My Life as an Unexpected Actress

Cindy Silver fostered her son Nathan’s creativity and now plays another important role in his life: his favorite actress.

I never thought that I would be an actress. When I was in elementary school, I was not allowed to sing with my class because I sang out of tune. I had to mouth the words of the songs that my classmates sang. When I attended a performing arts camp, the acting director told me that I couldn’t even speak in tune, much less act in the play that I was trying out for. In dance classes, my sway back always became an embarrassing issue that was pointed out to the whole class. Add this to being terrible at playing piano and clarinet and you can see how I didn’t have a good self image as a person in the arts. But I always loved art, music, dance and literature. I read a book a day and my dream was to read every book ever written. Growing up in a bedroom with two brothers, I escaped into other worlds by reading each night, hiding the light under my blanket, or lying on the floor of the bathroom reading until the middle of the night.

I hoped to pursue a career as a dance therapist, and attended many classes in Manhattan at wonderful dance schools. But I became a mother as a teenager, and my relatives, who were teachers, encouraged me to become a teacher too, so that I would have more time to be with my son. I always wanted to help people, and eventually when I became involved in English as a Second Language, I found that I could make a real difference in other people’s lives. It also led me to act out situations that my students couldn’t understand in the English language. So, without realizing it, I was beginning to prepare for the roles that my filmmaker son, Nathan Silver, would create for me in Exit Elena, Uncertain Terms, Thirst Street and many of his other feature and short films.

When my son Nathan was born, my older son Eric was a teenager, and a drummer in rock bands. There was drumming and rock music in the basement, and lullabies playing and being sung in Nathan’s room. It was an interesting dichotomy. I was definitely living in two worlds.

From the time that Nathan was a toddler, he showed a passion for any art that he was exposed to. We went to museums and plays and concerts and created costumes for him. When he showed a real interest and talent in illustration and art (after spending a lot of time at home during first grade, when he had five strep throats), my husband and I gave him reams of paper. His very first project was drawing the Joker’s smile, after seeing Batman. He drew and discarded literally hundreds of pages until he got it right. Scores of drawings began appearing on our walls.

At 13, Nathan discovered the poetry of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Verlaine. We got him a French tutor so that he could read French poetry in its original language. It being Nathan, we supported this passion, and thus we went on a journey to France that followed the trail of the poets Rimbaud and Verlaine from Paris to Brussels. That was quite an eye-opening experience. Rimbaud’s hometown was just as Rimbaud experienced it — depressing and bleak.

Nathan Silver and Cindy Silver in Paris, 1999. (Photo by Harvey L. Silver)

This is all to say that even though I couldn’t pursue the arts, I wanted my son to. Little did I know he would bring me back to art.

At 22, Nathan turned to film, and somehow he made me an actress.

When Nathan created his first short films, I did everything I could to help out: scouting locations, putting up his cast and crews in my home, catering, and even persuading actor friends to take on different roles. He also cast me in a few minor roles.

When he started work on his second feature, Exit Elena, I was clueless about what he actually had in mind for me. As we started rehearsing, I realized that I had a lead role, and it consumed my whole summer. My home in Lexington, Massachusetts, became a film set. Air conditioning was turned off. Furniture was moved around. All of our belongings were rearranged.

When the filming of Exit Elena began, it became obvious that I did not know how to take direction. I did not know when to sit, or when to stand. I couldn’t remember my lines. The experience was life-altering for both Nathan and me. It led to Nathan throwing out the script and devising a method of improvisation that he used until recently. For me, it unexpectedly led to me becoming an actress.

Acting in Exit Elena and being directed by my own son during a long hot summer was very challenging, and the shoot was filled with conflict and emotions. I had no idea how much time would be involved; how long each day would be; how many repetitive takes of each scene would be necessary. As a director, Nathan had a nagging vision. As my son, he knew what he wanted to bring out in my performance – he knew what stories he wanted me to relate – and we worked until he was satisfied with the results. This is why he cast me in the first place – because he knew me so well.

