Nancy Balbirer’s hilarious, soulful memoir about acting, Hollywood, art, fame, and misguided relationships, Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir Of Near-Fame Experiences is told from the perspective of a woman who was sure that acting would be her ticket—not necessarily to fame, but to happiness. At first, in college, it is, as she lands roles and receives praise, along with advice, such as the title’s, from David Mamet. She’s convinced that, having finally escaped WASPy Connecticut, she has found her people, and they her. As she pursues her career, with stints on MTV game show Remote Control, Seinfeld and Saturday Night Live, moves to LA, and strives to see her dreams come true, she slowly comes to realize that the job she loves so much will not always love her back.
As she bounces between relationships, jobs, and cities, Balbirer tells a story that could have been clichéd but that in her hands, becomes bigger and broader than auditions and callbacks. Those looking for gossipy tidbits will find a few morsels, such as “Friendly Fire,” about her time as Jennifer Aniston’s roommate, but if you’ve never read that Aniston lost weight and got a nose job before becoming famous, you’re probably the type who doesn’t care. The celebrity cameos, such as Jerry Seinfeld fixing a light bulb or Lorne Michaels demanding one a.m. meetings, in some ways serve to show how far removed from that world Balbirer was, even when she was on its outskirts. When “Jane” (Balbirer’s pseudonym for Aniston) tells her she needs to look “fuckable,” you can practically see Balbirer’s eyes roll. Even when she does make it onto the small screen, or gets great crowds at her one-woman show, for Balbirer, it’s (almost) all about the connections with her audiences she makes. Being on TV for the sake of being on TV, usually scantily clad, isn’t enough for her.
This is not about simply wanting to act, the perils of fame, taking endless meetings, or the business of entertainment, though it covers those topics splendidly, but about pursuing a career Balbirer believed in heart and soul, going to any and all lengths, including spending two days in a Chicago hotel room waiting for a phone call. Balbirer applies this dedicated focus to her stories, weaving each together seamlessly, delivering characters such as a supposedly washed-up actress who’s wiser than she initially appears, an acting teacher intent on bedding her, a father who doesn’t understand her plays, and, ultimately, herself, a woman who throws away a copy of The New York Times featuring her photo, but still seeks recognition, validation and achievement, only on her own terms.
The Rumpus: How did Take Your Shirt Off and Cry come about, and how did you come up with the title? Was that a phrase that had always stuck out for you?
Nancy Balbirer: I had just had a baby and was reflecting on my life and career—who I had been, who I had become, etc—and in those first few days of motherhood, I thought about all these stories I wanted to tell my baby girl some day. They were actually stories I had been telling for years, about my crazy life in show business. I had always told the stories for laughs, the upshot being something along the lines of: “look at how shitty I’ve been treated by these crazy assholes…” They were told from the point of view of the unwitting victim of other people’s capriciousness or callousness, etc. But, in thinking about them in those early days with my daughter, I suddenly had a radically different perspective; one of someone who had come through something huge, and who wanted very badly to learn and to grow from it. I realized then that while I had milked all the stories about being an actor for their obvious absurdity, privately I felt quite differently about these experiences. In fact, I was ashamed about it all, and afraid to admit it. And because it terrified me, I thought I had to write them down—just for myself.
So, I got brave and one day sat down and typed a story into my computer while my baby napped. And it felt great. Then I typed another one and then another. I thought initially that it would be a new solo show, as that’s the world I had come from in terms of writing, but as I wrote, it seemed more like a memoir. I’m lucky to have a brilliant writer named Cintra Wilson as one of my best friends, because one day, I was telling her about the stories and showed her a few on my computer and she was so enthusiastic and encouraging that what I had was clearly a book. I got really excited and launched into the story about David Mamet telling me, rather ruefully, that show business is an awful place for a woman; that despite whatever promise or gifts a woman may have, in that world “you will be asked to do only two things in every fucking role you ever play: take your shirt off and cry.” Cintra just looked at me and said: “Well, there’s your title, babe…”
Take your shirt off and cry was a phrase forever emblazoned in my mind because not only did I experience those words as true—literally—but also metaphorically. I did, in fact, play roles in which I had to take my shirt off, I played roles where I had to cry and sometimes, I had to do both of those things concurrently! And, metaphorically they resonated in the sense that despite all my highfalutin’ ideas about being an “artist,” I would find myself at auditions where I would be asked to turn around so they could see my ass or turn sideways so they could check out the silhouette of my nose or tits to better determine my true viability for a role, my ability with the script of seemingly little import. But, here’s the thing: Mamet also said that despite these challenges, you can still retain your dignity, in whatever situation you find yourself in. For me “take your shirt off and cry”—those words—morphed over the years into something new, ultimately becoming more of a battle cry—my salvation, if you will. So Mamet’s words were the gift that kept on giving.
Rumpus: Many of the pieces were first read aloud onstage you write in your acknowledgements. How did performing these stories shape what wound up on the page? Are public readings something you’d recommend to writers?
