And then there’s the biggest, scariest one: Will you be happy?
As the working mom of a 10-year-old daughter, actor and filmmaker Alysia Reiner — best known for her role as prison administrator Natalie “Fig” Figueroa in the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” — is familiar with these questions. And as the star and co-producer of the new movie “Egg,” a snappy dramedy that examines the personal and societal pressures that shape how we see motherhood, Reiner hopes to make audiences think about those familiar queries in a different way.
Reiner and “Mad Men” alum Christina Hendricks portray Tina and Karen, two former art school friends who reconnect over a casual dinner with their spouses. The reunion comes at a fortuitous moment for both women: Each is expecting a baby.
And that’s about where their commonality ends. Tina (Reiner) is an eccentric artist and a rage-against-the-patriarchy feminist who, along with her husband Wayne (Gbenga Akinnagbe), has enlisted a surrogate (Anna Camp) to carry their child as part of an art project that she smugly describes as a “dismantling and restructuring of the traditional family unit.” Karen (Hendricks) is six months pregnant, content to be supported by her wealthy husband, Don (David Alan Basche, Reiner’s real-life husband), and quick to declare that she feels sorry for people who don’t have children. The ensuing collision of their disparate worldviews is every bit as messy — and ultimately revealing — as you might expect.
We spoke with Reiner about “Egg” and the importance of telling different stories about motherhood. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You mentioned that you first read this script many years ago, when you were still deciding whether to become a parent, and reread it years later after your daughter was born. Can you talk about the ways the story resonated with you at those different moments in your life?
A: When I first read it, I thought I had never read anything that said these things, and said them in such a smart way, and explored parenthood — not just motherhood, but parenthood — from all these different sides. Personally, I was at a moment where I had known my husband more than half my life, and everyone was asking us, “When are you having kids?” The pressure that women feel to be a mother — I don’t think most women ever ask themselves, “Is this something that I really want?” So when I first read the script, I felt like, “I think I do want to have a kid, but I don’t want to be part of this system that makes me assume that I have to want this.” And then when I read it again, years later as a mother of one, I was shocked yet again by how many people had mourned for the fact that I only had one child.
In both cases, the resonance was that feeling of “it’s never enough.” I’m not enough as a woman if I don’t have children, and I’m not enough of a woman even if I only have one child. And I think there is this cultural significance about how we serve that message to women as a way to keep them down.
Q: There are so many insecurities and judgments that surround parenting choices — what do you think this story tells us about how to find common ground?
A: That’s another thing I loved about this script — that it’s about friendship, too. How friends can make totally different choices but honor each other’s choices. In the end, there is a moment where Tina does not tell Karen’s secrets. And that’s huge, considering who Tina is. She decides that being right is not as important as Karen living her truth, whatever that is.
I remember thinking how excited I was to make a film about women who don’t believe the same thing, who respectfully agree to disagree, without judgment. Well, maybe they have judgment but at least they shut their mouths about it.
Q: These aren't necessarily characters that a lot of people will find relatable. Was that the idea, to make people think about their own reactions to perspectives outside their comfort zone?
A: One hundred percent. As filmmakers, we did not want people to necessarily identify with one character or feel like, “Oh my God, that’s me.” Our goal was to bring up some of the ways we as a society think about these things, and let people see their own beliefs and stereotypes in a new way. As an artist, I’m always curious, where are my blind spots? This story made me look more deeply at my preconceived notions about only children, being a mother of “just the one” and mother-daughter relationships in general. That’s what this film is about: Where are your blind spots, and are you ready to go there?
Q: In the wake of the Me Too and Time's Up movements, we're seeing a broader focus on gender inequality issues in Hollywood and beyond, and more interest and investment in telling stories that center on women. Are you hopeful that will continue?
A: I would say I am hesitantly optimistic. What’s so important is that it’s not just talk, but how do we create a new culture, how do we create systemic change? And I’m really glad that there is a lot of brains behind that, and a lot of passion and commitment behind that.
All stories that portray complex women are vital, and the parenting experience is one where we have a lot of work to do in portraying deeper layers, getting beyond our stereotypes and preconceived notions. It’s my hope we do that in “Egg.”
Q: What do you hope people — parents or not — will take away from this movie?
A: It’s my hope that people take away from it that what happiness is is the courage to both be deeply curious and to commit to what makes you — personally — happy, and to not fall into any other societal norm or pressure. And that happiness is unique to every human. And also that we have no clue what makes anybody else happy. If I can bring those messages to people in a meaningful way, and maybe make them laugh a little bit, too, that would bring me outrageous joy.
“Egg,” from screenwriter Risa Mickenberg and director Marianna Palka, premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and will be released in select theaters and online Jan. 18.