“Wisdom is an interesting word,” Simon Helberg says. “I’d say this would be the opposite of wisdom.”
Helberg, known best to you as gregarious geek Howard Wolowitz on the decade’s most popular sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, is questioning the wisdom of his latest career venture. And we’d have to agree with him.
Helberg is out promoting We’ll Never Have Paris, a romantic comedy of errors that he co-directed with his wife of seven years, Jocelyn Towne. He also wrote and stars in the film, and, as its title card cheekily explains, it is “based on a true story, unfortunately.” Given the details of that “true story” the film is based on, you’ll be questioning the wisdom of Helberg to work with his wife on the project, too.
We’ll Never Have a Paris is about a 20-something guy named Quinn who cheats on his longtime girlfriend (Melanie Lynskey), immediately realizes it’s the biggest mistake he’s ever made, and then follows her to Paris, where she’s gone to escape the heartbreak, in order to win her back. And these are all things that, though exaggerated for dramatic effect, actually happened between Helberg and Towne and nearly destroyed their relationship.
Call making this film insane. Call it a labor of love. Or, more likely, call it just plain unhealthy.
“Well, as you see in the movie, I don’t put a lot of thought into the outcomes of certain decisions,” Helberg says when asked about this. OK…but what about his wife? This couldn’t have been a pleasant experience for her.
“Oh, who cares about her?” Helberg laughs. He stutters as he gathers his thoughts to talk about why he decided to pen-to-paper immortalize his romantic blunders, and then get his wife involved in the professional walk of shame, too.
“I said, ‘Hey, you know I’ve been talking to people about our engagement story and the breakup and everything and they think it’s the funniest, craziest story they’ve ever heard.’” Her response: “'Are you kidding me!? You've told people? Like, strangers? I haven’t even told my parents!’”
Helberg was confused. “I was like, ‘Uhh…why?’ And she was like, ‘Because it’s humiliating!’ And I was like, oh, this could actually now be the demise of our relationship.”
Despite his wife’s understandably baffled reaction, Helberg decided he still needed to write the script. Part of it was cathartic, therapeutic. Part of it was that he genuinely thought the ripped-from-his-humiliations story was entertaining and would make a good movie.
“When I was done I gave it to her and sort of paced for hours in the next room while she read it,” he remembers. “And she thought it was hilarious, and that was the best part of it.” When it came time to actually the make the movie, it was through a series of conversations with interested producers that it became clear that Helberg should helm the movie—his own story, after all—too. He knew he’d need help, so he called on Towne, with had gotten her feet wet directing and producing the 2013 indie I Am I.
“I thought, well selfishly, that I wanted her input on all of this,” Helberg says. “But also, wouldn’t it be interesting to go back and tell the story of our near demise?”
Interesting, yes. A risk, definitely. In fact, this entire project—very publicly writing, directing, and starring in a film based on your life—was a risk for Helberg, both professionally and personally. On the surface, it seems like the kind of risk that can only be afforded a Hollywood player who has the security blanket of the famously well-playing, unfathomably popular most watched sitcom on TV to keep him warm.
That wasn’t exactly the case. “Based on some of the reactions and experiences I’ve had doing this movie, [Big Bang] has actually hindered it a little bit,” Helberg says. “It’s helped a lot—I’m not going to say that it hasn’t helped. And I’m not going to say that it hasn’t helped me live, in terms of security, to have that show. And it has happened doors.”
But the omnipresence of the show—and of Howard Wolowitz—has been a bit of a career liability, too.
“It’s a very, very ubiquitous show,” Helberg says. “And it’s a very iconic show. Characters are very burned into people’s minds. Sometimes people can’t separate that when they go to see you do something else. Sometimes people resent you for that. They pigeonhole you.”
Helberg is clear that he doesn’t want to sound embittered. But as he is on a press tour for a film that was very much his baby, he is clearly frustrated by it. “I didn’t expect the show to factor into the film this much, in terms of the way people view it and as much as I’ve sense people have started to see it,” he says.
It seems like an issue that is unique to TV actors. An actor can star in a multi-film movie franchise playing one character and still be judged “believable” in an indie film that’s a departure from type. Yet we’re still harping on whether or not Jennifer Aniston has successful cast off the ghost of Rachel on Friends.
“I think there’s a disdain, honestly, for television,” Helberg says. “For certain types of television, specifically now that there’s better television than ever—and what I mean by that is that there is just 12-hour movies being released as TV shows on Netflix. So when you look at sitcoms or mainstream network TV, sometimes people can get a little bit haughty about it.”
In 2015, there’s certainly nothing more mainstream on network TV than The Big Bang Theory. There’s also nothing that gets those who don’t enjoy it, as Helberg puts it, a little bit haughty.
“I do understand it,” he says. “It’s not the coolest thing in the world to be walking around humming the Taylor Swift song. It’s not as cool to be singing along with the number one song in the country as it is to be the jaded, indifferent hipster who wants to turn you on to something that nobody else is talking about.”
He gets it, he says, clarifying that he doesn’t even think his show is for everybody, or that everybody should like it. “But sometimes it does feel like, ‘OK, you’ve got an axe to grind, but why? Is it just because it’s popular?’ That’s when I think it’s strange.”
The truth is that The Big Bang Theory is the last remaining pillar of massively popular television, the everyone’s-watching-it TV show. Being on a show like that puts an actor in, as Helberg has admitted, a place of privilege—he’s getting people to talk about his little micro-budget indie film, who may not have cared otherwise. But is it also a burden to carry that weight? Or a little crazy?
“I don’t ever feel like I’m experiencing it first hand, exactly,” he says. “It like if someone said, ‘How does it feel like to be you?’ I don’t know. I haven’t been any other person.” There are moments, particularly when magazines and articles will put forth stats showing how The Big Bang Theory is the first TV comedy to capture the zeitgeist in this overpowering fashion since Friends, that he does get it.
“I remember that Friends phenomenon,” he says. “So when I hear us mentioned in the same sentence, I think, ‘Is that what’s happening?’ Because that’s crazy. Because I understand what that means.”
As we say our goodbyes after chatting about all things ranging from the near-dissolution of his relationship to the very precarious navigation of being, well, popular, it becomes clear wisdom really is, as Helberg said at the beginning, an “interesting word”—particularly given the thoughtful, self-aware manner in which he talks about his career.
And maybe, just maybe, he’s starting to get a little wiser about his personal life, too.
“It’s not like [that chapter in a relationship] has been eating away at us,” he says, of finally being done reliving the events that inspired We’ll Never Have Paris. “But it’s going to be nice to get out of our own heads and just close that book.”