“It’s Not All About You Anymore”: Mike White, Ben Stiller and Austin Abrams Talk 'Brad’s Status'

Austin Abrams and Ben Stiller star in Brad's Status.
VVS Films
“Can I say what your dad said to me yesterday?” asks Ben Stiller.

 “Uh, sure?” Austin Abrams laughs nervously.

 “He said he told you that you could do whatever you want so long as you finished medical school.”

“That’s a joke,” the younger actor inserts before turning to the members of the press seated ’round the table. “They’re very supportive of what I’m doing.”

This candid moment between Stiller and Abrams at the Toronto International Film Festival is a fun illustration of two highlights of the new movie Brad’s Status. (Read the Cinemablographer review of Brad’s Status here.) For one, the exchange exemplifies the natural father/son relationship between Stiller and Abrams that makes the film so accessible. Secondly, Brad’s Status offers a universal truth as audiences see in Stiller’s Brad the inadequacies everyone feels while struggling to measure up the lives that we or that other people, like our parents, hoped we would lead.
Ben Stiller, Mike White, Jenna Fischer, and Austin Abrams at the TIFF premiere of Brad's Status
Rich Fury, Getty Images / TIFF

Stiller stars as Brad Sloan, a fortysomething father and founder of a non-profit start-up company who experiences a mild mid-life crisis when his son Troy (Abrams) readies for college. The film marks the sophomore directorial debut of Mike White (Year of the Dog) and is one of 12 films that premiered in TIFF’s prestigious Platform competition. (Read more on the Platform competition over at Paste.) The relationship between Stiller and Abrams forms the core of the film and it helps that White’s background as both an actor and director (as well as Stiller’s experience in both roles) ensured the performers were a natural fit.

“A lot of it was Mike choosing actors who were right for one another,” reflects Stiller when asked how he and Abrams developed their onscreen relationship. “In the casting process, we read a few guys and Mike and I talked about it. It was obvious that Austin was the first guy from the beginning…he just had an inner life going on.”
Ben Stiller and Austin Abrams in Brad's Status
VVS Films
White recalls feeling a spark of motivation while seeing Abrams’ audition. “That kid was just like a pot of gold. I felt like he was so natural,” agrees White. “He did a self-tape audition and when I saw that tape I was like, ‘Maybe we can make this movie. I think this could work.’”

Stiller and Abrams hit it off in the film, and their dynamic deepens the father/son relationship of the characters. “We both knew we wanted to make a full and real father-son relationship,” explains Stiller. “I don’t know if you can manufacture chemistry, but we did spend a lot of time together. We got in the car and took a road trip—two road trips, actually—and that helped. It also helps that Austin is so centred.”

Without missing a beat, Abrams returns the compliment. “It also helps that he’s…”

“…neurotic, screwed up,” laughs Stiller.

 “He was great and inclusive,” insists Abrams, defending his onscreen dad.
Ben Stiller on the TIFF red carpet for Brad's Status
Rich Fury, Getty Images / TIFF

White, who plays one of the four college buddies to whom Brad compares his modest success, says that working with a fellow actor/director helped Brad’s Status be more than just a star vehicle for Stiller. “He was totally menschy,” laughs White. “He’s so prepared as an actor and he understands storytelling. To have someone who really sees the role as part of a narrative and not just about the performance or the character, it’s unusual. It helps because when I’m talking to him, it’s not some abstraction of what the character is outside the narrative.”

Mike White
VVS Films
The same relationship—collaboration, seeing the bigger picture—echoes when one asks White about being an auteur, a label invited by the honour of being in Platform’s spotlight series. “As a creator, as time goes on, I’m less interested in thinking of myself in those terms,” White admits. “I think movies really are collaborative.” It’s a fair point from a writer behind one of the year’s most successful indies, Beatriz at Dinner, directed by Miguel Arteta, with whom White collaborated on The Good Girl, Enlightened and Chuck & Buck.

The actors also describe seeing the bigger picture while working out their scenes and getting a feel for what the other brought to the set. “I did feel like when we were doing it we were coming from very different places,” observes Stiller.” That’s good, but it did create that tension that you sometimes see in the scenes.”

 “I could definitely feel that and it felt strange at the time,” agrees Abrams.

