When Mayim Bialik lost her father, Barry, in 2015, she took a full year to mourn his passing. "There's a year of grieving in traditional Judaism," the Jeopardy! host — who identifies as Modern Orthodox — tells Yahoo Entertainment now. "After that year, it's kind of like a veil lifts." (Watch our video interview above.)
And when that veil rose, Bialik decided to channel her grief into her art. The result is As They Made Us, the former child star's feature filmmaking debut, which follows a family loosely inspired by her own. "I keep reminding my mother: 'This is not that this is what I remember detail by detail,'" she says, laughing. "This is a way to tell a story that has the scaffold of things that happened or were evoked."
Bialik's onscreen alter ego is Abigail (Glee star Dianna Agron), a divorced single mother caring for both her children and her aging parents, Barbara and Eugene, played by Candice Bergen and Dustin Hoffman, respectively. As They Made Us shifts back and forth in time between Abigail's childhood and adulthood, depicting the familial fault lines that still reverberate in the present day and led to a rift with her brother, Nathan (Bialik's former Big Bang Theory co-star, Simon Helberg). In the process, the film deals frankly with the failings of every member of this particular family, whether it's neglect or, in one shocking scene, physical violence.
It's not a spoiler to reveal that Eugene — who, like Bialik's own father did, suffers from a degenerative condition — dies in the final act of As They Made Us. Directing Hoffman through a scene that she had lived out in real life was a way for her to observe grief from a different perspective.
"Death is not difficult, but dying is," she explains. "There is nothing harder than nursing your parent as they die. This sounds like a pretentious director thing to say but ... I didn't think of it emotionally. My job as a director is to listen to what David Mamet says about directing: tell the simplest story in the most discrete number of shots possible."
By telling a version of her own story onscreen, Bialik hopes that she'll provide solace to those viewers still in the midst of grief. More importantly, she hopes she entertains them. "I know this doesn't make it sound like, "Oh, I wanna go see that movie," she says, laughing. "Because the movie's also really funny! It's a great time. But we are left sometimes with more questions than answers when someone passes. That's why it's so important to me that [this film] be universally interesting to people. Especially if you come from a specific family, there's a lot about the dynamics that will resonate with people. There's a specific complexity to the joy and the struggles, too."
How much of your own childhood would you say is in the film, ultimately?
The way I've framed it is that it's not a memoir, and it's not autobiography. By definition, that means there are things in it that have never happened, and there are things that have been fabricated. I've kind of decided that the people who know the things that specifically are from my childhood will know, but I don't feel the need to advertise it.
I will say that there are a collection of people and experiences that have kind of combined to create this family. My belief is that every family has stuff that often leads people to pull away or overcommit — especially in families where there is a lot of love, a lot of creativity and a lot of connection. That doesn't mean that's the whole story. I based it on all of those families who grew up with any kind of strife: conflict, mental health, abuse, alcoholism. That's a lot of the conflict that can arise.
Let's talk about the cast: You appeared on an episode of Murphy Brown when you were younger. Had you kept in touch with Candice Bergen?
I had not kept in touch with her. I did not even know if she remembered me! But I reached out and she asked to meet with me. The script really spoke to her ... she said that it really, really moved her. She said, "I'm not Jewish," but she grew up in Beverly Hills, so she said that she probably knows more Yiddish than many Jewish kids in L.A.! [Laughs] She actually improvised some of her Yiddish in the movie, which is really awesome.
Did she get your mother's seal of approval?
The dream of first-generation [American Jews] in the 1940s was to be passing. So when my mother heard that Candace Bergen was cast as my mother, she was like, "That's perfect." [Laughs] I did think it was best if they did not interact in the same physical space, though. That was just too much information.
What was it like to direct Simon Helberg after acting opposite him for all of those years on The Big Bang Theory?
My father passed away while I was on Big Bang Theory, so Simon knew my dad and knew my family — he knew all the things that were happening in my life. He was the first person I fantasy-cast in my head, and I never in a million years thought he would do it. And he did! I didn't even have to beg. He's a real master of comedy and has such a depth of emotion. His performance is heartbreaking. There's a lot of intensity to his role in terms of the impact of him being estranged from the family. And it was unbelievable seeing him and Dustin Hoffman together. There's one in scene particularly where our whole crew was just astounded watching them work.
Did you consider anyone else to play your father, or was Dustin Hoffman always your first choice?
Never in a million years did I think that as a first-time director I would have Dustin Hoffman want to work with me! But apparently, the script really moved him. He's one of those L.A. people who totally feels like they're not from L.A., and that's usually what people say about me! So I definitely connected with him. My target audience is Dustin Hoffman: the older dude who likes to tell stories and dad jokes. That's my vibe! [Laughs]
There's an intense flashback in the movie where Eugene hits Abigail. What was the thinking behind that scene?
You know, in the 1970s and ’80s, there's a lot of sweetness to what life was like then. But in many families, a large component of mental health challenges is that people got hurt, and that can look like a lot of different things. That's a scene that was hotly debated in internal conversations, because there was this question of: Is it gratuitous? And it never occurred to me to place something in the film in order to be gratuitous.
It's a very raw film and a very honest film. Many unfortunate things happen in families where there is untreated mental illness. My director of photography, David Feeney-Mosier, and I wanted to be very careful with how we presented it. We wanted the flashbacks to feel like you were observing something you usually don't get to see. For all the children who suffered when no one talked about it, it's a small nod to the way that we have to be resilient and persevere, and end up being good parents. I tried to show that Abigail is doing things differently [as a parent] to the best of her ability.
How did the film make you think about your own parenting? Could you ever envision yourself slapping one of your kids?
I've parented in a time when this is part of a conversation that we have, and it's a very divisive topic. As a scientist and as someone who studied neuroscience and brain development in particular, I happen to be a person who does not believe that, as it were. I believe it exists, but it is not my path. We definitely know things differently now than we did in the ’70s.
What I've found as a parent is that the times where I've come the closest to hurting someone is when my patience is at its lowest. It's never been in a moment of peace and calm where I'm my highest self and I'm well-rested and everything's going great at work. It's never then that I'm like: "Is hitting someone the solution?" It's always when I'm running on fumes, you know? I'd like to think all of us in our highest selves would not think to harm another.
What kind of conversations did you have with Dianna about playing a character who isn't you, but is inspired by you?
Some people have said that she reminded them of me, and I was like: "I should be so lucky to stroll through life with those cheekbones!" Abigail was the hardest role to cast, and I wonder if it was because people were like, "Is it Mayim's story?" But Dianna did a lot in service of the film. She has a lot of personal connection to being that daughter. I love seeing her get very, very raw. There's a crying scene where there's stuff coming out of her nose. I didn't put it there! [Laughs]
Now that you've made this film, do you see yourself telling different kinds of stories as a director or will they all be in this personal vein?
You know, I haven't even allowed myself to like think that much, because there's so much pressure for first-time writers and directors, and I'm aware that I'm seen as a sitcom actor who got a PhD in neuroscience and came back to acting. So there's a lot of stigma surrounding so many of aspects of this, and it's hard for me to dream it yet. I know that I stand on the shoulders of women like Eliza Hittman and Greta Gerwig — those are the directors that I look up to so, so much. I look to the kinds of films they make, which are deeply meaningful and deeply personal and revolve around some of the most complicated things we experience while also telling stories that are entertaining and engaging. I've got a million stories in me. We all do, really.
As They Made Us is currently playing in theaters and on most VOD services