Interview — Jamie Sisley & Wyatt Oleff

»Caring for a loved one is a rollercoaster«

With »Stay Awake,« Emmy-nominated director Jamie Sisley tells the story of two teenage brothers who must deal with the prescription drug addiction of their mother. The film—which is based on Sisley’s very own childhood experiences—sheds light on the struggles of a middle-class family in small-town America. On the day of the picture’s world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, we met the director and one of his main actors, Wyatt Oleff, for an interview and photo shoot.

18. Februar 2022 — Interview & text: Jonas Meyer, Photography: Osman Balkan

In movies, there is hardly anything more romanticized than the idealized world of 1950s America. Whether in blockbusters or independent films, a cinematic image has settled into our minds in the last decades that—with all the bowling alleys, ice cream parlors, dim neon displays and endless highways—embeds us in a cozy imagination of the good old days in the United States of America.

It is easy to dispel this façade and to recognize that something has been crumbling and shaking the foundations of this country for a long time. Politics, economy, society—the effects of this decay are easy to name for everybody. But there’s still another issue that not that many people are aware of, a crisis that affects millions of people in the U.S. and many more around the world: addiction to prescription drugs and opioids.

Since American doctors in the 1990s started to freely prescribe narcotics even for moderate pain, a veritable mass addiction has developed over the years. This epidemic not only affects economically disadvantaged and marginalized people but also middle-class families, as Emmy-nominated director Jamie Sisley shows in his new picture, Stay Awake.

The movie—which premiered on February 12 at the Berlin International Film Festival—tells the story of two teenage boys, Ethan (17) and Derek (19), who live in a small town in Virginia and must deal with the addiction of their mother Michelle, played by Chrissy Metz. While the older brother, played by Fin Argus, stands by his mother and constantly hopes that things will get better, the younger one, played by Wyatt Oleff, has long since realized that nothing will change, and makes a plan to leave town as soon as he graduates from school.

The film shows the constant conflict between delaying one’s own plans and desires to take care of a loved one and striving for personal happiness and release from daily catastrophe. It’s a story that isn’t made up: The script is based on Jamie Sisley’s very own experience growing up with a mother battling with addiction. In the film, this mother figure isn’t drawn as a demon, but as a quiet, loving, and trying woman who keeps relapsing. Thanks to the refined and sensitive portrayals of the three main actors, the audience is drawn into the story of a family in which no one seems to be able to make the right decision.

We met director Jamie Sisley and actor Wyatt Oleff in Berlin for an interview, a couple of hours before Stay Awake was shown to the world for the very first time.

»I feel like I lost some time with my mom because I didn’t really understand the issue.«

MYP Magazine:
Jamie, with Stay Awake you provide a very quiet, sensitive and thoughtful perspective on the topic of prescription drug addiction. Why did you decide to tell the story in this way?

Jamie Sisley:
When I was growing up, my brother and I used to watch a lot of movies. At some point, I personally started to become more and more interested in films about addiction—maybe because I was trying to look for a perspective on our very own situation. Unfortunately, I realized really quickly that almost all of these films were told from the addict’s point of view. But as someone who is a caretaker and a loved one of an addict, I wished to see more about that kind of perspective. So, when I had the chance to make a film about this subject, this part was very important to me. I wanted to look at it through the eyes of the caretaking teenagers we were, dealing with my mom’s addiction every single day. And I can imagine that there are many other people out there that finally feel seen in this story.
Besides that, I always felt that the addicts I saw in movies were shown as characters deserving little empathy. Even worse: They were often villainized or dehumanized. And to be honest, I also thought that way about my mom for a long time. But the older I got, the more I realized that addiction is a disease. I firmly believe that. That’s why I wanted to show the more human aspects of addiction and re-humanize the addict. I’m sure that this sort of film would have helped me when I was growing up. It would have made me understand my mom better. Today I feel like I lost some time with my mom because I didn’t really understand the issue.

»When I read the script, I became even more aware of my own privileged situation.«

MYP Magazine:
Wyatt, you play the role of Derek’s 17-year-old brother, Ethan, a character that is related to Jamie’s younger brother, Evan. Was it a challenge, or even a burden, to play a role that directly refers to your director’s personal life?

