Dianna Agron spoke with Solzy at the Movies about Mayim Bialik’s directorial debut, As They Made Us, opening in theaters/VOD this week.
The following interview took place in mid-March, hours before the Jewish holiday of Purim started. Amongst the subjects discussed is how Agron’s own Jewishness informed her approach to playing Abigail in the film and if she is considering directing a feature film.
Written and directed by Bialik, the film stars Agron, Simon Helberg, Candice Bergen and Dustin Hoffman. Quiver Distribution will release the film in theaters and Digital/VOD on April 8.
How did you first come across the script for As They Made Us and how quickly did you decide to sign onto the film?
Dianna Agron: It was a pretty immediate yes for me. I both think Mayim is so beautifully gifted at the script that she wrote. It was just so compelling and had a lot of personal truths. My father has been sick for more years than he’s been well, and so I really could understand holding a space for that journey that Abigail is going through, and what that means and how that expresses itself through a family. Mayim and I jumped on a Zoom call and just felt so deeply connected to her in the story and luckily, she thought that I would be right for this role.
What do you typically look for in a character while reading a screenplay?
Dianna Agron: I love traversing territory that hasn’t been traversed before. I think that that is something I very much try to incorporate new characters, new filmmakers, new storytelling, because I think it’s both important for an audience to see you in many different aspects and I think important as a performer to exercise different muscles. This was something I felt very prepared and finally ready to incorporate something that was this personal into my catalogue of work and also just felt so perfectly timed. I had kind of made this mental decision that should something come my way in this space that I should say, Yes. And then there was.
How did your own Jewishness inform your approach to playing Abigail?
Dianna Agron: It’s funny. I had shot this movie, Shiva Baby, which came out last year, and I was the only character that wasn’t Jewish. I remember this little ping within me thinking I would so enjoy in incorporating my cultural heritage into a piece of work. That was another reason why I was particularly excited to mount this project. I just love how it’s just gently there. It’s incorporated in ways that she and her kids are saying the Shema prayer before bedtime and particularly in the grief process, she’s able to recite the right prayers and sing songs that incorporate that kind of healing and powerful aspect to grief. But, yeah, it was something that it just felt natural and kind of reflective of my upbringing so I really enjoyed that aspect of our film.
Did you do anything in particular to prep for the role?
Dianna Agron: There was a lot of just really beautiful, meaningful, deep conversations that were being had between Mayim and myself and then in group form with Candice, Dustin, and Simon. I think those were really helpful to have because we felt so unified in those conversations and it made approaching the material just so much easier.
The film also serves as Mayim Bialik’s directorial debut. What was it like working with a first-time filmmaker?
Dianna Agron: There really wasn’t any aspect of first time. There was nothing about her that felt that that was the case. I think it’s always really special to have an actor as a director because they have this unique language that is so immediately accessible to them and know how actors like to be spoken to and directed and can paint really clear pictures as far as what the goal is. I just loved that experience with her and so proud of her. We were tiny but mighty crew. On top of the fact that we were shooting this during COVID and there were no complications due to it, it was really something special. I was quite surprised at the end of it—it just seemed too good to be true that we really were able to tell the story in a way that wasn’t compromised due to shooting circumstances such as COVID.
How long was the shoot?
Dianna Agron: I believe we were an 18-day shoot, something in between that, 16 to 19-20. It goes by so quickly. I love independent filmmaking because it’s just a whirlwind and days bleed into each other. You put all your energy and focus into this thing and almost as soon as you’re in it, you’re out of it and you then get to process everything that you’ve made afterwards.
What was it like getting to work with screen legends Candice Bergen and Dustin Hoffman?
Dianna Agron: I know. I was so grateful to have them as scene partners and friends in the process. Candace and I had done a film together about 13 years ago. It was really wonderful to reconnect with her—she played my mother in that film as well, although I was a much smaller component of that film so it was really nice to reestablish a friendship there. And just the two of them, they’re so generous in their presence, their storytelling, they really are so obviously good at what they do but they really enjoy being there in the process. It was just very special and delightful to be sharing that with them and to get to pick their brains about different moments in their careers where the initial setup for a film perhaps had a different director or this specific moment that we all remember, a specific line or a scene wasn’t originally a part of the film, and that kind of storytelling, I find really interesting. I was so happy that they were so willing to share.
As far as I can tell, this is your first project to film during the pandemic, correct?
Dianna Agron: It was my second. I had shot a film just prior to that, that I had acted in produced—that’s about to be announced. We are going to a festival later on this year so—
I was going off of Wikipedia. The last thing I saw was The Laureate and was trying to figure out, was that during the pandemic or before.
Dianna Agron: That was just before. This film—I guess the announcement is going to come when we announce the festival. So probably soon, that will be updated.
What were the challenges that came with having to do a film during a pandemic?
Dianna Agron: It was interesting because we were kind of in this weird, sweet spot where our entire cast and crew had been vaccinated. It was before, essentially, the next wave of everybody getting it. There was a little bit of freedom that we had where people felt a bit more protected and able to kind of just be a tiny bit less cautious. Obviously, we had to adhere to very strict regulations and we’re being tested every day. But I think that we were pretty uniquely lucky, too. If we had started two weeks later, we would have been probably shut down because that next wave, so many people got it. We were shooting in New Jersey and many people were coming in and out of the city to their homes, etc. There is definitely many contributing factors that could have been more complicated if we had gone later in the year.
You’ve directed short films in the past and a segment of a feature film. After watching Mayim direct and write As They Made Us, have you considered making the transition and directing a feature film?
Dianna Agron: Definitely. There’s something that is being developed right now and if that ends up being my first, it’s something that I’m very, very excited about. I think I get so inspired. I’ve been able to work with really incredible and compelling storytellers that are that are women. I’m so happy that that opportunity is being supported in a much more meaningful way. It definitely wasn’t something that I ever really considered as a young person to be such a viable option because if you don’t see it in front of you, it’s harder to imagine. And now, it’s something that is being supported in a meaningful way.
What do you hope people take away from watching the film?
Dianna Agron: I think that with this film, making it especially, the thoughts that I was constantly circling or about family, whether it’s your chosen family, blood family, the relationships that you have in your life, and where the strengths are and where potentially the weaknesses are and what is worth fighting for. I think that, obviously, love is such a nurturing component of relationships but that doesn’t mean that complicated relationships can’t incorporate just as I think it’s worth confronting complicated situations with the hope and potential that an ease can be found. I think it’s also important to just really understand where your own personal connection and boundaries can be. It’s not always easy—personal relationships—but I do think that some things are worth fighting for. I would imagine that a lot of people will consider their own when watching this film.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that Shiva Baby was in my top films list of last year.
Dianna Agron: Oh, I’m so glad. We had such a wonderful time making that film. So proud of Emma and the whole team. It’s just a thrill.
In a perfect world, had SXSW not been canceled, I would have been at that world premiere.
Dianna Agron: If only. I know we had such a moment of joy last week at the Independent Spirit Awards because is the first real moment we were able to celebrate together.
Dianna Agron: Oh yeah, I can imagine. That’s so special.
Quiver Distribution will release As They Made Us in theaters and Digital/VOD on April 8, 2022.
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