Beautiful Boy: An Interview with Nic Sheff

By John Lavitt 10/12/18

Nic Sheff: A really cool expression of the family bond in the film is how the love survives everything that the disease can throw at it. Despite so much trauma, at the very end, you see that that core love never goes away.

Movie poster for "Beautiful Boy" with Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet as Nic Sheff
The movie stars Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell as Nic Sheff and his father, David Sheff.

The journey from addiction to recovery is a personal one, with details usually confined to family, friends, and maybe a therapist’s office or sobriety fellowship. But what happens when you open the doors to the public, laying bare the trials and triumphs that got you to this point? Since the publication of his father’s award-winning memoir, Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction, his own memoir, Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, and his writing for The Fix and other publications, Nic Sheff’s experiences with addiction and his subsequent recovery have played out under the public’s gaze.

Now, with the Amazon Studios release of the feature film Beautiful Boy on October 12th (in limited release; nationwide on November 9th), Nic Sheff is going to experience a whole new level of recognition and fame. Although anonymity may be a thing of the past, Nic remains dedicated to his personal recovery and the principles of a healthy program.

The Fix: How did you and your father decide to initiate and move forward with the movie project? Was it agreed upon from the beginning that your book and his book would be turned into a combined film if successful? How did you go about deciding to combine Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines with the Beautiful Boy story, or was this choice made by the filmmakers?

Nic Sheff: We always thought the best idea was to combine the two books. Right after publication, we met with Jeremy Kleiner, a producer with Plan B Productions, and this is before the company had won two Academy Awards for producing 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight. They were just starting out, but when we sat down with him over dinner, I just felt that he got what we were trying to do with the books. Also, we had a friend in common who had been a heroin addict and had died due to this disease. It gave us an immediate emotional connection.

You have to realize that there have been so many movies about addiction that show the downward spiral of a person as the drugs overtake their life. Many of these films show these people hitting bottom, then end with them dying or getting into rehab and ending on a hopeful note. Although there have been some great movies like that, our idea was to do something different. We wanted to show the effect the addiction has on the family because my Dad had written about it so amazingly in Beautiful Boy. We wanted to combine the family narrative with the addiction narrative.

Along with that combination, we wanted to show a process that so many people experience when they first try to get sober — the cycle of relapse caused by the pain of being without the drugs and having to face your feelings. When the pain comes, we reach out to the one thing that we know has kind of made us happy for so long, and we end up relapsing. As soon as we take the drugs again, they immediately take hold, and we can’t stop. I felt that process of relapsing had never been depicted in films. We wanted a movie that shows how hard it is to get out of that cycle. Ultimately, the answer, if there is an answer, is that there is a love that exists within a family, and that love never goes away. The ending of the movie doesn’t tie up the story with a bow, but it does emphasize that that love is still there. It will never go away. I know that is not true in all cases, but it was true in our story. As a result, I thought it was a really powerful way to end the story.

Nic Sheff
Image Credit: Reed Hutchinson for UCLA Friends of Semel

In an interview with Variety, Timothée Chalamet said about first meeting you, “It was all trepidation on my part — nerves and anxiety — which was immediately settled by [the] extraordinarily warm and kind and intelligent and wise person that Nic is, that is innate to him but also through his experiences and his life.” What was it like for you to meet the actor that would play you and tell your most deeply personal story on film? What do you think stands out about his portrayal of you?

God, that is so sweet of him to say that about me. He’s such a sweet guy. I must admit that I wasn’t familiar with Timothée’s work when we first met at a coffee shop. As soon as he came in, I saw that he has this incredible energy and passion for his work. Sure, I could tell that he was nervous about meeting me, but he also was just so committed to getting it right. I immediately felt comfortable with him because I knew he was coming to the role with a very open mind. He wanted to make his portrayal of this young person struggling with addiction as honest and as authentic as possible. He was so willing to learn in an active way.

He asked me a million questions about everything from the emotions I was feeling to the physicality of what it actually looks like to be high on these drugs and what it looks like to be detoxing from these drugs. There’s something really amazing that Timothée does in the movie. It’s something I feel that I’ve not ever seen in a movie about addiction before. Even as he’s in the trenches and high and doing these unconscionable things like breaking into his parents’ house and stealing from his little brother and sister – at the very moments when he’s being volatile and angry and out of control – he conveys this self-awareness that he doesn’t want to be this person and he doesn’t want to be taking these actions. It seems like his body is almost possessed.

As a performer, Timothée was able to hold those two contradictory elements at once. He really expresses that sense of being trapped in the addiction and the behavior. At the same time, you see him fighting to hold onto who he was before the addiction took over; you can see how much guilt and shame he feels about everything he is doing, even while he is doing it. I thought that was so remarkable because it was exactly how I felt when I was out there. I saw myself doing these behaviors, and I was so horrified at myself, but I couldn’t stop. Indeed, that feeling of powerlessness is so devastating. It’s at the heart of the disease, and to see it captured so well on film I thought was truly remarkable.

