The Breakup

Published January 29, 2015

ABOVE: SIMON HELBERG AND MELANIE LYNSKEY IN WE’LL NEVER HAVE PARIS. PHOTO COURTESY OF ORION RELEASING.

If Simon Helberg’s We’ll Never Have Paris seems unbelievable, it’s probably because it’s based on a true story: Helberg’s own breakup and reunion with his now wife, Jocelyn Towne. “I wanted to challenge the world to see if there was anybody who had any more disastrous, horrific, clumsy breakup and proposal stories,” jokes Helberg. “So far I think I’m winning.”

Directed by Towne, the film features a rather impressive cast including Alfred Molina, Zachary Quinto, and indie MVP Melanie Lynskey. Helberg plays the lead, a version of himself. Although he’s been acting since 2001 when he guest-starred on subversive teen shows like Popular and Undeclared, and is currently on the most popular show on television, The Big Bang Theory, We’ll Never Have Paris marks Helberg’s debut feature as a screenwriter.

SIMON HELBERG: We have a buffer between us. We can only chat with a lady quietly hiding out on the other end.

ZACHARY QUINTO: Our only conversations are mitigated by others.

HELBERG: It helps—if we run out of stuff to say, she will be there. How’s New York? Are you in New York right now?

QUINTO: Hey, hey, hey. I’m interviewing you here buddy, okay?

HELBERG: Okay. So ask me where I am.

QUINTO: New York’s great. Where are you?

HELBERG: I’m in Los Angeles; it’s even better than New York, your little city.

QUINTO: That’s debatable. Are you working right now?

HELBERG: No, I’m on Christmas break and I’m actually driving, because that’s all you do in Los Angeles. The city’s about to empty out and be amazing. Right now it’s more like the evacuation part.

QUNITO: That’s good. I miss it. I left so abruptly. We knew each other a little bit before We’ll Never Have Paris but only in acting, right? Do you remember the first time we met?

HELBERG: Couldn’t forget it! The question is, do you remember the first time? Because I met you briefly at a bar in New York just like passing by and I think you were shooting Heroes.

QUNITO: Oh yeah!

HELBERG: It was a brief moment of, “Oh, hey! You’re on a show, and I’m on a show.”

QUNITO: And then we became much closer friends obviously when we worked together.  

HELBERG: It was easier. We were sober and we were in tight quarters. No, it was cool. We basically wanted you to be in our movie because we thought you were fantastic and we hadn’t really gotten to see you do this kind of role. And then we kind of stalked you slightly and forced a meeting with you.

QUNITO: I remember being so impressed with you guys and feeling like you had such a clear vision of what you wanted to make. I’ve heard that you were really into karate when you were a child. Is that true?

HELBERG: Yes, I was more than into it. I was proficient and successful.

QUINTO: You were a black belt at the age of nine?

HELBERG: That is true. I saw The Karate Kid, like most of us did when we were young, and I thought, “That’s it, that’s what I need to do!” At five, I went to this studio. I grew up in L.A., so it was on Sunset Strip. It sounds funny; you’d expect Steven Adler to be hanging out and doing karate reeking of booze or something, but it was actually somewhat civilized—it wasn’t hung-over rockers. It was a bunch of guys from New Jersey who started this studio out here and they didn’t have any children—they didn’t allow kids in the classes. Much like I forced my way into your life, I forced my way into the lives of these weird Jersey karate masters. They eventually opened up the whole studio and started having kids classes and all that, but I was the first. I took classes six days a week. It was a wonderful source of discipline. I can’t say that I would win in any fights with any normal sized person, but I did learn a lot.

QUINTO: So could you kick some ass today? Do you ever practice anymore?

HELBERG: I think I’d be fast at recognizing confrontation and then running away. I did break boards, but I feel like it wasn’t as practical as something like jiu-jitsu where you can pinch someone’s ear and they go into a coma or something. I did take other things later—I took Capoeira in the last five, six years. It’s like this Brazilian dance fighting.

QUINTO: I know it; I was into it when I was in my mid 20s. It was the kind of thing where I was like, “I wish I had started this as a teenager,” because it’s so cool but I didn’t the physical capacity. You mentioned you grew up in L.A. Your dad is an actor, is your mom also an actor?

