The Berlinale Film Festival got off to a bang, as Allison and I chatted over Zoom with the amazing cast and creatives of harrowing addiction drama, Stay Awake. We talk character motivations, the subversion to not vilify addicts, favorite filming locations, upcoming projects, and more!
Based on the critically-acclaimed short film of the same name, Stay Awake tells the story of two young boys on the cusp of adulthood as they maneuver their mother’s undying opioid addiction. Thanks to a trio of phenomenal key performances, writer/director Jamie Sisley crafts a harrowing, realistic portrayal of loving a relative who refuses to love themself. Read on for our exclusive interview with Chrissy Metz, Wyatt Oleff, Fin Argus, and Jamie Sisley!
First of all, we just wanted to congratulate you guys on your debut at Berlinale! Can you tell us one thing about this movie that you’re most excited to share with an audience for the first time?
JAMIE SISLEY: Okay, well, first off, thanks for having us, and for being a part of our whole premiere. It’s probably two things that I’m most excited about, for Stay Awake. One is, it’s based on my time kind of growing up with my mom and my brother. I think when I was growing up, a lot of the movies I would see about addiction were always from the addict’s point of view. I’m really excited to say that we were able to make a movie that showed a different point of view, which is the caretaker’s roller coaster ride that the loved ones of addicts go through trying to care for someone with the disease. I think that’s something I’m really excited about.
On the flip side, I think a lot of the times, when I would see films about addiction, the addict is always sort of villainized. That was something that I think I could relate to when I was younger. But as I got older, I started to realize that obviously this subject is a lot more complicated. I missed a lot of time with my mom. I resented my mom for a while. I’m happy that this film humanizes the addict. I think Chrissy did an incredible job with humanizing addiction. I wish I had that growing up, because I think it would help. It would have helped me understand the complications with my mom better. Hopefully, it might do that with some people who are going through the same thing.
You mentioned this was from your own experience, but I know there was also a short film as well in 2015. Was it important for you to expand the story, or to make this an entirely different beast? What was that process like?
JAMIE: Initially, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make anything else on this subject. I thought I had done what I needed. That short film was really inspiring to me, because when I’d go to festivals with it, I sort of became the festival therapist. Everybody would come up to me and start talking about their mom, their dad, their uncle, their aunt, their brother, their sister who had an addiction issue. The subject is so taboo that I think once someone had even the door crack open, as an opportunity to talk with someone about the subject, the floodgates opened. That was a big reason why I went ahead and with a feature, I felt like maybe there was some sort of good you could do in that regard. I wanted the story to explore the subject a lot more. Obviously you get 90 some minutes instead of 30. So there’s a lot more there with codependency with, again, humanizing addiction in the point of view. There’s a much bigger canvas you can explore.
The way we follow the story through the lens of the family rather than the addict, as you said, made this really unique. What kind of research was done to prepare for the roles and the heaviness of the subject matter? Chrissy, did you speak with any recovered addicts or anything like that?
CHRISSY METZ: The most exciting thing for me is to see Jamie come to fruition, and then be at Berlin, showing this incredible piece of art that is so near and dear to so many of our hearts. Oh, my gosh, you did it. You know what I mean? I don’t think people understand what it takes to make a film. I don’t even think I understood it, especially in the way that I’m so committed to making it. So I just have to say that, but as far as research goes, you know, it’s interesting, I obviously have food issues. I know what addiction is, in a really real way. I definitely have had addiction throughout my family. I have friends who have been in and out of their addictions.
It’s the disease, not the person. You really don’t recognize the person, and you’re like, ‘wait,’ and when you’re a child, especially, you’re like, ‘Oh, my parent doesn’t love me.’ It’s never about the child, but it seems like it is, and that for me, it was always really hard. With somebody who deals with food issues, I got to see it in different perspective of like, ‘Oh, what am I doing to my mom?’ Or like, ‘how am I making her worried?’ Or ‘how am I creating this doubt and fear,’ as Michelle put into the boys.I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is a whole other animal for me,’ you know? That’s what art does. I think when you educate people, the fear goes away, and then you can talk about it, and then you get through it. It was really a catharsis for me to be in this role. I mean, I watched a lot of Intervention. I know that sounds crazy. I actually just sympathize so deeply with the addict.