At the Colorado Health Symposium in August, you talk about how watching the movie makes you feel so grateful because it’s such an amazing reminder of the miracle of recovery. Is gratitude the very heart of your recovery?

Absolutely. Although I know the film wasn’t made for this reason, I felt that the filmmakers gave me such an incredible gift by making this movie. It is such a visceral reminder of everything we went through as a family. It’s such a great help for me because I’m still very much involved in recovery. It’s a big part of my life every single day. In some ways, however, I have moved on. I write for television now, and I am doing things that aren’t necessarily connected to telling my story and writing about addiction. Seeing the movie, seeing my life reflected back to me, it hit home in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I felt again on a very deep level what an incredible miracle it is that I survived and how much came back to me. My family and I have such a close relationship, and it’s beyond anything I ever thought possible. It makes me so grateful.

Every day, gratitude is such an essential part of my existence. Battling this disease, I have gone through such hell that coming out the other side is something I need to acknowledge on a daily basis. I try to be grateful and to express my gratitude. The amazing thing about being sober is how you learn to appreciate and love the simple moments of life. I am so grateful to be able to go out on a walk with my dogs or go out to dinner with my wife. The little things are so sweet like just watching a movie. Gratitude is a gift of sobriety that I keep close to me. 

Like you, I first tried drugs when I was eleven years old, smoking pot. Although I didn’t develop a problem until high school, I know my eyes were opened to that feeling of escape. It felt like an answer. Did you feel this way as well? Do you believe the movie effectively highlights the real dangers of early drug use?

Yes, I felt that way exactly when I first smoked pot when I was eleven. I felt this very immediate sense of relief. Up until that point, I had felt so insecure and uncomfortable in my own skin. I just didn’t fit in anywhere. Smoking pot for the first time felt like the first real answer that I had ever found. I kept turning to drugs to cope with everything from success to failure to shyness and everything in between. Thus, when I wasn’t using, I really developed no skills to handle what life threw at me. I kept going back to the drugs because they were the only coping mechanism that I’d ever learned.

In the movie, I do think we show that relapse is not about having a good time. Most people think addicts relapse because they want to keep the party going. They think we are enamored with this fast-paced life. In my experience, I was just in a tremendous amount of pain, and I kept reaching out to the drugs to try to feel better. I really see that theme well-expressed in the movie. Every time Timothée relapses, it’s because he’s in pain. He doesn’t want to relapse, but he can’t stop himself. He does not know how to break that cycle.

For example, there’s a scene in the movie where Timothée and Steve are smoking pot together. Timothée is in high school, and he’s convinced his Dad to smoke pot with him. In the scene, you see that the Dad is trying so hard to connect with his son on a personal level. He believes that smoking pot with his son might help connect them. However, for the son, he’s already in his disease. All he can focus on is the drug. In that scene, we see how he keeps bringing the topic back to the drugs, and he wants to hear about the other drugs his Dad is doing or has done. He wants ammunition so he can feel justified about his using, and he wants to be exonerated in the process from his feelings of guilt. He doesn’t care about connecting; he cares about what his disease wants him to care about. He’s so obviously obsessed with the drug. I definitely felt like I hadn’t seen anything like that before.

Dr. Gabor Maté writes, “The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.” What does that quote mean to you? Do you agree with him? Is treating the underlying trauma behind the addiction the key to long-term sobriety?

I think that quote is amazing. It makes me remember my last treatment center. When I got there, they asked, “Why are you here?” I replied, “Because I am an addict, and I can’t stop using meth and heroin.” They said, “That’s not the reason that you’re here. It’s not because of the drugs. It’s because of the feelings that were making you use the drugs.”

I knew right away how true that was for me. As I said, I was in a lot of pain growing up, and drugs were the one thing that I found that made that feel better. I’m sure it’s different for many people, and I am not an expert in addiction. I am just sharing my own experience. It definitely was super helpful for me to start exploring and treating that underlying pain behind the addiction. Some of it was just chemical. Going on antidepressants helped at first, then I was diagnosed as bipolar. Now I am on lithium for the bipolar disorder. All of that stuff helped to address that pain and break the cycle.

To me, recovery is like trying to put together this puzzle. There are all these different puzzle pieces. They are not the same for everyone, but for me, those puzzle pieces have been therapy, medication, fellowship, and 12-step. All of these puzzle pieces come together to allow me to stay sober, and they are all really important. However, they are different for everybody. I wish there was one solution that worked for all people, but unfortunately, that’s not the case.

In Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, you write, “There is this crazy fear I have of being rejected by anyone - even people I don't really care about. It's always better to leave them first, cut all ties, and disappear. They can't hurt me that way - no one can.” Is this fear at the very core of what drives the escapism of addiction?

That’s a fascinating question. I think it definitely was a big contributor to the pain that I needed to use the drugs to help relieve. As I’ve gotten more long-term sobriety and had the opportunity to work on myself, I have found that I have developed these amazing friendships with other people. I never before had anything like the friendships I have today. Before I got sober, it was too scary for me to be vulnerable enough to have friends. Having friends means the potential of losing those friends. The lasting friendships that I’ve been able to form mean so much to me. It’s such a gift.

