In the intense, intimate drama “The Other Half,” Nickie (Tom Cullen) is coping with his grief after his brother disappeared five years ago. His mood improves when he meets Emily (Tatiana Maslany), a free-spirited young woman. However, it is soon revealed that she has Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder (RCBD). The couple fall in love and navigates their relationship, which has its ups and downs as each confronts crises. One scene has Emily’s father Jacob (Henry Czerny) trying to calm his daughter down during one of her episodes; another dinner scene shows the fraught relationship between Emily and her parents, especially as Jacob expresses his growing concerns about his daughter’s fragility. Nickie’s relationship with his parents is equally fraught.
What distinguishes “The Other Half” is that it totally immerses audiences in Emily and Nickie’s relationship. Writer/director Joey Klein eschews a narrative arc for a more observational approach to depicting the lovers. It is one that will allow audience to engage with the characters and their situations on an entirely personal level.
Maslany gives a strong performance as Emily, and Cullen nicely underplays his role. The couple, who are dating in real-life, chatted with Salon about making “The Other Half” and playing emotionally fragile people.
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As the film opens, Nickie is pretty intense, bumping into people and starting fights. One stranger even asks him, “Dude, what’s the matter with you?” How did you find Nickie’s grief, his anger, and his ease to start a fight?
CULLEN: I think the shorthand for Nickie’s grief is PTSD. He has, after this period of his brother [disappearing] with no conclusion, put his life basically on pause. He’s in a place of deep anger and despair and regression. He has no output or skills to relieve himself of this pain and burden. He’s angry against the world for all the injustice that has been laid upon him and his family and it manifests in him in an ugly way. He wants to destroy himself and the world.
It was an intense thing to go through and I had a bereavement myself not long before we started shooting. The day after my friend died, I recall getting on the tube and I was angry that everyone was carrying on their lives and they didn’t know someone amazing had gone. These people didn’t know, and I used that and understood that and developed it.
Nickie’s wardrobe is a representation of that. His shirts feature animals that prey on others. He’s scared little boy who is struggling to deal with his pain so he tells everyone to go fuck themselves by wearing these aggressive clothes. He’s a guy in need of understanding and acceptance.
Emily explains that she “get the jitters” sometimes. How did you calibrate her mood swings, and what research did you do on Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder?
MASLANY: Joey [Klein, the director] had been writing the film for about 10 years and I came into it five years ago. I was taken by the unromantic exploration of her mental illness. It was not vilified or romanticized. It was true and unadorned and that was an honest way to explore it. Joey did research and gave me books and we spoke to psychiatrists about going through life with bipolar disorder and how it affects relationships, intimacy and love. Then it was about making sure, clinically, we had it all correct, but also that Emily ‘s experience was specific to her; it’s not representative of all. It’s not cutesy. It’s just something she deals with everyday.
There is a concern expressed in the film “I’m bad for you.” What do you think made these two characters good for each other?
MASLANY: I don’t know. I feel that every relationship is like Emily’s and Nickie’s where the intimacy is dangerous. You end up revealing the part of yourself that is not the nicest; you are the truest with your partner. You are vulnerable. So it’s about accepting the wholeness of who they are. Nickie, as angry as he is, needs understanding, and Emily is dealing with a mood disorder that alienates people, and she needs acceptance and that’s what they give each other.
CULLEN: I think the film is hopeful as they recognize each other in each other. There’s an emptiness to them, I call it “a hole in their stomach,” that needs filling, and they are surrounded by people who want to save them. Maybe they don’t need saving — they just need to be heard. That’s what Joey’s doing; he’s shining a light, allowing these people to be heard in their truest and [most] honest form.
Nickie shadowboxes and Emily paints. What do you do to fight your depression and anxiety?
CULLEN: I’m still trying to figure that out. All my male friends, we are in our 30s, and we realize that when we are stressed, the patriarchy is saying we shouldn’t talk or share, so I am trying to learn to share when I’m feeling anxious, which goes against what I’ve been taught
MASLANY: Dancing is helpful. A good dance to rap or hip-hop, anything that takes me out of my head and into my body so I don’t have to listen to myself.
Both characters have complicated relationships with their parents. How did you read their dynamics?
MASLANY: Emily’s parents treat her with kid gloves and define her by her illness. The focus is only about her illness and she’s not getting better, and she can’t or shouldn’t do these things. Her fight is defying them — [saying] “I can live and function and I am more than my illness.”
CULLEN: Nickie is projecting his grief on to his parents. His stuntedness is stopping him from communicating with his father. Nickie would rather not be on the planet, but he’s staying because he doesn’t want his parents to lose another child. But he can’t face them, and runs away and runs away. It’s more about himself than them. “It’s not you it’s me!”
What thoughts do you have about the film’s observational narrative approach? It creates a stronger impression of the life between these two lovers.
CULLEN: That’s what we set out to do. Films try to package and tie-up relationships in a nice present we can all digest. That’s not what life is like. Every one of us is trying to work through something. We’re all fucked up. There is no happy ending. There is a series of events and highs and lows and these two people in this moment and time are trying to forge a good life together and there’s hope and beauty in their human ability to regenerate and recover and support and carry on and I feel it’s an honest portrait of a relationship. One I can relate to.
MASLANY: It allows for people’s interpretation to see their love and if there is hope at the end, or if it’s not healthy. Everyone has a different perspective. That’s what we hope for. We know they have to deal with this the rest of our their lives. There is no conclusion, it doesn’t tell us what to think.
What can you say about making a film like this with your off-screen partner?
MASLANY: It was scary in thinking about it, but doing the film together was the biggest joy in my career. I love him as an actor and a person and he knows me so well and sharing these raw moments in this total safety net made the work fulfilling an rewarding and not easy but joyful. I was encouraged and supported by him.
CULLEN: Acting is such a part of our lives. On an individual level, it was a pleasure to share it, and to work with Tat who is at the top of her game. I like to work with people who are better than me, I learn so much. It’s a challenge and it’s a privilege to make stories with your friends. It’s extraordinary to have the love and honesty.