If you’re a even a casual country fan, seeing Lauren Bonavenia’s face – or even the tattoo on her shoulder – might cause you to do a double take. Whether you’ve occasionally flipped through CMT or you’re a devout follower of country’s biggest names, chances are you know her. The actress and model has starred in music videos opposite some of country’s biggest names: “Don’t Ya” by Brett Eldredge, “Where It’s At” by Dustin Lynch, “Bottoms Up” by Brantley Gilbert. The Gilbert video alone has over 102 million views. She’s appeared in national TV spots for brands like Nissan, and videos she’s starred in have played on the screen during the Grammy, ACM, and CMA Awards.
When we caught up with the New York native on a brisk winter afternoon in Nashville, Bonavenia – Lauren Brooke, professionally – was between videos. Most recently, she’d shot the Brothers Osborne’s “21 Summer,” playing the lead – a prostitute who misleads the video’s protagonist. “I like the acting ones ’cause what made me fall in love with country music is it’s always the stories,” Brooke says. “When you’re doing the mini-movie ones it’s real acting, and sometimes you do a dialogue, but for the most part you’re acting with your body. It’s a lot harder to do something and portray something when you have no words, you’re not saying anything, so you have to really show emotion.”
“When it comes time to write the treatment for something, we’re not gonna choose the easy route,” the duo’s John Osborne told The Shotgun Seat last year. “[It] gives you an opportunity to challenge yourself and to challenge the listener and take them on another journey – not just the sonic journey but a visual journey.” For “21 Summer,” Brooke says, the duo was remarkably hands-on, involved not only with the choice of actors but also staying on set long after they needed to, encouraging team and cheering them on after each take. “When they’re involved it makes you more passionate about you’re doing,” she adds.
The audition process, she shares, can vary; some call for a basic performance, while others involve a more in-depth interview that can range from questions on personal inspiration to what kind of car they drive. Some bookings are more random – for the Dustin Lynch shoot, director Shane Drake had his lead cancel last minute and called Brooke. She was living in New York at the time, modeling with Wilhelmina and then the Block Agency, her current agency home. “I got the call at six o’clock at night and by six o’clock in the morning I was in Nashville,” she says.
Mostly, however, it’s a matter of being a good fit. When Brett Eldredge’s team prepped for “Don’t Ya,” the new artist was understandably nervous; he knew what he was looking for, but had never had a girl in a video before. “I had just moved and [agent] Mark [Block] was like, ‘Hey, you’re tolerable, will you go do this with my buddy?'”
“[Artists aren’t] actors, for the most part,” she continues, “and so they’re very comfortable on a stage being themselves, but let’s face it: when you’re on a camera and you’re acting with someone you don’t know, you’re not being yourself. For us, you’re like, I got this in the bag, but for them it’s different, it’s out of their comfort zone.”
For many artists, “out of their comfort zone” includes kissing a stranger on camera. “Where It’s At,” the lead single from Dustin Lynch’s sophomore album, was the first time he’d had a female co-star in a video. “They said, ‘Hey he’s really nervous, maybe go talk to him, he’s a super nice guy,'” Brooke says. She and Lynch had never met. “I show up and our first scene is at our house and we’re supposed to be comfortable so we’re in PJs – I’m literally in underwear and a sweater – and this is supposed to be my boyfriend. I walk up to him and I was like, ‘Look we have to pretend like we are crazy in love right now, so you have two minutes to tell me everything about you. It made him laugh. You almost like make fun of it and just go for it,” she says. “I always try to have this funny rapport; you go in like, ‘Hey we’re about to be really uncomfortable, but let’s just be pals.'”
Sometimes, the discomfort is more physical. “Where It’s At” was shot primarily as a selfie, which meant that Brooke had to hold a 30-pound camera for each take, effortlessly throwing darts or leaning in for a kiss simultaneously. And many scenes take longer than expected – Brooke’s brief appearances in Keith Urban’s patchwork “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” include takes of her floating in the water, got her to set by 9am and home around 8pm. “The water was flowing in the opposite direction and so I had one person holding my ankle the whole time and moving me because I would float away,” she says. “Also, your ears are underwater, so you can’t really hear [the director]. Somehow he made that look beautiful – it’s one of my favorite shots but I don’t know how he did it because it was not graceful by any means.”
But though shoots can be lengthy – they go until they’re finished, resulting in shoots like the Brantley Gilbert video, which lasted 20 hours – they’re not without their share of fun. For Jerrod Niemann and Lee Brice’s “Little More Love,” the shoot was filled with pranks, keeping the mood light even on long days.
Sometimes, the setup itself is humorous. “We shot the Brett Eldredge video at a mansion in East Nashville,” Brooke says. [There were] five kids, 20 something year olds, living in this mansion, one girl and all dudes, so the house – we didn’t have to mess it up, there was beer cans all over the floor it was like a party. Mason Dixon was the director and I remember going in there and him being like, ‘Yeah man, we didn’t have to do anything with this place, it was already like trashed.’ I guess the kids were like, ‘Should we clean? and he was like, ‘No, if anything, make it worse.” We shot the kissing scene in this kid’s room,” she laughs, “and he was literally like playing video games the corner while we were shooting.”
If Brooke’s been in a lot of music videos – she, and her shoulder tattoo, often get recognized on the street during the annual CMA Fest – there are even more that she’s resultantly ineligible for: country artists can’t have the same girl star in all their videos, so typically a year or so will go by before she’s cast again. It’s understandable; watching CMT, the actress has seen three videos in which she was cast play back to back. Part of that is due to the strength of the local community. “Nashville’s super in-house,” Brooke says. “For the most part we’re not flying an actor from LA to come [shoot]. It’s really, really cool – we’re getting opportunities here that we might not get anywhere else in bigger cities. I’ve worked more three years in Nashville than I’ve gotten jobs booked ten years in New York.”
That work in Nashville now includes off-camera, where Brooke is beginning to work behind the scenes on sets. To follow her journey, connect with her on Instagram.