When director Ondi Timoner was approached to work on the intimate new documentary about Russell Brand, Brand: A Second Coming, she didn’t know who the English entertainer was. She had heard the name in passing and just thought of him as “Katy Perry’s boyfriend.” It wasn’t until she met Brand, and succumbed to his intellect and charm, that she realized that the tumultuous yet necessary story of this “troubled soul” needed to be told. His very difficult and public divorce from Katy Perry was no exception.
Russell, who seems like an open book, is actually extremely calculated and private. Ondi (DIG!, We Live in Public) says getting him to open up was extremely “disquieting” to him. “He’s used to controlling exactly how he’s going to be perceived, or at least he would hope to feel like he can control it,” she says. But it was his unique story of voluntarily opting out of fame that caused her to rise to the occasion and make Russell surrender a little bit of that control. She explains:
“His journey showed a person who took everything to a hilt, to the most extreme, and got everything he ever thought he could get. He became a heroin addict, a sex addict. Became a Hollywood star almost overnight. Married Katy Perry, biggest pop star in the world. Lived in a mansion, everybody loves him. He’s on top of the world, he’s got everything he needs, everything he thought would make him happy, and he’s not. He comes up empty.”
To many, Russell was and still is, regarded to as the man who was linked to Katy in yet another brief, reckless Hollywood union. The two were married from 2010 to 2012, and although Katy gave us an intense look at their split in her documentary Part of Me, Russell hasn’t spoken extensively on it publicly. Ondi admits that in addition to his father (who split from Russell’s mom when he was just 6 months old), Katy is the subject matter he has the most difficult time talking about.
Although she was surprised by Russell’s walls, she wouldn’t surrender creative control and knocked some of them down. As difficult as it was for him to talk about Katy, telling his story meant telling all of his story. “He was controlling about what he had me shoot or not,” says Ondi. “Those walls started to come down the more I worked with him and the more I challenged him and the more that he could see that I understood him, he let me in.”
I imagine admitting to the world that wanting to leave fame, money, and marriage to a beautiful pop star just to return to your small hometown in England would be terrifying. Would people think of you as selfish? Narcissistic? Just plain foolish? It was a risk that Ondi, and eventually Russell, was willing to take. With a little head-to-head and some pushing, the walls began to crumble. Ondi describes it like so:
“It’s like anything, it’s a war of attrition. I caught audio in the edit bay of him talking about me to his manager: ‘Look at Ondi. Nothing stops her, she just keeps going, anything for the shot.’ And I think what he appreciated was my tenacity. He didn’t appreciate it all the time. His manager said to me at one point, ’I can’t stand to be around two of you in the same vortex for too long,’ because there was this dynamic between us, where we would challenge each other, and kind of enjoyed it. That was one great way to peel back the layers. He had a level of trust with me; I [would] take the material he gave me and handle it in a classy way. We got pretty deep in there. He would called me his ginger ninja shadow.”
Russell comes to terms with the fact that having everything in the world, including a marriage, which perhaps made him more famous, wasn’t fulfilling enough. And that’s OK. Know that putting his dark, personal past out there is still extremely challenging, though. “If it was therapeutic,” says Ondi, “he would participate more with it.”
Although reliving the past, specifically Katy, would be “dangerous for him,” it was a creative assetworth including because, together, they want to teach us something. Ironically, Russell’s goal was not to make others think about him from this movie, but to look inward and think about whether or not they’re living a rewarding life. Ondi mentions figures like Malcom X and Gandhi, who put themselves on the line for the greater, more powerful message. You may laugh at the comparison between iconic leaders who gave their lives for a struggle and Russell opening up about his failed marriage and other dark times, but he’s on a mission to help others, just as they were. Regardless of how big, it’s still an empowering one.
“His life was hard to live the first time around, is what he told me. It’s raw,” said Ondi. “But for as much as it will help anyone else out there, he’s going to be happy. At the end of the day, hopefully it will fulfill his mission.”
The movie is not necessarily upbeat, but as stated earlier, necessary. “None of us are straight heroes,” says Ondi. Russell may not have detailed every aspect of the heartbreak and turmoil, but knowing how hard he tried to put it out there for the sake of teaching us something noteworthy in and of itself.
“Of course,” says Ondi, “[there are] some things that only Russell knows in his heart.”
Brand: A Second Coming is out now.