From writer/director Ike Barinholtz, the political dark comedy The Oath shows what can happen when a controversial White House policy turns a family against each other and makes Thanksgiving dinner a tense and unpleasant experience. When Chris (played by Barinholtz), a 24-hour progressive news junkie, and his wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) host a holiday family dinner on the eve of the deadline to sign a loyalty oath to the President approaches, it leads to much sparring among relatives, as well as an unfortunate incident with two government agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) that sends the night completely off the rails and perfectly illustrates why it’s best to never discuss politics with family.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor and filmmaker Ike Barinholtz talked about the inspiration for The Oath, telling a story that’s a bit too close to the reality we’re currently living in, why he wanted Tiffany Haddish to play his wife in the film, the challenges of shooting the Thanksgiving dinner scene, how Seth Rogen ended up as a story point, which industry friends he screened the film for and got feedback from, and how excited he is to direct again soon.
Collider: You wrote this right after the election night, so I’m guessing that it was somewhat inspired by that, but what was the seed for this? What was the thing that it really started with, and that you really wanted to explore?
IKE BARINHOLTZ: Well, it was really that Thanksgiving after the election, where I had my whole family come over. After dinner, during some cocktails, my mom, my brother and I got in a huge fight, and we were arguing about what happened and whose fault it was. The next day, I woke up and said to my wife, “We’re on the same side. We voted for the same person.” And I just knew that, if this was happening at this house, that at other houses, where everyone wasn’t aligned, it must have been not so good. And as I talked to friends of mine, who were going home and then telling me about their war stories, and I started talking to some of my own relatives, I knew that the American holiday table, as we knew it, was done. That was definitely something that I wanted to explore, and I wanted to make it a little bit bigger than just a family. So, I started breaking this side of the story where there’s this looming government crisis that’s bearing down on them, which turns the heat up.
This also seems like one of those cases where you’d prefer life didn’t imitate art, and yet it seems like we’re inching closer and closer to that.
BARINHOLTZ: I keep checking Twitter to make sure it hasn’t happened.
Did you ever find yourself hoping that the story you were telling would somehow become less relevant before you could actually tell it?
BARINHOLTZ: Every day! People were like, “If Trump got kicked out of office, this movie wouldn’t be as relevant.” And I was like, “Okay, fine.” But the crazy thing was, there were all these beats along the way, where scenes were happening that were echoing what was already us echoing life. When I started writing it a few weeks into his administration, there was this bizarre cabinet meeting where they all went around and talked about how they were going to be loyal. And then, he pinned down Jim Comey. After we had shot it and were going to show it to people, he tweeted about something called National Loyalty Day, and it was just so strange. All it did was reinforce our confidence that we had to get this movie out, as soon as possible.
As you wrote the character that you played, did you always keep yourself in mind? Do you write specifically to things that you wanted do in the movie?
BARINHOLTZ: Yeah, a little bit. I knew that I was gonna be the POV – me and my wife. I was so obsessed, at the time, with listening to the news non-stop, and I was reading every single article that came out on Twitter. I was really overdosing on outrage and making everyone else a little crazy. I knew that it would be a little cathartic for me, personally, to be able to yell at my brother and make fun of his opinions, but I also knew that because I was really trying to do a true satire, I knew that would make my character look bad. Even though he’s ultimately proven right and even though I, Ike Barinholtz, agree with him politically, he’d be a jerk. The most important thing in satire is, if you’re gonna make fun of everyone, you also have to make fun of the belief system that you hold, so I definitely used myself.
Tiffany Haddish is so great in this, but this is quite different from what we’re used to seeing from her. You’ve said that you thought of her, from the start, for this. Why is that? What did you see in her that led you to feel like she could really bring something interesting to this?
BARINHOLTZ: She’s incapable of being inauthentic. I based the character off of my wife, who is incredibly tough and her heart is totally in the right place, and we hold the same belief systems, but she’s just trying to get the trains to run on time. She’s just trying to keep the family going. And it’s that toughness that I really, really knew Tiffany could bring. I like when I see different sides of an actor, and I knew that to show her, at least for the first part of the movie, internalizing everything and rolling her eyes and shaking her head, whenever her husband is going of on yet another one of his tangents, would be different. And then, I knew that once that fuse ignites, I’d seen her in that zone, where she’s mad and telling people, “Shut the fuck up,” so I had confidence in her. We talked about it and broke down the character together, and it was just such a delight to watch her as this quietly suffering wife who finally just says, “Fuck this!”