Starring Cindy L. Silver As Herself
Director Nathan Silver first cast his mother, Cindy Silver, in his 2012 film Exit Elena. Cindy had never acted before that, and she would go on to become a recurring cast member in her son’s films. But then Nathan cut almost all of her scenes from his 2016 film Actor Martinez.
The erasure felt like a blow to Cindy, whose creative ambition had once been to become a modern dancer. After becoming pregnant with Nathan’s brother, Eric, at the age of 16, the Queens native stopped seriously pursuing that dream and focused her energies on supporting her children’s passions as the family moved from place to place for school, jobs, and to be closer to relatives. Now 68, she lives in Rhinebeck, New York, with her husband, Harvey, a photographer. Cindy has appeared in three shorts and six feature films made by Nathan, a prolific and respected director of semi-improvised independent films, which critic Richard Brody has described as being focused on “small institutions, closed spaces, families and their tightly organized surrogates, and the explosive volatility of relationships that arise within them.”
In the new Topic documentary series Cutting My Mother, the mother-son duo explore their close bond, as well as their sometimes fraught creative partnership, and embark on a new collaboration: Cindy’s first turn as a director of her own short film, Solo.
Nathan and Cindy spoke to Topic on the phone about working together, how to deal with rejection, and the challenges of directing a film starring the person who made you.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nathan, how did you talk to Cindy about acting in your films? And was there any convincing involved?
Nathan Silver: I made a bunch of short films when I got out of school, and she would always have minor roles in them. But there would always be a mother character that I would have another actress play. And then I made my first feature film, which was a complete disaster. It had a larger budget, and after that I decided to make something with friends and family. I knew I wanted my mother’s character in it, and I decided to just finally cast her to play the role that I always had someone else play.
Cindy Silver: But he didn’t let me know.
Nathan: Basically, she thought that she was going to just be on screen, that she’d be in it for a day. But she’s one of the leads. So, yeah, she didn’t really know how large of a role she’d play in it.
And Cindy, what did you think when he asked you to be in a film?
Cindy: With Nathan, I wasn’t asked [laughs]. It happened organically with his early things, which were short films; it was just easy to stand there and sort of do his whole thing. But what I mainly did back then was put people up and do all the catering myself and everything else. So when we did Exit Elena—I don’t know if Nathan wants me to tell the story or he wants to.
Nathan: You tell it.
Cindy: He got a whole cast of people for the movie, and all of a sudden I realized, Oh, wow, he has a main role for me. I was shocked. And then he had the whole crew over, and we were rehearsing every morning. I had people in the house, and I was responsible for all the food and cleaning. And then he started giving out scripts and going, “And now you sit. And now you stand. Now you do this. Now you do that.” I looked up at him and I said, “Are you kidding me? You expect me to remember this and do all that, and everything else going on? No way!” That was how Nathan became known for unscripted movies, I believe. Right, Nathan?
Nathan: Yeah—because of her, because she couldn’t memorize lines or do blocking. So that led me to really embrace improvisation. And then the movies following that were all improvised because of that.
Cindy: But with a lot of guidance from Nathan. It isn’t like it was unscripted and he didn't know where he wanted things to go. He was very much in charge of how the movie was going.
Was it hard to have that mother/son relationship flipped and have your son telling you what to do?
Cindy: Well, we butted heads a lot. Was it tough to take orders? It was exhausting. When you’re doing a movie, you have to shut off all sound. So the air conditioning couldn’t be on. The refrigerator couldn’t be on. And there couldn’t be any noise, and it’s in my home. So for me, the hardest part was that—having everything in my home and being in the movie, and never having done that before.
Nathan: She didn’t want to do more than one take. So I’d have to beg on hands and knees to get her to.
And what was it like for you, Nathan, being in the role of telling your mother what to do?
Nathan: It was certainly a stressful shoot, just because it was working with the people closest to me. I was dating Kia [Davis, the lead actress in Exit Elena] at the time, and I was working with my mother. It was people I was close to and fighting with. And it was my best friend [David Dahlbom] behind the camera, and my dad doing boom a lot of the time. Another friend, Derek [Kroessler], sometimes doing boom. It was all people I was close to. So the normal fights that occur on set are with people that aren't working fights, these were actually familial, friend fights. So it was a bit fraught in that way. One day I remember my mother just had enough, and we broke in the middle of the day because she just wanted everyone to watch the Steve Martin movie Bowfinger. I was like, “I can’t believe this. We need to shoot scenes.”
Cindy: But that helped. Everybody relaxed and laughed.
Nathan: Initially we had a sound recordist, who was an Emerson student, but she started having a panic attack coming to our set because it was so fraught, so she disappeared.
Cindy, you’ve said several times—including in Cutting My Mother—that you don't think you're an actress, despite having acted in Nathan’s films. I'm curious why you say that.
Cindy: No. I’m not an actress. I’m not a person who had any training in acting. I’m totally baffled that I was discussed in the New Yorker and New York Times and all this, because there are people out there who would do anything to be in movies. Right, Na?
Nathan: Yeah. Absolutely.
Cindy: It’s not like I’m Gwyneth Paltrow, where I have my own line of clothing and this and that. And I don’t wear makeup; I'm just a simple person. Nathan, what would you say?
Nathan: I mean, to me, the way you react is the way an actor reacts. So I think that that’s why you’re so good. So it’s not a matter of training, it’s just you know how to naturally react to a situation, which is what is essential for an actor. And you’re a storyteller.
