Drug addiction in small-town America as portrayed in indie film is nothing new. Often exaggerated in ways that villainize substance abusers as people of low moral standards, rather than people who are suffering and in need of support, inaccurate portrayals can lead to stigma and ostracization. Jamie Sisley’s emotionally turbulent and compassionate debut feature Stay Awake takes a different tack, offering an alternate POV to the unbroken cycle of drug abuse and illustrating a key truth that’s rarely the focus in cinema: the rollercoaster ride that caregivers go on to help the ones they love through this seemingly incurable disease. After all, addiction doesn’t affect one person—it sucks everyone around it into its vortex. What does the last straw look like for caregivers, and what inspires them to prioritize themselves over their “responsibility” of an addict they’re unable to turn away from? Only the family that is giving care to a sick person knows what it goes through.

Sisley’s own experience growing up with an addict mother is at the heart of Stay Awake. 19-year-old Derek (Fin Argus) and 17-year-old Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) have endured quite a lot in their short lives. While navigating the pressures of teenage life, the brothers must also keep a watchful eye on their mother, Michelle (Chrissy Metz), who’s struggling with a debilitating pill addiction. It is a miserable routine, driving around town trying to find her after yet another relapse, and once found, it’s another trip to the emergency room with the promise to the boys that things will be different next time. There’s no mistaking that Michelle wants to get better for her sons, and yet, whenever she’s left alone with her thoughts, she can’t help but fall back into her old ways that give her some semblance of comfort. With Derek and Ethan’s futures coming into sharper focus and at stake, they must finally confront the increasingly crazy contortions the family goes through to keep it together.

Anthem recently sat down with Argus to discuss identity, addiction, and their creative journey.

Stay Awake opens at Film Forum in NYC on May 19 and at the Laemmle Royal in LA on May 25.

Hi, Fin. What are you up to?

I just got a haircut. I’m sitting here, waiting for it to dry. We’ll see how it looks by the end of this!

It looks great now!

What about you?

I just rewatched Stay Awake to jog my memory. I’d love to take you down memory lane: I was at the opening night screening of Stay Awake at the San Francisco Film Festival last year. It was at the historic Castro Theatre. Was that your first time seeing the finished film?

That wasn’t my first time seeing the film, but it was my first time seeing it on a theater screen.

What a venue to do it in. That theater is so stunning. You wouldn’t know it from the outside.

To be at the Castro Theatre was so exciting for me. I had been there a bit prior for a different screening so I had gotten to see it. I was just blown away by the drama of it all. It is stunning. And just to be in the Castro! Every time I go to San Francisco, I bee-line for the Castro, just to walk around and see some folks. I always have the best time. It was an honor to have Stay Awake have its North American premiere at the Castro Theatre. It’s a stunning space, but also, I just felt an emotional stake in it as well. Of course, I wasn’t present for all of the history that took place in San Francisco’s Castro District, but I do feel this emotional draw to it. Just knowing all that happened there, it makes it feel like this sacred place. That was such a beautiful night. I mean, even at the afterparty [inside the San Francisco Mint], there were rooms themed around Stay Awake. I wasn’t expecting any of that. I was really blown away by the entire experience and all the support we got from the people who attended the screening. It was a dream come true. 

I still remember the red number you wore that night with the cowboy details. It was striking.

I found that at the Silverlake Flea Market. I just stumbled upon that two-piece suit. And it was very small! It’s very tight on me. But I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to get it and I’m going to suck it in for the gods!” [laughs] I was really feeling the outfit for that specific occasion. I’ve only worn it once more since. It’s a very special occasion kind of getup. That was the time to do it. It was giving like the perfect amount of Americana. Yeah, I love that look, so thank you.

I have a distinct memory from that afterparty: you spent the entire evening talking to strangers. There was literally a line forming, and this wasn’t something that was arranged. It’s surprising, I guess, because you never see actors doing that, ever. That’s just who you are.

