Simon Helberg Interview: 'The Big Bang Theory' Star Raises Funds for New Independent Film 'I Am I'
Image attributed to Simon Helberg
Simon Maxwell Helberg is best known for his role as Howard Wolowitz in the CBS hit television show The Big Bang Theory. The sitcom is centered on five characters: experimental physicist Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) and theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), their neighbor, waitress and aspiring actress Penny (Kaley Cuoco), and geeky co-workers Wolowitz who is an aerospace engineer, and particle astrophysicist Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar).
Helberg joined the cast of MADtv in 2002 for a few episodes as a feature performer and is one half of the comedy duo Derek & Simon (along with Derek Waters) from the 2007 web based series of the same name. The Los Angeles native also appeared in the films National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, Old School, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, A Cinderella Story, Good Night and Good Luck, and A Serious Man.
“When I’m in a room and she’s off camera I can’t see her, but it’s really fun to do. I definitely can tap in to my frustration with parents, and I feel like I’ve heard that voice in my head at least. So I have fun doing those scenes. It’s definitely interesting doing them, though, when it’s just the room and me and she’s off screen.”
Other television performances include Less Than Perfect, Quintuplets, Reno 911!, Unscripted, Arrested Development, Joey, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
Currently, the actor and his wife are beginning the process of making an independent film entitled I Am I. They are working with the innovative website kickstarter.com in an effort to raise funds and build awareness about the production before the end of their campaign on January 8, 2011.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Simon, is I Am I your first experience into the independent film arena?
Simon Helberg: It’s definitely my first experience doing this kind of work in producing an independent movie. I’ve been in some, but we’re really putting on many hats here so it’s definitely my first time getting my hands dirty like this.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your wife (Jocelyn Towne) wrote the film?
Simon Helberg: Yeah and she will be directing and starring in it. I’ll be in the film as well and so will Jason Ritter.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): From what I’ve read, the film is about a girl and her father.
Simon Helberg: It’s about a girl who never knew her dad growing up. She meets him at her mother’s funeral. He has a form of retrograde amnesia which is a disorder called Korsakov’s Syndrome. Her dad actually thinks he’s 30 years old and he has no memory of his daughter. She never knew him and he mistakes her for her mother who just died. Of course, she looks like a younger version of her mother. The daughter allows him to court her in order to get to know him. It’s sort of a twist on a love story. It’s dark, funny, and heartbreaking, and an unbelievable script.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has the role of the girl’s father been cast yet?
Simon Helberg: No, we’ve had a lot of interest but we’re just trying to get the financing (or a piece of it) lined up. You need financing sometimes to lock down actors and in order to get financing you need actors so it’s a catch 22. We’re going the route of Kickstarter to basically get the money together through the fans.
Kickstarter is just a way of making a studio out of the fans and the people who are supporting the film. You sort of cut out the corporate part of it and put it in the hands of the people that are going to see the movie. They’ve been incredibly supportive. As of now we have almost 700 backers. In the last 24 hours we’ve gotten about 100 of that so it has been incredible.
We’re almost at $83,000 and our goal is $100,000. If we don’t reach that goal the money goes back to all of the donators. That’s how Kickstarter works. It’s an amazing launching pad for movies, bands, productions, and fashion. It’s definitely kind of the new wave of funding things and sort of a test run to see if there’s support before you jump into the water. I think we’re right on the brink of it blowing up because Kickstarter is fairly new and many people are using it for all sorts of different things.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I read that you offer incentives to donors.
Simon Helberg: Yeah, depending on what people donate there will be different incentives. If you give $100 you’ll become an actual associate producer on the movie and get credit at the end. If you give $200 you’ll get a personal voice message greeting from me. For $1,000 you get a walk on role and for $10,000 we’ll come and screen the movie for you.
Obviously you can give as low as a dollar or as high as whatever you want to give. It’s a real community effort which I think is true to the mantra of the independent film genre. We’ll have hundreds of associate producers (laughs). It is a real grassroots effort to take something and use the hands of many people.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The deadline for raising the funds is January 8?
Simon Helberg: Yeah. We have a little more than $15,000 to go which is doable. We’ve had some backers give $10,000. People we don’t even know gave in the beginning. You can get a good sense of it by going to iamithefilm.com, click on the Kickstarter link, and it will take you to Kickstarter. There’s a 4 ½ minute video there that shows the inception and conception of the movie. People seem to really respond to that. That gives them a little taste of who we are. We’re just doing a final kind of push now to get us there.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Kickstarter is the only funding source?
