To stay awake, a new film directed by Jamie Sisley and starring Chrissy Metz, opened the 65th San Francisco Film Festival last week. The film follows a single mother, Michelle (played by Metz), and her two teenage sons, Ethan and Derek, as they navigate her prescription drug addiction.
To stay awake stands out for several reasons. It’s beautifully shot, honest and deeply personal to director Sisley. There are also no depictions of weight stigma in the film. Metz’s character navigates medical environments and treatment facilities without facing discrimination due to her size. In fact, Metz’s body isn’t the focus of the film at all. It’s important to understand that this is still a rare cultural moment when a larger character simply becomes an actor. Watching To stay awake felt like a much-wanted glimpse into the future of plus-size representation in film.
I spoke with Sisley about the character of Metz for this article.
“When I was looking for an actor to play Michelle, the biggest qualifier I was looking for was someone who would humanize that character. I feel like a lot of drug addicts are demonized. A lot of movies about drug addiction are about the drug addict, and often you come away with the feeling that drug addicts either choose to be who they are or are unscrupulous people. I have a really opposite experience with drug addicts. In my experience, drug addicts do not choose to be drug addicts. It’s a disease. I firmly believe that. My mother is an example. I don’t think my mom wants to struggle with addiction. With my mother, I see a lot of humanity in her and in the community around her. I wanted to show that in this film. Thinking about all of this, who could play against the trope of a drug addict? One of the first people that came to mind is Chrissy because she’s so friendly. One of his gifts is the quality of his relationships with people. People like her. I thought it helped serve his character. Besides that, she is a brilliant actress. I knew she would take this character and find a lot of nuance in it and she did.
When I asked Sisley if he wrote Michelle as a plus-size character, he said no. “I was just thinking who the best actor I could find is,” Sisley says. “Chrissy Metz was truly more than I could have dreamed of to take on this character.”
Sisley shared that in addition to bringing an immense amount of preparation to the role, Metz also added to the filming experience for everyone on set. “Once in a while, out of the blue, like, Chipotle would pop up just for the whole crew and it was always anonymous, nobody wanted to take credit for it but we all knew it was Chrissy,” recalls Sisley. “She would do little things to cheer everyone up, you know, in these indie movies, it’s so important to have that. It’s so important to have these little morale boosters for people who aren’t doing these things because they get paid a lot.
When I asked about choosing not to write weight stigma into the script, he replied, “There are a few themes in the movie that in previous stories would take up a lot of space or be focused on them. Something I really like about storytelling, if you approach certain topics in certain ways, then you normalize them. I think a lot of good can be done with a lot of movement when you just have people living and being who they are and not doing more in a story or a movie. I love it when storytellers don’t draw a lot of attention to aspects of life that shouldn’t be (drawn to attention). The more we see normalized people, the better.