Nerely Myself: Con Man and Identity

Alan Tudyk in promotional image for Con Man.
“Just be yourself.”

This is the oft-quoted advice of a parent or friend before our first day at a new job or when meeting a group of new people. It seems like good advice, but whenever I hear someone give it, I get anxious.

Which version of myself am I supposed to be? Am I the life-of-the-party version, trying to make everyone laugh? Do I find a group of people talking about Star Wars and weigh in with my thoughts on Rey ‘s characterization in The Force Awakens? There are a number of versions of “me” I could be, so which one is the right one?

When I watched Con Man, I saw Wray Nerely struggle with the same question.

Firefly’s Alan Tudyk plays Nerely, a character inspired and exaggerated from Tudyk’s own experiences with fandom and conventions. Famous for his role in a short-lived and much-loved sci-fi TV series called Spectrum, Nerely now lives on the convention circuit, signing posters and smiling while people shout his decade-old catchphrase at him—“I’ll see you in hell!”

If I live my life by being who people think I am, I’ll be robbing myself of being who I want to be.

Nerely loves his fans. Mostly. Sometimes. He knows he wouldn’t be where he is in life without them, but he resents the fact that they only want him to be the version of him they know from TV.

While lamenting at an airport bar, Nerely runs into Sean Astin (or at least a fictional version of Sean Astin) who tells him to milk his mediocre fame for all it’s worth.

“They think you’re a spaceship pilot. What’s wrong with that? That’s better than reality. Just be who they think you are.”

Throughout the series Nerely can’t seem to get it right. When he tries to play the fame card, it blows up in his face. When he tries to act humble, he is thrust into the spotlight to make a fool of himself. Wray Nerely doesn’t seem to know who he is or—more importantly—who he wants to be.

“Just be yourself” seems like good advice until you realize you don’t know how to do it.

Identity is a tricky thing. I’m from a small town where I had the same group of friends for the better part of a decade. We went to the same church and hung out almost every night. We watched the same movies together and all knew each other’s stories.

“Just be yourself” seems like good advice until you realize you don’t know how to do it.

When I was 21, I had a chance to live in London, England for six months. Suddenly I was living in very close quarters with 40 people who’d never met me before. They didn’t know my opinions on Star Wars or why I thought Joss Whedon was the perfect choice to direct The Avengers. For the first time in my life, I could choose how people saw me, what role I played in a new group. The question I found myself scared to face was, “Who do I want to be?”

I had a youth pastor who said, “You’re the average of your 10 best friends.” As I met new people and made new friends, my identity—my personal average—was changing. I had never had to give much thought to who I was before.

When Wray Nerely is invited to reunite with the cast of Spectrum for a movie reboot, he is forced to confront the fact that he wants to be more than “the guy who played Cash Wayne on Spectrum.” He wants to change his average and he has to give thought to his identity.

Con Man takes a silly look at the way we see identity in actors we love. I can empathize with the fans who swarm Nerely for autographs and call him by his character’s name, because I still associate Firefly actors with their characters. Of course, I know Nathan Fillion isn’t really Malcolm Reynolds, but part of me still chooses to forget that whenever I watch Firefly.

Who am I? I’m still figuring that out. But if I live my life following the advice of fictional Sean Astin and just be who people think I am, I’ll be robbing myself of being who I want to be: Malcolm Reynolds. Now wouldn’t that be shiny?

Jason Dueck

Jason Dueck

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
From Captain Kirk to Commander Shepard, Jason's love for science fiction extends to the final frontier. When he's not geeking out, Jason can be found studying communications at Red River College in Winnipeg.
Jason Dueck

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