Actress Shirly Brener is breaking boundaries – and television records – in her home country of Israel in the reality TV show Connected Plus.
The Chronicles of the Dead star opens up to Celebrity Baby Scoop about her various projects, family life with daughters Mila True, 8, and Journey Elle, 19 month, and juggling her busy career and motherhood.
CBS: Tell us about your new reality TV show, Connected Plus. How did you get involved in the project?
SB: “Connected is an original Israeli format that was developed there, it has since been sold to over 20 countries and has won the equivalent of numerous Golden Globes and Emmys in countries such as France, Denmark, Sweden and of course Israel. It was developed by Ram Landes and Doron Tzabari and is broadcast on HOT network (sort of like the Israeli HBO). It is the #1 show for the network and gets top ratings as well as critical acclaim.
The show revolves around 5 celebrities, or rather 5 personalities that are known in their field. Each cast member receives production cameras and equipment and has to self document their lives for almost a year, touching all the layers of life ranging from family, interpersonal relationships, career, social circle, etc. The show centers around relationships and the conflicts and highs and lows surrounding them.
The scenes are interlaced with personal monologues to the camera whereby each character reveals their most intimate and revealing thoughts and feelings. It is a huge undertaking both on the personal as well as the professional level. Personally, you are forced to reveal and deal with the utmost intimate moments as well as your fears, anxieties, conflicts. And simultaneously show the successes of life alongside the struggles.
Professionally it is a tough trajectory because you are essentially creating a narrative that is your life via the genre of a docuseries. Your also wearing various hats, not just the on-camera talent but also the director, producer, line producer, segment producer, writer and camera operator. You must be very proficient in all aspects of film-making to survive such as task. It is then cut to 35 episodes, which makes for a very thick season.
The basis of the show is to shatter conventions and images and to show the underbelly, unveil the curtain of things and peel the layers of the union. I was approached to be in the 5th season after several very successful seasons. Of course I knew this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I was terrified of it and that’s why I knew I had to do it. It seemed like a very deep and demanding challenge and I am one to never shun away from challenges. I love things that push my limits and creative processes that drive me to the next level as a creative person.
I wanted to be part of such a proven format with its pedigree and track record. It seemed like if I don’t do it , it would have been something I would have later regretted. Of course I had to get the whole family- Bruce, my hubby, and my 2 daughters – Mila and Journey (who was still a tiny baby when we started) – to agree as well as my mother who took part.
When everybody was on board, we joined, and the rest is history. This was the first time the show had done complete out of the country storyline, whereby an Israeli actress and producer takes the audience into the backstage of Hollywood alongside marriage, motherhood, my personal , social and all other aspects of my life.”
CBS: What was it like shooting for a year in Israel? Could you share some highlights?
SB: “We did not shoot for a year in Israel. Our whole storyline takes place in Los Angeles. Some special episodes were shot in New York and then the tail end in Israel. Shooting for a year was gruelling. This is the type of show that there aren’t hardly any days off. Since it’s a documentary type, it is required to document on an ongoing basis anything and everything. In the past when I worked on projects, the shooting schedule whether it is a movie or a TV show is usually 3-4 months tops. Here, you go on and on for months and months. There is no hiatus, there are no breaks or weekends.
When people always ask me how was it possible to sustain the energy for a year, and keep moral, I always am not sure still to this day how we did it. Probably a person who is not a workaholic like me and my hubby could have not survived. I actually learned that there were cast members in the past that dropped out. I think also the fact that we worked as team, the whole family and that Bruce and I have such a symbiotic, rich, work relationship we really covered each others’ turf.
When he was burnt out or too busy, I would do the work and vice versa. It was like we had a full-fledged little production company here at the house that also included the girls, as Mila was part and parcel of the whole process. It’s ironic to now know that an 8 year old operated the camera in many scenes between Bruce and I. It was a team effort, a family effort. Also all our friends (with a few exceptions), and we have many, rose to the occasion and agreed to be on the show and partake in the narrative of our lives.
Part of the challenge of the year long daily work is also to maintain your regular lives. Both of us have so many responsibilities ranging from raising our daughters and all their extra curriculars, school, I was dealing with a new baby, nursing and postpartum issues. On top of it, I was working as an actress on American projects while Mila was also quite busy with her career filming movies, commercials, voiceovers and campaigns.
Bruce who has a design firm as well as producing TV shows – during the course of the show he Exec Produced the Showtime special for comedian Andrew Dice Clay- Indestructable ( who he also manages), the special became the most watched ever for the cable network. And the new syndicated game show, The Big Big Show starring Andrew Dice Clay, Tom Green and Tara Reid. And two other reality pilots which we co- produced together during the course of the show. On top of it, we tried to keep some semblance of a family life and a married life. It was an all encompassing task to juggle all of this.
