Mayim Bialik Chooses New Jersey for “As They Made Us”
By Jayne Jacova Feld

Hollywood seems to love making movies about dysfunctional families forced to come to terms over a loved one’s fatal illness. In her directorial debut, acclaimed actress Mayim Bialik offers her own take on the alternatively comedic and tear-jerking theme. And she came to New Jersey to do it.

“I was thrilled we were able to shoot in New Jersey, especially since I wanted it to be able to take place anywhere since the stories indeed happen everywhere in the world,” she says. “It felt like being home.”

 

Dianna Agron and Dustin Hoffman in “As They Made Us”

“As They Made Us,” filmed in the state last summer, focuses on the relationship between adult siblings and the tensions that surface when facing their father’s approaching death, says Bialik, well known for her comedic role as a child actress in the ’90s NBC sitcom “Blossom” and later in CBS’s hit series “The Big Bang Theory.” Currently, she is vying for the permanent hosting job on NBC’s “Jeopardy!”

The movie’s star-studded cast – including iconic actors Dustin Hoffman and Candice Bergen as the aging parents, and “Glee’s” Dianna Agron and “The Big Bang Theory’s” Simon Helberg playing the grown kids – filmed last summer during a true Jersey heatwave.

“We see movies that deal with mental illness and addiction in families,” says Bialik, who also wrote the screenplay. “But the sibling relationship was one I really wanted to explore in more detail, especially what it’s like when one sibling bears more of the responsibility which often happens with daughters in families.”

For Bialik, exploring relationships and mental health matters was in her comfort zone. The film was inspired by her father’s death in 2015. The film is loosely based on her own family experiences.

“A year after my father passed away, I started feeling a need to write things down based on the emotional processing that happens with grief,” she says.

At the time, Bialik was a regular on “The Big Bang Theory.” Although she originally signed on in 2010 for a limited guest appearance in the third season, her role as neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler had staying power. As the love interest of Sheldon Cooper, played by Jim Parsons, she was a regular by the next season. The couple’s unique relationship evolved to be the heart of the show, which ended after 11 seasons in 2019 with the couple’s wedding.

It was only after the finale that Bialik started writing the new screenplay. “It really comes from my childhood and learning more about the mental health struggles in my family and my own struggles as well,” says Bialik. “I decided not to go scene by scene and tell people what happened in my life versus what is completely made up,” she says, “but suffice it to say, my story and the stories of many are in this movie.”

In the film, Abigail (played by Agron) is a writer – and like Bialik, a divorced mother of 2 boys. She’s on leave from her magazine job to take care of her dad but is constantly butting heads with her manipulative mother, who is in denial of the seriousness of his condition. On top of that, Abigail has a hard sell attempting to bring her brother Nathan (Helberg) back into the family fold after a 20 year absence.

Bialik says it was amazing to work with such incredible talents as a first-time director.

Simon Helberg, Candice Bergen, Dustin Hoffman, Mayim Bialik and Dianna Agron in “As They Made Us” Photo: Cara Howe

Mayim Bialik and Jim Parsons
Photo: CBS

“The first person I cast in my mind was Simon Helberg, because we were working on “The Big Bang Theory” and I had such a great respect for him as an actor and as a person,” she says. “Everything else just kind of fell into place. Getting Dustin and Candice was incredibly surreal and still is. Dianna does a beautiful job as the hinge pin that holds this family together, and I think they all work so well as a family unit on screen.”

Although she hadn’t expected to direct the screenplay – she was prepared to hand it off to someone more experienced – she says it was a welcomed opportunity.

“I’ve always had a strong interest in the directorial side of things but never imagined actually directing this soon in my life,” she says. “I enjoyed writing and for sure have a lot more stories to tell. I did enjoy the experience of directing because it involves knowing every single aspect of a film from start to finish.”

Jenna Von Oy, Mayim Bialik and Joey Lawrence in the ’90s hit “Blossom”

It also helped that the subject matter was personal and played to her expertise as a mental health advocate. As far as her credentials for exploring mental health topics? Bialik is the rare person who not only played a neuroscientist on TV but has a real-life doctorate in neuroscience. During the pandemic, she and her boyfriend Jonathan Cohen started a podcast called “Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown” with the tagline: Armed with a PhD in neuroscience and plenty of personal experience, I’m breaking down mental health so you don’t have to. The podcast features conversations on anxiety, depression and related topics. Guests have included Matthew McConaughey, Rainn Wilson, Glennon Doyle, Seth Rogen and Kelly Clarkson.

“We felt that many people were lacking even a basic understanding of the mental health challenges so many of us experienced after Covid began,” says Bialik, adding that she’s learning a lot about herself as a result.

Among the highlights, she learned about the diagnosis HSP, standing for Highly Sensitive Person. Having been told her whole life that she’s quirky, oversensitive and even neurotic, she says the diagnosis was affirming.

“The thing that keeps me the most balanced is regularly going to therapy and being rigorously honest, and trying to exercise and meditate daily,” she says. “Learning that I am a ‘highly sensitive person’ confirmed that all of the interesting things about me are actually legitimate things and not just quirks.”

“Sometimes diagnoses can be intimidating,” she adds. “But all of my diagnoses that I found were accurate helped me get more support and become a more well-balanced person in general. At least that’s my hope.”

 


South Jersey on the big screen

Mayim Bialik isn’t the only actress and filmmaker to pick our state as a film location. There have been plenty. Just last year, Adam Sandler filmed in Camden for “Hustle,” and Haddonfield played a key role in the Lifetime thriller “Death Saved My Life.” And this month, “Knock at the Cabin,” the newest movie from M. Night Shyamalan – the creative genius behind “The Sixth Sense” and “Lady in the Water” – will be filming in Burlington County. The film features Dave Bautista and Jonathan Groff, and is set to be released next February.

This is all great news for supporters of the new South Jersey Film Cooperative, a partnership between Camden and Gloucester counties to promote South Jersey as a great location for film production. Filmmakers considering the area for their latest project can access the cooperative for help with site selection, vendor resources and municipal regulations. The website – sjfilmoffice.com – gives detailed descriptions of our diverse region, with its wineries, main streets, parks, waterfront and historic sites. (There’s just so much.) New Jersey has a rather unique tax credit program for film and digital media, so it’s likely that will help increase interest in the South Jersey area. We’ll be watching.

May 2022
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