Uly Schlesinger joins MOOD to chat about the vulnerability in his character, Nathan, the reoccurring theme of family dynamics in his performance, and the importance of natural honesty presented in the new HBO show Genera+ion.
In 2019, Uly Schlesinger’s world changed forever. A reply to a long-forgotten audition tape saw the American actor move from New York to Los Angeles within the space of 24 hours. That show was the HBO Max TV series, Generation. Written by Daniel Barnz and his daughter Zelda Barnz. It takes place in a modern-day US high school, following a group of teenagers through the most tumultuous of times. It’s a gripping experience that has quickly gained the show thousands of fans across the world. Its greatest strength is its relatability; as viewers we’ve all been in the characters' shoes, feeling the constant social pressures whilst you’re simply trying to find yourself as a human being. Uly’s character, Nathan, faces his very own unique set of problems that often makes him appear vulnerable yet incredibly lovable. Ahead of the release of the second part of series one, we catch up with the actor to see what we can expect next.
Uly’s love for acting developed as a teenager but he only realized this through a freak turn of events at school. Unbeknown to him at the time, a simple situation as being unable to take the subjects you wanted to take opened a door that would never close- fueling a passion that would turn into a blossoming career. “I needed to fill an arts requirement at school, and everything was full. I tried to sign up for photography. Everything else was full, the only thing that was left open was an acting class. And I had never even thought about doing that ever, but I had to. When I started, it was mostly just improv scenes and reading little snippets of plays here and there. It was fun, but then someone dropped out of the school play, which was Antigany, at the time. I got a call from my theater teacher, and she said, “Hey, we need someone to fill this part. There’s nobody else that can do it. Can you come in? It's like two lines''. So I said, “Yeah, sure”. I was playing soldier number two, in Antigany. I remember, I got up on this little stage in the basement of my school, and was standing in front of all those people with my toy gun. And I thought, this is awesome. This is it. This is like the most exciting feeling I've ever felt in my life!”
As with any journey to your dream career, Uly had more than his fair share of challenges, the first of which was to get a job in the acting industry. Months spent in a job he hated only proved to Uly that a career in acting is what he had to do. “I worked at Barnes and Noble for a while, which was an awful job. After a few months at Barnes and Noble, I had to do something, I had to try and make it and so I duct-taped my phone to a tripod and I recorded a monologue. I emailed it to a bunch of agencies in New York and I was saying this is me, please, please, please hire me. Please look, hire me, and fucking sign me. Thankfully, one of them- one out of 10 agencies that I sent the monologue to got back to me. I went in asking for a theater contract because that was the only thing I knew how to do. Theatre was the only thing I had experience in and they offered me a TV and film contract and I was terrified.”
Then the call came from Generation. At the time the actor had only done a few bit-part roles in TV series, never spending more than “a day, or like three days” on set filming. It was a surreal moment, not only because he’d sent the audition tape off almost a year prior, and given silence, he had given up on the role. An impromptu callback over zoom sealed the deal and the rest was history. It was a life-changing moment. “My agent called me, and I picked up and she said, ‘So you booked it. You have to be on a flight to LA tomorrow.’ I just started crying on the subway. It was so much- It was so overwhelming, but so, so exciting. Yeah - so then I got on that fucking plane and I went, and we shot the pilot.”
Uly wears LaCoste
Within the series, Uly plays the beloved role of ‘Nathan’. A twin to ‘Naomi’ and closeted bisexual who is simply trying to find his way amidst all the confusion. He’s a character who’s easy to connect with due to his journey towards acceptance. Coming from an extremely conservative family, Nathan never quite feels accepted, and as a viewer and you can feel an emotional pull towards this vulnerable person. On his journey, the actor explains: “Nathan is trying to figure out how to find love unconditionally. I will say that I think he's always searching to be loved because he has this family who loves him, of course. And that's apparent in the show, but also, they are so caught up in who he is in terms of his sexuality. And I think he just really wants to find acceptance and wants to find a new family- a chosen family.”
