Ask Nathan Lane how he ended up in the small indie flick No Pay, Nudity and he’ll tell you, “It begins and ends with Lee Wilkof.” Ask Lee Wilkof, Little Shop of Horror’s original Seymour Krelborn, how he got his little-film-that-could off the ground to make his directorial debut and he’ll tell you, “The ball started rolling because Nathan was interested.”
The two have been friends for more than 40 years. “I’ve known Nathan for longer than anybody I know in New York,” says Wilkof. “I’ve known Lee Wilkof maybe longer than anyone in New York City,” says Lane on a separate call. Clearly, they’ve rubbed off on each other over the years.
The film captures the less romantic side of show business, chronicling the daily slog of a makeshift family of actors huddled in the Actors’ Equity Lounge, trying to break big, book a job or just breathe the air.
The idea for the movie actually came to Wilkof in an “a-ha” moment. “It was 15 years since the last time I’d been in the Equity Lounge, and it was just not a place I went often,” says Wilkof. But when he did drop in a few years back, “the same people were there that I had seen 15 years earlier, and I said to myself, ‘There’s a movie here.’”
At a time of his own darker days as an auditioning actor, Wilkof took the idea to screenwriter Ethan Sandler and began developing the story. Wilkof had intended to direct and star in the film (creating work where he found none), but the film evolved, and Wilkof found Gabriel Byrne to play Lester Rosenthal.
Rosenthal—stage name Lawrence Rose—is a former soap opera star struggling to find work and, consequentially, meaning. Each day, Lester gathers in the Lounge with Andrea (Frances Conroy), Stephan (Boyd Gaines) and Herschel (Lane), the film’s narrator. “Lester is ostensibly the lead, but Herschel is the heart,” says Wilkof.
The “Buddha of the Equity Lounge,” as Lane calls his character, Herschel is the voice of wisdom and integrity. “What we do requires rigor, dedication and total concentration,” says Herschel of acting. So does the pursuit of it.
“When I first started my career 40-some years ago, the Lounge was the place you didn’t want to end up,” says Wilkof. “I think the movie, if anything, is about everybody in that place has dignity, and everybody in that room is an actor.”
“It’s a movie about shattered dreams,” says Lane. “How do people cope—people who don’t become successful, people who are still struggling at age 50 or 60 and still hanging in there in hopes of something or just to be able to do it, to be a part of it.” No Pay, Nudity is also a story of recovery, re-discovery, love and friendship—the type of friendship that is more family than anything else.
“The characters in this movie, that core group of ne’er-do-wells, is a family unit,” says Gaines. “They love each other; they’re also jealous; they push each other’s buttons, but they still love each other. Their own immediate families have been superseded by this social family.”
In fact, old friendships define this cast in real life. Byrne and Lane were seen in Carrie Pilby together. Lane has known Conroy for years. Conroy attended Juilliard with Gaines and starred opposite him in The Tempest at the Guthrie not long after their graduation. Donna Murphy, a supporting role in the film, knows Wilkof from their Little Shop days when she was the vacation cover for Audrey.
As becomes clear in the movie, what has kept them sane through all the struggle is strong relationships.
While the cast boasts these notable names, each one understands the challenge of a life in this business. In fact, the script hit so close to home, Murphy confesses it was painful to read. Success is not without strife. “Not everybody questions regularly, but you’d be surprised how many of us do,” says Murphy. “I’m thinking about giving up this week,” laughs Lane. “Everybody, everybody thinks [and] goes through that.”
Yet, Lane and the others prove perseverance and passion can be a curative combo. “I was doing a production of Shakespeare,” says Gaines, “and I was playing ostensibly the lead, and I was having a sh*tty night, and I had this revelation where I said, ‘Even on a sh*tty night, I’d rather be doing this than something else.’ And that’s got me through a couple bad years.”
“In our business, success is not necessarily about being famous. Success is loving what you do,” says Wilkof. And Wilkof still loves what he does. Though he has no future plans to direct again (at least not yet), he’ll be onstage this fall in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Holiday Inn. It’s his first job in a year.
And that’s the magic of No Pay, Nudity. You “get a little glimpse of a perspective on this business that most people don’t have a clue about,” says Murphy, and you, as a viewer, feel gratitude that actors do push through to bring us pieces like this.
Wilkof’s simple story and gentle touch, combined with the subtleties of a powerful cast, make No Pay, Nudity required viewing for anyone in the business and a “must-see” pick for everyone else.
No Pay, Nudity debuts July 26 at the Stony Brook Film Festival in New York.