Mayim Bialik had no intention of directing a movie.
The "Big Bang Theory" star and "Jeopardy!" host began writing as a therapeutic exercise after her father, Barry, died in 2015. Seven years later, the result is "As They Made Us" (in theaters and on demand April 8), a mordantly funny family drama starring Dianna Agron ("Shiva Baby") and two-time Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman. The movie's trailer is premiering exclusively on usatoday.com.
"I consider the whole thing this wonderful accident," Bialik says. "There's a very specific year of mourning that we do in traditional Judaism. After that year, I felt an urge that I've never felt before to start putting down in writing a lot of my experiences and memories of grief. And literally, I ended up with a screenplay. I've never written one before."
"As They Made Us" follows the tightly wound Abigail (Agron), a newly divorced mother struggling to raise her two kids while looking after her father, Eugene (Hoffman), who suffers from a degenerative condition that makes it difficult for him to walk and move around. Even as Eugene's mind and body fail, his wife, Barbara (Candice Bergen), remains firmly in denial, and lashes out at doctors and caregivers.
Bialik's "Big Bang" co-star Simon Helberg plays Abigail's estranged brother Nathan, whom she tries to reconnect with before their dad's death. The film uses flashbacks to show how Eugene and Barbara's tempestuous marriage, combined with Nathan's teenage rebellion, led to the family's present-day dysfunction.
Bialik, 46, shot "As They Made Us" in New Jersey last summer. She caught up with USA TODAY to chat about what inspired the movie, reuniting with Helberg and whether she'll direct again.Q: Writing this film, were there any aspects of grief or losing a parent that were particularly important for you to capture?
Mayim Bialik: I don't think of it as a film about loss, although that's obviously tackled. I grew up in a home with mental illness, and that's something that went back generations on both sides of my family and no one talked about it. As much as there are aspects of my story in this story, many families have a story of one child who's more engaged than the other, or a child who's estranged and the other has to pick up the pieces. That's really the relationship I wanted to explore: What happens to siblings, and in particular, the one who stays?
Q: Having worked with Simon before on "The Big Bang Theory," how did you know he could pull off a dramatic role like Nathan?
Bialik: Simon was the first person I cast in my head. I wrote with his voice in mind, thinking he'd never do it, and then it all started coming together. It's strange to say, but watching him as a comedian for the nine years I worked with him, (I found) there's so much depth to him. He's a very sophisticated comedian and I just love the way he carries himself. He had the emotional depth to handle this type of story. His part is a lot of heavy (material) with some funny – Dustin and Candice carry a lot more of the funny.
Q: As a first-time screenwriter, what filmmakers were you inspired by?
Bialik: I'm a Greta Gerwig person. I want to be her when I grow up. I also reached out blindly to Eliza Hittman ("Never Rarely Sometimes Always"). She's a fantastic director and I literally said, "Will you talk to me? I just want to know you."
Q: You've been so busy this past year, between "Jeopardy!" and your Fox sitcom "Call Me Kat." How did you find time for this movie?
Bialik: (Laughs.) I'll be honest, it has been the most bananas year of my life. When I signed on to "Jeopardy!," I was not signing on to be the syndicated host; I was doing specials. And then with everything that happened, that (position) ended up being something I was so honored to take on. But that was not part of the plan to be juggling two full-time jobs while editing a movie. We're a very small-budget film, so it was really a skeleton crew and people had to work some Sundays I wish they didn't have to. But I'm very appreciative of everybody coming together to get this film finished.
Q: Would you like to continue writing and directing?
Bialik: I have more stories to tell for sure, although I don't know what that's going to look like. I definitely felt like a lot of my quirks and my critical eye came in handy when I was directing. It was all the best parts of my neuroses and specificity and desire for perfectionism, like, "Oh, they're actually useful for something when you direct a movie and not just annoying the people around you."
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