Dianna Agron Talks Mayim Bialik, Naya Rivera, and Indie Filmmaking

Dianna Agron took television fans on an emotional ride playing complex popular girl, Quinn Fabray, on the hit television series “Glee,” which ran for seven seasons on FOX. The wildly popular show won multiple Emmy, Golden Globe, People’s Choice, and Teen Choice Awards during its tenure. Throughout the series, Dianna’s character portrayed a foray of teen girl issues, ranging from the common to the more dramatic. From cattiness and romance drama to matters of celibacy, teen pregnancy, and adoption; nothing was off the table. It speaks to Dianna’s depth and range as an actress.

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ince wrapping the show in 2015, Dianna has gone on to build her resume in films, including winner of this year’s Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award-winning film, “Shiva Baby,” and most recently, “As They Made Us,” starring Dianna, alongside Dustin Hoffman, Candice Bergen, and Simon Helberg, and written and directed by Mayim Bialik.Listen in on an insightful conversation with this thoughtful star…

How did the role of Abigail come about?

It was through my team. I immediately responded to the script and the character. There is a lot of personal truth to my life, and it was being expressed through this piece. Mayim and I had a Zoom chat, in which I felt that we connected deeply in our shared truths, but I had no idea if she felt I was going to be right for the part. Within the hour I had the call that I was receiving the offer, and it just felt like a complete whirlwind and a surprise. I made my manager tell me the news again, because I thought, perhaps, I had heard him wrong. It was very sweet.

The writing in this film is so good that you forget there is a script involved.

Yes. I think that is what I responded to as well—this very naturalistic feel. It felt very embedded in truth and an experience we kind of shared. We had a very strong open dialogue about grief, loss, love, and complicated relationships. Mayim had really incorporated in such a full spectrum of these emotions and how that works through individuals and a family, collectively. It did feel very real, and I obviously can speak personally about the elements that were very real for me. I think everybody brought their own truths to the table and incorporated those into their characters and into the story.

I can relate to it very much. I had a very complicated relationship with my dad, who is now living with us. It’s a strange thing, because I remember growing up, and especially in my teens and twenties, I thought, “I can’t wait to get away.” We were constantly bumping heads. Now it has kind of come full circle and my dad has become a much gentler person in his older years. I’ve become much more understanding of human nature as I have gotten older, so you kind of meet somewhere in the middle.

I can understand that completely.

On another note, you are Jewish, Mayim is Jewish, I’m also Jewish. We are not always portrayed accurately or reasonably in the media, whether in television or film. Like other minority groups, we are often made into caricatures. In “As They Made Us,” you see the complex humanity of a group of people and what ties it all together that goes across all people of all different groups. That was another thing I really enjoyed about this film. What is your opinion of how Jewish Americans are typically portrayed?

It’s interesting that you bring that up, because one of the things I loved so much about this storytelling is my character’s connection to her Judaism and how that is expressed with her young children as she is teaching them, and how that part of her family aspect is just very causally there. It’s just who they are, and it’s a part of her daily life. Obviously, there is a strong connection she has to it, but that’s not saying or doing so much. It’s just part of her character and part of her life.

I do think that sometimes Jewish storytelling as it shows up in media is much more specific about either the Holocaust, or you see it in “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—and this has been brought up and critiqued about Jews in film—where maybe one-half of the couple is Jewish, but the other one isn’t. There are just so many ways with how it is expressed in the media.

Not to say that anything is necessarily right or wrong. I think it’s project to project, but I did like that in this film, it was just an underlying element to who she was and that it just seemed so normal.

Not that the “Curb Your Enthusiasms” of the world are bad—I think they are great—but we need stuff like this too.

Yes, I think it does add to a balance. When I was promoting [the film] “Shiva Baby,” the whole film centers around one woman’s experience at a shiva, mourning somebody she kind of knows, and was brought to it by her parents. That was so interesting because everyone who was interviewing us about that film had said to us, “This is like my Italian family; this is like my Greek family,” and so on. We all come from different cultural backgrounds, but there are common truths to dynamics with family, friends, or communities that are so universal. It’s been nice to be part of both films and have that kind of storytelling be incorporated into my work.

Although the material of “As They Made Us” is heavy at times, there are some really funny moments.

Especially Candice [Bergen]—she made me laugh so consistently throughout filming. Her delivery is perfectly spot on. And she is not trying to be [funny]. Her character is really just expressing things how she sees fit, which is so funny, because I think it is very understandable that everyone grieves in a different way. Some people say things that are wildly inappropriate to the moment, and it just feels so real and honest.

Was there a funny moment on set you can share where you had to break the tension and just have some fun in between takes?

