'Infinitely Polar Bear' Director Relives Childhood With Mentally Ill Parent NPR's Audie Cornish talks with Maya Forbes and her daughter Imogene Wolodarsky about their new film, Infinitely Polar Bear. Forbes wrote and directed the fictionalized take on her own childhood.

'Infinitely Polar Bear' Director Relives Childhood With Mentally Ill Parent

'Infinitely Polar Bear' Director Relives Childhood With Mentally Ill Parent

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NPR's Audie Cornish talks with Maya Forbes and her daughter Imogene Wolodarsky about their new film, Infinitely Polar Bear. Forbes wrote and directed the fictionalized take on her own childhood.


What's it like to grow up with a parent with a mental illness and to be so young that you can't even get the name of that illness right? Writer and director Maya Forbes explores that in a new movie called "Infinitely Polar Bear." The name's a play on her father's bipolar disorder. He was brilliant but also a mess, and in the movie, he's played by the actor Mark Ruffalo.


MARK RUFFALO: (As Cameron) Well, needless to say, I didn't make it to my exam.

IMOGENE WOLODARSKY: (As Amelia) And they kicked you out for mission one exam?

RUFFALO: (As Cameron) No. The semester after that, I registered for 75 courses, and that's when they determined that I wasn't exactly Harvard material.

CORNISH: Actress Zoe Saldana plays the role of the mom struggling to keep the family afloat financially. After her husband recovers from a mental breakdown, she makes the difficult decision to go to business school and leave her daughters with their father. Director Maya Forbes relived this story in more ways than one. She cast her own daughter, Imogene, to play young Maya in the movie. What was harder was finding someone to play Mayas mother.

MAYA FORBES: It was suggested to me that if you - you could cast a wider net if you're willing to cast a white woman as the mother.

CORNISH: It was an odd request because Maya Forbes' mother is black. And while race is not central to the film, Forbes could not ignore it.

FORBES: I mean, that's just what it is to make a personal film. It was like, that's my mother, you know? I mean, that's my mother. It's a huge part of my experience. I can't imagine making this movie about my family and my mother coming to see it and a white actress is playing her. It would be just completely wrong. In terms of casting the kids, we were looking to cast a family that would look like a family. But my family looks very different. So my mother is black. She's a twin. She's very light-skinned. Her brother's dark-skinned, you know? So I have this sort of understanding of mixed-race families and black families, even, as being varied in how people look.

CORNISH: Now, Maya Forbes, this movie is in part based on your childhood. Your father dealt with what's now called bipolar disorder. And you've said that he started - he suffered a series of manic breakdowns when you were fairly young. What did you think was happening at the time? Like, how was this explained to you?

FORBES: Well, it was very confusing because I - he was - my father was around a lot and was a very fun figure, a dad who liked to do all kinds of fun things with you. So it kind of got amped up super fun, and then it went into a scarier place, which is what often happens with mania, I think. You can - you could sort of - for a moment, you're the pied piper and everyone's following you around, and that seems great. Even harder than that, often, was to see him on the other side after he'd been sedated - was a scarier thing even than seeing him manic because then he didn't seem like himself. He seemed sort of like a zombie.

CORNISH: And there are scenes in the movie where the kids and the mother in the movie, they actually visit the father character played by Mark Ruffalo in a hospital.


RUFFALO: (As Cameron) (Unintelligible), but I'm feeling much better.

WOLODARSKY: (As Amelia) You are?

ASHLEY AUFDERHEIDE: (As Faith) Your stomach is really big.

RUFFALO: (As Cameron) That's the medication they put me on. It doesn't hurt.

FORBES: Shooting that scene was very powerful for me because it just - I felt like I was right back in that moment where you'd go to visit him at the hospital. It was almost like a horror movie.

CORNISH: And Imogene, for you, how much of an understanding did you have in terms of what your mom grew up with?

WOLODARSKY: I really didn't know a lot about my - I think - my grandfather himself, so I think that was really powerful. And I really didn't know about the bipolar disorder. I didn't really know what it did to people.

FORBES: The day we shot that one scene in the hospital, I didn't really tell them what Mark was going to be like so that I think it was startling for them.

WOLODARSKY: It was definitely - it was shocking, yeah. He just wasn't himself. It didn't even seem like he was the character he was playing in the movie.

