Shirly Brener: Through the lens — starkly

An argument between actress Shirly Brener and husband Bruce Rubenstein turned quickly from a loud debate with each side trying to prove a point, to this: 

“Honey, wait a minute  — I’ve got to grab the camera.” 

Brener rushed to get the video camera from the couple’s Hollywood Hills bedroom, pressed the record button, then turned to her husband and said, “We may proceed.”

That’s what it’s been like since Brener started shooting the Israeli documentary series “Mechubarim” (Hebrew for “Connected”) for HOT channel. Now in its fourth season, the award-winning program — whose format has been sold to more than 20 countries around the world — follows the lives of five celebrities who document their daily lives. 

This is the first time the show’s producers have recruited talent outside of Israel. This year’s season, which was set to debut Sept. 1, features a stand-up comedian, an artistic director of a dance company, a film director and Lior Dayan, a journalist and grandson of the late soldier and statesman, Moshe Dayan — all of them Israeli.

The blond-haired, blue-eyed Brener, who was born in Israel, brings to the show a glimpse into the life of a working actress/producer in Hollywood who is juggling her career with being a wife and a mother to two daughters: Mila, 8, an actress and model; and Journey, 1 1/2.

The human desire to peek into the lives of others has rocketed the ratings of plenty of other TV shows, from “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” to “The Real Housewives” series. In this case, the catch is that everything is self-documented. Instead of a camera crew following them around, participants are the ones carrying the equipment or talking at a tripod. 

For Brener, who has appeared on Israeli television previously, it seemed the perfect opportunity to “reintroduce myself to the new generation of audience in Israel. The opportunity also provided me with the creative challenge that I never had before — being a filmmaker in a movie about my own life.”

Brener was born in Haifa to Danny Brener, a decorated Israeli swimmer and successful businessman, and his wife Smadar, an actress who appeared in successful films and theater productions. After her parents’ divorce, she eventually came with her mother to Los Angeles, where she received degrees in art history and cinematic arts critical studies from USC. 

Eventually, Brener went back to Israel to star in TV series such as “Ramat Aviv Gimmel” — sort of like the 2003-2007 American series “The O.C.” — and to host MTV’s Israeli version of “Singled Out.” She has dozens of film and television credits to her name, including “Righteous Kill,” with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino; and “War, Inc.,” with John Cusack, Dan Aykroyd and Ben Kingsley. 

Esquire once published a photo of Brener in a bikini and named her one of five Israeli women they love. She went on to become a film producer as well.

When first approached with the offer to star in “Connected,” Brener was at a crossroads in her life. 

Brener takes her turn with the production camera. Photo by Bruce Rubenstein

“I just had Journey, and I was home for six months. … I was dealing with a difficult case of postpartum,” she said. “Some women have deep depression following the birth of their babies and can’t even get out of bed. For me, it was anxiety. I was worried constantly. I was nervous about life, about the future. I even got social anxiety, didn’t like to be around a lot of people — and I used to be a social butterfly before that. … I also gained a lot of weight, about 50 pounds, and it took me a long time and hard work to shed the pounds. So, I was home with the baby, thinking, ‘What am I going to do next?’  when this opportunity presented itself to me.” 

Part of her contract required Brener to film herself and her family on a daily basis and talk in personal monologues to the camera. It wasn’t always easy. 

“In the beginning, there were times when I used to tell myself, ‘Holy crap, what did I get myself into?’ I was going through all of these emotional rollercoasters and had to deal with it in front of the camera,” she said. “In the beginning, it was nerve-racking, but then it became sort of a therapy. It was liberating pouring my heart out and allowed me to move forward.”

Her husband found the process particularly difficult, Brener said.

“He opened the camera and didn’t know what to say. It was torture for him for weeks. You are all alone in a room talking to a camera and you have no idea what to say. It’s not like in reality shows such as ‘The Real Housewives’ where the producer is asking you a question and you simply answer. Here you have to ask yourself the questions on camera, answer them and shoot yourself at the same time.”

Rubenstein, a screenwriter/producer, interior designer and artist with a gallery in Studio City, once ran Mickey Rourke’s production company. After a run-in at Starbucks, he also ended up becoming the manager of stand-up comedian Andrew Dice Clay, who appears in Woody Allen’s most recent movie, “Blue Jasmine.” 

“I was very used to being around cameras, having spent the last 25 years working with major celebrities, but I was never in front of a camera and never felt comfortable in front of it,” he said. “The camera forces you to look deep inside yourself. To watch yourself on camera and see yourself for who you are and how the world sees you is not always an easy thing. It’s different from looking at yourself in the mirror while shaving, because here you actually see the human being that you are.” 

Brener’s mom — now a Hebrew and Judaism teacher — gets in on the action too, documenting her own search for love, among other things. 

Brener said she is a little anxious about the reaction her role in “Connected” will get from an Israeli audience that is not shy about voicing opinions. 

“People feel very close to you when they watch you on TV, like they know you — even more so when it’s a reality show. I know they will have an opinion about me after watching this series. It’s OK,” she said. 

It hasn’t changed how she tries to appear on camera, Brener explained.

“I don’t try to portray myself as perfect, because I’m not. People don’t like to see perfect people because they are not real. I show myself in my good days and bad days, and I hope that the producers/director will capture the essence of who I am,” she said. 

“Part of the reason reality shows such as ‘The Kardashians’ are such a success is because they reveal everything. If you start worrying about each and every little thing you said or did during the show, then this is not for you. You have to let go and just not give a s—. There are going to be people who are going to love you, hate you, admire you, criticize you, but the most important thing is that they won’t feel ambivalent about you. Because the last thing you want to be in such a show is pareve.