At a time I consider too early to be awake—it might have been five-thirty in the morning, maybe it was six—the producer of the film poked his head into my dressing room and asked if I would be willing to shoot a sex scene after lunch.
“Don’t worry,” he said in reply to my bleary stare. “It’ll just be implied nudity.”
Because I had spent the previous three days dancing in front of a camera wearing nothing but angel wings and shorts that barely covered my butt cheeks, I didn’t think I could really feign modesty at that point. But I did wonder if doing a sex scene—with nudity implied or otherwise—was really what I had agreed to when I’d signed my contract for a movie we’ll call Glitter and Be Gay.
I had wanted to do that movie because I’d decided it was time to give acting a try. Whenever anyone asked me what I did for a living, I told them that I was a dancer. I could never say with any real confidence that I was an actor, though that was the job description on my Chicago contract. I was a dancer. Dancing had been the love of my life for as long as I could remember, and my relationship with dancing had been marked by sweet, honeymoon highs and bleak, resentment building lows. But no matter what, when I was dancing, I felt I knew exactly who I was supposed to be; I could see myself clearly and, as long as the choreography lasted, I had worth.
At some point, however, I had begun to begrudge the dominance dance held over my life. I knew a time was coming when turning, leaping, and kicking for a living would no longer be an option. I was only twenty-six, but most dancers I knew who were over forty had had surgery of some kind—a torn rotator cuff here, a hip replacement or two there—and though many of those dancers were able to keep plugging along afterward, they were always at risk of sustaining an injury that would take them out of the running for good. Unable to dance, they’d be screwed, floundering without a single skill that didn’t include donning a dance shoe or a jazz pant.
I knew it would be prudent to acquire some kind of skill—I thought about getting a Masters in business or applying to law school—but acting was something I had been doing in tandem with dance for as long as I could remember, and it seemed like a profession I’d be able to pursue once my joints gave out. So when the audition for Glitter and Be Gay came around, I figured the experience of being on a film set and delivering dialogue in a few scenes might be a good way to find out if acting could someday supersede dance as the new, more sensible love of my life, even if my role in the film was going to be David, the Slutty Chorus Boy (which it ended up being).
On the first day of shooting, three of us with supporting character roles joined the two lead actors at XES, a gay bar in Chelsea, at 4:30 in the morning. Seeing any bar with the lights on is a disquieting sight; there is something unseemly about those rows of alcohol bottles covered in cellophane, like seeing your boss in a sheer bathrobe. But, introducing myself to the cast under those harsh, unflattering fluorescents, I decided to pretend to be more awake than I was and to focus on the fact that arriving at a film set—even that film set—made me feel a little bit famous.
We were there to do a getting-drunk montage, which began with taking shots of colored water and ended with coaxing one of the leads to come down off the bar he was dancing on in his underwear. We were coached through the sequence a few times by Jonah, the affable writer/director/producer of the film. Jonah had a sweetness about him, a kind of lost-puppy eagerness to please that made me alternately feel like I had always known him and should be taking care of him, and like I should be swatting him on the snout to stop his incessant yapping.
After the cast got into makeup—a process that involved a ponytailed sixteen-year-old intern pelting us with layers of foundation, mascara, and blush—we stood by the bar under high-wattage lights while a boom microphone was held just out of the camera’s frame. Someone yelled, “Sound. Speed. Action.” Even though I was in a Chelsea gay bar at five in the morning pretending to get drunk on colored water, I felt a pleasant tingle run down my back, which I took to be the portent of something very good.
We shot the bar scene several times over the course of about three tedious hours. The other boys and I quickly became friends, joking between takes about how this wasn’t the first time we had found ourselves at XES in full makeup at sunrise, and about how this movie was sure to catapult each of us to fame (which, I’m fairly certain, none of us believed, but nonetheless hoped could somehow be true).
When we were released for the day, I walked toward the subway, heading home for a nap before the show that night. I had shot my first scene in my first movie. It should have been a good thing. But for some reason, the pleasant tingle along my spine had, at some point in the previous three hours, turned on me and become an uncomfortable cringe. As I boarded the N train, I had to keep telling myself that my parents would still love and be proud of me, even after seeing this movie.
The next day was spent in a studio learning the film’s choreography with the five other male dancers. The day after that, we began shooting at a dilapidated old theater on lower 7th Avenue. We were filming the tap-dancing angel number we had learned the day before, and between takes, we all went back to the cramped dressing room to check our phones, retouch the makeup contouring our stomachs and chests, and take off our angel wings long enough to sit down and re-tie our combat boots.
“Huh,” said one of the guys, riffling through his dance bag. “I could have sworn I had cash in here.”
All six of us boys began reaching for our wallets. I almost never carried cash in the city. But because I knew I’d be taking cabs from my apartment at four a.m. for the duration of the two-week shoot, I had taken four hundred dollars out of an ATM the day before. Considering I was only being paid a total of four hundred bucks on this Ultra-low Budget SAG contract, the fact that the same amount had been stolen from my wallet while I was tap dancing in angel wings seemed like a particularly stinging slap in the face.