Balbirer: I seriously don’t know how I could have written all of that if not for Naked Angels [email protected], a free developmental writing program here in NYC. I would take my pages down there any time they would have me, and read my stuff to a hundred strangers. The audience never lies. And if you are open, you can gauge by their reactions what’s good and what sucks and if they’re with you or if you’ve lost them, and precisely where etc. For me, it’s a fabulous way of working; it forces me to write, it forces me to be rigorously honest, and it forces me to put it out there and let go.
Rumpus: What I thought was most interesting about your chapter on Jennifer Aniston (“Jane” in the book), “Friendly Fire,” wasn’t the much-gossiped-about details of her plastic surgery, but your sense of “what will be will be,” after sharing that you’re pretty sure she got you fired from guest starring on Friends. You also take that attitude toward Ned, a guy who keeps trying to get you in bed. Are you the forgive and forget type?
Balbirer: What happened with the loss of that job, and of course the friendship, was so devastating. And I was profoundly depressed for a long, long time about it. But, it was also a turning point for me; it was the fork in the road wherein I realized what was required of me, and what it would really take, on a spiritual and emotional level, to continue pursuing an acting career. I also began to understand how much I was complicit in my own destiny.
The hardest person for me to forgive in sitting down to write this book was myself for falling short of all the expectations. That was huge, because whatever my experiences were, I tended to blame myself for the things that happened (or didn’t happen)—whether it was losing a friend, failing at my acting career, or not wanting to fuck a guy who said I was leading him on. And the act of self-forgiveness was something I had to do each and every day I sat down in front of the computer, because it’s just my nature to feel like I’m falling short or not enough or whatever. The forgiving of other people was much, much easier for me. And, I would also add that I couldn’t write about people had I not forgiven them and more importantly accepted them, both for who they are and who they were to me in my life. In the end, every person in my book was my teacher, and my experiences with them ultimately brought me to a level of insight, understanding and compassion I had never known before. And for that, I am, and will always be, extremely grateful.
Rumpus: You told the New York Daily News regarding Aniston, “What happened to me was sad, not hilarious.” That could be said for a lot of the stories you relate in the book, and I actually thought that one was mild compared to some of the emotional heartbreak and hard knocks of show business. You combine sadness and humor in a way that melds them so they’re almost inseparable. Like in the story about your friend TJ singing in drag for Alan Carr, it was so horrifying that he froze up, and yet funny too. Did your sense of the meaning of these events soften or change over time? Are you better able to laugh at them now than you were?
Balbirer: When I was nineteen, I went to see Whoopi Goldberg on Broadway while she was still in previews for the show that ultimately made her a big star. And I will never forget it because she was telling these stories, playing these very funny characters, and we were all sitting there, laughing our asses off. And then, just before the end, the story turns and it’s sad, it’s grim, it’s shocking. And I was knocked out by it, because it was exactly how I saw the world and life and I just couldn’t get over it. I wanted to tell stories like that; stories that blended tragicomic elements so that they were almost interchangeable. Funny, but equally dark—that sort of thing. I also love stories where the character’s perception of reality is either shaken to the core, or, you know, NOT—like in the case of TJ and Allan Carr. His body and soul knew he had blown it, but his mind and heart refused to believe it. I love shit like that because we can all relate to it.
And to speak to the second part of your question, there’s this great line in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, where Alan Alda, playing a pompous Hollywood TV producer, says: “Comedy equals tragedy plus time…”
It’s so true—there’s just nothing like time and perspective and there’s absolutely no doubt that my feelings about these events changed over time. I had plenty of time to process my feelings; from where I sit now, I could view events as much funnier and, in some instances, sadder, than they had felt before—and certainly, the act of writing transformed a lot of my negative attachments to these stories.
Rumpus: The former law student in me always wants to know about the legal machinations of memoirs. Did your publisher’s lawyers ask you to modify anything?
Balbirer: Interestingly, I didn’t have to change anything about the “famous people,” it was the “private people” I was asked to make changes about. And by changes, I mean I had to change their names and identifying characteristics to preserve their anonymities. But the events of the stories themselves were not altered at all.
Also, there are quite a few people in the book who are famous and they appear with their real names. There are also people in the book who are famous, who were given pseudonyms. It was a self-imposed structure that broke down like this: 1) if someone came into my life as a “famous person”—ie., David Mamet, Lorne Michaels, Jerry Seinfeld, etc, etc—they got their own name. I wanted the reader to experience these characters as I did, and if someone was famous or iconic when I met them, then it’s important for the reader to feel the weight or grandness of them as I did. 2) If, however, someone came into my life as a “non-famous person”—even if they became public later—they were given a pseudonym because these were people who were, at the time that I knew them, not public and, again, I wanted to protect the integrity of that persona, so the reader could experience them as I knew them. But this was purely a style choice—not a legal one.
Rumpus: Along with that, what struck me was your lack of bitterness, even when it would have been much deserved, like when you were waiting around for Lorne Michaels in a hotel room in Chicago. Did you make a conscious effort to strive for that tone, or is that your natural inclination, to basically move on and put these bad experiences behind you?