FORBES: No, it seemed like he was the character he was playing (laughter).

WOLODARSKY: No, I mean - no, but do you know what I mean?

FORBES: Yes, but I hear you. I know what you mean. I know what you mean. I'm just saying that he...

WOLODARSKY: He wasn't...

FORBES: Yes. But what you're saying is what I felt...


FORBES: ...As a child.

CORNISH: It's very weird for me (laughter) to hear you both talking about this, to hear this kind of echo of this experience. And what was it like for, Maya, to, like, relive this with someone who, you know, looks a lot like you - your daughter?

FORBES: (Laughter).

CORNISH: And Imogene, I'll have you answer this question after.

FORBES: Imogene, I always think - I feel Imogene is better at being me than I was.


FORBES: When you make a movie, it's a movie, and things change based on who you put in the movie. And so it's, you know, obviously not exactly your life, but I feel that I did learn a lot about my parents. And there were a lot of things that I appreciated a lot about my childhood.

CORNISH: You know, we get a glimpse of this parenting style when he's with the kids. And Imogene, can you describe a scene in the movie that actually made it seem fun to have that kind of parent in that moment?

WOLODARSKY: I think the scenes where Cam takes the kids - all of the kids, including his daughters and their friends - out on, like, a picnic day and he teaches them how to defend themselves and he shows them all the different things, I think that really showed how amazing it would be 'cause not all parents will do that. He just is kind of free. He's kind of like a kid himself.

CORNISH: Imogene, I imagine you might be reading through this script and at some point, kind of turn to your mom and say, they did what, you know, like where...


CORNISH: ...These moments that really just surprised you.

WOLODARSKY: I think I was just really surprised about the way they grew up because I live such a sheltered life in Los Angeles, and I have really supportive parents. And not that she didn't, but she just had a much harder life growing up with - in a crazy apartment, going to not-good schools. And before doing this, I don't even think I knew what that could be like.


RUFFALO: (As Cameron) I'm depressed.

WOLODARSKY: (As Amelia) Of course you are. Your dog ran away. Your family gives you just barely enough money to live off, and you annoy people.

RUFFALO: (As Cameron) You're leaving out my hemorrhoids.

AUFDERHEIDE: (As Faith) Where are you going?

WOLODARSKY: (As Amelia) I'm meeting Kim, Ali and Thurgood.

AUFDERHEIDE: (As Faith) Can I come?

WOLODARSKY: (As Amelia) I guess.

RUFFALO: (As Cameron) Can I come?

WOLODARSKY: (As Amelia) No, God. We're hanging out with our friends.

AUFDERHEIDE: (As Faith) Daddy, you can't hang out with kids. It's weird.

WOLODARSKY: (As Amelia) We need to have our own life, and you need to have yours.

CORNISH: And just to give people a glimpse, like, the apartment, sometimes, when the father is kind of in a good period, can be very clean and attractive and sort of artsy.


CORNISH: And when it - when he's on a kind of down cycle, it is mania.

FORBES: Yes the - on the edge of hoarding, I think. I mean, getting my father to throw anything away was pretty difficult. He was not trying to hide who he was, and he said, you don't have to hide the fact that I'm manic-depressive. You can tell people that's who I am. It's - explains a lot about your situation. And it what was - what was interesting about that is that coming out like that, not hiding, really got rid of the shame.

CORNISH: In the end, what did you want to show about how an illness like this can affect a family?

FORBES: It's very painful to love someone who is wrestling with either an addiction or a mental illness because you want the best for them. And it seems so hard, and it's frustrating. And you think they're going to get it together, and then they can't. And sometimes they do, and that's amazing. But that's, you know - it's sort of perilous. Anyway, I just wanted to write a really humane story about a family that is wrestling with this.

CORNISH: Director Maya Forbes, thank you for talking with us.

FORBES: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: And actress Imogene Wolodarsky, thank you for talking with us.

WOLODARSKY: Thank you for having us.

CORNISH: Maybe there'll be more projects between the two of you. What do you think, Imogene?

WOLODARSKY: Yeah, definitely.

FORBES: Oh, I hope so.

WOLODARSKY: I'd love to work with my mother again.

FORBES: I love to work with her. She's fantastic.

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