I don’t know if I really felt a burden, but it was still a lot of pressure for me. I personally grew up in a very lucky and privileged life, I’ve always had both of my parents who are supporting me and doing everything they can. When I read the script, I became even more aware of my own privileged situation, and I wanted to bring in my best abilities to help Jamie’s movie shine. It’s a story that really needs to be told—not only because it’s so personal, but also because it’s incredibly well written. I can’t underscore enough how important it was to me to get this movie right. And I’m grateful to be a part of it.

»As a writer and director, you always hope that your story is seen as a blueprint.«

MYP Magazine:
Jamie, how exactly did you introduce your three main actors, Wyatt, Fin, and Chrissy, to the story? What specifically did you want them to understand about their respective roles?

Every actor has generally a different approach how to form their character. Other than the fact that the backgrounds of the three protagonists are based on a lot of the issues I personally dealt with when I was growing up, I hoped that all three of them wouldn’t feel constrained but would embrace their roles—and they did. Wyatt, Fin and Chrissy did such a wonderful job because they took this story very seriously. I really appreciate the amount of thought that was put into each of their characters. As a writer and director, you always hope that your story is seen as a blueprint that, with some great collaborators who come in, gets better and better. And that’s what happened here. Wyatt, Fin and Chrissy added a lot of new texture to the characters in ways that I could have never done.

»For that 17-year-old guy, Ethan, there’s a lot of internal struggles.«

MYP Magazine:
Each of these three characters is struggling in their very own, different way. While the older brother, Derek, tries to stay optimistic and doesn’t give up on his mother, Ethan strives for his own happiness and makes plans to leave behind the small town and his mother’s troubles as soon as he graduates high school. At the same time, he seems to be suppressing his feelings and closing himself off. Wyatt, how did you approach this multi-layered character, Ethan? How was it to get to know him when you read the script?

I was totally interested in this character right from the start! There is a lot to this character and that made it very fun to play. Chrissy, Fin, and I were intensively working with Jamie to define our protagonists and the situation they’re in. We did a lot of rehearsing to really get to know them. When it specifically comes to my character, Jamie and I had a lot of talks about Ethan’s role inside the family, his deep layers, and what actually is going on in his mind. I think, for that 17-year-old guy, there’s a lot of internal struggles. At the same time, all of his extroverted emotions are very flat. He is trying very hard to be the calm and reflected one in this family and to put himself ahead when major decisions must be made. Additionally, his desire to get out of town doesn’t just go for himself, it also extends to his brother a lot. Derek is one who would stay with their mom for the rest of his life, he would devote his own life to her. But Ethan is not about that, he wants to help his brother out of this situation because he loves him. He loves his mom too, of course, but it’s complicated. All of that comes to a climax where Ethan and Derek are trying to be as composed as possible through this horrible situation for each other.

»The relationship with my brother is just a testament to what we struggled through.«

MYP Magazine:
Despite being so different, the two brothers seem bound by an unspoken understanding that becomes particularly evident at the end of the film. Is this bond their only strategy to survive?

Caring for a loved one is a real rollercoaster. Sometimes it’s going well, sometimes it’s not. That requires a lot of patience that has to be included in that rollercoaster ride. In such situations, you’re very lucky when you have a partner, somebody you can really rely on. From my personal experience, I know that many other young people are dealing with the same difficult situations that Derek and Ethan are going through.
As a result, these kids develop certain strategies to just persevere, and trusting and understanding each other blindly is definitely a part of it. I think that’s why my relationship with my brother is one of the strongest I have in my life. It’s just a testament to what we struggled through.
But I also learned that, even in tough situations, good things can come from it—humor, for example. That’s part of life and can be a very genuine way of getting through hard times. I know for sure that sometimes, as bad as it can be, all you can do is laugh. And that was a real point of catharsis for my brother and me.