It’s interesting because I’m actually a very shy person. I don’t go out very much. But the thing about that environment was, there were so many people who were just passionate about the film. They were so kind and complimentary about the film. It was such a kind environment. I was excited to talk to everyone about their experience with the film festival and what they were looking forward to. It was really exciting to share that moment with the San Francisco community ‘cause I am so proud of Stay Awake and the entire team involved. We had been waiting so long to share it. I was just over the moon and, of course, thrilled to talk to everyone who came to the event.

Unfortunately, Jamie’s [Sisley] experience, being the caretaker to a loved one struggling with addiction issues, is not an uncommon one. This is real life stuff. I would imagine that people wanted to talk to you about that because it’s very likely they saw themselves in this story.

Yes, and I think what’s unique about Stay Awake is that you get to see a movie that has a big focus on struggling with addiction and substance abuse, but also, as the tagline states, it doesn’t vilify the addict, you know? It’s a very human and empathetic look at the experience of addiction. I think that’s what also encouraged people to be vulnerable about their own experiences. That’s the hope for this movie, and to let people know that, unfortunately, this isn’t uncommon. It is something that a lot of people have personal experience with. We’re not alone. There are resources available to help people who are experiencing addiction or help people who have loved ones experiencing addiction. It’s something that has personally affected me. So to be able to share that experience, it was giving me just as much as it might have given anyone I was having a conversation with that night. There was a sense of community and empathy that I hadn’t been so exposed to prior. It takes vulnerability to receive vulnerability. Everyone was very open and loving, and I’m really grateful.

I appreciated the film’s levity, too. It sort of echoes that sentiment: sometimes, all you can do is laugh. You, Wyatt [Oleff] and Chrissy [Metz], despite all of the messiness in your lives, are loving, so we’re never angry at you—we’re heartbroken. How did you guys build chemistry?

A lot of people have specifically mentioned how connected Ethan and Derek seemed as brothers after watching the movie, and that reflected real life. Wyatt and I felt like siblings from the get-go. We’re both from Chicago. We both have curly brown hair. [laughs] I don’t know, we just got along. We were making music together. Another thing is, the place where we stayed at was this cute little lodge in the Catskills so we were surrounded by creeks and trees and it kind of felt like we were away at summer camp. There was literally a bonfire every night where all the crew would hang out. There was so much camaraderie and it very much felt like we were all in this together. To this day, it’s my favorite on-set experience. I’m so proud of how this turned out and it really reflects the teamwork and the symbiosis I experienced working on the movie, especially with Wyatt and Chrissy. We were all at the same little corner of the lodge and we would hang out. It was a blast! I think that helped bring some levity to those scenes where it’s really dark because we did have this caring attitude for one another from the get-go. I’m glad that reads for other people on screen.

It totally translates to the screen. So Wyatt is the stand-in for Jamie, right? Did you ever get to meet Jamie’s older brother? Did you want to meet him, even if just out of sheer curiosity?

Well, the interesting thing about Ethan and Derek as characters is that neither of them are direct representations. There’s a lot of Jamie’s experience in both of them. So with a lot of the emotional experiences you see on screen, they’re not based on just one event or situation. These characters are very much fictional in that respect. And I did meet his brother, a wonderful human. We got to hang out up in the Catskills as well. I think getting to know both Jamie and his brother, and understanding their family dynamic more, enhanced the characters for me and Wyatt. I feel like the brother dynamic was the main focus, as opposed to making direct depictions of them individually.

Admittedly, I hadn’t known anything about you prior to watching Stay Awake. I had no idea. Now I see you as another beacon of hope, in your ability to be entirely, unapologetically yourself. I wonder if there was a time where you decided not to care about what anyone else thought about you. This isn’t some grand revelation, obviously, but so many people out there, out of fear or pressure or circumstance, live their entire lives in hiding, even from themselves.

First of all, I have an incredible community I depend on, and I’m really lucky to live in LA, which is a bubble, socially speaking. I’m surrounded by queerness. That part of myself has been very much supported since I moved here. But I did grow up in a very conservative environment where my queerness wasn’t seen as an asset as I knew it to be. It was viewed more as a detriment. Getting out of that headspace has been incredibly tough, especially being an actor and in the public eye. And I’m playing a cishet man majority of the time if you look back through my acting projects.