There were days that I didn’t know when I’ll find the time to buy groceries to feed my family. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much this past year and learned to function on very little sleep. Working with Israel which is the opposite side of the world added to the sleepless nights. They are 10 hours ahead of us so the workday there is pretty much the whole night here. I was forced to stay up to communicate with our producers via Skype, Whatsapp, email and any other which way possible. Dealing with a whole production crew and network that were so far away, with a director and producers that our only form of communication with them was via a computer screen made for a very bizarre experience. It was nothing like we’ve ever experienced or dealt with, but had to rise up to the occasion under the circumstances.
I think both Bruce and I [have] vast experience in the business – Bruce ran Mickey Rourke’s production company for 10 years and I being a USC film grad and with over 30 feature films and 60 episodes under my belt as an actress and numerous film and TV that I produced and then serving as the Vice President of Business Development for Radar Pictures for several years ( The Last Samurai) – I guess we both had not only the “kahoonas” and the “Chutzpah” to do it but also the technical and professional track record to achieve the desired result.
Ultimately this season has become the highest rated season, the show has been No. 1 for weeks, with ratings sky rocketing to over 40 percent since past seasons and top critical acclaim from the most high brow sources. I get a bit tickled thinking that we are a part of this and that we took part in helping this become a smash success.”
CBS: How does life in Israel compare to life in America? You were born there, did it feel like coming home?
SB: “Indeed i was born in Israel. I was raised in Israel, England and Los Angeles. Life in Israel is very different. First of all it is the Middle East. It’s the only Westernized country in that region and therefore a constant point of attack from the surrounding hostile countries. Israel is very modern. Ten years ago there was this myth that we ride camels everywhere and drink Turkish coffee and only eat hummus.
It is far from that. Tel – Aviv for example is a total cosmopolitan city with fashion, culinary experiences and culture. Israel has really proven itself to be very innovative in industries of high-tech , technology and medicine. There are more and more tourist that come to visit each year and a deep worldwide fascination ranging from political figures to major celebrities, all who want to feel once the touch of the stones of the Wailing Wall and to smell the air of Old Jerusalem.
Israel is very vivacious, very alive, the people are outspoken, in your face, they don’t mask their emotions, they say it like it is. Daily life there is still sometimes with struggles. The roads are not all well paved, the economy suffers and taxes are tough on the middle and lower class. There are many immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia and unemployment. It is a wondrous juxtaposition of old and new, high and low. There is nothing like the fresh produce the farm (derived from the Kibbutzs) dairy, meats, fruits and vegetables – all 0rganic and tastes fresh from the field.
Smoking is still allowed in every public place and indoors in certain restaurants and there are many ultra conservative religious Jews who get upset when the secular crowd drives on the Sabbath. Family is a very tight and strong unit and bond and the weekends and holidays are spent in a very tight knit familial way. There are beautiful old ruins there with spectacular views and historical meaning. The women are beautiful and the beaches are still raw and the the Mediterranean sea sparkles. I love everything about it even the broken, dirty sides and the beauty lays in the dichotomy.
Coming to Israel to promote the show and shoot the last episodes there was magical. Seeing how the show opened and affected so many people’s lives was very moving. People stopped us on the streets and told us that our story affected them or made them laugh or cry or evoked some emotion in them. It was a very powerful experience.
Add to that, one of the most massive publicity campaigns that we’ve ever seen. I swear there was a billboard with my face plastered on it every 100 feet on every freeway, bridge, building, bus stop and you name it. It was totally surreal to see my face on a giant 20 story building the size of an amazonian giant . Mila kept saying. “Here is mommy , oh and there is another mommy and another….” we have photos of her kissing my giant figure on the poster in several places. Too cute! And the promos that were and still are playing dozens of times a day and all the press and excitement. My family and friends were totally supportive and all are big fans of the show past and present.
Over the years, I have always worked in Israel in numerous television shows from the hit showRamat Aviv Gimmel where I was a series regular for three years to hosting MTV’s Singled Out for 2 years to many feature films including the Academy Award Winner Mr Baum, so my homecoming is usually on a bi-yearly basis, but this time it was on a whole other level.”
CBS: You also have a recurring role on the critically acclaimed web series, Chronicles of the Dead. Tell us a little about the series and your role? Had you been interested in doing an online show?
SB: “Chronicles of the Dead is a successful zombie series which documents a post apocalyptic world via documentary style ‘lost footage.’ They have shot multiple episodes and have been getting top viewership as well as critical acclaim. The film-makers behind it are Brian Hernandez and Younger Robbins of 3Nfilms and I have known them from the business for several years.