You have to realize that my disease wants me to be alone. It wants me to be isolated so it can take control. When I was alone, my disease would be talking to me, and it would make me feel like I wasn’t worth anything. Still, it does take courage to have friendships. Without my recovery, I don’t think it would have ever happened. My recovery and those friendships go so well together. 

Worrying does not serve me at all. When I get into that negative headspace, I still have a hard time getting out of it. Luckily, I have friends that I can talk about it with, and they help me get more perspective. They help me take a step back and see again the value of my life. It’s one of the greatest gifts of authentic connection.

You know from firsthand experience how hard the disease of addiction is on families. Should families see this film together? Should parents take their teenagers? If they do, how should they prepare both themselves and their kids for the film before and what should they do afterward?

It’s hard for me to be prescriptive about anything. I really only can express things that come from my own experiences. I do believe that having conversations about this subject are really important for a family to consider. I have learned a lot by going around with the film to screenings and talking with people afterward. The main reason I’m doing it is that this film opens the door to such a great opportunity to have conversations about these issues. Watching this film raises awareness by making it easier for people to have honest talks about this disease.

Even more importantly, it is helping to not only emphasize recovery but also reduce the stigma around addiction that prevents such talk in the first place. From my perspective and beyond my personal stake, I believe the more people that see this film, the better. It will raise conversations that might not have occurred without it.

It made me proud to be connected to this film after I first saw it, and I realized there is nothing glamorous about the drug use in the movie. There is a scene in the movie where the son relapses. He does drugs with this girl, and it doesn’t look like a lot of fun. Instead of presenting it as fun or wild or on the edge like they do in a lot of movies, you really see how much guilt and shame the son has about it. There is no party period. Right after it happens when he’s alone, he breaks down and starts crying.

The power of the movie is that it really shows that the reason people use is because of this pain that they are experiencing. Relapsing tends to be a desperate attempt to escape that pain. It also shows the effect that a relapse has on the family. It was painful to watch it on the screen and kind of relive it again.

Watching the film reminded me of when I first read my Dad’s book. It was so hard to realize and see how much of a negative effect I had on him and my whole family. It was important to me that the film would capture that feeling, and it does it so well. Thus, I believe it would be amazing for families to see this film together. I think it would encourage honest conversation afterward.

The one warning I would add to that recommendation is that for people in recovery, especially early recovery, it can be really triggering to watch the explicit drug use in the film. There are some very intense scenes of IV drug use that could be triggering. I would encourage people in early recovery not to put themselves in a position where they might be triggered. If they are worried that it might be a possibility, then I would recommend that they choose caution and not take an unnecessary risk.

In Tweak: Growing Up On Methamphetamines, you write, “Sure, I buried it. I buried it and buried it and turned away from everything light and sweet and delicate and lovely and became so scared and scarred and burdened and fucked up. But that goodness is there, inside - it must be.” Do you believe this movie can help people struggling with addiction find the goodness within themselves and embrace recovery? If so, how?

Wow! That’s creepy to hear that quote again. I haven’t gone back and read Tweak in such a long time, and hearing it is such a sad reminder of how I was feeling. It amazes me how far my life has come since then, and it makes me feel so grateful.

This movie exemplifies that gratitude by showing in such a beautiful way how much love there is within a family. You really see the love within our family, and it’s a reflection of the way that families are. I am so impressed by the incredible bond between parents and children, and also between brothers and sisters. A really cool expression of that bond in the film is how the love survives everything that the disease can throw at it. Despite so much trauma, at the very end, you see that that core love never goes away.

I remember when I was out using, I had this horrible thing happen. My girlfriend OD’d, and I had to call 911 and do CPR. Thankfully, she came out of it, but she had to go to the hospital. Of course, I went with her, and it was such a wake-up call. I decided I had to do something to stop all of this. I called my Dad, and I told him, “Okay, I don’t want to go into rehab, but I want to come home and get clean on my own.”

My Dad had learned enough at that point to know that wasn’t going to be a good idea, and I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own. He knew he couldn’t let me come home and put everyone else at risk. He said to me, “No, you can’t come home. I really hope you get help, but I can’t help you unless you’re willing to go into treatment.”

When I heard that from him, I was devastated. It was devastating to hear that from my father. All I wanted to do was come home. I was angry and hung up the phone, but even at that moment, when he said I couldn’t come home, I also recall this profound awareness of his love for me. I knew he wasn’t drawing that boundary because he didn’t care about me. Even after everything that had happened, I instinctively knew that love was still there. In the movie, the themes include that such deep love never goes away and that forgiveness is always possible. For people struggling with addiction, that’s a powerful message that they need to hear and that needs to be heard.

Nic and David Sheff
Image Credit: Reed Hutchinson for UCLA Friends of Semel

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.