As our culture continues the debate surrounding cultural identity, immigration and diversity, Julia Solomonoft's new film Nobody's Watching (aka Nadie nos mira) comes at a perfect time. The film tells the story of Nico (Guillermo Pfening, best actor at this year's Tribeca Film Festival), a famous actor who's just moved to New York City and finds his fame doesn't translate. Trying to pursue his own version of the American dream, he finds his inability to book jobs has forced him into work he feels is beneath him, including a nanny position in Chelsea he has an affinity for. Solomonoft's screenplay and direction address these timely issues with complexity, all while maintaining focus her protagonist's experiences.
Lesley Coffin: When you wrote the film and developed the character of Nico, what made you decide to focus on a male protagonist?
Julia Solomonoft: That's a good question because I've never focused on a man before in one of my films. And I was curious how it would be different to write from that point of view. But there were several reasons I didn't want it to be a female protagonist. One was, there's a lot of this character that felt a little too close to home, so having a man allowed me to have a little distance. It allowed me to be more critically, have more fun, and even expose a bit more of myself. Also, once I decided he would be working as a nanny, it became a more specific kind of New York story, made me think of a kind of Chelsea setting.
It's a new thing to have a guy taking care of a baby, and to find a talent for it. And if I'd put a woman in that role, it would be more common but also immediately makes people think that is a bond about maternity. It adds a whole other layer when you put a baby with a woman, you think of motherhood. But when you put a man with a baby, you see the tenderness that usually isn't as exposed. And I love the bond that he has with the baby, because of what it shows about his sense of loneliness in the city and emotional needs of this character. And I've seen the story about a woman involved with a married man a lot and was more interested in the story of a man in love with an unavailable woman.
Lesley Coffin: The minute you have a woman in love with a married man and she's labeled by the audience as a mistress, the audience brings a different set of expectations.
Julia Solomonoft: Exactly, and that's what I wanted to avoid. I'm always looking for new opportunities to see something different. I thought it would be more interesting to see a man in that position.
Lesley Coffin: And because it's a man you have an opportunity to explore ideas of appearance in a different way. He's told that he doesn't look "Latino enough" because he isn't a stereotypical version of the dark, Latin lover.
Julia Solomonoft: I'm a Caucasian Latino. And I've lived through that experience of not fitting in a lot. I'm a mix of Russian, German, Spanish, and Italian, and I'm Argentine. And there probably are more Europeans in Argentina than in Mexico. But sometimes I see the definition of who is Latino as very limited and defined by skin color. And I believe it's even more challenging for actors. Actors are trapped by their faces and language, and they can be typecast by that. And I've seen a lot of friends try but struggle because they don't look right for what other people think a Latino should look like. But now that Hollywood has more variety than even ten years ago, those expectations are changing as well. We've moved passed the definition of what is Latino and can now focus on the diversity of Latinos. But it's also important to remember that identity isn't just racial, there are many components and we too often allow the visuals to take over the discussion of identity. My identity share things with women, Latinos, immigrants, urban New Yorkers, but we often use color as a shortcut, which can be damaging.
Lesley Coffin: But you also have the issue that the group you see yourself as part of may not see you as one of them. So he sees himself as a Latino, but others don't and vice versa.
Julia Solomonoft: Absolutely, that's what the film is all about. How we see ourselves but also the way others see us has an impact on how you see yourself. How does it change someone so they can fit in? My protagonist has more impunity because he doesn't look like the stereotypical Latino. People don't expect a good-looking, white male who looks middle-class and is good looking to shoplift, so he can get away with it. He's using the prejudice in his favor, putting on an act. He's projecting a sense of desirability to the public, but he has to do that as an actor.
Lesley Coffin: It was interesting that you choose to make the film about an actor because there's Hollywood which is this global export, and then there's independent national cinema. Why did you choose to tell the story of an actor coming to New York to work in smaller, American independents, rather than pursuing the Hollywood dream?
Julia Solomonoft: Probably because that's the world I know. I never lived in LA, I know a lot of actors struggling in LA but their experiences seem so different from the actors coming to New York. Most of them are coming to New York to further their studies, but really want to work in New York. And they find themselves crippled by the realities of the profession. I'm all for creators and actors changing their plays and films to include new voices. I'm not against people coming to the city to grow as an actor. But they also need to understand where their strengths are. It's an actor's job to work with language, so they aren't comfortable working in a language or an accent, they need to change and learn or move somewhere that it won't be an issue. I think there are too many actors who are blind to that reality.
I was a bit apprehensive about making a film about an actor because I didn't want the film to be about the business. I love Tootsie, but I didn't want to make Tootsie. There's one audition seen in the film because I needed to make it clear why he's not making it. I also felt that he's an actor in his everyday life. He's constantly performing. He pretends to be at a party when he's actually working as a waiter. He pretends to be successful when he's failing. He acts as someone reliable when he really isn't that type of person. He's a great actor in New York, but no one's noticing. An actor and musician at a screening got up and said something I found so moving. A musician can practice every single day. A dancer can polish their craft every day. An actor needs a fellow actor or director to work on their craft. So he's practicing his craft in his real life, but he's not getting the gaze that comes from acting for an audience or a director or fellow actors. He's constantly trying to get attention, in a city that doesn't pay much attention.
Lesley Coffin: I live in New York and remember hearing that even though the city is crowded, it can feel so lonely when you first move there because no one notices a person lost or struggling. And his experiences are just magnified because he came to New York from another country and can't ask for help because he's undocumented and trying to pretend he's succeeding.
Julia Solomonoft: I think the loneliness is something we all experience, but going through that forces you to confront who you are. I didn't want this to be a grim picture of New York because it's so interesting to me that you can be so sad in places which really are so beautiful. That contrast of living in New York can be so poetic.
Lesley Coffin: You are presenting the immigrant experience in this film, and I'm sure there are similarities around the world. But in America the topic is so heated right now, what has it been like to show the film to audiences both in the US and around the world?
Julia Solomonoft: I think there is a common experience of immigration, but I think it pertains to the cities, rather than the countries. It's easier for people to move from one city to another than for people to move from the country to the cities, even within the same culture. New York is such a photogenic city but is also such an aspirational city to people around the world. And when I've shown the film, people really appreciate that it isn't this picture perfect version but realistic image of New York City.
The film opened in Argentina and people seemed very emotional and felt very exposed seeing what this character was doing. Probably because of how closely they could identify as immigrants. It was more uncomfortable for people watching the film in Argentina than in the States, who think it's a little funnier. But I'm just starting to screen the film in Europe, so I'll be very curious to see how the film plays. A good number of my crew were immigrants and foreigners in New York. And a lot of people were from Spain, and we were making it when the Spanish crisis was happening and the country went through a big migration due to unemployment, and the film ended up directly relating to the experiences of the new Spanish immigrant.
© Lesley Coffin (8/27/17) FF2 Media
Photo Credit: © John Harris