Simon Helberg: At this point once we get to $100,000 we do actually have an Angel Donor that’s going to match that so we’ll have another $100,000. Once we have $200,000 we’re hoping from there we may possibly get more depending on the steps that follow, like who will get attached to the film. That may be enough. It just depends on where we are. You need that initial pot to be filled up a little bit before anyone’s going to push you. Kickstarter just gives people enough to put out the product. The people that believe in it are amazing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you getting any support from your cast mates?
Simon Helberg: Yeah, they’ve all been supportive in many ways. It’s nice to see our friends come out to help us. I always hoped that our friends would be there but people that we didn’t know have come out to help. That’s been a lovely pleasant surprise. But, yes, everyone on the show has been rooting for us.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Simon, how has being on a Top 20 television show changed your life?
Simon Helberg: Well, financially obviously. To have steady work is pretty rare. That’s the most black and white part of it I guess (laughs). But, to be on this specific show has been amazing. I love the show, I love doing it, I love watching it, and I love working with the people. You can’t ask for more.
To have a group of actors, writers, and crew so talented, to all really like each other and the product we’re putting out is really great. On top of that, people are watching it. They’ve moved us around, but we’ve been lucky enough to just grow and grow and bring followers. Now we’re on Thursdays. We’ve brought over a large amount of people and that’s a victory. It’s pretty surreal.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you feel at the time you auditioned that the show might be successful because Chuck Lorre’s name was attached to it?
Simon Helberg: Well, yes and no. It was hard to tell. I auditioned for the second version of the pilot. They had already shot a pilot of The Big Bang Theory with Jim (Parsons) and Johnny (Galecki) and a few other people. My character wasn’t in it. They then rewrote it and restructured it and added my character.
The show had Chuck Lorre, Jim Burrows, and CBS. That was all positive but it was a second go around. As funny as the script was you just never know. I’ve been a part of things that were sure bets and huge people attached and great shows and they didn’t make it. I thought this was great, but I also thought, “God, I’ve never heard of a do over in television.” They gave them a second chance and that’s good but maybe it’s not good because you just don’t know. I really didn’t even think about it to be honest with you.
When we shot the actual pilot I could tell something really special was happening beyond the status and brilliance of Chuck and Jim. I could also just sense that the audience was connecting to it. At that point I sort of had a feeling we might at least get a shot of getting it on the air and we did. You just never know. It’s so hard to tell. I think it’s the first time I ever did something where I just let go of it. I guess that’s sort of a metaphor for life, too. I just let it go and focused on doing the work. You can never prepare for this. It’s still hard to even see it even though we’re in it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): My husband makes me pause at the end of the show in order to read the vanity cards written by Chuck Lorre each week.
Simon Helberg: I’m always shocked by them because they’re so funny, dark, strange, and so different from the way he writes television. We never see them until it airs, but I like to read them as well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): On a recent episode Howard accidentally kissed Raj (Kunal Nayyar). Did you two have to rehearse that scene?
Simon Helberg: We did have to rehearse that and also had to shoot it several times. We’re comfortable with each other … maybe not that comfortable, but certainly at this point we’ve experienced more than we ever hoped for (laughs). But, yeah, anything for a laugh.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Some of the funniest lines of the show are between your character and your mother, a woman who stays off camera. Is that difficult for you to play?
Simon Helberg: When I’m in a room and she’s off camera I can’t see her, but it’s really fun to do. I definitely can tap in to my frustration with parents, and I feel like I’ve heard that voice in my head at least. So I have fun doing those scenes. It’s definitely interesting doing them, though, when it’s just the room and me and she’s off screen.
The interesting part of it is that there’s no one for them to cut to so even if she’s ranting, the camera is only on me. It’s a good exercise in making sure that you’re obviously listening and giving enough kinds of reactions so that it’s interesting for people to watch your face for an entire scene. That’s the only thing I’ve noticed in those scenes when it’s just me in a room and she is yelling. Mother is played by Carol Ann Susi, a character actress, who enjoys doing the show but doesn’t want to be on camera. She just loves coming in and standing back there and screaming.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think it would spoil it if she came out in full character.
Simon Helberg: Yeah, exactly. They enjoy that device. You don’t want to see that woman. You barely want to hear her (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): My theory is that Howard’s father left the family just to get away from that voice (laughs).
Simon Helberg: Right (laughs). Yeah, I think that’s pretty clear.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) is definitely a step up from some of Howard’s other girlfriends. Do you think Howard has more chemistry with her than with Leslie Winkle?