I join as Dagney Green who is a powerful ball busting, uber smart and successful career woman CEO of Harlan Corporation, who is ruthless and ready to make some capital gain based on the condition the world is in. My storyline will build and will ensue a strong character arc in the months to come. It’s a great opportunity for me to work on such a strong female character and develop her over time.
I’ve done a couple of web series in the past the comedy The Monica 90404 and the dark comedy The Mondays. I think the web is the future. most people watch various shows on their computers. And it’s great to have creative freedom for the film-makers whereby they are not necessarily subjected to the rules or restrictions of a network.
Testament to that is the mega success of Orange is the New Black for Netfilx. As an actor, I enjoy mixing it up and working in many mediums and genres. I love what I do so much, I am actually quite obsessive about it so anything that is creative, inspiring, challenging, artistic and pushes boundaries can definitely count me in as part in their playing ground.”
CBS: Series like Chronicles of the Dead and The Walking Dead have enjoyed great success? Why do you think zombies are so popular right now?
SB: “Indeed The Walking Dead and Chronicles of the Dead are getting a lot of recognition. World War Z was a smash hit as well. I think people always had fascination with anything that is outer worldly. From werewolves to vampires to zombies. Zombies are actually derived from Haiti from old legend of voodoo and black magic which they tried to keep alive the bodies even after death.
I think the topic of death and what happens in the afterlife is something that whether you are religious or not it crosses ones mind. Cultures throughout civilization and history have tried to bring back the dead and see what eternity and infinity would be like. Aside from all the philosophical and spiritual aspects, I think that these stories and shows are just fun. It’s a type of an escapism. It’s fun and dark and plays with concepts of pseudo realism the realm between the tangible universe and the afterlife. You know innately that it’s not real but you always ponder, “What if this was, or what if this was actually possible.” “
CBS: Tell us about your two daughters. How old are they and what do they like to do for fun? Have they caught the acting bug?
SB: “Mila True is 8 and Journey Elle is 19 months. They are just two of the most precious angles any mother could have hoped for. Mila loves spreading fairy dust on each person that comes in contact with her. She is wise beyond her years – very deep and introspective.
Juju is just a happy-go-lucky love bug who has an infectious laugh and is full of life energy and vigor. They are both kind spirits and I cherish every moment with them. They are both my gifts in life and my treasures. They teach me everyday lessons in life and show me how to look at the world through the lens of a pure human being – that of a child that is still untainted, totally hopeful and innocent.
Mila has lots of extra curriculars that range from dance classes like ballet, jazz, broadway tap and hip hop. She also takes piano, voice, swimming and gymnastics and improv comedy.
Juju is really taking after her sister and loving to dance and sing, they both perform together these impromptu shows and people go crazy. They also love to paint and go to the beach and eat frozen yogurt.
Mila is a strait A student with a remarkable study and work ethic. Sometimes I feel like she is a 40 year old in a little girl’s body. She is so quietly and unassumingly focused, driven, talented and ambitious. She has been modeling and acting since she was a toddler. She has done campaigns and graced major fashion labels and magazines such as :BC Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily, SELF, Fit Pregnancy, Woman, and for brands such as Disney, Mattel, Blu Pony Vintage, Joe’s Jeans, Esprit, Gypsy05, Saurette.
She has done commercials and voiceovers for Famers Insurance, Whirlpool, CVS, Kmart and others. And on the screen she is currently appearing as Academy Award nominee Frank Langella’s Grandaughter in the Time Being also with Wes Bentley as well as leading in the Lifetime Movie, Imaginary Friend opposite Lacy Chabert and Paul Sorvnio. Recently Disney picked her to be the voice of a worldwide Repunzel Doll. I oversee every aspect of Mila’s career, we have a lot of fun and creativity doing this and I think she has a remarkable future ahead of her. Journey has so far appeared in a Samsung Commercial and recently shot a catalog for California Costumes. They are both starring of course on our Israeli hit show, Connected.
CBS: Is there girl drama yet? How do you handle it?
SB: “No girl drama. They are still too little maybe. But also our style of parenting is very chill, we try to keep our household drama free or to a minimum. It gets tough because were all working so hard and having a little baby in the house that needs attention and love. There are definitely intense times of one of them being hungry or tired or needing attention.
Mila has been so helpful over the course of this very busy year and had often given us a lending hand with Journey while we were filming at the house for the show. I think there are breaking moments where Mila just kind of wants her own space, she is really an amazingly dedicated big sister, and we all deserve our space in the moments we need it.”
CBS: What are some of your favorite family activities?
