No Pay, Nudity starts with bad news for “between projects” actor and dog owner Lester Rosenthal getting terrible news, and then it gets depressing. Also, however: warm, deeply funny, sensitive and, in its way, essential. Intimate in scope but expansive in feeling, this charmer stars Gabriel Byrne and — in one of the finest performances of his remarkable career — Nathan Lane in a fat suit. It’s the best film about the actor’s life since Birdman. That’s an admittedly high bar over a short window, but like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s masterpiece, No Pay, Nudity (opening today at Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino and other venues around the country) puts an original spin on a familiar tale, as told by a creative team and actors with deep roots in the sadomasochistic worlds of Hollywood and Times Square.
The cast includes Broadway and film/TV veterans Frances Conroy, Boyd Gaines, Donna Murphy, Valerie Mahaffey, J. Smith-Cameron, all in pitch-perfect performances, and it’s the freshman directing effort of actor Lee Wilkof, working from a screenplay by Ethan Sandler. Set mostly in the lounge at Actors’ Equity in New York, the film centers on Lester and the gang he hangs out with, day after day, waiting for audition calls and messages from their agents, who are generally otherwise engaged. All of them have had their moments of glory and carry around aged, crumbling reviews, much like The Old Actor in The Fantasticks, which, all of them, doubtless, were cast in in their salad days. They didn’t know, however, that salad days would be a recurring theme as they approached middle and old age.
Wilkof, fresh off a role on Broadway in Holiday Inn, told me the film was made for $625K two years ago, when the financing was finally raised following a failed Kickstarter campaign. Earlier he had worked with Lane in a celebrated revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and hesitantly showed the star Sandler’s script.
“It sat for two years,” Wilkof recalled. “But when I was doing Iceman in Chicago with Nathan — who I’ve known since he was Joseph Lane doing a tour in New Jersey — I opened the script and thought it was pretty good. I sent it to Nathan, expecting to wait for a response. But the next day he told me, ‘I love this.'” He was on board. “Nathan said ‘I want to be transformative,’ so that’s why the beard and the fat suit.”
Although the story concerns Lester and how he copes with struggle and rejection (and, ultimately, unexpected redemption), it’s Lane who centers the company as resident cheerleader and philosopher to this small band, for whom hope springs eternal despite the long odds. “The reason I felt I could direct came from being around people who know what they’re doing,” Wilkof said. “It’s a small business and I’ve been doing it for 40 years. I was pretty sure I knew how to talk to actors.”
Wilkof also recalled that in an early version of the script, the opening scene found Lester playing King Lear in a dream and, in a new spin on the actor’s nightmare, poops his pants. The smell wakes him up to his aging, guilty-looking dog, which explains the dream. “I showed the script to producer Julian Schlossberg,” Wilkof said. “His note was, ‘Don’t start with dog shit.'”
Distributed by Monterrey Media, the film has yet to book a New York outlet, which seems ridiculous on the face of it. However, it will be available in December on Amazon and iTunes, and Starz has picked it up for the spring. But if New York bookers are reading, check it out. It’s the best Broadway show not on Broadway.