“I remember the scene right before the interview where I tell [Austin] not to be so judgemental about the professor,” says Stiller, “and [he’s] like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I remember that scene being tense and a little method-y. But that’s natural because [Austin] was in [his] place and I was in my place.”

The sincerity of the relationship helps balance the tricky razor’s edge of tone that White dances in the film’s dark but honest comedy. Brad isn’t an easy guy to like as insecurities fly through his head at breakneck speeds, but he finds his redemption in finding satisfaction with his perfectly ordinary middle class life. “I get paid to rewrite scripts where you’re always flattering humanity,” White explains when asked about Stiller’s arc. “It feels pre-digested. For me, you hope that people recognize the human part of that. You see that he is a loving dad who is just distracted.”

Brad’s neurotic ramblings also make the character relatable—uncomfortably so—as his mind races with crippling self-doubts. “He represents that part of yourself that has insecurities and ego needs and comes up lacking in your own mind,” observes White. “I have that and I’m embarrassed by that side of myself, but I also feel like I want to have compassion for that person.”

As an up-and-comer, Abram agrees that it’s impossible to avoid comparing oneself to others. “I feel like all my friends who do what I do [act] feel that way.”

Brad imagines a fantasy life with sexy co-eds.
VVS Films
Stiller echoes the sentiments of his director and co-star while digressing into a bit that could easily be taken from White’s screenplay. “I have a friend who is a very successful movie director and producer and he does it all the time,” says Stiller, “but he says it all out loud. It’s just his personality.” The actor goes on to offer an impression of said producer griping into the phone about another filmmaker achieving Stars Wars-level success and a colleague raking in all the awards.

“He’s saying everything I think in my head all the time, except that he wears it on his sleeve,” adds Stiller. “I actually find it very endearing.” Brad might often be unlikable, but his journey is one of recognizing his faults and cautiously, awkwardly, letting go of them.

White circles the complexity of the character back to the present. The talking point for every film at the festival is, naturally, Trump, and how films, particularly comedies, reflect and engage with an increasingly frantic world in which middle class white guys like Brad feel alienated and disenfranchised, often through the neurotic ramblings crafted in their own heads. “While Brad is more of a do-gooder,” says White, “when he’s sitting in the Harvard room, he’s seeing it through the prism of his race and gender. He looks at the Harvard posters and it’s all white guys, then white guys and a few girls, and then the last one is a completely diverse group of kids. Some guys can be high-minded, but there’s an unconscious anxiety that creates. It’s not all about you anymore.”

Stiller, Abrams, and White all agree that audiences can take a lesson from Brad’s redemption and struggle with these anxieties that fly through their heads so long as they find balance. “I feel like everybody does it in life,” admits Stiller. “It’s just a matter of how much it affects you and how much you let it affect you, and what you do with those feelings.”

White puts the idea of measuring up and comparing oneself in relation to others in perspective with his own journey as a storyteller working multiple roles both film and television. “It’s easier right now in TV to tell the kinds of stories I want to tell, which is weird because I would have said the opposite ten years ago,” he says. “It’s so stratified now. Movies are either huge tent-poles or indie movies where you’re squeaking as many stars into on a shoestring budget.”
Mike White directing Brad's Status
VVS Films
Instead of fretting about like Brad might, White laughs and finds examples in his own body of work. “Like School of Rock,” he says. “I don’t think that would be easy to make now. I did a couple of weeks on The Emoji Movie, which got terrible reviews, but for me to work and make Beatriz at Dinner for basically no money…this is the movie they’re making,” he says, taking stock of the realities of the business that let an artist draw from one pool to support another.

“I’ve spent years trying to do School of Rock again—something that’s original and still a little commercial, but they [the studios] have all these reasons why it’s too expense and scary to try to make that,” White adds, demonstrating his own way of situating the "it's not about you anymore" philosophy to his work in a changing field. “Instead of trying to get the studios to mind a happy medium where I can deliver my sensibilities with a studio backing, it just feels like those days are over.” But with Brad’s Status communicating White’s sensibilities through a mind-wave that feels universal, and with Stiller’s career-best performance adding some extra appeal in a season that’s seen one studio sequel tank after another, a status update might be down the road.

Brad's Status opens in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal on Sept. 22.
It opens in additional cities Sept. 29

Read more on Brad’s Status in the Cinemablographer review 
and the TIFF Platform report at Paste.