SB: “Our favorite family times is taking some days off and traveling. We go anywhere from local little getaways like Carmel, Monterrey Bay, San Fransisco, Vegas, Palm Springs to far away locals like Israel and Jamaica. We love snow skiing – that is probably our favorite and we go each winter to Mammoth and Big Bear.
Locally we go to museums, art exhibits and fun restaurants – we love anything that has to do with culture and culinary. We have several friends with homes in Malibu and in the summer we just hang out on the beach and BBQ. We also love visiting friends which we have so many of. We are really surrounded by lovely people with rich lives who love and support us. It’s great to have such a wonderful and diverse social circle. Most of our friends have kids too so we just rotate and hang out at each others’ homes, cook and eat meals together and just chill.”
CBS: How has motherhood changed you?
SB: “I’ve been a mother since I was young. I started in my 20s so I feel like since I kind of grew into my own as a woman, I also embraced motherhood. I always knew I wanted to be a young mom that is cool and free thinking, encouraging yet guiding. I really do feel like my marriage and my kids are some of my greatest achievements. Bruce and I have been married for 10 years and going strong and our daughters as I mentioned are just two of the most special little people. I know every parent thinks their kids are the best and the cutest, but that is truly how you feel when you have these mini persons that you just want to squeeze tightly, smell them and tell them all day long how much you love them.
Being a mother showed me a type of love I never knew existed. An unconditional, pure, all encompassing, sense evoking love. The moments I spend with my kids are the most beautiful ones in life. I work as hard as I do to have those special times and moments as a family. I grew up in a big, loving Jewish family. Family values and traditions are of the utmost importance to me.
Motherhood has made me totally unselfish, totally dedicated to the future of my kids and providing a wonderful childhood and life for them – as well as being an example setter. I think that being a mother is a gift that cannot be taken for granted. I am, therefore, grateful for it every day and every day work to improve and grow alongside my children.
The spectrum of your existence grows with motherhood. You are no longer just living for yourself, you have an immense responsibility to raise your kids right and give them a beautiful life. I used to work because of my innate ambition and drive and now I feel I work for them for their well being and their future and therefore I get a deeper satisfaction from what I do and from all aspects of life.
My kids make me laugh every day and give life levity and meaning. I also think I improved as an artist because being a mother gave me new depths and life experiences that one cannot learn from a textbook. I hope that my kids reflect who we are as parents and what they are and what they will become is a product of our parenting.”
CBS: How do you balance your busy career with your mommy duties and everything else you have going on?
SB: “This is an excellent question – society does put a lot of demands on working moms in our day and age. You’re expected to keep a household, raise the kids, cook, and simultaneously carry on with your own trajectory. I often feel like a juggler in a circus. It’s a wild cacophony of daily tasks and assignments. I learned to function on very little sleep – I make up for it a couple of times a week.
I am also pretty OCD and Type A so I keep a pretty calculated itinerary for the days/weeks. It’s all about making lists and crossing off the tasks on them. I plan out my weeks and days ahead of time so things are organized and thought out. But I also leave room for spontaneity. In our work, things come up out of the blue all the time. Its not like we have typical 9-5′s. Some days I shoot for 18 hours, sometimes it’s at night, other times I’m giving press interviews, then running off with Mila to one of her jobs, extra-currics, sometimes it’s homework time.
Then we travel abroad for work, or run to meetings at odd hours. I am often on the go – it can get chaotic but it’s also always exciting and unpredictable. Our schedules are so all over the place that we really try to share all responsibilities. Having a husband like Bruce who is so hands on and helpful both as a father and husband is really a key to it all.
I am also fortunate to have a nanny that has been with us since Mila was 3 weeks. She is a lifesaver – as a working mom its an essential factor that I could not do without. My mom also helps from time to time. It’s always a dichotomy whereby when I’m working I miss my girls so much. I always dream about spending more and more time with them so I also try to bring them with me to work whenever possible and whenever the schedule allows for it and does not jeopardizes the work.
Every day is different and we take it one day at a time trying to do the best we can at any given moment. Sure, it does not always lay our perfectly but at least we give it our best effort.”
CBS: What’s up next for you?
SB: “Next up for me? We are still wrapping out on the show – the last couple of episodes. I’m still heavily into the promotion aspect of the season. I am currently considering a few new offers and will see which will be the best suited one. I am set to shoot a couple new episodes of Chronicles in the next month or two. We are also in mid production of the two reality show pilots were producing. And the indie comedy feature I’m producing, Everyone Wants the Kush.
Mostly I’m just living life to its fullest, staying positive and counting my blessings.
(And dreaming of a Caribbean resort where I can just lay for 2 weeks do nothing and catch up on some zzz’s).”