One look at the photograph Esquire used to declare actress Shirly Brener one of five Israeli women they love, and you want to wish the rest of her persona good luck in catching up. Picture it: She’s thigh-deep in a pool, clad in a lacy white bikini that leaves little to the imagination, with a body that an artist could have cut from a stone. It’s the kind of photo that needs no caption, one you’ve seen before: the “look at me, notice me” photo that plenty of actresses take. Before they become serious.
The photo tells you that Brener is hot; that she has a great (and I mean great) body — but it doesn’t tell you why you should love her.
When we meet for lunch at a popular Los Angeles haunt for Israeli expats, Brener is sitting outside at a corner table. She is unmissable: Her blonde hair and blue eyes radiate an all-American look that always seems to turn heads — plus she’s wearing a zebra sweater. She waves me over with a huge, gleaming smile like a doll that comes to life.
It’s the day before Pesach, one of the last meals with bread, and I’m psyched for the Jerusalem Bagel Toast. Because Brener sometimes models in bikinis, she orders a hummus plate.
“Eggplant baked or fried?” the waitress asks.
“Good question,” Brener says, a little hesitant.
I order the bagel toast.
“Fine, I’ll do the fried then,” she declares. “Live a little!”
That ordering something fried constitutes living is perhaps a cliché commentary on the life of an actress, but Brener (like anyone else with a pulse) knows Hollywood over-values appearances. And attractive women like Brener have notoriously used their sex appeal to compensate for lack of talent, a concept that barely raises her eyebrow.
“Yeah, you might get a couple of roles because you’re pretty, especially when you’re starting out,” she says matter-of-factly. “But to sustain a whole career on that over like 20 or 30 years? I don’t think so. There’s a lot of people who have made huge careers having porky looks — look at Danny DeVito. Look at Bette Midler. And there are so many comedians who have broken huge — Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano — some of the wealthiest people in the business. But do they look like Brad Pitt?”
She considers this for a moment. “Not that Ray Romano’s not handsome in his own way; but he certainly doesn’t look like — who’s the kid from ‘Twilight?’”
“Edward Pattinson,” I answer (who is about as close to God’s rendering of male physical perfection as we might imagine the biblical Adam to be).
“You know who I’m talking about,” she says, laughing. “I really think that at the end of the day, it all boils down to talent.”
In that case, Brener, for her part, could be considered a triple threat: She is talented, hardworking and business savvy. You might even call her an overachiever who goes the extra mile. At 31, she already has 43 film and television credits to her name and in the next year will appear in 10 feature films, including ABC Family’s “Labor Pains” with Lindsay Lohan and “Streets of Blood,” directed by Charles Winkler, with Val Kilmer and Sharon Stone.
When there isn’t a big star involved, she knows to tout her films in studio marketing terms (the upcoming “Hit List” is described as “‘Bridget Jones’ meets ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’” and the indie drama “Touched” is “‘Mommie Dearest’ meets ‘Monster,’” a film she also believes might be her breakthrough). She is an avid athlete — she swims, surfs and hikes, practices karate, plays tennis and is “addicted” to Bikram yoga. She is also a classically trained ballerina and has a degree from USC in art history. But she is quick to say her most prized role is that of mother and wife, and she — on top of the Hollywood career and killer fitness regimen — somehow finds time to cook.
Brener is by all accounts successful — and has been for more than a decade. But she’s famous in Israel, a status she has yet to achieve in Hollywood. She still struggles through days of auditions and no callbacks, self-image issues (a double-edged sword, she says: sometimes she’s too pretty), and, without a development deal, uncertainty about her future. And she’s tired of getting passed over by bigger-name movie stars. Yet, Brener knows that perhaps above all else, what’s needed in her business is patience.
“I am one of the most impatient people! I am borderline ADD. I want things to happen now,” she says with swirling energy. “I want everything to be on my clock, and my clock is a very fast clock. But, anytime you hear that somebody finally made it, you see they’ve been doing it for 15 years — they’re in their mid-20s, and they’ve been acting since they were 8. You have to pay your dues.”
