Why you should care
Because confusing “yes” for “no” could be hazardous to your health.
I learned on a movie set that I couldn’t rely on anyone else to keep me safe. It was a little late to learn that lesson, truthfully, but, as a recent college graduate, I was slowly becoming aware of just how much I still didn’t know. Like how many times you might need to say “no” before you are heard.
I moved to New York because my agent told me to — after a couple of near misses during pilot season, she encouraged me to make the leap and go where the work was. I was a young actor counting the days and the dollars between me and union health insurance. Earning the insurance meant that I was on my way — and it made my mom not worry so much. But I was a 20-something white girl looking to make it on Broadway, and my phone was awfully silent.
I sent out dozens of headshots and resumes every week, combing Backstage for plays of every kind, along with student films, which didn’t pay, and union background work, which did. Mostly I waited and hoped, and then sent out another round of pictures.
All of this meant that I was primed to be putty in the hands of the harried casting assistant who wanted me to be what is often referred to as “breathing furniture” — an extra or background performer. I’d done this kind of work many times, everything from dancing in a hoopskirt and giant hat behind Albert Finney in Washington Square to pantomiming teen partygoing next to Shiri Appleby in Swimfan to endlessly making nonexistent copies in Meg Ryan’s office in Kate & Leopold. This time, though, I would be naked.
“Topless!” He looked impressed. “That’s really good. You should see how high you can get them to go.” I waited for more, for his outrage on my behalf.
It was, she said, a “very sexy” scene, and they needed actors who would be comfortable with showing all. I did some sad mental calculations of the income I was flushing away, but I couldn’t reconcile the financial bottom lines with the ethical ones. The casting assistant was in a hurry to secure some naked furniture. “Well?” she demanded. “Will you do it?”
“No, thanks,” I said.
“Are you sure?” she pressed.
“I’m sure,” I said. And it hurt to say it.
When she called back to make sure that I’d really, really meant it, I nearly choked on the words. Why not just do it? No one would know. Except me. I turned it down again. Grudgingly, she admitted that there were other, clothed jobs also. They wouldn’t pay as much though, she told me quickly. “Fine,” I told her. “But I get to keep my clothes on.”
I showed up to the set with a duffel bag full of the hot club wardrobe requested. Some were tight, some were skimpy, but all of it would keep me — mostly — covered. There was a different assistant at the check-in. “Are you the naked talent?” she asked me with an uncomfortable amount of interest. I was starting to wonder if something about me suggested a willingness or even enthusiasm for baring all.
“No,” I said. “I’m the non-naked talent.” I pointed to my duffel bag. She looked disappointed as she waved me off to get dressed. I hadn’t been standing around for more than a few minutes when a more senior-seeming assistant approached. She was confident, smiling, as she asked if I would be interested in reconsidering my non-naked stance. I began to refuse yet again, but she interrupted, offering more money. Would I take this much? How about this much, would I do it then? What about just for topless? What about just from the back?
The numbers kept going up and I felt my resistance weaken. The insurance clock was ticking — just a tiny rationalization and, boom, I’d meet my goal with a couple of days’ work. I really wanted someone to reassure me that I was right, that my principles were admirable. But I was surrounded by people who needed to make a movie and who needed naked actors to do it; no one had time for principles.
I wanted to cry with relief when I remembered that every production has a union representative on set to advocate for performers’ rights. I found him and blurted out the whole story. I told him about the repeated offers and refusals, the escalating rate and the if/then scenarios. He listened to me carefully, eyes wide, nodding. “How much did they offer you?” he asked me. I told him. “That’s pretty good for nudity,” he said.
“That was for topless,” I said.
“Topless!” He looked impressed. “That’s really good. You should see how high you can get them to go.” I waited for more, for his outrage on my behalf. It wasn’t there.
Suddenly, I realized that the operating assumption was that I was negotiable. This was beyond the headshot photographer who kept telling me that he also did nudes or the student-film director who tried to pare my costume down further and further — this was flat-out, you-are-worth-this-much commerce. The realization made me feel as vulnerable as the request itself.
I said no again. I watched the woman approach a girl instead, one so young that she brought her mom, who signed the paperwork, agreeing to let her daughter be filmed. I’m sure she thought it was a big opportunity. When I saw the movie, almost none of the scene even made the cut.
I knew after that no one else was going to speak for me. I would have to be my own Lorax, my own voice in the face of oncoming danger. Dreams have a way of leaving you open to those who will use them for their own ends. On that set, I learned how to say, “My dream is not for sale.”