Many first-time directors would be first in line at the multiplex to buy a ticket to watch their movie on the big screen, but “As They Made Us” filmmaker Mayim Bialik is just wrapping a long day of shooting on her FOX sitcom “Call Me Kat.”
“I’ve been working since seven in the morning, rehearsing and rewriting,” Bialik says with a laugh as she hops on the phone with Variety on Friday afternoon. “Obviously, everybody’s been congratulating me, and [her “Call Me Kat” co-star] Julian Gant is also in the movie, so we’re both very excited. But it was just like a normal day.”
In fact, the actor, producer, writer and now director was on the way home to her sons and preparing for Shabbat with her mother Beverly. Plus, she notes, “There’s a certain level of terrified that I would be to watch it in a theater.”
It’s a very personal project for the multi-hyphenate performer, who wrote the movie while processing the death of her father, Barry, in 2015. The story centers on Abigail (Diana Agron), a newly-divorced mother of two trying to rebuild her own life, while taking care of her parents Eugene (Dustin Hoffman) and Barbara (Candice Bergen) as her brother Nathan (Simon Helberg) is no longer part of the picture. When Eugene’s health condition begins to worsen, the story charts the dysfunctional family’s road forward, while looking back at how they became estranged to begin with.
It’s a story focused more on healing this complex family than the grief they’re experiencing, Bialik explained.
“Grief is the tool that is being used to tell the story of this family,” she said. “For me, it’s really a story about four very complicated characters, each who are redeemed in their own way. Yes, grief is one of those things that really brings you to your knees and also brings out a lot of, not only your best features, but some of your worst as well.”
Read on as Bialik details her writing process and shares what she learned by transitioning from in front of the camera to behind it.
Take me back to 2015, when you first decided to write down some thoughts, feelings and memories, and then it blossomed into this script.
I really didn’t write thinking I’m gonna turn this into a movie. I wrote the way a lot of writers write — because we feel compelled to. It comes from something that needs to live on paper, instead of just in our heads or in our hearts. So that’s really where it started. I started writing prose. It wasn’t even in screenplay format. I didn’t even have Final Draft yet when I started writing. There’s so many stages of making your first film, especially for me, learning as I go. And there’s so many things to know when making a very, very small budget film, which we are. It took a lot of labor and a lot of love to pull it together. It’s still very surreal.
You’ve been a part of so many different projects as an actor as a producer, what surprised you most about the process, once you stepped into the director’s chair?
I mean, I’ve been in the industry since I was 11 years old, and it was pretty exciting to see on how many levels of a production it really does matter that people care about a project. Everyone from our camera guys and our craft service people, all the way up to two-time Academy Award-winner Dustin Hoffman, people were very moved by the story and the desire to tell this story, and to tell it the way that my DP David Feeney-Mosier and I wanted to. That was really surprising, honestly, that people still really do respond to material that resonates with them.
What has somebody said to you about the material that has really resonated with you?
This might sound strange, but some of the people who clearly don’t understand why I made it are actually informing me. While I’m not obsessively reading every review, some people really feel uncomfortable with the emotions that this movie brings up.
That’s actually very important to me, because that’s exactly what the movie is about. Yeah, things are uncomfortable. People have different reactions. Some people stay and some people go. So actually also a nice thing to remember that everyone’s allowed to have their personal experience, whether it be their childhood, their memories, their perception of their parents when they’re adults, or even things like movies that talk about those things.
You mentioned two-time Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman, Candice Bergen, Diana Agron and your “Big Bang Theory” friend Simon Helberg. What was it like working with that quartet?
This is an unbelievable cast, each of them individually, but then also as a family. I just love so much how they function together, and how they didn’t function, as the roles required.
It was very, very special to work with Simon; I basically wrote with him in mind, but I never thought he would do this movie. It also was very important to have someone who knew me when my father passed away, who knew my family, and it felt like having a friend there.
Diana had a very specific reason she wanted to do this film, working through a lot of what she’s been through and her family. She really, really showed up for this role every single day.
Dustin and Candice together was just so exceptional and special. Their families knew each other when they were young, but they’ve never worked together this intensely, so that was just so beautiful to see. Two legends who were really really masters of [their craft] bringing their own selves to a role in a really specific way. Dustin in particular, he just lights up a room and every morning he would come onto set and say hi to the crew and say ‘What are we doing today?’ and then go have his coffee or whatever he would eat. He’s a living legend. So many of our crew took the job because they wanted to work with him, and it was incredibly rewarding for all of us.
What do you remember about calling, ‘Action’ that first day. What were you feeling?
I was extremely nervous; I was terrified. And it literally didn’t even occur to me that I’m the one who has to yell, ‘Action.'[Laughs.] I remember there was this notion of like, ‘How do I want to say it?’ There was this definite notion of being terrified for at least the first week.