Every one of the guys who had had cash when they arrived on set that morning now opened their wallets to find them empty. We all began to point fingers and assign blame. Nothing brings a group of actors together quicker than having a common enemy, even if the enemy’s identity is unknown. We started listing the people who had access to the dressing rooms: the dressers, the makeup girl, the props and sound guys, and when two of the dancers left the dressing room, we began quietly accusing them as well. We had heard that Jonah, the producer, was having trouble raising the final chunk of money he needed to complete the film. We wondered… but we had seen Jonah out front, watching the playback on the monitors while we danced, so it couldn’t have been him.
As we continued to theorize, we sat shivering in the dressing room of that drafty, aged theater. Because our bodies were painted and shaded, we couldn’t cover ourselves with sweatshirts or sweatpants without running the risk of smudging our definition. So we just sat there, goose-bumped and wondering where our money had gone.
“Can we get this shoot moving?” one of the boys shouted toward the front of the theater. “Because tick-tock on my dignity, honey.”
On the fourth day of shooting, we were no closer to finding out who had stolen our money or, more to the point, of getting the cash back. I was starting to reconcile myself to the notion of essentially doing the movie for free when Jonah asked if I’d be willing to shoot the sex scene after lunch.
“What does ‘implied nudity’ entail?” I asked him.
“Oh, you know, we won’t show more than your butt and some heavy breathing,” Jonah said, his round, cherubic face flushed, his light, curly hair damp and darker near the temples. “You’ll do it, right?”
Jonah moved toward me and put his hand on my shoulder. Standing closer to him than I had since I’d been hired, and looking at the sweat glistening on his upper lip, I realized why I’d had the sense that I’d known Jonah for a long time. My brain hurled me back three years to a night when I’d gone to a bar with a group of friends just weeks after moving to New York. I was twenty-three at the time, and a slightly older man had started talking to me, telling me that he was a producer on several Broadway and off-Broadway shows. The more drinks he bought me and the more he talked about the shows he had financed, the more attractive his pale, watery eyes and light, curly hair became. I had abandoned my friends and chatted with that producer for the rest of the night. He had told me I was perfect for a project he had coming up, and I had given him my number when he asked for it. Then, just before leaving the bar, I had run downstairs to use the bathroom. That producer had followed me, pushed me into a bathroom stall, and we had had a fumbly, slurpy make-out session for who knows how long, a minute, maybe ten. I’m not sure how I got out of that bathroom stall, but I did, clothes on, and somehow got back to my bed on St. Marks Place, alone. In the months that followed, I had simply never responded to the messages that producer left on my voicemail, and eventually, I had deleted him from my phone and, apparently, from my memory.
Looking into Jonah’s pale, watery eyes as he asked me to film the sex scene, I wondered if he remembered me from that bathroom stall, too. I was beginning to get the feeling that there was an implicit threat in his query: do the sex-montage or I’ll tell the entire cast and crew I only hired you because we once made out at Splash.
Without waiting for my reply, Jonah disappeared into the darkness of the set beyond the dressing room. For the five hours that followed, we shot the tap-dancing angel number and I considered my options. If there was ever going to be a time in my life to do a sex-montage, this seemed to be it. The whole cast was on edge: constantly looking over our shoulders, checking and double-checking our bags and wallets, giving each other meaningful looks when one member of the cast was in the dressing room while the rest of us were out on the stage. We were also all becoming increasingly aware that the film was not going to be anyone’s finest work, and the more our insecurities were magnified by the camera’s constant watch, the more the air on the set seemed to hiss. On top of all that, there was the fact that we were a pack of toned, half-naked gay men grunting and sweating for hours on end in a dark, cramped space. Something about all the escalating tension of the shoot made me want to believe that none of it mattered; what mattered was that we were all young and hot and wouldn’t always be, and, really, why not show a little more skin and do the sex-montage while I had the chance?
I had long ago given in to the reality that no matter what aspect of show business you were working in, you were a whore for money. What were we all doing other than turning tricks and jumping when the highest paying Johnny said jump? But I had no intention of whoring for free. I had definite ideas about the person I was supposed to someday be, and showing my butt and faking some heavy breathing on camera for free was not at all consonant with those ideas.
Then again, if I did the sex scene, there might be buzz about me when the movie was released (I had always wanted to be buzzed about), and there was a possibility I’d be hired to do more movies because of it, and maybe I’d actually get to act in those. Maybe I’d learn to like acting; maybe I’d come to be good at it. Maybe I’d move to LA, start a new, more sensible career. Maybe five years would pass and I’d be on Conan, chuckling with self-deprecating charm and saying how my big break had come after years of dancing in the ensemble when I had taken a chance on a little film and made a big splash by doing a butt-showing, heavy-breathing sex montage.