Brener probably learned that from her family, who she effuses about from the get-go. It’s as if she’s saying, “you have to know them if you want to know me.” Born in Haifa, she grew up globally, in Israel, London and Los Angeles. Her mother, Smadar Brener, is a well-known theater and film actress in Israel; and her father, Danny, was a champion freestyle swimmer. A week before he was set to compete in his first Olympics games, he broke his leg and thought his was career ruined. It was 1972, the year of the Munich Games, and that twist of fate saved his life. Brener’s parents divorced when she was 12 (“they were extremely loving to me, but not to each other”), and both have since remarried.
Brener describes her kin as a “respected Zionist family, all Lithuanian and Czech.” Her paternal great-great-uncle was Chaim Weizman, the first president of Israel, and Ezer Weizman, from the same bloodline, was the seventh. Two of her grandparents (the “true sabras”) were born in Palestine, and her maternal grandmother survived Auschwitz. Her paternal grandfather, Mila (her daughter’s namesake), developed one of the largest shipping industries in the Middle East around the 1960s, but eventually went bankrupt. He left an indelible imprint upon his granddaughter, who admired his worldliness and sense of adventure, but also his humility; she remembers him as a person who was as interested in conversing with the hired help as he was with a head of state.
Listening to Brener talk about her family, you get the sense that even the greatest level of success in Hollywood wouldn’t overshadow the collective achievements of her ancestors. Which makes Brener unusually grounded for an actress, while also exceptionally ambitious. While enrolled at USC, she supplemented her studies with auditions. After filming a part in “Hijacking Hollywood,” a little-known film about an industry lackey who takes aim at an evil producer, Brener took off for vacation in Israel. There, she met with her mother’s agent, who immediately booked her a role on the series “Ramat Aviv Gimmel” (which she says, is like an Israeli version of the now defunct “The O.C.”). What was initially a guest-starring role morphed into a two-year contract as a series lead and kept her in Israel for the next three years. MTV then recruited her to host the Israeli version of “Singled Out,” which she shot simultaneously with “Gimmel,” while also writing a column for a teen magazine and hosting a radio show. She attributes her fast rise to “beginner’s luck,” and, true enough, she had to start all over again when she returned to the United States.
“I was starting from zero,” she recalls. “I did come with established credits and connections, but it’s not like I came from doing French or Italian cinema. Israeli TV is not really like a crossover medium. I basically had to start auditioning and building up an American résumé, because nobody really cared about the stuff that I did there.”
Between 2000 and 2003, “three strange years,” Brener decided to finish her degree (“I didn’t want to be the black sheep in the family with no education”) and worked to re-establish her career. She enrolled in acting classes at The Beverly Hills Playhouse (“the Porsche, the Ferrari, the most famous acting school in L.A.”) and studied with acting coach Milton Katselas (“who taught George Clooney, Goldie Hawn, Kate Hudson, Alec Baldwin”).
“Back then, my insecurity laid in the fact that I was probably not a good enough actress,” she says. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough — I didn’t have the depth. Sure I was natural in my delivery, and I had some skill, and maybe I had the basic talent, but I couldn’t really compete with girls who had the training and foundation. I think I made up for that in the last few years, and it’s put me in a whole new place of confidence in terms of my art and who I am as an actress.”
She met then-screenwriter Bruce Rubenstein, a Long Island Jew, on a movie set. At the time, he was running Mickey Rourke’s production company, during Rourke’s notorious heyday. In 2004, the couple married in Caesarea in a traditional religious ceremony in front of 450 guests. The rabbinate in Israel required Rubenstein to prove his Jewish lineage as far back as five generations. A year later, they had a daughter, Mila (a term of endearment in Russian). Rubenstein, who was relatively successful as a screenwriter, quit the business to pursue art.
“If he could, he’d be a tortured artist, cut off one ear and sit in the studio in pain all day — or so he claims,” Brener says wryly. Instead, he is a commercial architect and interior designer who occasionally designs private homes; he built their family home in the Hollywood Hills. His true passion, however, is abstract expressionist painting, and Brener likes to boast, “Schwarzenegger has a piece, Will Smith has a piece, and he just got into MOCA in Hot Springs.”
