The following is a phone interview I was honored to conduct with Brittany Furlan Lee on December 12, 2018 to discuss her participation in the Netflix documentary, The American Meme. The transcription has been edited for length and clarity. My companion review of the film can be seen here!
Hi, Brittany! We have a lot to talk about, but first of all, I have to tell you that your hair is gorgeous.
Do you like it? That makes me so happy because I was watching the movie when it came out, and I was like, “I kind of miss my long black hair.”
I dig it. It’s brave. I know you’re getting married soon [in February to drummer Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe], and most brides would be afraid to change their signature look. But you’re always moving forward.
Thank you! It’s so funny, people have been saying, “Nice ‘Speak to the Manager’” haircut. And I’m like, “That’s right. I’ll talk to all of your managers!” [laughs]
You don’t have to speak to the manager when you’re the boss! I’m loving your videos. Your Elf on a Shelf Instagram today is hilarious!
Thank you! I’m still making my stupid videos. People say, “You need to not do those anymore.” But I love them; they’re so fun.
No, that’s you!
I’m not like all the other YouTubers who have a whole production crew. It’s just me, and I ask Tommy to help me. Like, “Can you hold the elf?” Oh, Jesus; I’m 32 years old, and I’m making elf videos. [laughs] But they’re really fun. I have such a good time doing it. Why not?
No, I love it. That’s what I appreciate about you, and that’s what the documentary pulled out as well. You are yourself. That goofy sense of humor is everything. You’re not afraid to show that. That’s what people who are coming to you, who really love you, are there for. I don’t think you should stop or feel self-conscious about that.
I’m excited to talk to you about The American Meme. We’re in the age of peak television, and you have helped create peak meme. I want to know, now that it’s been a bit of time since all that started, what are your favorite memories of the early Vine experience?
I think my favorite thing about early Vine was when there was the freedom to do whatever you wanted. There were a lot of adults on there, so I could do all these different characters and dress up as different people, and people weren’t offended. But now, within the last couple of years, people have gotten really sensitive. You can’t make fun of certain things, and you can’t joke about things, or people will call you racist or get mad at you. Comedy has taken a big hit, in a way. You have to be really careful, because it can ruin your career. I miss [what it was from] a couple of years ago. It was only a couple of years ago, like 2013 I think, when it started. I could do all this cool, fun, experimental stuff and dress up as different characters. These people forget that this person I’m dressing up as, that’s not me. It’s the character. They [tend to] take it the wrong way. Now I can’t even really do that anymore. If I’m going to do a sketch, it has to be me playing myself. Basically now it’s just another version of myself, who maybe has a funny little twang or something. That’s the thing that sucks, but, also, I understand it. People have been through a lot of things, and they don’t want to have their culture mocked or made fun of in any way. Not that it was ever meant to hurt anybody. Times have changed. But it’s all good; I think there are many other ways to be funny too.
Was it difficult when Vine went away? That’s a platform that you obviously worked so hard at, and then it dissolved almost overnight.
I was actually really happy when it died, to be honest. It had become such an abusive environment. I’m so grateful for it, because it gave me my life, my opportunities, and my success. But also, I think it became so toxic. There were people telling me to kill myself on there a thousand times a day, and I couldn’t take that. I was like, “I can’t do this.” So, I was glad when I started using it less. Then everyone started using it less, and it just stopped. It was a relief. It was like, “I don’t have to subject myself to this anymore.” I don’t care how strong you are; reading those kinds of comments every day is very detrimental, to anyone.
You’re a human, and you can only absorb so much. Obviously, that’s what we’ve seen with the danger of the internet. As great as it is, anonymity can allow people to say the worst things, because they believe there are no consequences. But there are clearly consequences.
Right. The internet is removed, so you don’t have to look someone in the face. I feel like if these people who say the things they say had to look you in your face and say that to you, they wouldn’t say it. They get to say these things, and they don’t have to see how it affects you. I think it’s made a lot of really awful people become brave. But if you ran into those people on the street, they would never say a thing to you.
Yeah, absolutely. The bravery only goes so far, and it’s not really bravery.
It’s a cowardly bravery. It’s like throwing a rock and then hiding behind a tree.
That’s a great analogy.
“I’m just going to throw this rock at you, and then hide!” It’s kind of funny.
And have no responsibility for their actions, at all. Super.
Exactly! It’s really sad. I think Instagram has done a good job of monitoring it. If someone keeps leaving abusive comments on your posts, they get suspended. They’ve done a really good job at trying to stop the bullying on there. I definitely think Vine should have taken a hint from them, in terms of monitoring posts.
From the film, you mentioned introducing King Bach and Lele Pons to Vine. I know that affected you a little bit, that it was hard, in a way, seeing their successful transitions. Was there a feeling of community, within that community?
