[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Palm Springs.]
Cristin Milioti would prefer it if you didn’t read this very spoiler-y interview until after you watch Palm Springs. In fact, when she and I spoke via phone, two weeks before the film was set to premiere on Hulu, she confessed that she was having a hard time talking about it. “I even get nervous knowing that it will be out there at all,” she said. “Obviously, in an ideal world, you wouldn’t ever be able to find anything out about the spoilers, because then everyone seeing it would always go in knowing nothing, which is I think the best way to see it.”
So, let’s assume that you’ve already watched The Lonely Island-produced fantasy rom-com, in which two strangers, Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Milioti), get trapped in a seemingly endless time loop that leads to them repeating the same day over and over again. You’ve gotten to see Nyles and Sarah grow closer with each repetition of Saturday, November 9. You’ve gotten to watch them consume a metric ton of cheap beer as the existential ennui sets in. You’ve gotten to see them ruin Sarah’s sister’s wedding in countless ways, including one version where Sarah gets to play supervillain and threaten to blow up the cake.
That last moment, Milioti said, is “one of my favorite things I’ve ever gotten to do,” which puts it on par with one of her more recent memorable roles, the Black Mirror episode “U.S.S. Callister.” We touched on that briefly, after digging into what it was like to read the Palm Springs script the first time, the missing scene that would have explained everything, how Sarah eventually becomes the hero of the story, and the message Milioti hopes people take away from the film.
When you first read the script, what was your reaction? Did you know what it was going in, or did you just read it blind?
CRISTIN MILIOTI: No, I read it completely blind, and I was blown away by it. I thought it was such an interesting film. It checked all the boxes that I love as an actor and as a viewer. It was dark and weird and funny and moving. And I had never really read anything like that, and I also loved the character of Sarah so much. I love how flawed she is and how much pain and shame she’s grappling with. I really flipped for it. And it was a real page-turner too, because I didn’t know anything going in.
Were you immediately identifying things about Sarah you wanted to explore, when it came time to actually film it?
MILIOTI: Yeah, for sure. I definitely wanted to honor her journey and the spot that she’s in when you meet her, and what her coping skills are, and how she numbs herself, and how she’s numbed herself for years. And I really, really wanted to honor that.
I know so much of the film is a comedy, but I think that the drama part of it can’t really be earned unless you’ve given proper time and care to the fact that this is a woman who’s underwater, and she’s suffering, and she has been in pain for a while. I was very excited to explore that for sure. And I was very excited to explore her rage and her unwillingness to look at herself. I think that’s also one of the most human things about her, like the fact that she can make a joke at a wedding that like, “Oh, my family says I drink too much, and I fuck around.” And that’s true. She drinks too much, and she fucks… She’s not taking anything seriously. She’s refusing to deal with what’s happening, and I just think it’s wonderfully human.
It’s so interesting too, because thinking about the other films and TV shows that have done time loops, it really does become a really fascinating way to look at a character evolve, because they’re facing the same circumstances in every time loop. And so how they react to that makes a difference.
MILIOTI: Yeah, exactly. I think one of the things that I found very exciting about the script when I first read it was that I sort of felt like it was such a metaphor for life, for how hard I think people try to escape themselves, whether it’s through drugs and alcohol, or sex, or bingeing TV, or candy. I don’t know, just running, running, running, and not wanting to deal with who we are and what we’ve done, because it’s uncomfortable to sit in that stuff. And this is a scenario in which someone who feels that very acutely is made to sit and made to examine it. And you’re given the choice to either continue to try to fight it and run away, or go through it, which is painful and uncomfortable, but the only way you’re going to grow.
Absolutely. Also, I’m a huge fan of a good montage, and there is a stellar one in this.
MILIOTI: That montage is a real chef’s kiss.
When you were filming, how often would you be filming the scene knowing that this is part of a montage?
MILIOTI: Oh, we always knew. We knew exactly what scenes we were doing for that. We started shooting with some of the heavier stuff in the film. And I remember that when we got to the montage stuff, it felt like a very welcome departure to just be like a full goof for a couple of days. I mean, it’s a blast. That montage is a blast.
Do you have a particular favorite moment from it?
MILIOTI: Yes. I have many favorites. I mean, the dance sequence was as much fun to film and to rehearse as it looks. And then the scene with the bomb in the cake was also one of my favorite things I’ve ever gotten to do.
Oh yes! It’s the hook hand that really makes it.
MILIOTI: Yeah, I think so, too.
