Written and directed by Jocelyn Towne, the indie drama I Am I is equal parts touching and heartbreaking, as it tells the story of a young woman named Rachael (also played by Towne), who meets her estranged father, Gene (Kevin Tighe), at her mother’s funeral. Eager to get to know her father, Rachael tracks him down at an assisted living home, only to realize that Gene suffers from memory loss and not only thinks that he is still a young man, but is convinced that Rachael is actually her mother. And if she wants to really get to know him, she has to play along.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Simon Helberg, who worked on his wife’s film as an actor and executive producer, talked about how he and Towne share a very similar vision and have very similar tastes, why Kickstarter worked so well in raising the financing for this film, acting with and being directed by his wife, and partnering with her again for his directorial debut, We’ll Never Have Paris (due out in theaters sometime this year), which also happens to be inspired by their own crazy romance. He also talked about how surreal it is to know that his TV show, The Big Bang Theory, has been picked up for three more seasons and will be on the air for at least 10 seasons, at a time when comedy seems to be struggling on television, that the actors don’t typically contribute much to the script, and what he’d like to still learn about his character. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: You’ve gone through the process of making I Am I with your wife, Jocelyn Towne, and she worked with you on your directorial debut, We’ll Never Have Paris. Did it help you keep your sanity, to have each other there?
SIMON HELBERG: It can do a little bit of both. It can create insanity, and it can extinguish that insanity, at the same time. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Obviously, we love doing it. There’s no real escape from the work, but in some ways, if you’re as obsessive as I am, it’s a sweet little thing we’ve figured out. You bring your work home and you work 24 hours a day, but it’s good. We have a very similar vision for these things, and our tastes are very similar. We trust each other and we challenge each other. It was a pretty fruitful experience on both of our movies.
Were you working on your projects at the same time, or did one get completed before the other was started?
HELBERG: They were separate. I had probably been writing the second movie while we were working on I Am I, but it was back-to-back. They just so happened to be coming out around the same time. It’s actually kind of amazing. It’s an amazing year. I Am I will be out this weekend, and then We’ll Never Have Paris will be out this year, but we don’t actually know when yet. It’s a crazy thing to have two movies in one year.
Is it particularly nerve-wracking to present a script that either you or your wife has written to friends that you want for a certain role, and that have to wait to get their feedback on it?
HELBERG: Yeah, it definitely can put your friendships and relationships to the test. Obviously, you don’t ever want anyone to say yes out of obligation or to shower you with false praise. It’s more vulnerable because you care so much about what they think, but at the same time, it’s delicate when you’re working with people you have personal relationships with. Throughout some of this process, there have been some messy moments with friends coming in and going out. You want to preserve your relationships, but there’s nothing better than getting to work with people that you are close to. All in all, with both movies, we were incredibly fortunate to bring in people that we knew and respected, and they felt passionate about both films. It was a pretty unique, ideal experience.
You used Kickstarter to raise the financing for this, before Kickstarter was something that people so readily thought of. Why do you think it succeeded in raising the money it needed? Do you think it was having a video that really gave people an idea of who Jocelyn is and the type of movie she’d be making?
HELBERG: Yeah, it was a perfect storm of things. It was an amazingly witty, smart, simple video that was unique. It also existed at a time when Kickstarter and other crowd-funding websites didn’t give you that knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh, my gosh, another video.” Everybody has something now. It’s become very over-saturated, and it’s hard to weed out what’s good, what you should watch and what you have time to watch. And Twitter was much less crowded, at the time, and it was an easier way to reach people. So, the combination of having a great video, a lot more access to people through Twitter, and having Kickstarter be this new thing in. We tapped into it, at its inception, and got people interested in it just based on the concept of what Kickstarter was. The timing was right.
This is such an emotionally touching and heartbreaking story. What were the aspects of it that resonated the most with you?
HELBERG: There are those moments where you realize that your parents or your heroes are human and are fallible. That concept, in and of itself, is something that is dangerous to me, in a good way. It’s exciting and scary to meet those people. And this is a father and daughter, and a whole other level of meeting your father. We all have those dreams of going back in time and seeing what it was like when our parents were younger. Maybe we don’t all have that dream. I don’t know. Getting to role play or step back to a different moment in time and see things through a different lens is something that resonated with me, for sure. We don’t get to do that, generally, but when the right neurological disorder lines up with the right unstable woman, that moment presents itself. Getting to know where we come from is a really profound way of getting to look at who we are.