I still really love Bach, and Amanda’s really nice. Yeah, there’s always been a great sense of community. I think if we ever run into each other, it’s like family or a friend. You just pick up where you left off. You have this kind of bond with them forever. I definitely don’t get to see them as much, especially because I moved out to Calabasas, and it’s far from where a lot of them live. But I still love them all very much. I care about them; I want them to be happy and do well. Yeah, they’re all rad.
You were talking on Twitter recently about jealousy, especially with women and competition. I think it’s important to be happy for other people, wherever they’re at. And to know that there’s enough for everybody. Just work hard and focus on yourself.
Exactly. It’s very frustrating to me. When the documentary came out, a girl I used to be friends with a really long time ago, she was friends with me when I first started Vine. She was also an aspiring comedian. That’s how we met. I started doing these videos, and I started having a little bit of success. I said, “Hey, I’m going to put you in some videos and help you get some followers.” All I ever did was try to help her, but she didn’t have success with it. She would try to make her own videos, and people weren’t following her or anything like that. She ended up getting really angry at me and started treating me badly. Then we stopped being friends, sadly. When The American Meme came out, she wrote a really mean tweet saying, “They used my image in that documentary without asking me!” She was literally in the background in a few of my Vines in the documentary. It just broke my heart, because all I ever did was try to help her and support her. And here she was saying, “This thing’s a piece of shit. I hate it.” Why are you so mad? All I ever did was try to support you, and help you grow. It was just really sad, that’s all.
Yeah, that’s really unfortunate. Ultimately that reflects someone else’s state of mind.I know that you’ve suffered through a lot bullying, and it’s a testament that you keep moving forward. You don’t let that take you down. That says a lot.
In the documentary you mentioned one thing you liked about Vine was that you “didn’t have to audition or ask for permission.” Now that you’re auditioning again, do you feel perhaps that it’s more challenging because Hollywood was kind of pissed off that you beat the system? You figured out how to get famous without needing the machine. I wonder if there is a bias towards you, even though you are clearly talented.
Yeah, I definitely feel that way. I get shut down a lot. I have so much work out there; if you want to see my work, you can see it. I’ll audition and know I did well. I’ve been acting forever. The casting director will be like, “Yeah, she’s great, but the producer doesn’t want her.” That’s the thing that sucks. I’ve gotten very few jobs, because I feel like a lot of people are thinking, “Oh, she’s that girl from Vine.” They don’t want people to get distracted and have them taken out of the movie, or whatever. But that doesn’t make any sense. They put people in movies all the time who are known for who they are, you know what I mean? I don’t know. It’s just very weird. Yeah, I think Hollywood’s a little bitter and a little jaded. [But] I’m never going to stop trying. Maybe one day it’ll lead to something really big. In the meantime, I’m doing indie projects, plus the pilot I’m working on right now. I’m going to keep chugging along.
Art is having the audacity to create something in the first place. And then you have to keep doing that thing over and over. You have to keep showing up and doing the work. You’re already doing that, so what needs to happen is for the perception around you to change. And I believe it will.
Thank you! I really hope I get a big movie or a big show or something. That would be awesome.
You’ve been really open about your struggles with anxiety. Given the profession you’re in, there’s always got to be a tinge of that nervousness in your life. How do you deal with that? How do you know when to push past it, and when to lay low?
I mean, I definitely always show up when I have work. I never let it control me to the point that it debilitates me. I struggle sometimes, where I really won’t feel well; I’ll be panicking and trying to get through something. People might not be able to see it on the outside. I have a really lovely partner now. He’s very calm and Zen; he helps me get grounded and not stress out. I was on set the other day in my trailer for like six hours, and I hadn’t shot anything yet. I got a little stir-crazy and started having a panic attack. I called my partner and said, “I’m freaking out a little bit.” He said, “Go outside, get some fresh air, and walk around.” It’s nice to have someone that’s there for you like that. Sometimes you need someone to help you get out of your head. I overthink, that’s the problem. It drives me into a weird headspace sometimes. That’s when the anxiety comes. I try to take care of myself, for the most part. I don’t really drink. I don’t do any drugs. I don’t even smoke cigarettes anymore. I smoked cigarettes for a while, and then I was like, “Nope!” I keep my body very healthy and clean. I try to stay away from anything that’ll make me feel worse.
That’s a good way to keep focused. I can imagine Tommy would be such a great support as well, because he’s had decades in the limelight. Handling this must be completely second-nature to him, and I bet he has a lot of tips.