How long was filming on Stay Awake? Where did it take place, and what was your favorite filming location?
WYATT OLEFF: We shot over 21 days, about a month and a half, and shot five days a week, two days off. We shot in this little town of Socrates in upstate New York, which apparently is becoming a very popular filming spot. So I guess we were there first or whatever, but it’s this little quaint town. Everyone was super lovely there. Everyone was very nice. They have a lot of ice cream there. I remember going through downtown Socrates. Favorite place.? We shot in a lot of interesting places. I think visually, I love the ice cream shop. Jamie has described a lot just that Americana look of the film, with all the bright lights and such–I feel like that captures it in a bottle basically, it’s just like everything you need to know about that visual style is right there at that location. That one that one was fun.
CHRISSY: It’s hard to choose! I mean, I didn’t obviously go to the salt mines but those were so beautiful. I think those are my favorite as far as location goes and I wasn’t even in the scene. The junkyard was so cool too! What people don’t know behind the scenes is the muddy-filled junkyard, and people literally under umbrellas in tents and trying to just make this 15 second-scene possible. Everything that has to even happen to make it happen is mind boggling. I think people just don’t understand it. I always have to just talk about it. I have to talk about it.
WYATT: I think also, one more place that I loved… I think on any of the shoots I’ve done, a bowling alley is always fun. You get to actually bowl.
CHRISSY: That bowling alley was like the OG.
WYATT: That was kind of like a home base.
JAMIE: You kind of gravitate towards bowling alleys, it seems.
FIN ARGUS: My favorite filming location was easily the bowling alley. Some very special scenes were filmed there, like one of my favorites, the cup puppet scene between Derek and Melanie. Beyond filming, the owner of the bowling alley was so generous and kind, and taught me a bit about alley maintenance. There’s a brief clip where you see me working in the mechanics in the back of the bowling alley, and that whole experience was very exciting and ~Wizard of Oz Behind the Curtain~.
Derek’s acting ambitions eventually find him aiming for the regional spokesperson, but he starts off in small ads, like a commercial with only two lines. Fin, how much of your own experiences in the acting realm was channeled into your performance as Derek?
FIN: It wasn’t difficult to relate to Derek initially, due to our writer and director Jamie Sisley’s very human and naturalistic approach to storytelling. The additional element of Derek being an actor gave me a chance to express the frustrations and highs and lows of choosing a freelance entertainment career path. What I can relate to most, though, is the repurposing of a deep sense of empathy. I myself am a very emotional and sensitive person, and that’s why I love acting. It gives me a chance to process difficult emotions through a safe, creative outlet. I think that’s exactly what Derek is trying to do as well. Through the instability of his mother’s addiction, he finds solace in his own controlled chaos, being an uncertain, but potentially highly rewarding career path.
This is a question for Wyatt. A big part of Ethan’s journey through this film is coming of age and becoming his own person. I noticed more than a few hints about Ethan possibly having a crush on a male classmate. Do you think as Ethan goes away to college, he will be exploring sexuality more than what we see a question?
WYATT: Well, if we do Stay Awake 2, yeah! That’s what’s so beautiful about the writing in this film is that that’s just a part of his character, you know, and that’s something a lot of representation needs to be. Just a part of that character… it doesn’t need to be the main focus of it, doesn’t need to be whatever, a big thing. It’s just a part of who he is. I think that’s a great interpretation of where his character could go if we kept following him. I think since he’s so preoccupied with everything else going on in his life, that’s something that maybe when he goes to college, he gets to really focus on, and gets to think about and talk about. I think one person he definitely talks to a lot about it is probably his brother, because I feel like, obviously, with all they’ve gone through together, I think that his brother would be good to confide in.
There’s a scene that Chrissy and I share, and I’m asking about relationship advice, and she’s like, ‘you’ll be with whoever you need to be, whoever that may end up being.’ We talked about this when we watched the movie together, but like, I love that line, because that’s such a mom thing to do. That is such a mom thing to know. I don’t know when she would have found out, but I think it was really well done for Ethan’s journey. I like that question.
Michelle is the most complex character in Stay Awake. It would have been really easy to make her one dimensional, and have the audience hate her. But Chrissy, your charm really bleeds into her as a character. At one point, she even worries about how the boys will have dinner. Was it important to you as an actress to approach this character from the standpoint of a loving mother?