And if I didn’t do the sex scene? Jonah would be pissed, I’d finish shooting Glitter and Be Gay, and I’d keep working at Chicago. I’d stay in Chicago for three or four more years, maybe ten, or maybe until it closed, if it ever did. Maybe I’d get another Broadway show, though the chances of that happening seemed to be narrowing every day. Maybe I’d do another movie where I danced and played a slutty chorus boy. Maybe once Chicago closed, I’d get a national tour, or maybe I’d end up back where I’d started, doing dinner theater in Westchester. No matter what I did, my body would inevitably stop complying and betray me: I’d put on weight, my knees would give out, I’d have to get a hip or two replaced. And all I would have to show for those years of wrecking my body would be an astonishing number of photos of me without my shirt on.
When we finally finished shooting the angel number, I unharnessed my wings, and, my throat tight with nerves, told Jonah I really didn’t feel comfortable filming the sex scene. I was worried he’d say something like, “Really? You didn’t have qualms about implied nudity that night in the bathroom stall three years ago.” But of course he didn’t say anything like that. He simply smiled and said not to worry about it; they’d use one of the other boys. Even in soft-core porn, it seemed, I was an expendable commodity.
Our final day of the shoot was on a soundstage near Penn Station. Jonah came in, bright and cheery, to announce that he had caught the dressing room thief. It had been one of the prop guys, the friendliest of the bunch, the one who had made a point of addressing all the chorus boys by name and always asking if we needed anything. That prop guy had not only stolen cash from our wallets, he had also charged thousands of dollars on the credit card Jonah had given him to purchase supplies for the film. Jonah said he wouldn’t be able to get the cash from our wallets back because there was no paper trail proving the amounts stolen. Moreover, Jonah wouldn’t be able to give us our paychecks for an indefinite period of time because all his money was now tied up in fraudulent charges.
Not knowing if we would ever get paid for the movie removed any lingering sense that we should take our work seriously. Filming that last scene, I was finally able to relax and make that whiny voice in my brain—the voice that was constantly asking if I was doing what I was supposed to do and being who I was supposed to be—shut up for a few minutes. I was playing a chorus boy: a jaded, bitter, over-ambitious chorus boy, and I really didn’t have to reach too deep to know exactly how that was supposed to look, sound, and feel. And once I stopped angsting about what my every move on and off camera meant, I started to sort of enjoy myself.
We wrapped our final shot of Glitter and Be Gay and, without wiping off our pancake makeup or abdominal contouring, the cast went out for a celebratory happy hour drink. It was one of those early autumn days in New York when it’s still warm but there’s something sharp in the air, a barely perceptible bite letting the city know that this glow, this feeling that everything is good and easy and inconsequential, cannot possibly last.
I didn’t have to work at Chicago that night, so the happy hour drink lead to several hours and several drinks; we started at Vynl, then went to Arriba, then Blockheads, where we ran into some friends and went to dinner where someone knew the waiter and could get us free booze; then there was someone’s birthday at another bar; then I was standing in the middle of a loud, crowded party at a stranger’s penthouse apartment in the Meat Packing District. I found myself leaning over a balcony railing, looking out at the lights of New Jersey across the Hudson, and talking to a guy named Travis whose face and naked body I had seen on Broadway Bares posters, but had never actually met. I was telling Travis that I felt we could choose our destiny. I was telling him I felt we could choose who we were now and who we were going to be, and all we had to do was stop worrying so much. I was telling him I had just wrapped a movie and I was going to give up dancing and really concentrate on film and TV. I was telling him that I was on the look out for the person I was supposed to be, and in the meantime, I would choose contentedness, though, even as I was saying it, I knew that by the next morning, choosing to be content would leave the wooly, metallic taste of complacency in my mouth.
“From now on,” I said, as much to Travis as to the Hudson River and New Jersey and the country beyond. “I’m not going to worry. About things. Any things.”
Travis turned his perfectly symmetrical face toward me; those prominent cheekbones, the Cary Grant cleft in the chin, the searing blue eyes, the soft fringe of dark brown hair.
“You’re kind of perfect. You know that?” Travis said, leaning in toward me and smiling. “Is there anything not perfect about you?”
I laughed and looked out at the water, wondering if maybe I wouldn’t miss having dance in my life as long as I had a boyfriend with perfectly symmetrical features.
“Seriously,” Travis continued. “We should date.”
It would take me a month or two, but I would eventually come to understand that Travis had no capacity for irony. He meant what he said, always. He never thought to varnish his ideas in sarcasm the way other people did to keep themselves, in some way, protected and inscrutable. Travis had a way of laying out what he wanted with a simplicity and a certainty that I would come to envy, then resent, then, in the end, find ridiculous.
But in that moment, looking into the startling candor of his eyes, I wanted so badly to be as certain of something as Travis seemed to be of me. I decided I could be certain about Travis. That is, I could be certain about him as long as he continued to see me as the person I had somehow bamboozled him into seeing; the person I had always meant, but never quite figured out how, to be.