Family dynamics are tough. And those relationships become even more strained when a family member is dying.
In writer-director Mayim Bialik’s feature debut, ‘As They Made Us,’ a dysfunctional family is shown through the lens of Abigail (Dianna Agron), who is starting a new relationship while simultaneously dealing with her father’s (Dustin Hoffman) declining health, her mother’s (Candice Bergen) manic hostility, and her estranged brother (Simon Helberg) coming back into the picture.
As a dramedy, this film hits all the notes—laughs, cries, and tugs on the heartstrings—and it was the cast and crew’s personal ties to the story that fueled the heart of it all.
Dianna Agron sat down to discuss more on how it was working on ‘As They Made Us.’
What interested you about ‘As They Made Us?’
I read it at the top of last year, and it was just so easy to want to engage with this project. There were so many personal truths that I have as it relates to this story. My father has been sick for more years of my life than not, and that obviously takes shape within your family, so, I understood the colors of what needed to be expressed. Then when I spoke to Mayim, it was so obvious that she was so passionate. Having written this story herself, as our guiding light, she was so ready. We could have started shooting the following day truly, so I was just really excited to be working alongside of her. Candice [Bergen], Dustin [Hoffman] and Simon [Helberg] were already attached, so that was an obvious and deciding factor. Candice and I had worked together 10 years prior, and she had played my mom in a film called ‘The Romantics’, so, I was very much looking forward to being in her presence again. And just learning from them and being surrounded by such powerful storytellers…In every way it just seemed so obvious to me.
I knew that this film was personal to Mayim, and that seems to ring true for you as well. What were some conversations you had with her while filming?
I think all of us really had a lot of shared personal truths baked into this story. They aren’t easy experiences to have of course, but there is comfort in expressing these complicated issues in art and having that move through your body in a new way, a different way. Obviously, as actors, it wasn’t our exact personal story. But I think there was always an open dialogue about grief and how that expresses itself in your body and your actions and thoughts and your stress levels—all of those things. Because that was such an open dialogue, it just always felt easily accessible. There was never a moment where anybody felt confused about what to do. It was just really wonderful that Mayim was also supportive. We had this beautiful script to work with, but if any of us were feeling compelled to say or do something in the moment, that was really encouraged. Just from start to finish, it was such a beautiful, nurturing experience.
What can you tell us about your character and what she goes through in ‘As They Made Us?’
[Abigail] is certainly the central character and guiding force in this family dynamic. She is a fixer and very much wants to un-complicate her own life and her extended family’s at the same time—with some success and some great failures. Watching her journey is kind of a reminder that we as individuals can sometimes only take on so much, and you really don’t have control of other people, even if they are your most beloved family members. While the want and wish can be to unify with love and simplicity, that’s not always a guarantee. So, finding some kind of balance and boundaries is sometimes helpful with dealing with really complicated issues.
Since the relationships drive the story, was there one on screen that was interesting for you to explore?
I think my scenes with Simon sometimes felt the most surprising and challenging in a good way. I think for both of the characters it just felt electric all of the time. In all the scenes where this was deemed important, Mayim would set the frame wider, so it wasn’t going to be cut in coverage back and forth—it was just going to be in that one frame and you could move within that frame. Anything emotionally that came up and needed to be expressed could be done in a way that sometimes when you’re in set coverage, you just can’t do…You can’t move 5 feet out that way because that’s not where the camera is going to capture your performance. That felt really unique and good, and in a way much more like theater. There was just so much freedom in those moments and I really, really enjoyed working in that way. There’s something really beautiful about that.
It sounds like the whole experience working with Mayim was organic.
Absolutely. And the team she assembled as well—everybody just felt very unified and grounded in the storytelling, and that was really helpful. There was a real element of ease and calm to the set despite so many people being involved with so many different things and joining together to shoot this movie—which we also shot in a pandemic—and somehow, it did feel really organic and lovely and easy, which isn’t always the case.
There were also a lot of moments that made me laugh, even with the heavy subject matter.
Absolutely, the levity that is reached with the overarching theme of heaviness and complicated matters—I laughed a lot while watching this film. I think Candice gets most of the laughs, she’s such a funny character. Just the way she expresses herself, her one-liners, and she really uses comedy to off-set her grief. I think as many can experience, you never know where you break emotionally. That might be expressed in a way of telling a joke at an inopportune moment, and the way that that lightens the mood in the room. We definitely needed to incorporate those moments because you can’t just only experience the sad aspects of a story.
You talked earlier about how with some scenes, Mayim would let you do what felt right. Are there any examples that you can think of that?
Particularly in the moments with Dustin where his health is failing—I don’t want to spoil anything too much, but I feel like people know he’s going to die in the film…So okay, so the scene where I say goodbye to him, there’s so much of that that had to be felt. The words that came, the movements that came… Everything just kind of had to come organically. It is wild the kind of immediate words and physical aspects of your acting that come to you in that moment. It felt so unbelievably real that after our last take, I went outside and just bawled for ten minutes. That scene in particular I think couldn’t have been overwritten or rehearsed or anything. I just looked at him and everything we had experienced at that point just kind of flowed. But the script was so beautiful, it’s always really wonderful when you could shoot it word for word as is, then when you have the ability to pepper in other things is just an added bonus.
‘As They Made Us’ will release in theaters and on all Video-on-Demand platforms on April 8.