CHRISSY: Oh, absolutely. That’s really what she is. We are not our addictions. We are not the diseases that plagues us. Especially the way that she loves her sons… I think she’s always trying to love them more, because she’s always trying to overcompensate for her own journey, and her own demons that she’s been carrying around. That, for me, was the most important thing. Her entire life is her boys. Really, it’s between her addiction, and the love that she has for them. She really tries hard. That’s what’s so beautiful about the writing, is she’s not vilified. She’s really just a mom, she’s really trying hard in that one scene that she’s like, I’m not crazy. What do you you know? I think that was a turning point for her, to realize that. She knew that she was affecting her boys in a very real deep way. I think that was a massive turning point for her. As addicts go, it’s literally one day at a time. Sometimes it’s one minute of time. It was very important for me to play the love first, because I think that’s what continues to motivate her in every way.
This one is for Jamie. How did you choose the songs that the boys sang to Michelle in the car? Do they have meaning or personal significance to you?
JAMIE: Yeah, I think some of that was there’s a couple instances in my childhood that I remember doing things like that to literally try to keep my mom engaged. We would play different games sometimes. Those songs have meaning. The first two especially. Yeah, the first two in the very first scene are ones that are greatest hits from my childhood.
Not to dive too deep into spoiler territory, but the latter half of the film really conveys the sense of hopelessness and horror that families of addicts sometimes have to endure. Wyatt, your emotional breakdown in the elevator in particular really hits hard. Do you think Ethan and Derek ever wish for their mother to just be gone, or to end her suffering as dark as that sounds?
WYATT: You know what, that is something Jamie and I absolutely talked about. One of the first days we really were rehearsing and talking about the film and the characters, I asked him about when Ethan visits the morgue. I said, ‘is there any part of Ethan that kind of maybe hopes that it’s her?’ That’s sucha morbid question. But that would end that cycle that they have to keep living through over and over again. Is there any part of Ethan that kind of wished it? Which, obviously, that’s never what you want to actually have happen, but it’s very complicated in that sense. I would say Derek less so. I think Derek is much too attached to some of the old memories that he holds on to, to let her go. That’s obviously his main conflict in the movie. For Ethan, yeah, I think. Yeah.
Derek seems to be almost living in a hopeful fantasy land, while Ethan has reached the end of patience with Michelle. Why do you think Ethan is so much more mature, given the age difference, and that he’s the younger one?
WYATT: I interpreted it as, Derek has been around a little bit longer than Ethan with his mom. He remembers a lot more of the fun memories with her. It’s a lot easier for him to go back in time and be like, ‘Yeah, I remember doing this.’ They have that story where he’s talking about when I cry all the time. I don’t remember that. That’s just like, whatever. So I’ve just grown up with her, and in my life being this way in this cycle. I think it would be a lot easier for my character to just let go of makeover than Derek. Ethan just wants the best for Derek. So does Michelle, of course. But I think in that sense, I don’t know if mature is the right word. I think they just have different outlooks on how to deal with it. Ethan’s is a little bit more harsh, but their situation, I think it’s what he thinks that they need most.
FIN: In this story’s timeline, and how it relates to Derek’s optimistic disposition, it’s important to remember, there was a point when Derek had no one to help him. Ethan was too young to know what was going on, their father was out of the picture, and their mother was deep in the throes of addiction. I think Derek, as a child, was thrust into a caretaker role, and emulated the positive mothering that Michelle exemplified. Michelle is sick, but it is so apparent how much love she has for her kids. I believe Derek copied this behavior and latched onto it. There is so much love, but there is also so much denial. I think Ethan had a different experience of growing up with a sounding board, being Derek. They have the capacity to have mature conversations about how to take care of their mother but I think when Michelle is at her worst, Derek is triggered into his childhood established coping mechanisms.
CHRISSY: It’s such a beautiful but heartbreakingly poignant, timely beautiful watch, you know? I mean, my heart just breaks. I was sobbing when you get to see these boys raise themselves. It’s really… I can’t talk about it too much.
Speaking of the brotherly bond, that’s pretty much the crux of the story in a way. They almost have to raise themselves. Wyatt, did you have a similar older brother/younger brother vibe with Fin on set?