»A lot of people call this crisis a domestic issue. But this is not just an American problem.«

MYP Magazine:
Derek and Ethan are two nice, skilled, and righteous boys. They theoretically have all the prerequisites for a happy and successful life—if there wasn’t the permanent issue of their mom’s addiction that puts their future in danger. In reality, millions of young people are in a similar situation. Many of these kids fail because too much weight is on their shoulders. Their talents, dreams, and the impact they can make are wasted. Why is this immense damage to society not taken seriously?

Because most people just don’t understand how prevalent this issue is. I hope that, after we all get through Covid, mental health is going to be an issue that we all talk about. And I hope that addiction is going to be something that’s actually looked at and scrutinized more than it has been lately. I mean, it’s more than urgent! Right now, there are around 21 million people that suffer from addiction—just in the United States. If you multiply that by two or three because of the loved ones and caretakers involved, you come to a pretty large percentage of the population. By the way: A lot of people call this crisis a domestic issue. But this is not just an American problem. It’s the exact same thing in every other country.

»There has always been an underbelly to this world.«

MYP Magazine:
In Stay Awake the existential crisis of the small family takes place in a visual world that, with its bold pictures and locations, looks like a romanticized ideal of 1950s America. Is this also a reflection of the American society, including its gap between self-image and naked reality?

That indeed describes the current state of the United States very well. I personally love the imagery of Americana, I always have. I love that sort of landscape that the film is placed in, I love locations like the bowling center or bus station, I love the colors and the settings. But I do think there has always been an underbelly to this world. And that’s, right now, the malignant cancer called prescription drug abuse. There are a lot of artists that follow the same approach, composing dreamy Americana with its actual underbelly. Photographer Gregory Crewdson, for example, is pretty good in that. I often thought of that work when I was writing the script. I think it’s an interesting way of looking at a subject that affects a lot of people.

»The power of the story is supported by being actually set in small-town America.«

MYP Magazine:
Wyatt, in the last years you played in a lot of productions that took place in so-called small-town America, such as It, I Am Not Okay with This or now Stay Awake. You yourself are born in Chicago and you grew up in Los Angeles. What fascinates you so much about the countryside?

Wyatt (laughs out loud):
Well, let’s see! I don’t know if I’m necessarily attracted to it just because the story takes place in the countryside. It always happened to be quite a remarkable coincidence, an interesting through line between a lot of projects I have done so far. But with Stay Awake, it was different. When I was reading the script, I felt that the power of the story was supported by being actually set in small-town America because it creates an additional layer of problems: There are fewer options. Everything goes slower. And you’re lost without a car.
By the way, just as a side note (smiles): When I lived in Chicago, that was in the suburbs, not in the city. Growing up there was also kind of a small-town feeling. At places like that, there’s a lot of interesting stories to be told. In L.A., that doesn’t just exist in the same way. I miss that, to be honest.

»Wyatt has a gift that helped the film out significantly.«

MYP Magazine:
Now that you guys have worked together on this project, what have you, Wyatt, learned about life from Jamie?

Jamie is endlessly talented and incredible! I think there is so much to learn from him. He’s been so open and emotional with all the things that happened in his life. That really helped the movie and the story he wanted to tell. And that also helped me to get a new perspective—on life in general and on the subject specifically. I always thought that the prescription drug crisis was a matter of the early 2000s, an issue that happened once and now it’s not that big anymore. But it is. And that also brings attention to a lot of other issues I wasn’t as aware of. But with this movie, we will hopefully be highlighting that and getting more people talking about it.

MYP Magazine:
And what about you, Jamie? What could Wyatt teach you about life that you didn’t know before?

I think I learned how to trust people a little better, that’s the big one. When we started to work together, I was pretty new at writing scripts. And I still am, it’s not that I’ve done that a thousand times before. So, I was guarded about it and hoped that I could bring collaborators that will make my work better. People who trust me and take the whole thing seriously. Wyatt really did that. He was very vulnerable, opened up and allowed me to come in and collaborate with him on his interpretation of the role. We just talked about that side of him yesterday: It’s not something actors are required to do. Wyatt didn’t have to do that. But he did and that’s a gift—a gift that helped the film out significantly. It gave us the ability to really get in there. When I see the result of his beautiful performance, that makes me finally trust the process. And I can’t thank him enough for that.

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