Yeah. He’s very unfazed. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t let people get to them. He doesn’t give a shit what anyone says about him. He just says how he feels, unabashedly, and he doesn’t care who he offends. He’s like, “Who cares? No one cares.” He just does his own thing. I’m like, “You don’t care? What if something happens?” He always says, “I am who I am, and if someone has a problem with it, they can fuck off.” He really doesn’t care. It’s crazy; I’ve never met someone who doesn’t care. I’m someone who cares so much. We’re the polar opposite, when it comes to that.
That tends to be a female thing. We get that ingrained in us from the get-go.
Oh, yeah. We’re constantly like, “Oh, let me think of a thousand things that can go wrong,” instead of, “Let’s just chill and live our lives.”
We have to take care of ourselves, and everybody else too. “I’ll take care of everyone around me, and then maybe I’ll think about myself for a minute.” It’s ridiculous.
Speaking of that, how do you work with the ongoing need to use social media while balancing your private life? At this point, we all have to use these platforms, to some extent.
I try really hard. My fiancé is definitely not happy that I’m on my phone as much as I am. I think it’s hard for people, especially when online is where I make my money. I have my presence on there, and I constantly have to keep up with everything that’s going on. It’s difficult to manage that. Especially because I’m with someone who could give a shit about social media, obviously because he made it in a time when there wasn’t any. It’s a very different thing. I try to be more conscious about being on Instagram too long, but I definitely fall short a lot. I try to be present. We have dinners, and I don’t go on my phone. He cooks dinner for us, which is amazing. I love to enjoy my time and have dinner together. It’s a really traditional, nice, family-oriented presence.
You shared a lot in the documentary about your childhood. It was painful to hear about. I want to commend you on being so honest about that. I was wondering, not that it ever goes away, but do you feel like some of that has started to be alleviated now that you see how your life is coming together? You’ve come to L.A., started to make it, and found a wonderful person.
I think I left for L.A. to get away from it. I literally moved to the other side of the country to get as far away from it as I could. That helped, obviously. Now I still deal with it because your parents can see everything online, and I have an interesting relationship with my mother. It’s very difficult, still. As much as I’ve managed to get away from it, I also haven’t. I’m learning to be better with myself and realize I’m an adult, as well as recognizing what I have to, and don’t have to, deal with anymore. I’ve stopped letting people hurt me. I don’t need to put myself through certain things with certain people just because they’re family. I think as much as I’ve gotten away from it, it’s mostly been in the past year with Tommy. Tommy’s the one who’s been like, “You don’t deserve to be talked to that way. You don’t deserve to be treated that way. No one should be talking to you that way who loves you, who’s in your family. That’s crazy.” I’ve learned to be stronger in sticking up for myself in this relationship against people, even though they’re blood. Sometimes you let people walk all over you because it’s a parent, and you want to be like, “Oh, it’s my parent, so I have to be there for them.” But if your parent is constantly abusing you, it doesn’t matter that they’re your parent. That’s a big thing that I’ve never handled before. I’ve always gone back and kept expecting things to change, but they don’t. That’s a hard thing.
Having those boundaries with family is one of the most challenging things we all have to tackle in our lifetime. It’s a great challenge, and one of our most important learning experiences.
Yeah, it really is.
The documentary is fascinating; it’s such a well-crafted piece of work. You come across so lovely in the film, and as a whole. I feel like you came away a little more unscathed from your time in that spotlight than say Kirill (Kirill Was Here, who’s also a subject of the movie), because you focused on your creativity and passion, whereas he’s involved in the deeper underbelly of just straight-up partying. There’s a lightness to you because of that. Do you feel that’s a fair assessment of that time?
Yeah. A bunch of Viners went out, spent all their money, and bought Lamborghinis. I was raised to be really frugal. My dad always said, “Save your money, because you never know what’s going to happen.” So, I saved all my money and lived modestly. I lived like I wasn’t making money. That’s what kept me grounded. I never look at myself like I’ve made it. I always feel like I have to keep working. I think that’s the difference. These people started making crazy money, and then they started spending crazy money. They fall down this K-hole of having to make more because they want more. It becomes this incessant void. I always said I’m never going to get that way. I’m just going to live modestly and take care of people. I still try to do a lot of charity work. I did a bunch of paintings recently where I sold them and gave the proceeds to a mental health organization. I think that’s an important thing to do with your time and money. It’s good for your soul, as a person, to do things like that. If you just focus on yourself, you end up in this awful narcissistic black hole. It gets really dark.
I think having an interest in humanity is a wonderful balance. There’s a lot of darkness in the world, but there’s also a lot of lightness, and you have to be part of the light.