What’s really special about that montage is the fact that you and Andy are so equally balanced in terms of getting to be silly and getting to try crazy things. Things have gotten a lot better for women in comedy in recent years, but it still feels special. It still feels notable.
MILIOTI: I know. I know. And this is also one of the things that I love so much when I read it. Everything has come a long way, but the fact that in this film, I got to play a full human. Growing up, I would watch things, and I’d want to play all the men’s roles. And it’s not because like … It’s because those roles got to be all of the things they got to show the good, the bad, the ugly. And with her, you get that, you get to see every single color of the spectrum of Sarah. She’s irreverent, and she’s funny, and she’s in pain. She’s dealing with so much stuff, and I was so excited to be able to play all those things. And that I get to be just as ridiculous, that was very, very important to me, for sure.
And then in a lot of ways, Sarah ends up being the hero of the film.
MILIOTI: Yeah, she does.
In filming that section, were there conversations about how long it takes Sarah in whatever you call linear time to learn how to become a physicist on that level?
MILIOTI: There were, and I don’t remember them now, like what they were exactly. But there were definitely those discussions. And there used to be a huge monologue in the film, and I’m talking a three-page speech of quantum physics speak, where she explained very succinctly how it all works. And I memorized it, and researched every single part of it obviously, and spent days and days and days and weeks researching it, I knew exactly what I was talking about. It’s all gone.
So that is to say that a great amount of thought was put into it. I know that they spoke to quantum physicists. They really did their research. They spoke to different scientists, and yeah. I mean, I have my own theory about how long it took her, but it’s kind of irrelevant. It’s sort of up to the viewer. You can’t tell if that takes her two years or two months, or if takes her 20 years. You don’t know. It’s very cool.
Just to clarify — that three-page monologue, was it ever filmed, or did you just learn it?
MILIOTI: Yeah, we filmed it.
Was that a tricky day on set?
MILIOTI: It was, because it’s also playing the emotion of the scene as well as really trying to clearly explain this phenomenon. I worked on that for days and days and days. I was reciting that monologue constantly in every shower, while cooking breakfast, just reciting this three-page monologue about quantum physics, because our schedule was very arduous. We shot the movie in 21 days. So you usually wouldn’t get a lot of takes. We really hustled from scene to scene. So I also knew that I wasn’t going to get many takes to do it, and I wanted to come fully prepared and yeah. Anyway, it’s not in the film. But we did film it.
Maybe it’ll be in a special feature somewhere.
MILIOTI: Yeah. I don’t even know if it’ll make the special features, but yeah.
So at the end of the film, you have the explosion, and the blackout afterward is a pretty long one, and I definitely remember thinking while I was watching it that “They could just end it here.” If the film had ended without ever actually revealing whether or not they got out of the time loop, how would you have felt about that?
MILIOTI: I would’ve felt totally fine, but I love ambiguity. It’s so tricky to do press for this movie, but I would’ve been fine with that. I’m okay with not having set conclusions. I find things like that very exciting actually, where it’s like, “Yeah, go home and think about what you think happened.”
And the characters’ emotional journey is done. That’s not ambiguous.
MILIOTI: Yeah. Right. Exactly. That’s not compromised at all. And at that point, it’s almost irrelevant what happens. You know what I mean?
Absolutely. So, to wrap things up, what do you hope people take away from Palm Springs? What do you feel like is the big message?
MILIOTI: I mean, I don’t know if I’m just answering that in this moment, off-the-cuff, without having given it too much thought. The thing that comes to mind is that I want people to sit with their shit. That’s the only way we’re ever going to change and grow. You have to face these things head on, you have to sit in the discomfort, you have to face yourself. But running and thinking that there’s a quick fix, or thinking that the solution is just around the corner, that has not gotten us to a good place as a society. And I think that this film touches on that a little bit, that the only way out is through. Those are my own personal feelings. I don’t know. I hope that doesn’t sound preachy. It’s just, that was something that I always felt was a part of the film that I found very exciting and moving.
I think that’s a perfect answer. Thank you so much for your time today — I remain very, very hopeful that one day there’ll be a “U.S.S. Callister” sequel where you get to be the captain of the spaceship.
MILIOTI: From your lips to God’s ears. Please, help make that happen. That was another project… I have been so deeply blessed in my career, and that was one that still remains one of my top experiences of all time. I mean, I feel like I’m not even playing it cool. I would flip to do a sequel to that, because don’t you want to know what they do in space?
Absolutely. And you deserve a spaceship.
MILIOTI: I do. Yeah. I mean, well, thank you. Thank you so much. I hope that happens one day, but we’ll see.
Palm Springs is streaming now on Hulu.