WYATT: Yeah, I’d say so. I accidentally took the mantle of younger brother. I liked poking Fin a lot like. Just very annoying in that sense, but it’s obviously all out of love. I feel like I’ve formed such a very brotherly bond with him, and I I think that definitely shows in the film as well. Just just how we operate together.
FIN: I don’t have a brother, so going into telling this story I was slightly nervous. That being said, my two siblings are my best friends, and I’m no stranger to what I would refer to as a brotherly bond. Any trepidation I had disappeared quickly when I met Jamie and Wyatt. I learned so much from them, and realized what I had already guessed at: while I don’t have blood-related brothers, I definitely have brothers in this life. They both became my family. That’s the sappy answer. The other answer is that Wyatt and I wasted no time in learning how to most effectively annoy each other, and laugh at nothing, and play video games in all our off-time on set. Wyatt definitely feels like my little brother. So grateful to have someone in my life I can consistently destroy in ping pong. Love you brotato.
So again, without spoiling anything, the conclusion is heartbreaking, but also carries a hopefulness to it. Why do you think it’s so important to carry that note of positivity now, in our pandemic times more than ever?
JAMIE: I don’t know about the pandemic part, but I can speak to the addiction part with positivity. I think it takes a lot of patience as a caretaker of a loved one who is going through addiction. There’s a lot of cyclicality, there’s a lot of codependency, there’s a lot of ups and downs, where sometimes things are going great. Sometimes they’re not. I do think one of the things that has served my brother and I pretty well is just trying to overall remain hopeful on the subject, and knowing that everyone’s giving their best and doing the best they can. One of the things my mom says the most is ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ I really always believe that. and I think you really can’t ask more from people than that. People respond to encouragement. What’s the old saying, you catch flies with honey. There’s a positivity that I think people respond to, so I’m glad you brought that up. I think that’s really important when you’re trying to help care for a loved one along with addiction.
So we love to ask this question to everyone that we interview: do you guys have any upcoming or recent projects that you would like to plug to help get them on everyone’s radar?
WYATT: I’m about to go shoot an Apple TV+ show in New York called City on Fire, which is very exciting. I’m very excited to go and do that. I just shot something in Chicago two months ago, three months ago, another independent film. It’s also the director’s story, but hers is about bipolar, and how it affects her and her family and such. So that one’s called The Year Between. It’s a comedy. She [Alex Heller] directed, wrote, and acted in it. It’s great.
CHRISSY: Comedy stems from tragedy, so we got to laugh and cry. Well, obviously, we’re wrapping up the the sixth and final season of This Is Us. It’s gonna be a doozy this season. I’m glad that people are finding some relatability through the stories that we get to make, and I’m just so grateful to be a part of this incredible film that I think is going to impact so many people in a very real way. So very grateful. Very grateful for that. I am working on finishing my debut country album, which I’m very excited about. So hopefully, I’ll have a little tour scheduled this summer. There’s some things in the works, hopefully maybe producing some things or yeah, we’ll see. You know, everything’s pie in the sky till it actually happens.
FIN: I’ve been in New Orleans the past six months filming a re-imagination of a show called, Queer as Folk. I’m so proud of what we’re creating, and I can’t wait to share this dream character with the world. It’s explicitly and authentically queer, and the storytelling is brilliant. Keep a look out in June! Also, my main passion is writing music, and I’m anxious and excited to finally release new music this summer. I’ve poured my heart into this music, as well as the music videos, and I can’t wait to share them, and start doing live shows again. This body of music is new era of eclectic queer angst. There are also a lot of saxophones. Stay tuned!
JAMIE: I’m directing a pilot in a couple weeks for something… I’m just like Chrissy in that I don’t wanna get my own hopes up. Right now that’s happening, and then I wrote a screenplay that I’ll probably start pushing that I’m pretty excited about. I have a couple others in the works that are really good. I’m really excited. I’ve been like living with this for 48 years now, so I’m excited to move on to new projects and start thinking of new characters. It’s aspiring to think about working on those things, so I’m excited about that!
It was truly an honor to chat with Chrissy, Wyatt, Fin, and Jamie, and we cannot wait for more people to see Stay Awake, as the film is an important depiction of the perils of addiction. It screened at the 2022 Berlinale Film Festival, and is currently awaiting distribution.
Read our full review here.
To obtain more information about the festival, please visit the Berlinale website.