How was the experience of working with your wife as an actress, compared to being directed by her?
HELBERG: I Am I was so much a part of her, every moment of it, because she wrote it, directed it, produced it and starred in it. I had worked with her, as an actress, before and felt comfortable doing that, but I had never worked with her as a director ‘cause she had never directed anything. It was very exciting to see her with such a clear vision and with such confidence, stepping into something completely unknown. It was not unlike the themes of the movie, I guess. She put on a different hat, or a different outfit, and went into this scary place and just took complete control over it. She really had an incredible sense of the story she wanted to tell. So, it was great to be in scenes with her and be directed by her because there was such a focus there.
What was it that made you decide to tackle your own romantic life on film for your directorial debut? Was it a story that was just so unbelievable, you had to put it on film?
HELBERG: Yeah, no one will believe this actually happened, if we don’t get it out there. A lot of it is certainly fabricated and exaggerated for the sake of drama, but in terms of the arc of my relationship with Jocelyn and our horrendously tragic, clumsy break-up that led to an even more disastrous proposal, that is unfortunately true and will serve as what not to do, for all those people out there who wanna lead a smooth, comfortable existence. It was something that, while it was happening, was incredibly painful and heartbreaking, but also seemed to exist on this epic scale. The self-destruction that I employed and spear-headed was very confusing to me, and also was so enormous that it really went from tragic to comedy pretty quickly for me. Jocelyn didn’t necessarily see it that way, but when I wrote the script, she read it and was like, “You actually made me laugh at this. My god, I can’t believe some of the things that you did.” It just seemed like a good way to either exorcize our demons or punish ourselves. It’s somewhere between catharsis and masochism.
Comedy is in a strange state on television right now, but The Big Bang Theory is clearly still holding on so strong. How surreal is it to know that the show has been picked up for three more seasons and will be on the air for at least 10 seasons?
HELBERG: It’s hard to imagine ever having something that tells you where you’ll be in years to come. It’s an incredibly rare thing to be a part of a show that has such an unbelievable following and is received so well, and has a network and studio that has such confidence in it. It’s not lost on me, how unusual that is, these days, especially. Actually, I believe that we were picked up for three seasons, right before this. As actors, we tend to usually have some issues with self-esteem and some need for validation, and it takes awhile for that fear of not having a job to go away. I certainly think that it looks like we’ll be around for a little while.
Now that the show has been on for so long, do you feel more confident to suggest lines, or is that something the writers frown on?
HELBERG: It’s not really about confidence. It’s just something that isn’t really in the vocabulary of what goes on at work. The writers write and the actors act. I’ve worked very differently before. There’s a lot of changing lines while we’re taping, and coming up with jokes, punching it up and rewriting scenes. My impulse is always to try to contribute, but very quickly, I felt that that wasn’t necessarily the way that this show worked. In some ways, it’s a great harmony. They are fantastic. It does take a little bit of courage to say, “Hey, how about this?,” but that’s just because they’re so great at what they do. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine. They provide us with such unbelievable words, and they’re so fast and they know the show so incredibly well, that there really aren’t many moments where I feel like I could add anything to what they bring to it.
Have you thought about what you hope to see for your character, over the next season or two, or are you at a place where you just leave it in the hands of the writers and wait to see what they come up with?
HELBERG: Well, I don’t have any influence on where the show goes, nor do I know. I don’t think they even really know. They tend to feel it as it goes. They obviously have some ideas, but I don’t think they are married to ideas, particularly if it doesn’t work as well as they’d hoped, or if one thing works better. They adapt incredibly well to that. So, I have no idea what’s to come. I’d like to get to explore the deeper layers of my character. I think it makes it a lot more fun. It’s so atypical to have this many seasons to get to know a character and to play a character. The more they unravel of this guy, the more exciting it is for me, whether it’s the relationship with his father, or maybe getting to meet his father, and to see how his marriage survives that and survives the conversation about children, or any of the deeper things. He’s got a lot of growing up to do, so I like to watch him struggle and get through it all.
I Am I is opening in theaters on June 13th, and is also available On Demand.