I don’t know what did it for me. I don’t know if there was a specific straw that broke the camel’s back. Ultimately, my health and happiness comes first. I know what I’m able to bring to the table. My skill level doesn’t change because I’m open about my queerness. I believe that my queerness in itself is an asset as a storyteller and as an actor because it’s helped me get more in touch with my emotions, my sensitivity and in being more honest with my own experience, which then translates to giving an honest performance as an actor. I think the more I’m in touch with myself, the more I allow myself to get in touch with these other characters and empathize with their experiences. That being said, I think lockdown was extremely helpful for me to sort of solidify my experience and identity and for no one else because I didn’t have that public perception. I wasn’t auditioning. I was at home saying to myself, “Okay, what is the most important to me?” At that point, I realized the thing that was most important to me was living with integrity and not subduing my truth for anyone or for any monetary reward. Frankly, there are less opportunities afforded to openly gay folks, statistically speaking. There are less characters. There was definitely this voice in my head that was saying, “If I’m open about my queerness, is that gonna inhibit me from financial security, etc?” I think a lot of people have that voice in their head, but I hit a point during lockdown where I said, “Well, it’s not worth it to subdue my truth and my experience because I know this to be true: my queerness is an asset and it helps me play characters, even if they’re a cishet man.” And that’s what you see in Stay Awake, which I filmed after I had very much become comfortable with my queerness in regards to sexuality and gender. I think because I had reached that level of confidence in myself, it allowed me to give an honest performance as Derek, and also to play a wide range of other characters going forward. I hope there will be more openly gay actors to normalize the fact that people can play any types of characters. We’re actors, we’re performers—that’s the job. It’s about playing a character that isn’t your song. I’m proud of all actors who are out and continue to persevere and play amazing characters and push the envelope. That’s the stuff that really excites me ‘cause I feel like people are superheroes in the creative space.

You started in entertainment at 12. What had you envisioned for yourself then?

I thought I was going to be a Broadway star. I started in musical theater so that was always my goal. It was my dream and it’s definitely still a dream of mine. I would love to get back into theater and do more work in musicals, or even a play. I love the theater experience. Obviously, I’ve adapted and my career has changed in ways that I couldn’t have predicted. But I also always wanted to be in a big fantasy movie. That’s a huge goal of mine, which I very much see as a possibility. Things have just changed a lot. When I was 12, I wasn’t in touch with my queerness so I definitely envisioned myself playing, you know, the male love interest of the girl and the alpha male type character because that’s what everyone told me was my path, whether that was in regards to acting or just life in general. I was being told what I was supposed to play. The more I thought about it and the more introspection I allowed myself to have, I realized that I’m capable of so much more than just that. I am more than just that. I’m excited to play characters that I didn’t even think was possible when I was 12: characters all along the gender spectrum, villains and heroes, and everything in-between. My mind and heart have opened up so much to the possibilities of what I’m capable of as an actor.

I’d like to share this quote from Jamie with you: “Today, I feel like I lost some time with my mom because I didn’t really understand the issue.” Even he didn’t always understand addiction as a disease, and we’re so used to seeing these kinds of stories from the POV of the addict and not the caretakers. Jamie made the film he probably needed to see himself back when. This film is like a gift to the world, and with Derek, you’re making the same gesture.

Thank you so much. I feel the same way about Stay Awake. I think it’s a paradigm shift that it lets people in on the truth that addiction is a disease and people who are experiencing it are not malicious. They need help, and it’s a very nuanced and difficult situation. I hope that everyone who is either experiencing addiction or loves someone who’s experiencing addiction finds a sensible community in this film. There is hope. And you can set boundaries and put your health first. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. Life is difficult and we all just need to come together and love one another. We’re really glad that Stay Awake can have that effect and share that important message.

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