BODY OF ART By Ragan Brooks
“Art can never exist without naked beauty displayed” ~ William Blake
Bare with me here, literally. In the past 10 years that I have lived in Los Angeles, as an actress, I have encountered countless auditions that required I state my comfort ability with baring some or all of my bits. “Yes, as long as it is pertains to the story, is done in an tasteful way and supports the art”, is the cliché auto response to that common inquiry. I usually complied, quite sure that the nudity had very little to do with the actual story on most occasions. But I needed and wanted to work, so I played the game. I’ve never succumbed to any “casting couch” practices or engaged in any dishonest ways to obtain work. I am just a passionate thespian who acknowledges that my body just as much a tool as my mind in this job.
I learned this very important lesson at the age of 15. It may sound a bit too early to be learning something like this, but it was put to me very frankly by a photographer at the time. “You will never be a good model or actress because you haven’t had any experiences in your life, no pain, no struggle, no strife.” I was 15! What strife could I have really had in my young, suburban life thus far? He had point. From this so-called “pain and struggle” he spoke about would come a connection to my body and myself. I was fortunate to have had a good home and family. I really didn’t have any pain to draw on yet. But I didn’t like feeling guilty for my lack of struggle. I was and always have been very grateful for my healthy upbringing. I would have to discover this “strife” some other way.
This photographer recommended to me that I rent some French films...STAT. From these, he said, I would be able to see how free the French are with their bodies and emotions. I found myself at Blockbuster the next day, with a VHS tape of “Betty Blue” in my hand. Feeling sheepish, I snuck it home and into my bedroom, as if I was smuggling a naughty magazine. The film wasn’t like
anything I had seen before. Betty was like no one I’d ever known before. She was young and beautiful but also fearless, confident, free, sexy, crazy and emotive. I did not share any these traits with her. She used her sexuality to seduce her lover and they lived the story out with free abandon, indulging in each other throughout the entire film. What struck me was that she was so young yet seemed so experienced. She knew exactly how to lure her lover and what to do with him. She was intoxicating. I then understood I had some work to do. It didn’t mean that I needed to go and experiment or be promiscuous, just simply that I needed to loosen up and get comfortable with the power of my body. I needed to learn how to use it and shape it, how I could effect others and use it to my advantage. I am still working on this today. This was a valuable lesson I received early on. That power and this ability comes from within, it is a personal journey. It is a confidence that some are born with, others have to cultivate it.
I was recently reminded of why this confidence was so important. I began shooting a role that required I be extremely confidant with my body, like never before. On the day of shooting my love scene, I walked into my dressing room to find that my wardrobe consisted of a 2x3” ace bandage and some double stick tape. I would need to channel Betty Blue today for sure. My mind was trying to take over....”What had I gotten myself into?? Had I worked out enough? I should have spray tanned. Again, I embraced it, knowing that it was part of the job and I was a professional.
As soon as we rolled, I found myself having an out of body experience. I focused on my character, her desire to please her fiancé, to keep him satisfied and her desperate need to sustain a connection with him which she fears is waning. Once I could immerse myself in her mindset, I was no longer Ragan, naked on a film set feeling vulnerable and insecure. I had purpose, I had a goal and making hot sexy love was going to keep my fiancé from wandering. That’s all I could think about. From then on, I forgot about being so exposed and truly experienced using my body as a vehicle to portray this woman’s desires and fears. It was liberating. Like learning a new language and suddenly being able to communicate with an entirely new population. I
had an additional way to interpret this character. How much more effective could I be in learning about her and actually using her sexuality in the story?
The experience of being nude on film is two fold. It is at once a personal, inner challenge to find the love for oneself and willingness to share that intimacy with the world and at the same time, a struggle with the worlds view of that very topic, nudity. If you choose to do nudity in a role, you risk the stereotype of being desperate, slutty, over-exposed, “adult entertainer”....you name it. The general television viewing audience is fine with seeing atrocious murders and violence take place in their living rooms, things that they would (hopefully) never be involved in themselves. However, when it comes to love making, nudity and basic human sexuality, most are appalled. After Beatrice Dalle completed Betty Blue, she was hailed as a sex symbol and “respected performer”. There is not enough room on the page to even begin the list of actresses who have bared it all on screen. Truly, just about every big name in Hollywood has been there, done that. Diane Lane was breathtaking (and buff) in Unfaithful, Charlize Theron was heart wrenching (and fully exposed) in Monster and what about Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball? These are top-notch actresses who have been able to bare their “tops” and do so with respect and dignity. This is inspiring to me, but moreover, the audience’s acceptance of them in these roles had a bigger impact. Nudity has become increasingly more present on the small screen lately. Californication, Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire are all shows pushing the limits and forcing the acceptance of flesh on film. Males are not exempt from the movement; in fact, male nudity has become so common that it had been coined “dude-ity” within the industry. I welcome all of it. As an actress, it feels like a door to even more possibilities of a character.
Our bodies are amazing things. Complex works of art in and of themselves. Nudity and sexuality are parts of our daily lives. When your job is to portray someone else’s life, you accept this aspect of them. Herein lies all of one’s deepest vulnerabilities, insecurities, struggles, fears, desires and needs. Now more than ever, I know how important it is to look at how a character lives sexually. I often live very differently from the way my character does in this way.
Knowing this has allowed me to explore my own behaviors and understand myself like never before. Body image and sexual confidence comes from your state of mind. It is constantly evolving and needs to be nurtured by no one other than you. The only thing I can control is my own work and approach to the topic. I am open.
“Being naked approaches revolutionary, going barefoot is mere populism” ~ John Updike