On Sunday, Nic Mevoli died while trying to set a freediving record in the Bahamas. Many writers and commenters have expressed surprise and confusion as to why Nic would have chosen such a risky and physically demanding hobby, but having known him, I...
Nic (center) with Esther Bell at the Rotterdam Film Festival, 2004.
I met Nic Mevoli on a film set in Philadelphia. We remained friends for years, later living in the same Brooklyn neighborhood until I moved across the country to Portland, Oregon, losing touch with him and most everyone in New York. I knew Nic was kind of a jock, but had no idea of his newfound passion for freediving until this past Sunday, when news of his death off the coast of the Bahamas broke. I found out through a Facebook message from filmmaker Esther Bell: "Nic Mevoli passed away today- imso destroyed." Esther is Nic's ex-girlfriend, but she's also how we met, as actors in her 2004 film Exist. Attached was a Daily Mail story detailing Nic's death, brought on by lung compression after a record-breaking free dive to a depth of more than 200 feet into the Bahamian sea.
Like anyone else who's read the coverage, I was shocked by Nic's fast ascent into the top tier of the sport within the short span of two years. But while writers and commenters both seemed to express surprise and confusion as to why Nic would have chosen such a risky and physically demanding new career (not to mention the fact that he lost money in the process), I didn't share their bafflement.
The Nic I met years ago had not yet become a diving superhero—rather, he was a butcher's son turned vegan who lived in a South Philly squat and ferociously pedaled his bicycle everywhere out of concern for his carbon footprint. As young activist punks who spent our teen years living in abandoned buildings and raging against the machine, risky behavior (and how to live off stuff we found in the trash) was all we knew.
In 2001 I was living at (k)Not Squat, a West Philadelphia haven for anarchist punks where the door was always open and a pot of something stinky and bizarre was always on the stove. It was here that my housemate Chris "Spam" White and I first encountered a handwritten casting call, stuck to our front door with masking tape. A filmmaker was in town shooting a movie about activist collectives and was apparently hitting up all the punk houses in the neighborhood to get people to audition. While most of our neighbors scoffed, Spam and I decided, along with a third housemate, April Rosenblum, to check it out.
April, Spam, and I ended up landing minor parts in the film, possibly because we were among the only real-life squatters to show up. By the time we began shooting, Bell had scrapped the script in favor of collective writing and improvisation, letting the subject and material define the process—a modernist film technique if there ever was one. By the end of edits, the storyline had changed drastically and Nic, who had started the film in the supporting role of an inconsequential housemate named Top, had come through as the star. He was so quiet during filming at the "squat" (a dilapidated apartment decorated by Spam, April, and myself with fliers and other items from (k)Not Squat) that he barely registered as part of the cast. During the initial rehearsals I was taken aback when he spoke his lines—I'd become accustomed to his silent, muscular presence. He was the guy in the corner who listened, with eyes cast sideways, then paced around in circles as if his energy were too much to be pinned into one space and time.
Nic on the Exist set with (L-R) production assistant Kim, director of photography Tracey Gudwin, and director Esther Bell, 2001.
During the course of filming Nic and Esther had begun dating, and I have to admit I was a little peeved that the director's boyfriend had been given one of the two starring roles. Was it nepotism? But after watching the finished product I agreed it made sense to cast Nic in one of the leads. He had a classically handsome actor face and was almost too model-like to play a West Philly bike punk, but somehow he pulled it off flawlessly. His big eyes, big lips, and angular bone structure are a close-up's dream.
It wasn't until a year later, when I fled Philly and returned to Brooklyn, that I got to know Nic and Esther better. They'd become a couple, and lived above the notorious former Williamsburg bar Kokie's, a somewhat scary dive with a curtained-off back room for cocaine orgies that had the audacity to name itself after its most sought-after product. I came over for vegan dinner parties at which Nic would display his feats of vegetarian magic. The relationship with Esther had transformed him: no longer the quiet shadow in the corner of the set, Nic was ebullient, cracking jokes and offering a warm hug to everyone who walked into the apartment. The natural anarchist punk's suspicion I initially held had worn off. Nic wasn't some kind of ambitious actor jerk, using Esther to get ahead. He was just a genuinely nice guy: loving and open, with a simplicity and contentment in his manner that always left me—a neurotic—secretly envious.
That's where Nic always stood out. He was able to be still in the eye of the storm. We all lived chaotic lives and none of us ever had any money, but where I was constantly wailing about the stress of such a life, Nic just seemed cool with it. Even when five of us later traveled to Rotterdam and Berlin to premiere the film, squeezing everyone into a single tiny hotel room where we all fought over who got the bed, Nic just took the floor without a word.
Like a lot of other urban East Coast kids, Nic had always pushed it to the limit. There's a certain love of adventure, a recklessness and joy, that drives a young person to choose the thankless and underpaid life of an actor over, say, a job as an executive assistant or an office temp. We felt that manic bliss while spitting at cops in Philly and dancing at all-night film festival after parties in the Netherlands, jobs that we scrounged and saved for just to feel a fleeting moment of adrenaline. All of us, like Nic, were holding our breath under water for a dream. Maybe we were poor and unstable, but for a moment here and a night there, we were happy.