Ike Barinholtz on Tiffany Haddish, Trump and Finding Comedy in Our Political Turmoil (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Roadside Attractions
Thanksgiving might be terrible this year, but with any luck, not as terrible as the one in The Oath, writer-director Ike Barinholtz's political dark comedy about what happens around the dinner table for one fractious family following the announcement of the "Patriot's Oath," a White House-mandated pledge of loyalty to the president. So, no matter how the upcoming midterm elections shake out, here's hoping your holiday doesn't merit any gunshot wounds, like in the movie.
And still, for anyone who is the lone liberal in a family of conservatives, the plight of Chris (Barinholtz) and his wife, Kai (Tiffany Haddish), will hit very close to home. "May God be with you on your quest, sir," Barinholtz laughed. "I've been getting a lot of that...We've been going all over this land of ours and it's been pretty great getting people to see it and talking to them after. It's been pretty exhilarating." Barinholtz has taken his film everywhere from Houston to San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and, ahead of a screening in Boston, he called up ET to discuss casting himself as a liberal "dick" and his advice for you this Thanksgiving.
ET: I think for a time after the election -- and still to a degree -- we wanted escapism in our movies. Now, things have gotten so intense and so critical that even if you were watching something escapist, you would be thinking about everything happening in the world. Or like, you would go to see Smallfoot and try to find the political allegory in it.
Ike Barinholtz: You're like, Oh, I get it! Meechee is Mike Pence! [Laughs.] I think so, yeah. I'm a big lover of the films of the 1970s and to me, I think it was such an important time because -- similar to now, not quite as bad as it was then -- the country was going through really radical changes and people were really freaking out a little bit. We started seeing stories come that were first kind of coming from smaller, independent films, that were stories that were actually reflective about what was going on, and people did want to see that and it kind of started a film movement. My hope is that we're going to start seeing that more. I think we have this year: Jordan Peele really kind of started it with Get Out, where he took racism and something that we're all seeing and made it into this amazing story, and what Boots [Riley] did with Sorry to Bother You, and The Hate U Give. There's always going to be room for escapism, right? And we need that sometimes. But I also think it's important for us to take a look at what's going on in some of these stories that are talking about that.
A movie like this, even just in idea, could potentially be divisive. Did anyone urge you to make more of a straightforward comedy for your feature debut?
You know, no. I really knew early on that I wanted this movie to be a bit of a roller coaster. If I did make this a straight political comedy, I think what would happen is people would see it and there would be a feeling of, Well, it's funny, but it has zero gravity to the very real problems the country is in. The flip side of that coin is if I made this a very dramatic, serious thriller, people could be left feeling a little cold and that I missed on the humanity and some of the absurdity -- really, absurdity is the keyword right here -- of what's going on. So, I always knew it was going to be a unique tone, and I'm really lucky that I have a feedback loop and a support system that really nurtured that. My writing partner, Dave Stassen, and my wife and most importantly, the guys who ended up making the movie really supported me in my mission. They knew it was going to be different and they knew it was going to be a movie that maybe some people just don't get or, like, Oh, it's about politics, I'm not going to see it! and they really egged me on.
I read that the idea came to you because of conversations with your family the Thanksgiving after the election. How much of yourself did you end up putting into this character?
Quite a bit, unfortunately. When I wrote it, for about a year up to and about a year and a half after the election, I was waaay too plugged in. I was reading every single possible article and breaking down moment-by-moment the 160 characters and I was obsessed by it. And I was not happy. I think I was making others around me unhappy, because I was just constantly talking about it. The place I'm trying to get here now is -- I think it's healthier because I feel better -- but it's, Be very aware of what's happening and be outraged and be shocked and be angry and get fired up and be your friend that nags your other friends to vote. But it can't be 100 percent that. You need some balance.
I was not focusing on the things that are really important, and I'm not just talking about my wife and kids. I'm talking about TV shows and exercising and making food and going for walks. I just came to a place where I was like, look, I can do my duty as an American citizen, which is to be aware of the radical changes and do whatever I can to affect the change that I want to see, but I'm not going to let this take away from my happiness. I mean, can you imagine if in 10 years I was like, Oh God, I spent my daughter's birthday in the back room reading Twitter on my phone? That's crazy. So, I think I'm in a better place now, but Chris is definitely representative of what I was doing right before and right after the election.
