Tank Burt is no stranger to the intimacy of the unsaid. As a director she's been honing her craft with shorts like Skateboard, Skateboard, a coming-of-age story told virtually without dialogue, and now she's made her feature debut as an actress in Love Is Strange, Ira Sachs' lyrically beautiful meditation on relationships wrapped in the provocative package of alternative lifestyles.
"We are in the era of the quiet film," Burt says. "The whole Michael Bay [thing] -- explosions, 5000 cuts within four minutes, that's kind of fading away. People are looking for meaning, for 'How do I traverse this thing called my life?' I think this generation right now wants something deeper."
Love Is Strange centers on gay couple Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), whose decision to get married after 40 years of living together results in George losing his job teaching music at a Catholic school. This forces the pair, unable to pay the mortgage on their luxury apartment, to live separately while searching for a new home -- George moves in with his fun-loving young neighbors (gay cops played by Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez), while Ben stays with his preoccupied nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), his novelist wife (Marisa Tomei) and rebellious teenage son (a fantastic Charlie Tahan). Brimming with the often uncomfortable yet exquisite veracity of life, the movie explores the various avenues of how people from different generations come together and apart in the modern world.
"It's such a sweet, powerful film," notes Burt, who plays Perez's lesbian partner on the police force. "And it's a film about gay men that doesn't center around sex and doesn't have stereotypes. It's about how family is cobbled together between these disparate groups and how we define family for ourselves."
In his latest offering Sachs has put forth the essential "quiet film." Love Is Strange runs on character-driven drama and subtle moments that speak volumes, like Ben and George's anguished wordless embrace after the first few days of their separation. The film also contains the humor and beauty of the everyday, illustrated by its lustrous Chopin soundtrack amid the awkwardness of John Lithgow sharing a small room with a moody 14-year-old. By crafting a story about "seasons of life," Sachs has elevated the problems of a few little people into something universally and profoundly affecting.
Working on Love Is Strange has certainly affected Tank Burt. Proudly lesbian in real life -- she's spending the majority of this interview, appropriately enough, cuddling on a loveseat with her girlfriend -- she affirms her joy in collaborating with Sachs:
That feeling of family and camaraderie was very much there [on set]. In an independent film everything is more intimate... Ira sat down with every single person and had a conversation with each of us about the film, our particular part, what was going to happen. We just became this cohesive crew. I love and respect Ira -- he is a director who happens to be gay and doesn't hide that, and when you see him and [husband Boris Torres] together with their two kids, it's a complete and utter inspiration for me. That could be my life.
The path on which Burt now finds herself is diametrically opposite the one she'd planned for as a young woman. Raised as the second oldest of four children in an upper-middle-class African-American household in Tallahassee ("My family is the Florida Huxtables," she laughs, "my parents have seven degrees between them."), Tank earned high grades in math, studied electrical engineering, and expected to settle down with a husband in the suburban South. But a dramatic reading of The Canterbury Tales and advice from her high school English teacher irrevocably changed that course.
She said,"'Have you thought about acting?" I hadn't really thought about it, but math wasn't making me happy. Just because you're good at something doesn't mean it's what you're supposed to do. The next year I enrolled in the University of Florida's theatre program, and that was pretty much it.
So goodbye to engineering -- but not entirely, as Burt soon discovered her passion for directing combined the cerebral manipulations of mathematics with the art she'd come to love.
Even being in scenes with my partner [as an actress], I could completely visualize a whole [play] and say, "This is the blocking, this is what we're going to do." Directing was just a natural progression for me. My thesis was Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden -- I had this huge charcoal mural almost like a chessboard on the floor, and [the characters] were like these chess pieces moving around the stage.
But fate surprised the chessmaster when, in 1991, Tank left school and moved to New York City. Hoping to audition for Spike Lee's Malcolm X, she ended up hostessing at the Hard Rock Cafe, where one night a female coworker impulsively kissed her.
"I had a complete reaction to it," Burt remembers. "Like, 'Why is that a turn-on?' I was raised Baptist -- I mean, forget about it. I thought, 'Oh yeah, well, I'm bi.' I didn't want to go all the way and say, 'I'm gay.'"
Eventually, however, Burt plucked up the courage to come out to her family, all of whom remained supportive.
My sister goes, "Oh, we knew that." And my father was like, "Are you happy?" "Yeah, Daddy, my life is good." He goes, "Well, that's all I want for you." It's kind of tough coming out, because you feel like you're the only one going through this very difficult thing. You're living your life as straight, thinking that's just the one way, and all of a sudden you discover there's this whole other world you didn't know anything about and now you're part of it. So your learning curve is pretty steep initially. But I have the best family in the world.
These early experiences made Tank a natural for Love Is Strange's openhearted unconventional universe, but her casting was an act of total serendipity. Burt encountered Sachs at a Made in New York meet-and-greet following a directors' panel in mid-2013, and though she longed to ditch the proceedings she enthusiastically struck up a conversation with the filmmaker whose work she adored. The two had an instant rapport and Sachs, turning to leave, casually asked Burt to audition for his film. He neglected to say that he'd been on a months-long fruitless search for the right actress, reading hundreds of women, and out of desperation had even started auditioning men for the part because no woman possessed the magic X factor... No one, that is, but Tank Burt. Two weeks after that fortuitous meeting, she was filming a scene opposite Alfred Molina in Queens.
The most important moments of your life happen and you don't realize it. You have no clue. But I was truly what Ira was looking for in the part of Doreen and the set was so relaxed. We were all in it together. The First Assistant Director, Chris Carroll, is an amazing human being. I definitely want him to First AD my film.
Yes, Burt is already developing a slew of other projects, including a full-length version of Skateboard, Skateboard featuring Molina (and ideally Idris Elba as one of the leads -- as Tank says, "Just for the record, if a lesbian thinks a guy is hot, he's seriously hot"), and a mixed live-action/animated children's TV show called How Do You Do Music? in the vein of Reading Rainbow. Judging by how she's played her cards thus far, it wouldn't surprise me if Tank were suddenly snapped up by a hit series like Orange Is the New Black.
But as Love Is Strange and Burt's own life teach us, destiny is so much more about what lies in the heart than in the head.
It's actually a theme in all of my work, both as a director and an actor. We're sort of programmed that if we have certain things -- money, work, the right mate, the right car, dress the right way -- that we will be happy. And the truth is happiness is something else. It's created from within, and each of us has to find that.
Sitting arm-in-arm with her partner, having worked on a masterpiece of a movie, about to delve into her own, is Tank happy? She responds with a knowing smile, "I feel I'm on the precipice. I'm utterly in love, and I'm so happy for Ira. He's been waiting his whole life for this and he absolutely deserves it. This is one of those movies that's going to just live on."