Simon Helberg: I think Leslie was a different character and they tried to see how she played with different dynamics – her bullying Sheldon, or her with Howard or Leonard. They were all interesting. It’s so amazing to see the difference of each subtlety within a person and how it affects the entire group dynamics. It’s hard to bring somebody into a group of five people that will work independently and with the entire group and with each combination of that group.
I think it’s worked out beautifully with Bernadette. They found an amazing dynamic that fit that brought out kind of a vulnerable human side in Howard’s character. She can also be Penny’s friend and react off of Mayim Bialik’s character. She reacts with the other guys and also the three girls can be put together.
They really found something that almost added another show to this and opened up more writing possibilities. I love being able to have some humanity in Howard and to see him grow. These guys are pretty steadfast in their ways and beliefs and it’s nice to see some growth. I love it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): One thing that always amazes me is the technical dialogue on the show. Do you ever have trouble memorizing your lines?
Simon Helberg: Yeah, they can be difficult. Obviously the brunt of that stuff is on Jim. His dialogue is … well its not even human really. I think he’s gotten used to at least the rhythms of it maybe, but probably you can never totally adapt to the words because you just never know half the time. There’s a pronunciation guide and a definition guide. We have a science advisor named David Saltzberg from UCLA who’s an astrophysics professor.
I generally don’t get those crazy insane diatribes. Even the ones I don’t complain about people still say, “Oh, that’s a tongue twister.” I never complain because of Jim. Occasionally if we’re talking about science stuff or even sci-fi stuff it may either be a little foreign to me or totally foreign but you just get used to it. Jim’s dialogue … just the technical part of speaking it is so challenging. That’s a whole other thing that he has and I know he just drills and drills until he feels comfortable.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there a funniest person on the set?
Simon Helberg: Well, I think we all make each other crack up quite a bit. The chemistry between us is a big part of the show and I think that comes from real life in the ways that we actually do connect, that we’re close, and that we make each other laugh. At least people are pretending to laugh at my jokes (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you always interested in acting?
Simon Helberg: I was actually focused on music until about the 11th grade. I played the piano and was in a lot of bands. I wanted to do that pretty seriously and then got into doing some school plays in high school. I think I always was eager to try it throughout my life but I didn’t want to be a child actor.
I could easily practice piano and drag my keyboard around. I didn’t know how to practice acting in my room so I definitely practiced other things and made silly faces in the mirror I think too much. Anyway, other than that it wasn’t until about the 11th grade that I acted in school. I wanted to study it in college to really learn how to act. It was from then on that I felt the most fulfilled.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You wanted to be a comedian rather than a serious actor?
Simon Helberg: That was my original thing in high school. That was all I thought about doing and wanted to do. The first time I did a scene, my main acting teacher there said, “You’re not allowed to do any comedy for the rest of the year because you clearly feel comfortable doing that and I don’t want you to feel comfortable. Making you uncomfortable is what acting is about.” She just didn’t want me to lean on that which was actually a huge thing because I got to then get into the stuff that was more foreign to me. That’s definitely something I do feel comfortable with doing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were on MADtv for a few episodes.
Simon Helberg: Yeah, I love sketch comedy. That was something I always dreamed about even before I started acting. I was a huge fan of that stuff and was lucky to get to do that out here for a while.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ve interviewed former MADtv alums Will Sasso and Nicole Sullivan who are now on $#*! My Dad Says.
Simon Helberg: Oh cool, they’re great. I actually came in to MADtv right after they left but I had met them. They are very talented.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): They are indeed. Simon, what are your interests outside of work?
Simon Helberg: I’ve been writing a few things here and there. We had Christmas break and I focused on writing most of the time, trying to create other work for myself and for friends.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you writing screenplays?
Simon Helberg: Yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve also been playing music, seeing movies, and playing games with friends … not video games, more like card and dice oriented games. Although I was actually blown away by a video game recently that I had not seen before. I thought that maybe I could get into them now because they just look incredible. I’ve never been a huge gamer, but I get enough of that on the show.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you make any New Year’s resolutions?
Simon Helberg: I didn’t really consciously. I think I have sort of general life ideas I live by. I bite my nails and every year I think, “That’s a perfect resolution.” Then it makes me so nervous that I bite my nails thinking about stopping. One day I’ll have to do that, but probably a good resolution would be to just keep on writing and finishing this one thing I’ve been working on and to be productive.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Good luck with that project, Simon, and also on getting the necessary funding for I Am I. Continued success on The Big Bang Theory!
Simon Helberg: Thanks so much for your help and I hope to talk to you again.
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