Q&A with ‘The Oath’ star, writer and director Ike Barinholtz
Ike Barinholtz has taken comedy to a very dark place — politics, in his new film “The Oath.”
Barinholtz writes, directs and stars alongside the comedic genius Tiffany Haddish in this controversial Thanksgiving Day family gathering where family members discuss the hot topic of signing an oath of loyalty to the United States. Tempers do more than flare as the situation devolves into a virtual nightmare.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Barinholtz, a Chicago native, about the making of this black comedy and what he hopes viewers will take away from the film.
I read that you once considered becoming a politician but decided on being a comedian instead. Is there any truth to that?
It is true, and they basically are the same thing at this point. ... My dad was involved in local Chicago politics, and I remember as a boy on Election Day, going to the polling place and being so taken in not just by the fun aspects of it all — there’s donuts and popcorn — but I really loved watching these politicians talk to their constituents.
The look of hope on the constituents’ [faces], and the look of calm from the politicians so ... I thought, “Oh, I can do that.” And as I got a little older, I thought, that’s a little hard to do. I think comedy is a little more accessible to me right now. ... I don’t know, should I run for mayor of Chicago? There aren’t enough people running, maybe I should throw my hat in that ring.
I’m sure you’d have a couple of great ideas. Speaking of ideas, how did you come up with the concept of “The Oath?”
I can tell you exactly what day. It was the day after Thanksgiving 2016. We always do a big Thanksgiving at my house. After dinner, my mom and my brother and I ... got into a fight about the election. We were blaming each other and saying not so nice things, and I woke up the next morning and I said to my wife, “That was so weird because we voted for the same person.” We were all on the same side, yet we were fighting about this so aggressively.
I thought to myself, “What’s happening at the holiday table around the country? It’s got to be going crazy!” ... And I knew that it was right for satire.
Tiffany Haddish is such a comedic talent, yet her role in this film is quite subdued.
It’s pretty tightly inspired by my own wife. Like a lot of Americans, I was very obsessed with the news cycle, especially the year leading up to the election and the year of the election. There was one morning in particular, it was 6:25 a.m., and she’s breastfeeding our newborn. I was reading an article, and I turned to her and I said in all seriousness, “America is lost.” And she said, “Hey, dude. Too early in the morning. Too heavy. Chill out.”
I’ve wanted to work with Tiffany since I saw her in the movie “Keanu” ... What if I had Tiffany Haddish in this role [and] for the first half of this movie she’s just silently suffering, and the fuse goes off, and she just explodes? And it was pretty crazy to watch because she is so energetic and kinetic ... to have her insular and gritting her teeth and rolling her eyes, it was a treat. And then we get to watch her explode.
So tell me about that basilar skull fracture that John Cho’s character suffers from a blunt strike to the back of his head. Your symptomatology was brilliant.
I cannot believe you know this! That’s amazing. It’s so cool. I remember reading a long time ago, when you get a concussion, you get fluid coming out of your ear ... if it’s really bad. I thought, “Oh, my God! That is so creepy.” I just thought the juxtaposition of the guy being like, “I’m fine,” and [then] water dripping out of his ear, it’s all the part where people go “Ewww! What is that?” I can’t believe you’re asking me about that! I love it!
We have John Cho, who’s America’s most likable actor, and I really did not want to damage his face that much because he’s so pleasant to look at that if we hit him on the broad side of the head ... the audience would [be] stressed out enough that I’m not calling the doctor because I’m so terrified. The whole movie’s a balancing act. I’m going to try to make you laugh, and then I’m going to try to maybe give you something to cry about.
How has Chicago influenced you as a comedic writer?
Chicago’s the best audience. You’ve got to work for it, but when you make them laugh, they love you. Most importantly, Chicagoans, more than anyone else, like to make fun of themselves. ... We make fun of each other. And I think that’s kind of the key to making satire.
Tell me about choosing Nora Dunn to play your mom.
I’ve been obsessed with Nora Dunn since I first saw her on SNL. Whenever I see her pop up in movies, I’m instantly happy, I get a little bit of a dopamine rush, and I always oddly thought we looked alike. I think we do a little bit maybe through the eyes...
You wear the director’s, writer’s and lead actor’s hats in this film. Is that a difficult balancing act?
It’s difficult. The thought of it was so appealing because as an actor you have to have a lot of filters — the writer’s filter, the director’s filter, the editor’s filter, so I knew I had some stuff in my head that I wanted to have unfiltered. Seth Rogen gave me some really good advice. He said, “When you’re directing yourself ... you need to give yourself more time.”
What conversation do you hope your film sparks at Thanksgiving tables around the country this year?
I hope that when people see this movie, they are entertained, but the greater message of the movie is, we have an obligation not just as Americans, but as mothers and sons and husbands and sisters to try our best to not let these outside influences permanently sever our family ties.
So I hope when people walk out of this movie they say that was funny, that was scary, and I’m going to call my brother tonight.