Pretty much all “creative” people, get The Talk at some point. From a teacher. A mentor. An older friend. Our parents. All of the above. The Talk is about how, no matter how much you love it, trying to make a living as an actor, a musician—a writer—will devour you like something out of HP Lovecraft and you should run screaming while you still have the ability to run, because your knees will wear out from all the time you spend on them, begging, or—you know. Usually there is a line in there to the effect of “If you can think of one single thing you could be happy doing—one single other thing—for God’s sake do that.”
In No Pay, Nudity, Lester Rosenthal (played superbly by the incomparable Gabriel Byrne) is an actor who was told that, once. He didn’t listen. He joined the tenacious ranks of the asbestos-coated souls who don’t care what it costs them, the people who either have incredibly fracture-proof patellas or we seriously, truly, for reals couldn’t imagine ourselves being happy doing anything else. The epic asshole that is Art in a Capitalist Economy? It not only doesn’t give a shit about your talent. It has no respect for your loyalty or devotion or work ethic, and it lets you have the full blast of its fickleness, cruelty, terrifying financial instability and ego-crushing indifference. Over and over.
And that’s why Lester spends his in the Actors’ Equity lounge with a cadre of mostly unhireables, notably Nathan Lane, who provides sporadic voiceover narration and serves as the center of gravity in the lounge, where he sits day in, day out, although he is completely aware no one will ever hire him again. (It’s a long story.) It’s a bleak environment, and it’s hard to know whether to feel sorrier for the has-beens or the fresh-faced newbies who wander through.
But we feel for Lester. His dog has just died. His wife’s left him. His agent has bupkiss for him, and the strain is starting to show. He starts screwing up every opportunity he’s given—blowing slam-dunk auditions, refusing reasonable interim work, giving up on a potential relationship with a nice woman, attacking more successful friends and colleagues, and descending into a self-pity spiral that costs him just about everything but a Hail Mary chance to hit the boards in … Dayton. And he’s not sure he can get over himself enough to accept it.
No Pay, Nudity has a quality that has become increasingly rare in contemporary film: it is profoundly human. There’s not a bad acting moment in it, and the scale of director Lee Wilkof and writer Ethan Sandler’s film is modest but possessed of a sophisticated philosophical intelligence. If you’ve ever tried to survive in the performing arts (I have), there’s no way you won’t relate to this movie in painfully specific ways, but even if it’s the farthest thing in the world from your purview, you will relate to it as a human story of crisis and how people do or don’t climb out of crisis and back into the world.
Lane’s steely gravitas and Byrne’s destructive self-absorption play against each other beautifully, the character parts are almost all quite striking in their deft sketching of fully realized human characters in only a few lines. The writing is great. The pacing mostly likewise (there’s a freaking-fabulous montage I won’t spoil by describing); it’s a surefooted piece of filming and a wonderfully rendered character-driven investigation of hope and envy, resentment and despair, acceptance and frailty.
There are no Quidditch matches, Jason Bourne doesn’t spark a worldwide manhunt, and No Pay, Nudity does require a bit of an attention span. But it’s well worth it. And if you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be most actors? You’ll know after this.
Director: Lee Wilkof
Writer: Ethan Sandler
Starring: Frances Conroy, Gabriel Byrne, Donna Murphy, Nathan Lane
Release Date: November 2016
Amy Glynn is a Super Famous Poet. Her interests include non-plagiaristic suicide, pet psychiatry, Peter Gabriel, The New Yorker, Italian wine, Grant Achatz, the president of Paraguay, Federico Garcia Lorca, home beekeeping and serendipity. You can follow her on Twitter, where she has a long way to go to reach 1.4 million followers.