Heather Burns’ doleful brown eyes are put to excellent use in “Brave New Jersey,” an independent film opening today in theaters and available on-demand.
The actress, who’s played a variety of character roles for the past two decades, shines in “Brave New Jersey” as beleaguered housewife Lorraine Davison, whose frequent sighs reveal her recognition that Paul, her husband, played by Sam Jaeger, is an arrogant and self-absorbed individual.
The daffy comedy takes place in the small (fictional) New Jersey town of Lullaby in 1938, on the night that Orson Welles delivered his infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast.
Much of Lullaby listens to the radio, but those who don’t, get the message when they see their neighbors wielding shotguns and shouting words like, “Martians” and “spaceship.” Lullaby isn’t immune from the laws of human behavior, and gets swept up in hysteria and panic, which manifest in hysterical ways.
Sam takes off in his car when he hears that the army of aliens is approaching, but not before he stops, gets out and looks back at his family, then calmly gets back into the car and drives away.
“Lorraine’s husband leaves her and she’s forced to stand up for herself,” Burns said. “The comedy comes out of how slowly information is spread. The town doesn’t realize that the broadcast is fake.”
When town mayor Clark Hill, played by “Veep’s” Tony Hale, goes to Lorraine’s house to warn her, she screams, “I don’t care! Now get out of here!” and runs upstairs and pulls the covers over her head. When she gets out of bed and finds a love letter to her husband from another woman, it only deepens her bewilderment and emotional turmoil.
As chaos ensues, Lorraine finds Hill. “They end up bonding together and falling in love,” Burns said. “He’s such a wonderful actor.”
“Brave New Jersey,” united Burns with director Jody Lambert (“People Like Us,” “Dirty Sexy Money,”) and co-writer Michael Dowling. “I studied acting with them at Atlantic Theater School,” she said. “I’d been doing readings for [‘Brave New Jersey’] for years. They put it on the back burner.”
“Heather is such a unique and wonderful actress,” Lambert said. “She’s funny and charming and also very focused and disciplined, like an athlete. She has this timeless quality about her. She’s very hip in real life, but when she put on the costumes, it was like she stepped out of a time machine. She seemed like she was from 1938. It was an amazing transformation. She had such wonderful instincts about the character. It was a joy to collaborate with her.”
The title of the film may be “Brave New Jersey,” but the production never set foot in the Garden State. “We shot in Tennessee — in June,” Burns said. “We shot at night, out in the fields. There was a lot of mud, a lot of rain, lightning bugs and snakes. It felt like a weird kind of dreamy night camp.”
Burns, who started acting in the early Nineties, said, “It was so great. The work is pretty good now. There’s a lot shooting in New York. I’m actually working on two shows now, Amazon’s ‘Sneaky Pete,’ about a con-man played by Giovanni Ribisi and cocreated by Bryan Cranston and NBC’s ‘Blind Spot.'”
She’s often played the sister and the friend to lead actresses on celluloid, but has had her own memorable screen moments, as well. One of her best-known characters is Miss Rhode Island in “Miss Congeniality.” When asked by pageant host Stan Fields (William Shatner) what her idea of a perfect date is, she replies, “I guess I’d have to say April 25, because it’s not too hot or too cold.”
More recently, Burns was in “Manchester by the Sea,” as Jill, the mother of one of Patrick’s girlfriends, who tries to come on to his uncle Lee (Casey Affleck).
Wearing a Hugo Boss dress that was a gift from her husband, actor Ajay Naidu, Burns said, “I love fashion, but I don’t like to shop. Ajay loves fashion and loves to shop.”
Burns and Naidu live with their 18-month-old son in the East Village. They’re a peripatetic threesome. The family lived in London last winter when Burns and Naidu were performing in “The Kid Stays in the Picture” at the Royal Court Theater. “Our son loves London,” Burns said. “We were away so much and the theater has such a grueling schedule, but he didn’t care.
“We love theater and being able to work together,” Burns continued. “I always feel like getting roles is a karma thing, in a way. I feel like they almost come to you. I’ve had roles I really wanted and didn’t get. The universe has to be perfectly aligned.”