You've directed episodes of The Mindy Project before, but a feature is a different kind of a beast and then on top of that, starring in it. Did you always intend to play this role? Did you always want to cast yourself?
Yeah, I knew [that] whatever you're doing, if you're just an actor, you have a lot of filters. You have the filter of the writer, his or her words, and the director's direction, whatever she or he tells you to do, and the editor, whatever they tell you to do. To give myself permission to do more or less whatever I wanted was pretty irresistible. There was really never a moment where I was like, Eh, maybe I should cast an actor in this. I'm just a cut-out-the-middleman type of guy. And I also get to cut myself another check, which is really what it's about.
And you got to write yourself a scene where you talk about your "beefy body."
[Laughs.] Which is, again, the other thing I'm obsessed with. I got to kiss Tiffany Haddish, so there you go.
Not just the romance of it, but so much of the movie relies on your chemistry with Tiffany as actors. Was there a moment it clicked and you knew this dynamic between you would work?
I'll be honest, the first time I met with her. She had read the script and she had come to The Mindy Project set and we just sat and had a very, very, very long talk, and hearing her story and a little bit about her life and her reflections on the script, right away, it reinforced my confidence that her and I would be great together. Because when I first saw her in the movie Keanu, I was like, She has to be my wife. I've got to figure out a way to make her my wife. My kind of loquacious, bullsh**ty, annoying personality with her tough as hell, completely authentic, real persona would be such a fun dynamic. And we just really fell in love. I love her so much.
We all know Tiffany is hilarious, but you direct her in some very moving dramatic scenes, which we haven't seen all that much from her, and I was struck by how good she is in those moments.
So good! She's so good. I fashioned her character a little bit after my own wife, and like I said, how I was kind of making her crazy with my constant barrage of the news, I wanted to see Tiffany in the first half of the movie internalizing everything and rolling her eyes and she's just trying to get her family to get from day-to-day and she has a husband who's obsessed with everything. So, I knew it would be a different look for her, but again, I was totally confident that it would work. And then I knew, once we got to the tipping point where the fuse ignites and we get to see Tiffany pointing her finger and telling me to shut the f**k up, I knew that was going to be great.
Specifically, with the idea of the oath itself, where did that come from? And at the time you thought of it, how realistic or far off did you imagine it was?
I never really knew a whole lot about Donald Trump, but once he really entered the political fray I really started reading about him and I knew that he was obsessed with loyalty. And I've always been obsessed with McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist and that was all about loyalty and there's a very big connection there between those two and that's Roy Cohn and everything, so I knew the concept of loyalty was something that could be innocuous enough that a character could make a case that it's not a big deal, it's just like the Pledge of Allegiance, who cares? But if you dig a little bit deeper, to the roots of it, you could make a case that this is Stalinism. This is what Stalin wanted, loyalty, unwavering loyalty. I knew I wanted something that could really go either way.
It wasn't until I started writing it that President Trump started making loyalty, like, a main issue. He had that cabinet meeting where he went around in a circle and everyone said, I will be loyal to you, and then he pinned down Jim Comey a few months later and was like, [in a Donald Trump voice] Are you going to be loyal? Will you be loyal? Even after the movie was done and we were about to show it to some folks, there was a thing called National Loyalty Day, which apparently has existed for a while but he's the first president to give a sh*t about it. No other president's cared about it enough, but we knew that all these beacons along the way were just reinforcing our belief that this is a movie that was going to resonate with people and we had to make it and get it out there. Because who the hell knows where we're going to be in two months.
As I'm talking to you now, I'm thinking, I hope this movie doesn't make it to Trump and he watches it and what he takes from it is, That's a good idea! I should do that!
The good news is, I don't think he watches any movies. I think he only watches Fox & Friends. But if they covered this on Fox & Friends, we're f**ked.
"While I, Ike Barinholtz, am a liberal, it was important that my character, who's also liberal, is kind of a dick."
You're clear about your political beliefs in real life and on Twitter, and you obviously don't want this to be a movie where the liberal character is flawless or always right. At the same time, did you have any worries ever about coming across as a "bad men on both sides" movie?