I can’t point to one exact moment, but I will say that every day we were experiencing this wealth
of storytelling because we would ask Candice and Dustin about specific projects or what growing
up in LA was like back then. They were just so generous and giving. I typically find that most actors love to share, on and off screen. It’s not one or the other, it usually is both. There were just many personal moments that they were sharing where you couldn’t believe that ‘the first director

I had was So-and-So,’ and the most famous line in that movie wasn’t originally there and it was just found on the last day of filming. It was so special to be able to really dig in and ask them anything that we wanted.

What is Mayim Bialik like as a director?

What was so obvious to me after our first chat was that she had already thought about this project and the characters in this world so thoroughly that we could have gone and made that film the next day. It was so obvious it was a story she could tell so beautifully.

She hired such a beautiful team of people that worked so well together. There was a feeling of ease, even though we were this kind of tiny but mighty crew. Independent filmmaking isn’t necessarily as glamorous or cushioned, but it is my preferred way to work. I love eliminating all the frills. It never felt like we weren’t able to accomplish our goals for the day, which was such a testament to how well-organized Mayim was, and how well-thought-out and planned every day of shooting was.

I loved watching Mayim’s reactions to things. I was always looking to her to see how she was experiencing what we were filming.

Some of the subject matter of this film was about dying and death. What is your take on that part of the human experience? Where do you think we go? What do you think death is all about?

I’ve been dealing with many years of my father’s own illness [Dianna’s father suffers from an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis] and watching that move through his body. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t imagine there is an enormous amount of time that we have left with him, which is really not what you would wish for at all, and very deeply sad. It has placed a lot of importance on the time that we have. He’s been sick more years of my life than he has been well. The way I have had to process that is that while I would have wanted the version of him I knew as a very young person to last much longer, I am so lucky to have experienced many other versions of him and still have access to him and connect with him.

It takes a toll in many different forms—your cognition, your physical health, etc. Death has been prevalent in my life because I’ve lost many people I have loved, and it always feels like it wasn’t the right time. I, unfortunately, lost many people when I was very young, and my father is very ill and only 66 years old. I pride myself in being very present in the moment with my family and my friends and knowing that your health and wellness are not guaranteed.

That centers me a lot. As [death] relates to everything on the Other Side, it’s not something I often think about, but I’m sure that will be more prevalent the older I get.

Soon we will be coming up on the two-year anniversary of Naya Rivera’s passing. Can you tell me what was unique about your friendship with her that was different from your other “Glee” castmates, or even from any other friendship in your life?

Naya was my first friend on set. We were quite isolated, because we weren’t involved in the entire pilot. We had our very brief moments in the pilot, and everybody else was very involved in the singing, dancing, and all the rehearsals. So, she was my point person and we kind of instilled each other with confidence in those moments. She was just very unique and special in the way she carried herself with such confidence and certainty. If she believed in something or in you as a person, she would always uplift those ideas. She was very, very strong in a way that I think I have adapted to moments in my own life that have been quite difficult. The adversity you can overcome if you experience it at a young age makes you more resilient. Naya had that strength in spades. Any strength that I had, she had 10 times more of it.

It was really inspiring and nurturing to be around. She was also wickedly funny and had the best comedic timing. She is one of the people I speak about when I say it’s so strange to think she is not here. She had years and years of love and gifts to give people, and I was so lucky to know her.

That is beautiful. What do you think you came into this life as Dianna Agron to learn, and what do you think you came here to teach?

Whoa, not an easy question! I feel particularly connected to storytelling. When I say that, I don’t mean as it relates to my job. I feel so connected to the human experience, and that is something that has always drawn me in.

I lived in a hotel when I was younger because my dad was the general manager of a few hotels, and I would witness and question… there was a complete, big world of people coming in and
out of my environment from everywhere in the world. As I started being able to travel more freely and explore different cultures and people, it is something that really interested me. I feel much better when I’m learning new things about new people and cultures. I think that has led to me also wanting to be a storyteller and connect with people on that level. I think that is something I can share and encourage in other people—to be really open minded and to look outside of their own worlds and communities. Go bigger and deeper to find something really meaningful.

Interesting. What is the best advice you have ever been given?

I don’t know if it is the best advice, but it was certainty very helpful to hear as it pertains to my life and my career. I had a colleague say to me, “This path of yours is not about what you say ‘yes’ to; it is more about what you say ‘no’ to. I think as you are receiving gifts, be it jobs, opportunities, etc., it can feel difficult to say no to something because you are so happy to be there and to be part of the conversation. I think being really honest with yourself about what serves you and how you can organize your time, when you really drop
into those truths, [means]so much more magic is available because you’re being so authentically yourself and you’re not compromising for other people.

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