Balbirer: It was less about moving on or putting bad experiences behind me, and more about embracing these events as parts of my life. I don’t think I could write well from a place of bitterness or tell the kinds of stories I tell, if I were mired in resentment. I was certainly very pissed off at the time that I was sitting in that hotel room, but the most powerful feeling I recall from that time was fear. I was so afraid of doing the wrong thing; of what was or wasn’t happening and what I would tell people later. And I think that more than anything, that’s where the anger arose from—a place of fear and utter powerlessness over my own situation. What I strove for, in telling that story—and in any of the stories for that matter—was the truth, plain and simple. I wanted to bring the reader, as best I could, into that hotel room with me, and feel what it was like to be trapped, waiting for an entire weekend for that call from Lorne Michaels that would never come.
Rumpus: Similarly, you mention instances of sexual harassment and being treated differently than the male actors, on Remote Control or Saturday Night Live, so I’m curious if you consider yourself a feminist.
Balbirer: I absolutely consider myself a feminist. I always have. But even here, I had all kinds of ambivalence and this is one of the bewildering contradictions I sought to explore with Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: how I could be a feminist and, at the same time, be so utterly ashamed of being a woman—and ashamed to be ashamed. I never, ever wanted to admit that, but, of course, that admission was the way to liberation.
Rumpus: You move from New York, where you went to college and acted, then to LA, where you did some TV guest parts, wrote, and took many meetings, then back to New York, but you don’t bash LA. When you move, it’s portrayed as bittersweet. What, if anything, do you miss about LA?
Balbirer: I miss the sushi. I miss the smell of jasmine that perfumes the air. I miss having a convertible—even a shitty one—and driving through the Hollywood Hills at night with the top down and the heat on, singing Jewel’s “Who Will Save Your Soul” at the top of my lungs.
To be honest, I never felt comfortable in LA; I lived there for eight years and never once felt like I fit in. I never had the sense of community that I have always had in New York and although the weather in LA is unimpeachably fabulous, it was, to bowdlerize Nathaniel West, not enough. But that’s not LA’s fault! It would be very uninteresting for me to trash LA; people have done it and far better than I ever could, but I still find it boring. Because the bottom line is this: Los Angeles was a big part of my life. I needed to go there; I am thankful for the opportunity to learn something about myself that I never would have had I not gone out there and given the whole damn thing a whirl. Like the various people in my book, LA became, for me, a character; it represented the world, the thwarted dreams, the fairytale that I could blame for my vast disappointments. In the end I realize, like everything else, that it wasn’t LA; it was me.
Rumpus: Your book is certainly humorous, but I saw a spiritual side to it too, not religious per se but about searching for something much more than simply your next starring role. What role did/does spirituality play in your life, and your art?
Balbirer: Yes, well that’s just it: I wasn’t actually content to just be going along, looking for fame and fortune—to be a star. I was trying to connect with people—to make contact. I grew up with no religion in my home and in some ways, I had the sense that what I was doing in my artistic pursuits was looking for God. What I had always loved about acting was performing on the stage, that communion with this audience of complete strangers who sit out there, in the dark, watching, waiting to see themselves in the drama that’s unfolding. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I really thought I could have this life of an actor—a working actor in the theater—going from play to play and that would be it. That was my dream. But, I became terribly disillusioned by it all, particularly in my LA years, but in New York, too, before I left. With nowhere to get that connection I yearned for, I would run around to tarot readers and psychics, clinging to the clairvoyance of strangers as if every absurdity were a decree.
But, you know, that’s me—I tend to become obsessed and I can’t just do anything half-assed, no matter how hairbrained. But, because I have a rebellious nature, at some point I would go awol from whatever my current spiritual quest might be. I’ve been an intermittent yoga-person over the years; I’d get all into it and then one day, after however long, I’d lose interest or get bored or hate my hair constantly smelling like stinky feet and just bag the whole thing. When I started writing the book in earnest, I got back into yoga for the first time in many years. This time I really made a deep commitment to practicing and for the first time ever, started doing inversions and read the Bhagavad Gita, and Rumi poems every night before bed. It was amazing how much it helped me dig deep and go to those scary places in my work, and I started to have that feeling again, the one where in some moments I thought I could sort of feel God. And, in trying to open yourself and make those internal shifts and shake up your old ways of looking at things, there’s just nothing better than standing on your head and seeing life from upside down.
Rumpus: Do you have any advice for those currently in drama school or just starting off with an eye to acting careers?
Balbirer: I would say that it’s really important to have a strong support system—family, friends, who love you and think the world of you. I think you need to have unwavering belief in yourself. I also think it’s vital to have another creative outlet for when you’re between jobs. Remember: you have more power than you think you do to change your life. I am rooting for you!
Rumpus: What’s next for you?
Balbirer: I’m working on another book—also a memoir—that will cover the period before Take Your Shirt Off and Cry takes place and also after. I’m also working on a play and a novel. And, maybe one day, I’ll get to play Alexandra Del Lago, aka The Princess Kosmonopolis in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth. You never know!