HELBERG: My mom is a casting director, which is pretty awesome. It’s a good combo, an actor and a casting director—you’ve married in the right circle. I grew up around the business quite a bit; I saw a little bit of the underbelly of it. My dad was one of the original members of the Groundlings and I watched him as an actor have ups and downs, and I watched my mom as a casting director have ups and downs. Eventually my parents started writing television together. So I watched a more realistic version of the business. It didn’t make me decide to go into it without a lot of tossing and turning. I saw how hard it could me. And my parents weren’t like, “Oh yeah! This is a family business!” They were like, “No, don’t do it. Or go to school. Maybe you could minor in being a doctor…” But I was really into music, and I played jazz piano. So that was my backup, being a jazz pianist if this acting thing doesn’t work out, which doesn’t instill a lot of security.

I know you studied acting too. I think there’s a whole crew of people who come to L.A. to win the lottery [without studying]. It’s not to say that they’re not as talented as people who went to school, but you do find a lot of people who are like, “Hey, I think I can do this thing!” without the right reasons or right experience. I do feel very happy that I got to study. I actually didn’t finish NYU, I would have, but I was lucky enough to get my foot in the door before I graduated.

QUINTO: What was the first audition? You were in school, and then what happened—you got a job?

HELBERG: Well, it was a series of events but then it all sort of led to nothing—it led to me not being in school and not having a job. I was in L.A. for the summer. I’d done two years at NYU and was getting ready to go back for a third year. A friend of mine had a manager, and there were a couple of things that my friend had got in on—Judd Apatow’s show called Undeclared and this Steve Martin-produced sketch comedy show. Both were pilots. My friend told the manager, and the manager got me to audition for both of those things. I was doing a one-act play also at the time, so she came to see that to see if I could speak and walk at the same time. Then it was a whirlwind. I got very nice feedback from the [Undeclared] casting director Allison Jones. She was like, “You need to meet Judd. Do you have an agent?” and made a call. By the end of that week I was meeting with Judd and I had Endeavor, which is now WME, as my agent. I was hosting at a restaurant and I was on the brink of getting both of those shows—I went in multiple times and they were like, “You’re really one of the top three guys.” I was like, “I’m staying home from school,” and I didn’t get the jobs. I worked as a host for a few months and then Judd called me personally and said, “I wrote you a part in Undeclared.” I began working from that moment on.

QUINTO: Really?

HELBERG: As you know, if you get one out of a thousand auditions, you’re working. And I did have many, many auditions, and I felt the rejection deeply, because you don’t get most of them. But I was lucky enough to get enough of them that I could move out, and I realized that I was as actually working. How about you? You went to Carnegie Mellon, right?

QUINTO: Yeah. I graduated and moved to L.A. kind of unexpectedly. I had a very traditional, and similar, actor’s journey when I moved there. I waited tables for, like, a year, and then I got a pilot. I was like, “Fuck you, waiting tables!” and the pilot didn’t get picked up.

HELBERG: [laughs]

QUINTO: So then I sort of cobbled it together—guest stars here and things there. I got what was supposed to be a recurring role on Six Feet Under. That was, for me, a moment. I’d always wanted to be on that show—I’d always loved that show. It ended up being one day of work and half of the scene, but it was a moment where I was like, “Alright if I’m going do this then I’ve got to really do this.” Then I did 24. Like you were saying, it sort of sneaks up on you and you land on something like your show [The Big Bang Theory]. For you at that point, did you align that experience with other experiences you’d had, or did you know early on that there was something about this that was really going to take off?

HELBERG: People ask that, and I’m always like, “No way!” I did not know anything about what this would be. First of all, I would be somewhat of a megalomaniac if I was sitting there all the time like, “This is going to be the greatest, biggest show of all time and I will be part of this.” That’s kind of a weird, unrealistic way to live and it doesn’t really serve anything. I wasn’t pessimistic, but I had done probably six pilots and they didn’t get picked up and at that moment I was doing Studio 60, which supposed to be the biggest thing in the world and that pedigree of people was absolutely crazy. I turned down The Big Bang Theory audition because it thought, “How can this Aaron Sorkin show with this group of people fail in any way?” Even though I wasn’t doing particularly well at any point [and I wasn’t a regular], I was kind of hanging on and didn’t want to waste anybody’s time and didn’t want Aaron Sorkin to be mad. Eventually I wrote a letter to Aaron and he said, “You have my blessing.” Although he fucked with me a little before he said that. When we shot it I felt that something did actually happen. I know that sounds a little cheesy, but there was something that night where I was like, “Okay, I’ve never experienced anything like this in any kind of pilot or any kind live experience. We’re doing a show, the audience is meeting us for the first time, but they already are cheering for us.” It was a bizarre feeling. And that was the second time they had shot Big Bang, I wasn’t in the first one. So in some ways, it was the moment that I stopped caring: If I can do a pilot a year, I can survive financially and I’d be lucky and one day maybe something will happen. Did you ever have a sense? I guess with Star Trek you probably were like, “Okay. This is J.J. Abrams…”

