Jay Brennan looks really young in the flesh. Disturbingly, almost like jailbait. He’s pretty and laid back in a typically Southern (as in the South of the US) kind of way. I’ve met a porn actor or two over the years, but I guess Jay doesn’t really fall in that category. I may have seen him in all his glory having sex on screen, but he’s an artist. Okay?
Jay’s never been to Africa before: “I’m pretty poor so I don’t get the opportunity to travel very often. Where I’m from, Texas, people live their entire lives without leaving,” he tells me. He got the opportunity to head out our way thanks to the recent Out In Africa Film Festival which brought him to South Africa.
He says he grew up in a very “Baptist, religious, conservative, republican background.” Like anyone with ambition and half a brain, he rebelled. He’s acted, modeled, appeared in a U2 music video and makes soulful angsty music. He also starred in Shortbus – the flick that sought to combine pornography and “real filmmaking.” Surprisingly it succeeded. Jay played Ceth, who is brought into a gay couple’s troubled relationship for a very explicit threesome.
In possibly the most memorable sex scene in the film we’re treated to an actor patriotically singing The Star Spangled Banner into Jay’s arse, while Jay himself sings along using the other actor’s erect cock as a microphone. Unsurprisingly, I was rather excited to meet Jay Brennan…
Your background growing up in Texas – how has that shaped you?
I’m the black sheep of the family for sure… and the community in a lot of ways. (Laughs) Even in ways bigger than sexuality. I don’t see things the same way. I never understood why I had to do things in a certain way if they didn’t feel right for me. I always questioned people’s logic.
Did that rebelliousness drive you towards performing?
Actually, I’ve always been drawn to the arts. Surprise! (Laughs) I was around music my entire life. I was in choirs and I learned to play the piano when I started learning to read, so I’ve always been interested in music.
I think I was drawn to acting because it was realm in which I could feel things; where I could actually express emotions and it was acceptable and even validated, you know? Acting was almost a form of therapy – a place where I could be expressive and it was okay. Which is why when I tried to turn it into a career in LA, but that’s not what it is. It’s a business and it’s not therapy. I think that’s partly why acting didn’t really work for me…
So you’re a musician who acts not an actor who makes music…
I like to thing of myself as a musician, first and foremost. I wanted to be an actor for a long time and I gave it a shot and I quit and I ended up back in it in a sense by doing Shortbus, but as far as pursuing acting on a day-to-day basis, going to auditions all the time… I’ve kinda let that go. I can’t walk into a room and charm those people. There’s gotta be something that draws me in a personal or creative sense.
I’ve gotten the impression that your acting is more about promoting yourself as a musician rather than being for the acting itself…
It’s completely true. The first show I played was in a bar in Manhattan and there were around 30 people. Since then it’s just grown; at my last show there were 400 people. And at the end of the month I have two shows sold out in London and one sold out in Paris. None of that would have been possible without Shortbus. I was lucky that John [Cameron Mitchell – director of Shortbus] was nice enough to put one of my songs in the film and on the soundtrack because it introduced me to this worldwide audience. It’s a small audience, but it’s spread across the world…
How would you describe the music you make?
Sometimes I call it lesbian music… (Laughs) It’s kinda “Lisa Loeb with a penis.” (Laughs) It’s folk music. It’s quiet, intimate… just me with a guitar. Mostly sad and angry. That’s what drives me to write. But I try to have a sense of humour in my music, because that’s such an important part of pain and anger and frustration.
So it’s very personal and autobiographical…
Yeah, I write because I have to. I do want to turn this into a career and leave my day job at some point. But it’s just been something I’ve done in the middle of the night, alone. Sorta saying the things I need to say and venting frustration and just putting all those things that spin around in my head into songs and then putting them on YouTube and MySpace.
“A man can’t really fake being aroused the way that a woman can because it’s such an external visual thing…”
So, how did you get involved in Shortbus?
I was working as a receptionist at a corporate office when my best friend saw the casting advertisement for Shortbus. And they were looking for people who would be comfortable playing a version of themselves and developing characters and storyline with John Cameron Mitchell… and also comfortable in participating in un-simulated sex scenes within the context of the story. So my friend thought that might be something I might be interested in doing! (Laughs)
And why did he think that?
Because of my repressive background discussing things like sexuality had become important to me. I struggled with “Could I have sex on film? Am I comfortable with that? Could I go through with it?” And, in the end, I decided that I believe that a film like this should exist and if I believe that then why shouldn’t I be one of the people that does it? Even if that means walking through personal challenges or doing something that’s uncomfortable. And I had no pressure of “this is gong to ruin your career” because I didn’t care. I’d quit [acting] anyway. So I made an audition tape and mailed it to New York and I got a call-back. I flew myself out and stayed with a friend and I ended up getting cast. I’d just turned 21.
What was the experience of making Shortbus like?
I’ll probably never do anything like that again. It was why I was interested in acting in the first place. It was collaborative, it was organic and creative. Working with John, it’s like work and play are the same thing. A lot of people think that you have to have all this drama to be creative or that you have to follow this really regimented procedure and with John… One of his jokes was if we ever said the lines exactly as written then he’d fire us. He wanted every take to be different. The whole script and story was developed through improv and discussion.
And when it came down to it…
The sex stuff? (Laughs)
Yes. How easy was that for you?
It wasn’t easy. It was definitely the most difficult challenge in the end. It’s funny – at first I was more anxious about the acting part because it was my first film. But it’s very difficult to be aroused in what is a very non-erotic environment. We’re under bright lights, it was stopping and starting and doing it twice… people watching. Even though it was a skeleton crew and they did everything they could to make us comfortable but you know… And our sex scene wasn’t even in a bed. It was on the floor and on furniture. And sex on film, you want it to be believable. You want to be at full mast and you want look your best. So there was that added pressure. A man can’t really fake being aroused the way that a woman can because it’s such an external visual thing… It was an interesting experience and I’m really glad that I did it, but it was difficult…
Does it bother