Cindy: For 40 years, I was an English-as-a-second-language teacher. All my years of teaching, I had to act out a lot of things to make people understand me. I think maybe that's why I don't consider it acting. It’s just how I always conveyed things. And I always sort of had a black sense of humor, which got me through a lot of things in life. So I’d throw out lines, and that's kind of what I did in the movie, in [Exit Elena].
Cindy, when you were younger, you aspired to be a dancer. When and why did you stop dancing?
Cindy: From the time I was young—I lived in Northridge, Queens, which is now considered a very cool area. I don’t know why, I guess it’s changed in Queens. And in the play area of the buildings, there was a dance thing in there—we used to call it a “rumpus room”: it was like a big basement-y kind of room for parties. I took ballet and modern dance with a woman there who actually was very encouraging. I auditioned for the High School of Performing Arts [in Manhattan]. I did not get accepted. But I did go to the Martha Graham School, and I studied under her protégé. I studied at New Dance Group with various really good teachers. But I don’t think I ever would have really been a dancer. I did decide I’d try to be a dance therapist. A close friend of mine decided that we would do that. But I was a teenage mother, so that stopped that. My mother exposed me to both music and dance concerts. Her best friend had been in the Martha Graham Dance Studio. My aunt was a legendary dancer, believe it or not, who was famous. I wasn’t talented musically, and dance just felt more natural.
After you had kids, were you able to find ways to express your creativity?
Cindy: I always took some kind of folk dance, or danced and exercised at health clubs, and I knitted and I did crafts ... for many years I knitted for everyone's babies and made scarves for everyone.
Talk to me about directing your first short. Did you like directing?
Cindy: Well, Nathan, do you want to answer that?
Nathan: No, because the question was posed to you.
Cindy: [Laughing] OK, so the way I look at it is Nathan presented this to me at the house that he was going to have me direct something, and I’m like, “What are you talking about?” I did watch him direct almost every single movie but one, right, Nathan?
Nathan: Yeah, you’ve been on set for almost all my stuff.
Cindy: I was like, “What are we talking about? I’m not a director. I don’t know how to direct. Where did this come from?” I was astounded. We did discuss it, and being Nathan, he's so busy, he said, “Oh, Mom, I’ll help you. We’ll go over this. Don’t worry, you’ll be so comfortable”—and then he was too busy to do much.
When it actually came down to it, I was with his crew, and I knew all of them and they had all been here for the series [Cutting My Mother]. Nathan always has really nice people working with him, so I was very comfortable. I guess the funny thing I would say is that I kept watching the dancers [cast in the film], because it was so wonderful. And Hunter [Zimny], who was the cinematographer, he kept saying, “Cindy, look at the monitor!” and I said, “But I want to see the dancers, their whole bodies.”
It was funny, because when we first started, he had to stop and say, “When we're ready to roll, you have to say something.” Like Nathan used to go, “Quiet!” or whatever it is. So it was like I was directing, but I had the guidance of everybody in the crew. I guess it made me really appreciate how much Nathan works with so many people to get his movie out there, and it made me really appreciate how everybody has to do their part—how everybody has to be on top of everything: the sound, the shooting, the scheduling, the people being able to eat, everything else.
Nathan, did you see any of yourself in the way that she directed the film?
Nathan: I think that we actually have very different approaches. She always wanted wide shots. I think that it was lovely to watch her over the course of the day become more and more confident, and communicate more and more with the crew and the actors, and get a sense that she can do this. But I think that we have different sensibilities in the end, you know? I think I'm, oddly, much more of a pessimist as a filmmaker, and she has some optimism as a filmmaker. But in real life, I'd say that my mother can be pessimistic. Or she's a realist.
Cindy: Yeah, I was gonna say.
Do you think that sitting in the director’s chair and being the person who made the decisions helped you understand better why Nathan cut you from one of his films?
Cindy: Well, he cut out many parts. For Actor Martinez, he changed the scope of the movie. That’s a hard answer, because Nathan has always been like, “It’s all about where the movie’s going,” and yet there are definitely people who are hurt from decisions he’s made. But he’s an artist, and he has a vision. So if you ask me how I feel about every movie he’s made, it’s not just about cutting me out—but it’s that I almost feel like I have part ownership, and I miss scenes that were cut out of all his movies, not just necessarily ones that I was in.
I think the thing that hurt with Actor Martinez was it was a hard journey there. It was very uncomfortable circumstances: my husband sprained his ankle, it was boiling hot, I couldn’t find even a drugstore to get an ice thing for him. I just really liked the opening scene [that I was in, which was cut], and so initially I just felt very badly.
There’s a movie behind every movie. When I see the movie, I think it’s great, but I’m the one who remembers being in the van that was so hot that the camera started melting. We couldn’t have air conditioning, we did this long, long scene for hours—and then you just see the van, you don't see anything [that happened behind the scenes]. So it’s more than being cut out of the movie; it’s what goes into every scene. It makes me really respect actors who put their heart into something, and then they’re on the cutting-room floor.
Would you like to direct again?
Cindy: Not necessarily. I enjoy having Nathan be the director and seeing his films.
Nathan, do you have creative ambitions for Cindy? Would you like to see her direct again?
Nathan: Yes, absolutely. But I don’t know if I can convince her, but I’ll try. I think she has stories to tell, and I think they can be told in front of the camera or from behind, but I think to have her behind the camera—I found it fascinating. I want to see what she can come up with.