Brener’s BlackBerry vibrates and reminds her of a whole to-do list that has been accumulating over the course of our lunch. She calls her manager, makes something that sounds like a beauty appointment and checks in with her nanny.
“Sorry, I just have 700 things going on at once,” she says, and talks while she’s been placed on hold. When she’s shooting, a typical day in Brener’s life looks like this: Wake at 4 a.m., go to the gym, spend 10-14 hours on set, and, if there’s time, work with an acting or dialect coach on scenes for the next day. If she’s not shooting, she takes her daughter to school, works out “like a fanatic” (on this day she ran 7 miles), auditions, rehearses, reads scripts, meets with directors and makes it home in time to make dinner for her family (if she weren’t an actress, she might have been a chef, she says). If that weren’t enough to keep a working mom tied up, her daughter, 4, who was signed to Ford Models when she was just 6 months old, has a pretty demanding schedule herself: Mila just finished a commercial for Wal-Mart that paid more than Brener’s last two films combined. Plus she takes dance lessons, voice lessons, karate and hip-hop. “I’m just a slave to the Princess Mila,” Brener says. “She wants to do everything I do.”
“A lot of actresses say they want a big career and then kids. But I want to enjoy my kids while I’m still young and while I’m building up my career and do it all, you know? I don’t see a reason to stall.” She hopes to have another child in the next two or three years.
Even she realizes this all sounds like a lot.
“Will it really bother you if I have a cigarette? You want one?” she asks. She unpacks a box of Nat Sherman MCD cigarettes — her husband’s choice. “I’m not a big smoker,” she warns as a kind of disclaimer. “Like I’ll smoke two a day. People are like, ‘Oh what brand do you smoke?’ and I’ll go, ‘OPCs’ … other people’s cigarettes.’”
Call it a work hazard. When you spend 14 hours a day on set and everybody is smoking, she explains, you pick it up. “I don’t drink alcohol; I don’t do drugs, no coffee, no dairy — I barely take medicine when I have a headache. I’m just really into doing things that are right for my body.”
“My only vice is OPCs,” she laughs, aware of the irony. “But ohmygosh, I gotta have something! Right?”
The intensity of Brener’s life seems to serve her well. On her last film, she fleshed out a character by developing a completely different accent and then went to East Los Angeles to get 26-inch hair extensions. The director was impressed — the character didn’t look like that on page. But more than her talent or innovation, Brener attributes her success to an almost militant professionalism.
“I’m always there 40 minutes early with the crew; I’m the last person on set, I never complain, I’m easy to work with. And I always do my homework,” she says. “Who wants an actor that sits around and mopes all day? Who wants an actress that’s a diva? I’m very grateful to have a job, I don’t take anything for granted — I’m not out at night partying; I don’t s—- on the stuff that I have.”
Where Brener loosens up, where she raves and rages and makes a mess of things is inside the characters she plays. The experience of being Israeli and Jewish and growing up in three different countries and having survivors in her family adds an edginess that emanates onscreen. “Once you start seeing me act and you get the essence of me, you’ll see that those roles fit really well … the drug addicts, the hookers, the crazy girls. I just played three crazy girls in a row.” One of them was for the movie “Touched,” directed by Argentinian Dan Neira, in which she plays a bipolar, schizophrenic mother who abuses her daughter. Five-hundred actresses auditioned for the part. “I think ‘Touched’ is definitely gonna be the thing that’s gonna put me on the map,” she says with pointed confidence. And maybe a drop of longing.
Because Shirly Brener is still waiting for her big break.
“I think I’m already making it by working in what I love to do and getting paid for it. People are always like, ‘Hey do you wanna win an Oscar?’ And I’m like, ‘Not really … yeah … it doesn’t mean anything to me.’ Like what is that? I don’t really understand people that walk into this career and their ultimate goal is getting a statue, because what would that statue do to you?”
You mean to tell me an Oscar means nothing?
“I think what it symbolizes is that you’ve probably worked with some of the best directors, writers and actors in the business. So, do I want to work with the best people in this business? Yeah. If I’m working throughout my career with Woody Allen and Scorsese and Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson and people of that ilk but I never win an Oscar — guess what? I’ll be sleeping really well at night.”