Yes, I did. Absolutely, this movie takes a side, which is my belief, which is the government is changing and there's a lot of overreach and fascism -- Mason, the character of Mason (played by Billy Magnussen) is a proto-fascist -- and we're seeing a burgeoning fascist movement in this country. I firmly believe that. That is very clear in the film. But because I wanted to make a satire, I did want to really focus on how the current political environment, combined with the way we process the news and that people like me overdose on the news, how it does kind of break our brains. That's why, while I, Ike Barinholtz, am a liberal, it was important that my character, who's also liberal, is kind of a dick. He's insufferable. And he blows up Thanksgiving dinner and he's letting his wife and his daughter fall by the wayside because he's so wrapped up in the news. I wanted to kind of show all sides, warts and all, but I would be remiss if I was like, Wellll, the thing is this: It's good and bad. Like, this is a comment on how f**ked up America is right now.
We never see the president in the movie. What went into making that choice?
To me, there was never a discussion whether or not it should actually be the actual president, because I feel like if it was Trump, it would be too loaded. There would be some people, regardless of what they feel about him, when they hear the name, they would just tune out for whatever reason, so it was never going to be Trump. In terms of seeing the actual president, I didn't want it to be something we focus on. I wanted it to be, like a lot of nefarious things, this unseen presence that we're all aware of. There was even talk of maybe filming him and his wife getting ready to board Marine One for the last time, and I didn't want to do that [either], because this movie is not about the president. It's not about any president. It's about a family, and I thought it would work better if it was just this force that they're all dealing with.
Who we do see, though, in a brief news clip is Seth Rogen, who has been taken by the government. How did you decide on him for that? And what did he think of it?
Initially, in my mind, it was Mark Ruffalo, but I just kind of thought two things, really. One, I thought if I said, Mark Ruffalo's been disappeared and all of a sudden you have a picture of Mark Ruffalo with his big puppy dog eyes, it would just be too sad. I was like, I think I can get a bit of a laugh if it's Seth Rogen. It makes sense, too, because, like Mark Ruffalo, Seth Rogen is very politically active and has a lot of beliefs. I would totally believe that he could be kidnapped. On a practical level, I'm much closer friends with Seth than I am with Mark Ruffalo, so it's easier to call Seth and ask him for a picture. [Laughs.]
After having immersed yourself in this, writing the movie and then making it and knowing you were going to go on the road and promote it, did you have any moment when you finished the film when you got to take a break and tune out for a second?
After I had really finished it and for all intents and purposes, the post was done, I did. It wasn't even a decision I made or a conversation I had with a therapist, it was really just a very organic feeling of, I can let go a little bit now and I don't have to really be living in Chris' head anymore. What I did too, I ended up watching a bunch of movies that I had been wanting to watch for a while. I watched Bo Burnham's movie, Eight Grade, which I just love so much, and I just watched the movies that had been building up for a minute and that really kind of reset me a little bit. Oh, and then I had another baby. [Laughs.] When you print this, just say I said the baby part first, if you don't mind, before I talk about Bo Burnham's movie. But it really was just a moment where it was like, We're done. The movie is what it is and I can let go of not just the film, but of this angsty feeling where I'm feeling stressed out 24 hours a day. Now I'm only stressed out 15, 16 hours a day, tops.
Considering how charged the current climate is, following the Kavanaugh hearing and with the election coming up, what is your advice for people as we head into Thanksgiving with family?
I say this in the hopes that people only take the advice for the purposes of the night of Thanksgiving, or maybe even a couple days before -- just because it's not good life advice. It's good advice in that specific situation. But I really do think it is the time of year where, first of all, you don't have to shy away from these discussions. If your family decides it's better to do that, fine, but you can have these discussions. But what I tell people and I'm sure it's not, like, great advice, but I really do lean on my creature comforts. Around the holidays, I really say to myself from basically Thanksgiving to Christmas, I'm going to eat whatever I want. I love beer, I just can't drink it all year but I drink, like, one of those giant craft beers every night. We have legal marijuana in California, and if food is your thing have some more pie. I feel like it is OK to lean on some of the things that make us feel good when you know you're going into a stressful situation. Especially at Thanksgiving because the food is so good and there's so much booze. So, have an extra drink, have the second piece of pie and just do whatever you need to do.
The Oath is in theaters in DC, LA and New York on Friday and everywhere on Oct. 19.