QUINTO: Yeah, at that point I had just done the Heroes first season and then I got Star Trek so I was trying to wrap my mind around the experience. It was this crazy one-two punch situation. That was a specific and unique year. The thing that happened for you, has it changed your experience? Was that part of the impetus to write We’ll Never Have Paris? How many season’s has Big Bang been? Eight? Nine?

HELBERG: Eight.

QUINTO: And you guys just signed on for how many more?

HELBERG: Through 10.

QUINTO:  Has it been only enjoyable? Have there been challenges you didn’t anticipate? Has it ever been something that you had to work against?

HELBERG: I wanted to ask you the same thing, because we’ve both ended up being a part of very iconic shows or stories or characters. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But yeah, there are certain ways that it ties you down, or pigeonholes you, or stereotypes you. I’m guilty of doing it, and I’m an actor. I look at actors, and I know what actors can do, and I will look at somebody and limit them in my head. You don’t think of everybody being versatile. For We’ll Never Have Paris, the impetus—aside wanting to tell this story that is almost so unbelievable that I don’t know if I’ll believe it unless I write it down. Telling the story of your breakup with your wife, it’s a rare kind of opportunity. Even though now we are together in a happier place. But I also wanted to act. I wanted to play somebody who I don’t play on TV, somebody that’s based on who I am or who I was. So I did it selfishly. I felt I needed to do that to break through where I am on TV. What do you feel like? How much have you had to fight certain things, or how much has it opened doors?

QUINTO: It’s such an interesting path. Spock the character—literally, they’ve done studies—and it’s one of the three most recognizable characters in our modern world, it’s like Mickey Mouse. So there was this strange imbalance that comes with stepping into that but, at the same time, it’s been incredible because it’s actually forced me to be specific about what else I want to do. The thing that you never really consider as an actor is that with success comes perception; with exposure comes association. When you’re hosting at a restaurant, it’s not something that you’re really concerned with because you want to work and you want to provide for yourself. So when you’re up against those things, that’s when it becomes about what you want to define. In my case, it takes really working to diversify as much as I can. That’s why I wondered about the 10 seasons of the show —Heroes was a good launching point for me and then Star Trek took over, but Heroes only lasted four seasons and I do one Trek movie every five years. I’ve been able to pepper other things in, and my production company. Between you [and your wife], was it part of a catharsis, this thing? To make the decision to fictionalize [your relationship], or to put it into a narrative form, what was that like for you? 

HELBERG: I think it became cathartic. I think it might have been some lingering perverse masochism leftover from those days of poor decision-making. In my mid 20s I had essentially a quarter-life crisis, which I think many people have. I hit the self-destruct button. I had a wonderful girlfriend and I thought, “Hey, I know should I get married, but should I? I am going to sew my oats.” And then I realized I couldn’t sew even one oat, and then I came crawling back, tried to repair everything and she had fled to Paris and by that point had met a guy. It was this whole absurd story and throughout it I had compulsively confessed things that I had done, or thought. It was horrible and it climaxed with an even more pitiful proposal. The epilogue to that was that it would make a great movie. I told Jocelyn, “All these people think I should make this movie and they want to be a part of it” and she was like, “Are you kidding me? I haven’t even told my parents this story yet because it’s that embarrassing.”  There was a moment where I took the chance and sat down and wrote it. I thought,  “I want Jocelyn to read it first and tell me if she’ll still be married to me after this,” and she thought it was hilarious and I knew that was the toughest audience I’d ever have. It also became more and more removed from reality—there’s a lot of stuff that I expanded on and fictionalized it to make it a good movie. But it felt cathartic and it was definitely an unusual circumstance to relive these emotionally awful, draining, embarrassing moments that we went through.

WE’LL NEVER HAVE PARIS IS OUT NOW IN LIMITED RELEASE.