Playing such a role opens your eyes to the struggles many people in the world face. It’s a real eye-opener to genuine issues. It puts you in Nathan's shoes and makes you think, what would you do if your family didn’t accept you? For Uly, this was an area in which he could delve into his character. “There are a lot of similarities between me and Nathan. But also, I think the main difference, honestly, is the family dynamic. I thought that was something that was the most interesting to explore and play with because my family is so accepting and supportive of every part of me and everything I've ever wanted to do. I'm very, very lucky and blessed in that way. So for me to try and put myself in the shoes of someone who has these people who were supposed to love you unconditionally, be so vehemently against something that's a core to your being- I thought it was, I mean, it is fucked up. It's extremely heartbreaking.”
Nathan's very real and personal journey is a common theme across the show. The key to its success is its exploration of genuine themes. Written by 19-year-old Zelda Barnz, there’s a freshness to it that other shows in similar settings never explored. Especially around sexuality and social pressures that were so prominent when we were in high school. You feel like you’re sharing these experiences with the characters, and that’s a rare feeling. “There's just a natural realness to what is being talked about and what's being said, with natural honesty to it, throughout the whole show.” Uly proclaims, “That's something that I appreciated. The situations are intrinsical high school experiences. It was interesting to go back into that mindset after such a long time. To remember what it felt like to be in high school, and how dramatic everything is, and everything is so intense all the time. Your hormones are going crazy and you're trying to figure out who you are and how you fit in with all these people.”
Perhaps the key to this is having such a young writer lead the storyline. It’s the youth of today that understand the ever-changing social pressures and the challenge in itself of being young. In Nathan’s case, it brings to light the consistent strain those in the LGBTQIA+ community feel. We’re all taught that there’s nothing more important in life than family, so then what do you do if your mother won’t accept the real you, do you live a constant lie forever? Or do you hone who you are and risk losing contact with your family? These real issues and genuine dilemmas are gripping, and throughout Generation, it’s done expertly well. “You don't have to be in high school to be brought back to that.” The actor states, “I felt like these characters were so honest and so vulnerable, that it's so easy to empathize with all of them, and they're also fully fleshed out and they have these amazing storylines that you don't know. There's a character for everyone I feel like which is sweet.”
Now, we’re just a short wait away from the end of the first season, and that gives everyone a full further eight episodes to sink their teeth into. With the base built and a connection between viewers and characters, it looks set to push on with many twists and turns that are set to grip us all. “It all picks up right where it left off in part one.” Uly explains, “But in terms of themes and motifs, I think there's a lot of pairs in part one and then I think you start to see more interesting triangles and threesomes start to pop up. Also, a little more drama between the group. It's telling very real personal stories, and I think everyone can relate to these things. Generation is such an intrinsically human experience that you're watching.”
Generation has built an eager fan base across the world and now Uly’s face is instantly recognizable. That aspect of stardom can be somewhat difficult to deal with. For Uly it’s certainly a tad surreal, as he explains: “It's bizarre and fucking weird. The first time that I was driving around LA after the show came out and I saw my face on a bus stop, I thought, wow, people in New York are probably graffitiing all over my face on the subway stations- which I never got to see, unfortunately. But I hope they did. I'm honestly trying to ignore it a little bit and focus on work and the next thing. I’m moving forward but it is exciting and I’m incredibly, incredibly fucking grateful to be here.”
But there’s another side to that fame, where the power of social media allows people to reach out and let them know what Generation means to them. When it’s done well, the internet is a beautiful thing. “Honestly, the nicest thing is getting messages from people to who the show has touched and meant something. As much as I love the feeling of acting and being on a stage, the next best thing is having someone reach out to you and say what you did and what you made, really meant something to them.”
For Uly, the future certainly looks bright. It’s too early to know if Generation will get a second series, although we’re all crossing our fingers. But throughout the production he’s more than proven his credentials in portraying a lead role, playing a character that’s so complex, and embracing every aspect of the process. It’s been one hell of a journey and who knows, we might just see him in a movie role next, as the actor proclaims: “I would honestly love to go back to theater someday. For now, I honestly want to tap more into movies. I'd love to do some highly intense and meaty-character study kind of movie. I feel that's what everyone wants to do, but someday I really, really want to get back on the stage. It's always been my passion.” While Uly embraces his newfound stardom, we’ll be anticipating what’s coming next on Generation, and we’re sure it won’t disappoint.
Generation season 1 now streaming on HBO Max.
Uly wears Bode
Photography: Anthony Giovanni
Fashion: Edwin J. Ortega
Interview by: Jake Wright