Unexpectedly, Exit Elena was a critical success. Suddenly it was being written about both nationally and internationally, because it was accepted in film festivals around the world, including Edinburgh, Woodstock, Vancouver, Viennale, Lisbon, Buenos Aires and Lincoln Center. And unbelievably, the reviews talked about and praised my performance. It was unreal.

Cindy Silver and Nathan Silver during the making of Uncertain Terms. (Photo by Harvey L. Silver.)

In 2012, Nathan and I attended the Woodstock Film Festival. The film won Honorable Mention, but it also introduced me to Rhinebeck, New York, where the film screened. The next year, my husband and I moved from Lexington, Massachusetts, to Rhinebeck to be closer to my family in New York City and Long Island. But immediately after moving in, Nathan and a cast and crew of 17 people arrived to film Uncertain Terms, a film created to honor my experience as a young teenage mother. Once again, I had a leading role.

I didn’t even know where the rooms were in my house. The house was on a septic system, so when we lost power during a storm, we couldn’t flush the toilets. That and the frogs hanging on our windows from huge rainstorms, were only the start of the shocks in store for me. Let’s not even talk about how many blankets I was left to wash when the shoot was over. We needed a new washing machine and dryer!

Although I loved the cast and crew, the Uncertain Terms shoot was extremely stressful and I did a lot of crying. I had just moved, both of my elderly parents were ill, and my role was extensive and difficult. When they had a 30th birthday party for Nathan during the shoot, I stayed up in my room.

Once again, our film was critically acclaimed, and Nathan and I attended several film festivals together – from Los Angeles to Vienna. People recognized me, and ran up to me saying they loved me and my acting. They were very moved by both Uncertain Terms and Exit Elena. It was very exciting, and I was very proud of Nathan.

In Nathan’s subsequent movies, though, things changed. I had a small non-speaking role in Stinking Heaven; when I attended screenings, Nathan would be asked why I wasn’t in a leading role. When Nathan made Actor Martinez, my husband and I were flown out to Denver for a week of shooting. It was boiling hot. My husband sprained his ankle. It was a difficult shoot and I was proud to have what seemed to be a pivotal role. But painfully, my character was cut, as Nathan and the producers reshaped the plot of the film.

I felt devastated and took it very personally, even though I understood that the plot of the movie had evolved, making my role irrelevant. I tried to come to terms with it, but it still felt like a total rejection. Needless to say, it put a strain on my relationship with Nathan. For years after, I would bring it up every time we spoke.

Cindy Silver and Nathan Silver at the Locarno International Film Festival. (Photo by Harvey L. Silver.)

Life goes on, though, and Nathan cast me in his wonderful film Thirst Street, filmed in Paris. Although many of my scenes were cut, I was beginning to understand filmmaking much better.

Recently, Nathan directed the documentary web series Cutting My Mother, in which he set out to mend our relationship. As always, Nathan cajoled me and told me how great this series would be for me. It would give me a new purpose in my life. He said that I would be in a series that would honor me and show me his appreciation and love, and try to make up for the hurt I felt from being cut from Actor Martinez – but being Nathan, suddenly he had me directing a short film within the series. With Nathan’s help – as well as the cast and crew – I was able to pull this off. So now, in addition to being the reluctant actor, I am now a reluctant director.

After a life as a mother of two sons in the arts, and with a husband who is a photographer, I now consider myself an artist in my own right … but somewhat reluctantly.

Ultimately, my nurturing Nathan’s artistic aspirations led to him nurturing mine, which I didn’t even know existed. Somehow, I appeared in his films, with my fanny pack and no knowledge of the film world, and ended up walking red carpets, attending film festivals, being written up in major publications, winning awards and even directing my own short film. Who says you can’t lead a horse to water …?

Cindy Silver, proud mother of director Nathan Silver, has appeared in several of his films, including the role of Carla in Uncertain Terms, Cindy in Exit Elena, Lorraine in Thirst Street and as herself in the web series Cutting My MotherCutting My Mother and Exit Elena screen together at Anthology Film Archives in New York City on July 18.