Spoilers for the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister” below.
On its surface, Cristin Milioti’s Black Mirror episode looks like a straight-up Star Trek parody. But “USS Callister” is a lot more complicated than it seems. In the episode, Milioti plays two characters named Nanette: a new employee at a tech company, and a digital clone who gets trapped in the twisted virtual universe where the company’s CTO (Jesse Plemons) exacts revenge on his co-workers. As with most installments of Black Mirror, there are a few more turns of the screw after that, but Milioti’s performance keeps the episode grounded, as we see her move between playing a meek coder, an objectified sexpot, and eventually, a captain in her own right. Vulture caught up with Milioti to talk about the joys of acting on a spaceship, her retro hairdo — which was not a wig — and why she prefers to wait for the right parts.
Between your play After the Blast and this episode, you’ve been doing a lot of sci-fi this year.
I guess they are sci-fi! I mean, Black Mirror is certainly more sci-fi, since, you know, we’re on a ship, but After the Blast didn’t seem that sci-fi to me, because it doesn’t seem that far off. What Zoe [Kazan] did so brilliantly in that play was to make you think that you’re in the future and then realize, really, it’s about things that have been with us for eons. I’m so proud of her. I guess more so than usual I have been involved in slightly futuristic stories, but here we are.
Were you a fan of Star Trek or sci-fi adventure shows before this? What was it like to play that part of the world?
I did not have a very in-depth knowledge of Star Trek. I’d seen a couple of the vintage episodes. I knew just about as much as anyone on the street. I knew how William Shatner talks, I knew about the costumes, and I knew about the passions of the fans of Star Trek. But it was so much fun. To shoot on a spaceship is just as fun as you’d imagine. Your inner 5-year-old is just going crazy. I could not believe I was on a spaceship. I loved every second of it.
And you get to wear this gigantic wig …
That is not a wig! That was an hour and a half to two hours in the makeup chair every morning that they would tease it out 1960s-style. There’s a little big of fake hair in there, but the rest is all mine. Into this giant bouffant, every day. They had a fantastic makeup and hair team on that show who were able to make us look so much like we were in this retro, ’60s space TV show.
Does that make you feel bad for the actors on those shows?
I didn’t even have to go through the worst of it. Milanka [Brooks, whose “USS Callister” character is turned into an alien] — she had to be turned blue every day. She was there for three hours every morning.
What was it like to also play Nanette on the real-life side of the story, where she’s an office drone?
This episode has been such a dream job on so many levels — to get play a fully realized person, to get to play a woman in all shapes and forms and not just “the girlfriend” or “the foil for this,” and to see a woman so angry and to refuse to back down. One of my favorite movies of all time is Kill Bill, and that’s about that. That gets me so deeply jazzed.
When you first see her in the office, she seems like she might be a shy, wallflower character …
You don’t realize what she’s capable of!
But she has a has a complete inner life. She has sexy pictures on her phone. It’s not something that she’s ashamed of, it’s using them against her that makes her angry.
She doesn’t have that shame about those photos. But I think that what’s interesting about her is that she realizes her best and truest self in the space world. In the office world, she’s asked to do so many of the things that women are raised with. A guy puts his hands on her lower back and instead of saying, “Don’t fucking touch me,” we are asked to shrug it off. Obviously that tide is changing now, but we see her saying “ha ha ha” and being sweet and quiet. You don’t realize that tiger that resides within.
I don’t think that only resides in women, that’s one of my favorite types of stories, when you underestimate what a character is capable of. And yet they themselves underestimate. I don’t think she herself realizes that about herself.
By the end of the arc of the office world, do you think she fully realizes what has happened?
I don’t think she does. We talked about this at the wrap party, like, “Oh, right, he’s going to die and they’re going to find her prints at the scene.” Maybe they won’t. Maybe they won’t dust for prints because it’s clear that he just passed away. But I don’t know! I don’t think she has any understanding in the real world of what this virtual reality is. Maybe they try and get in touch with her again. I don’t know, I’d want to see what happens with that group of people. I feel very strongly that in the space world, she becomes captain and leads them on a bunch of awesome adventures.
It feels like she’s more fully realized in the space world by the end of it.
I know! Which I love. I think there aren’t the parameters and the social contracts in the space world — she’s just a woman pushed to the edge and is like “no fucking way.” All of the politeness and all of the trappings of one’s life that you build over time all go away.
Did you spend time figuring out her power pose in the captain’s chair at the end of the episode?
I didn’t, but I loved shooting that more than I can even explain to you. I think I was given three takes for that. I remember being very nervous that it wasn’t a lot. I didn’t have anything planned other than what she would feel at that moment. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to sit in the captain’s chair of a spaceship. It’s the most fun thing you could do.
It seems like you’ve been involved in a lot more plays in New York and more selective with TV and film projects recently. Has that been a conscious decision?
I’ve always lived in New York, I never moved to L.A. I was developing and producing and writing a pilot for a year. That took me out of everything for over a year. When that sadly didn’t go forward, I shot Black Mirror right after that.
This year, I’ve been drawn more to wanting to get back into an acting boot camp with these plays that I’ve done, that have been so immensely challenging and written by dear friends of mine. I’ve gotten to collaborate with the most incredible people. I’ve always tried to have a pretty discerning eye with the roles that I’ve picked, which is maybe why it seems like I take breaks, but really they’re not breaks. It’s just that there’s not as much out there as one would hope. I’m lucky enough to be able to be choosy sometimes. I think this past year I’ve just tried to choose what feels right to me and what excites me.
Well, if you get something that puts you in the captain’s chair …
Yeah, when that happens, it’s just the best.
This interview has been edited and condensed.