It’s not unusual for an actor to suddenly decide that he wants to be a director. It is, however, a little bizarre that an actor would write, star in and direct a film that’s based on a true story about how he almost destroyed everything that he had with the woman he married. It’s perhaps even crazier that he’d choose to direct that story with his wife as a co-director, but in the case of Simon Helberg, it’s not all that crazy. We’ll Never Have Paris was simply the story that he felt he needed to tell.
Opening Thursday, We’ll Never Have Paris tells the story of a 20-something man named Quinn (Helberg), who cheats on his longtime girlfriend, Devon (Melanie Lynskey), and realizes that it was the dumbest thing that he could have ever done. Naturally, he has to follow her to Paris to make things right and win her back, and for the man who is more well-known as Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory, this film was literally a labor of love.
Helberg was kind enough to share his thoughts on being a first-time director, sharing the gig with his wife, Jocelyn Towne, telling his story of painful mistakes to the world, and whether or not we can expect him to take charge of an episode of The Big Bang Theory anytime soon.
UPROXX: You have one of the most envious gigs in television right now as Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory. Why’d you to want to get behind the camera for We’ll Never Have Paris?
Simon Helberg: It’s easier to hide with a camera in front of you, but there also wasn’t a lot of quiet time behind the camera. It was an unbelievably challenging and exhausting journey. I didn’t have the intention, when I wrote the script, to direct. It appealed to me but it was never something that I felt confident to take on. I’m not the best party host in keeping tabs on what’s going on in every area of the house, or a production. It gives me an anxiety attack just thinking about it.
It always seemed like something that was going to be a challenge but worthwhile. I guess what compelled me to do it was this story. I really felt that I needed to tell it. It was a compulsion and I didn’t really think anybody else would be able to tell it. It’s a really personal story, and the only way I can imagine directing from here on out is if there’s an actual need to do it, as opposed to just a “want.”
And I dragged my wife in to help, because I’m in every scene. It was the most perverse thing that we could possibly do, which is a married couple telling the story of their demise. It just seemed like something that had never been done before.
UPROXX: So when the poster for this movie tells us, “Based on a true story,” we can believe it because it’s actually your story.
Helberg: It is based on our story, for better or worse. I guess that’s what that means. In our 20s, I essentially made a series of the worst decisions, one after the next, as a lot of people at that age tend to do. I was hit by the quarter-life crisis and I felt really confused and deeply insecure about my potential fate and future. I decided to rip the rug out and destroy the lives of the people I love and myself included, and then I tried to reassemble them very quickly once I’d realized my terrible mistakes.
It’s kind of the underbelly of a love story. I’m showing the most unfavorable side of people trying to make big decisions and being in love, people self-destructing and trying to maintain some sort of self-control and a grasp on their fate.
UPROXX: What did this film teach you about the actual role of being the director?
Helberg: We were working on an incredibly small budget and tight timeline, and it was a labor of love, which is incredibly clichéd, but it was such a personal story for us. We had to fight incredibly hard to get any of it done at any moment. The people that we ended up hiring and surrounding ourselves with were also people who were there because they felt compelled to tell the story. We just prepared our balls off, and by the time we got to the set, we were really just there to execute what it was that we had worked so hard on for a year or two before we even had funding.
UPROXX: The film has such a strong cast, with Melanie Lynskey, Alfred Molina, Judith Light, Maggie Grace and Zachary Quinto, not to mention your wife’s experience. How much did that help your job as a first-time director?
Helberg: There’s nothing better than having people that are really skilled and just kind and thoughtful. There wasn’t a lot of “fixing” that needed to be done, because everybody had brought so much to the table. When you show up as an actor and you have a desire to tell your part of the story in a particular way, and you put thought into it, you’re there to help your scene partner also tell the story, and it all just feels very collaborative. When you’re working with people of that caliber, there’s nothing selfish and you don’t have people just showing up for a job. It was really comforting and I learned a lot as a director, not just from watching them act and communicating with them, but also as an actor acting with them.
I also learned a lot from observing the way they carry themselves on the set, and how they interact with everyone around them. I had never met Judith or Alfred, but they were both the kindest people and made a real effort to actually talk to everybody on the entire crew. They made it very clear to me and Jocelyn that they were open to direction, and while they had ideas, they were willing to throw them out and listen to new ones. That’s all it really is – just trying to figure out the best way to tell the same story.
UPROXX: What was it like to also work with your longtime friend Jason Ritter on this personal film?
Helberg: It was pretty fantastic. It was also a bit more of the incestuous thing to throw in the pot with my wife and I directing our own story and reliving these “tragic” moments, and having her parents watch these scenes in which I was reenacting me cheating on their daughter and destroying her life. I also had Jason there playing what was ostensibly my wife’s brother – well, a completely fictional version of him – and he’s been my best friend for so many years, and in some ways Zachary Quinto’s character was based on Jason. All the while, Jason had listened to this story and been a part of it as it actually unfolded in my real life. It was completely surreal and also pretty special to have someone you’ve known since eighth grade show up. And he was technically working for me, so I got to boss him around some so that was a dream come true.
UPROXX: What are the odds that you’ll end up in the director’s chair for an episode of The Big Bang Theory at some point in the future?
Helberg: I’ve thought about it before, but it’s a completely different game. A multi-camera sitcom is its own medium, but I guess the biggest similarity is that you’re working with actors and trying to tell a story. That’s the common thread in all of this, but I feel confident with just taking on one role in all of that. The movie almost killed me. I lost almost 15 pounds and I only weigh about 30. It was a really grueling-yet-wonderful experience, and it’s very hard for me to wear that many hats. I prefer to focus on one thing at a time.
It’d be a crazy, fun thing to try to direct an episode of The Big Bang Theory, but we’ve got a good thing going.
UPROXX: If Marvel, DC and all of the studios decided to reboot every comic book movie tomorrow and called you with first dibs to direct any of the beloved superheroes, which franchise would you pick?
Helberg: As much as I learned from and enjoyed directing, I did all of this because I’m an actor and wanted to give myself the opportunity. I guess if I could just direct an enormous superhero franchise and not be in it – and I know that there’s a huge desire out there for me to play a number of superheroes – I’d probably have to go with Superman, because I’m not a huge comic book fan or nerd – I can say that I just play one on TV – but I did grow up with Superman. Well, not with him. That would be amazing to say I grew up on Krypton. I grew up with the Superman movies in my life in a major way, and I related to this awkward guy who had a very special power. I’m still trying to figure out what my special power is, but I have the awkward guy thing nailed.
Here’s the trailer for We’ll Never Have Paris…