There is, yeah. And it’s more satisfying to give back. Honestly, people don’t realize it, but I was just doing those paintings for fun and posting them on my Instagram. Then people were like, “Can I buy one?” I thought, “Oh, my god, people want to buy them? Well, if they’re going to buy them, then I need to donate whatever they’re going to pay for them to charity.” I just covered my cost and then donated the rest to charity. It was really cool.
Some people think that to be creative, you have to be on that grind without anything else on your mind. When you lighten up, give to other people, and take a beat to think about something other than yourself, your creativity returns that favor to you.
Yeah, it does. It does. It keeps you from getting into that really dark place, I think.
It would be easy to go there. There were definitely some moments with other people in the film where we saw that darkness more. Were there any scenes from the documentary that didn’t make it to the final cut that you would’ve liked to have seen included?
We visited my old house, the one I first lived in when I came to L.A. It was so small. It was literally just a square room with a toilet in the corner. We couldn’t get in there, but you could kind of see it through the window. They didn’t put that in there, but I wish we could have. I don’t think they got a good shot of it, so it was probably unusable. But I wanted people to see that I lived in this total piece of shit awful apartment, and I kept going. I want people to know that no matter how awful it is where you start, that doesn’t have to be where you end up.
Absolutely! You mentioned a little bit ago something about a pilot. Is that a topic you can expand on more?
Yes! I’m shooting a pilot called Paradise City. There’s a bunch of people in it. Fairuza Balk is in it, from The Craft, and Drea de Matteo from The Sopranos, she’s in it. There’re a bunch of big actors in it. I play an agent’s wife. It’s the pilot, so I try not to get too excited because if it doesn’t go, I’ll be so depressed. But yeah, it’s really cool. Andy Biersack, the singer of Black Veil Brides, is also in it. It’s about a band that comes to L.A., sells their souls to the devil, and tries to make it. It’s a really cool script. Yeah, I’m hoping it’ll go.
That’s exciting. What channel will that be on? Where should we look for it?
I think it’s Showtime. I’m pretty sure it’s Showtime.
Yeah, we’ll see. Then I did a movie called Spy Intervention with Poppy Delevingne. I’m the supporting character in that. It’s a really funny movie about two spies, this girl and a guy who fall in love. Well, the guy is a spy, and eventually she ends up becoming a spy; but I can’t give that away! Blake Anderson from Workaholics is in it too. It’s a really cool, funny movie. That should be coming out next year. I think they’re going to try to put it at Sundance.
Oh, that’s so exciting!
Yeah. I’m constantly trying to work and get stuff going.
Also, I heard that you have a role in The Dirt? [The Dirt is a film based on the memoir by Mötley Crüe, coming to Netflix in March of 2019.]
Yeah! I have a really small role in The Dirt, Tommy’s movie coming out in March. The producer is really sweet. They put me in a really tiny part. It’s like one line. It’s cute though.
Well, I can’t wait for your projects, because they all sound amazing. And I also can’t wait for The Dirt!
I know! The Dirt is going to be freaking awesome.
It’s going to be epic! I’m so glad they finally found a way to bring it to the screen, because obviously the band, the legacy, and the book – it’s all amazing.
Yeah, it took years, but they did it. It’s going to be rad. You’re going to love it.
You know, those guys and that energy… what they’ve pulled off is incredible. They’re one of the best bands, ever! I’m not shy to say I’m a lifelong fan. I’m still a little emotional that it’s over, but that’s okay.
Aww! I’ll tell Tommy. They put a lot of their heart and soul into that band, especially Tommy. He came up with all the ideas for the roller coaster. He always wants to go bigger and better, constantly. He doesn’t give up. He’s the one that does that. It’s not the production. It’s Tommy sitting down and saying, “I want to go upside down! I want to be lit on fire. I want to be shot out of a cannon!” He drew that roller coaster out on a napkin in a production meeting.
I love that about him. He has such wild ideas, and he not only brings them to fruition, but he brings them to life in the biggest way possible. [He’s the GOAT of drummers.]
He goes so big. It’s kind of gnarly. I watch him, and it’s like, “How did you not throw up? You’re literally spinning, and you are upside down.” I would be puking everywhere.
That’s for sure!
I want to thank you again for talking me. The internet can be a mixed bag, but I hope it helps to know there are people like me who love what you’re doing and are wishing you well! I can’t wait to see what you do next.
You are sweet – thank you!
The American Meme is streaming now on Netflix. Don’t forget to check out the author’s companion review here. You can find Brittany Furlan on Twitter and Instagram.
Jenna Zine would like to thank Brittany Furlan for her time, Sharon Eva from Entertainment News Public Relations for arranging the interview, MovieBoozer for the support, Thomas Danner for the stellar transcription services, and Larry Crane of Tape Op Magazine for the encouragement and opportunity.