Was there any advice that help you get through that first week and beyond?
I spoke to the director Eliza Hittman (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”). She told me let no one in the edit bay who’s a producer, except me, and that was really good advice. I used David Mamet’s book on directing as sort of my guide. I had a wrote down my favorite quotes and posted them on the clipboard that I’d take to set and I would literally touch the book every morning before I’d leave the hotel room.
How did you land on this title and the phrasing, “As They Made Us”?
The original title was “As Sick as They Made Us,” which is what Abigail (Agron) shouts at Nathan (Helberg) when she finally confronts him, because he thinks he’s escaped by walking away, and she says, “You’re as sick as they made us.” I think that’s a fantastic title, but the people who are allowed to tell me the truth, told me to change it [laughs]. So, after I’d say probably two dozen ridiculous suggestions, we simply shortened “As Sick as They Made Us” to “As They Made Us. In my mind, it’s still based on the line, but it felt like a pretty safe compromise.
When in the writing process did that line came to you?
That [confrontation scene] is something that’s completely fabricated, so I literally could write whatever I wanted. I loved this double meaning that we are all what our parents made us, both in terms of our genetics and also in terms of how they raised us and how they treat us.
So that’s why I thought it was so brilliant, but again, clearly I’m wrong [laughs]. I say that lovingly of all the people who got to tell me to change the title, but I did think that as the writer, director and executive producer, I could name my own film.
Have you started to think and dream about what you want to do next when getting back behind the camera? Not add to your plate too much, given you’ve got “Call Me Kat,” two other shows you’re producing for your Sad Clown Productions, in addition to hosting “Jeopardy” and the Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown podcast.
Yes. Making films is the strangest sickness. I definitely have more stories I’d like to tell. I would not want to make a movie with anyone but David Feeney-Mosier. Basically, I just wanted to pace my life around when he might be available again.
But for now, yes, I do need things to kind of quiet down and find some more space to write. I do have a writing partner Jonathan Cohen — we actually have a podcast together — so he and I already have ideas and things that we’ve been cooking up, so that’s probably where I’ll dip into next.
The “Big Bang Theory” crew has reunited for a book, “The Big Bang Theory: The Definitive, Inside Story of the Epic Hit Series.” What are you most excited about people getting a chance to read that and why did you want to be a part of it?
Jessica [Radloff, Glamour senior editor and the book’s author]. She’s really the reason that we all rallied around this so much because she is such a devoted and attentive fan and journalist surrounding all things “Big Bang Theory.” As a journalist she earned our trust and friendship you know, and so that book is truly very, very accurate and an honest perspective from the people who made the show.
You gave us a “Blossom” moment on “Call Me Kat” — is a “Big Bang” moment next?
You’d have to ask the producer Jim Parsons.
Would you want to do it?
I’m happy to do anything that makes people happy.
How do you sum up this time in your career? What is it about doing all of these different things that’s keeping you interested and excited?
To be honest, I was not looking for a second full time job, meaning, hosting “Jeopardy” is such a fantastic blessing. I’m still getting my legs under me, because I was a guest host and that was really fun, but I was not looking to balance two full-time jobs.
It’s been a wonderful thing to balance, but very, very overwhelming. I’m not gonna lie 46 is different than being 26, or even 36, and balancing this kind of workload. I’m looking forward to spending more time with my kids this summer and seeing some family that I haven’t really been able to see because of COVID.
Your company Sad Clown Productions recently extended your deal with Warner Bros. and you have a couple new projects coming as well — what are your goals moving forward?
We don’t know if we’re having a third season of “Call Me Kat,” so it’s hard to know and plan. There’s many things I would love to produce or help develop, especially women’s voices and from people of color — those are stories that I would like to tell more of and be part of. We also have some stuff in the works in the animation department, which is really fun. But, I’m the last of the sitcom people out there, so I’m also super interested to see if there’s any multi-cams out there that I can help move along.
Speaking of your family, what kinds of conversations and emotions has the process of making this movie brought out for all of you?
My closest cousin Rebekah is the only one who’s seen it. She’s kind of my closest cousin, so she’s very proud of me. My mom hasn’t seen it yet, and I’ve sort of left it up to her. It’s gonna bring up a lot about my father’s passing that I think will be very complicated. It’s a very strange thing to make something that also people [will question], “Well, did this happen? Did that happen?” So I told my mother that she doesn’t need to answer everyone’s questions.
But it is a very complicated, it’s a very vulnerable thing to make something that is loosely-based on my life. But I think she also sees the tremendous importance of talking about mental illness, talking about addiction, because a lot of people don’t. And it’s something that we’re told not to talk about. But we actually do need to talk about it.
“As They Made Us” is now playing in theaters and VOD.