supported my career in the arts and held such a wonderful space for me to believe that my life could be as exciting as I wanted it to be. What I will forever remember most is her unbelievable ability to remember lyrics. Any song, any musical — she knew it.
Q. What was it like to work with Alan Ball, the director who wrote the screenplay for American Beauty and to work with Paul Bettany who is wonderful as Frank. He conveys the damage he experienced in childhood as a result of his father’s attitude to homosexuality with a sort of everyday nobility, humour and grace. But there is a sort of gallows humour, inner turmoil and tragic stoicism about Frank too. Do you relish being in films like Uncle Frank? What other topics would you like to explore in film or drama?
A.I absolutely relish in being in a film like Uncle Frank. I am also from the south, and that kind of short-sighted, small-minded thinking is something I grew up witnessing. I had many friends who came out to their parents and were met with resistance, because of religion, or because of simple, ignorant fear. Being different in an environment like that is like swimming upstream anyway, but then you add in sexuality, and you are absolutely gasping for air. When a story like this is written from personal experience, you can feel it. Alan’s heart was in the script, and Paul’s heart was in the performance. I was thrilled to be a small part of it — to play the role I’ve loved playing in life — a good friend. A fun, wild, and good friend.
I’m hoping I get to keep exploring relationship themes, finding love on the other side of fear, and working to keep a sense of humour through it all. And I certainly love exploring queer stories, southern stories, and films with independent female characters.
Q. There are a lot of parts for female actresses playing the cop, the best friend, a hotshot lawyer, fragile heroine, victim, doctor, wife... what would your ideal role be? Who do you long to play?
A.Ooh! Not the victim! I laugh, only because there was a time where I always wanted to play fragile. Being raised where I was, there was something so praised about being delicate, fragile, feminine, beta. I thought that it was so wonderful to get to be the ingenue. Lord, how that has changed. I’m so grateful. I had an acting teacher yell at me once, “YOU ARE SO SOCIALIZED!! I WANT YOU TO BE MEDEA, NOT CINDERELLA!” And you know what - God bless her. Because I was never Cinderella, to begin with. I was trying to do something that wasn’t me, something I had learned. In my work now, I like to laugh, I like to carry ease and power, and I like to work at the top of my intelligence, or from the bottom of my heart. So wherever that character is, I’m in. But I am done playing the blushing lady.
Q. Is being a member of Mensa an asset in Hollywood or something you have to play down? Do you know the remarkable story of Heddy Lamarr? She was a film goddess and a genius who is only being given credit now for inventing wifi?
A. Heddy! A Queen! Yes. It’s so wonderful to see women in power. I think if she had the same story now, it wouldn’t be so taboo to be more than one thing — screen star siren AND genius inventor. But the PR back then was so controlled. I haven’t felt at all that I have to play down my intelligence, but I also think that I don’t consider it something so separate from myself. It’s kind of like — what you see is what you get…so how can I hide one part of me, any part? I decided to try to cut that out a while back. “Tell them everything” — that’s what I put on my wall in my bedroom. I would say I think that point of view has only benefitted me.
Q. Why Marie Louise Parker? How does her life as an actress inspire you?
A.Mary Louise Parker is an actress I do get compared to, partially for looks, but also for her offbeat sense of humour. That’s always happening when you start out. People want to place you somewhere — you can’t just be Britt Rentschler, they might not know who she is. But compare me to Mary Louise — well, now they know I am an actor’s actor (she came from theatre and has CHOPS) and that I am going to be present and funny and have the feel of a leading actress. I also get compared to Gal Gadot because I am tall and strong, and people pick up the Wonder Woman vibes. I am not complaining! But one day, I do hope I’ll get to be my category. Mary Louise first hooked my admiration when she played Harper in Angels in America. What an incredible performance. And she opened Paula Vogel’s play, How I Learned to Drive. I never saw her in it but adored the play. Theatre was my first home, so I tend to love an actor who has the same roots as I do. There’s something so freaking die-hard about us theatre kids.
Q. Describe growing up in Alabama in two Sentences.
A.Alabama is skinned knees, bare feet, and getting drunk by the river on magnolia, moonlight, and cicadas. It’s romantic, and rotten, and complicated, and sweet.
Q.Given that you are a member of Mensa did you consider following an academic career instead of acting? Was it a hard choice?
A.You know, I did. And it was. I had a time where I was sure I was going to do law school, and go into public policy. I also have a degree in Political Science, and it was a close call. My dad is the one who really helped me see that I was making a fearful decision, though. He knew I was leading with my head, and not my heart. He had watched me love every minute of engaging with the arts, my whole life — music, dance, singing, all of it. He knew. Parents know. I am so fortunate mine encouraged me to follow the path that was the truest for me.
Q. What has it been like to live in the US in the last four years and then to volunteer during the elections? How do you feel about America as the world waits for President Biden to take office?
A.Oh LORD. It has been excruciating and paralyzing. At first, at the start of 45’s first year, we marched, we petitioned, we did so much. And then I do think there came a time of fatigue when the news was just so horrid, so awful, so often — we became desensitized. It was a terrible feeling. But coming together with strangers and writing letters, sending postcards, working with phone banking — getting the word out and mobilizing people to believe that their vote counted — that was the antidote to the paralysis. I know that so many of us are ecstatic with the election results, but we can’t rest. There is a runoff for 2 Senate seats in January, and we really need them to swing Blue. That’s where we put in the work now.
Q.What is your idea of tuning out and taking time off?
A.Getting out into nature, cooking a meal. Live music, festivals, people laughing, talking. Meditating. Anything that is unplugged and offline, you know? So much of our time is on computers and phones, and while there is the benefit to the connection it allows, I find I am so drained by it, more often than not. Being present to what is the next step in front of me — like with cooking, or hiking. That’s the good stuff.
Q. Are you someone who loves to cook and shop in markets for real food? Or do you like to be cooked for?
A.I love both! The art of the kitchen is a beautiful one! If I am receiving the meal, I love to be around in the kitchen, chatting, providing music, helping with the vibe, maybe setting the table. If it’s at a restaurant, I like to take in all the details, observe and absorb. I see my job as the participator, the encourager, the enjoyer! And when I cook, I love to put time into the detail and really feel my way through the experience. It can be so delightfully intuitive. From start to finish, from the market to the dinner table, I find it really joyful.
Q. Which classic film with a great female character do you love most and why?
A.I think it has to be Bette Davis in All About Eve. She’s just…delicious. I have a quote in my bathroom from her that says, “Between two evils, always pick the one you haven’t tried before.” Bringing that kind of spirit to a role is just absolutely delicious.
Q. What would you do if you were president for a day?
A.That’s a tough one, but I think that, selfishly, I would spend half the day looking through all of the classified files because WOW I really do need to know about Area 51 — and then I’d spend the rest of the day trying to be helpful. You know, our President can’t really do much without the legislative branch behind her, but the figurehead of it all can be really powerful, to help people feel seen. Perhaps create a small roundtable with diverse representation and ask them what one thing I could do by the end of the day that would actually make their lives better, and then do it by midnight. It’s not a lot, but it’s something. Oh! And take a sick selfie from the Oval Office so that I can forever pretend I was on West Wing."
Uncle Frank is streaming on Amazon
Britt Rentschler was talking to our Editor-in-Chief Alison Jane Reid.