Cristin Milioti, Forever

In Palm Springs, she’s a furious depressive stuck in a time loop. It’s the rom-com role she was meant to play.

Photo: Jake Wilson
Photo: Jake Wilson
Photo: Jake Wilson

A few years ago, Cristin Milioti and her brother got high and went to a Radiohead concert. Between songs, her brother was telling her an animated story, his big eyes widening and his hands gesticulating wildly. In the grand tradition of many Radiohead stoners before her, Milioti was struck by a lightning-bolt observation: “I was like, oh my God,’ she says, her own doe eyes expanding as she reenacts the epiphany. “I suddenly saw what everyone was talking about: This is how it is to talk to me.”

Milioti is referring to her uncanny cartoonishness, which she’s been hearing about from friends and family for most of her life. This cartoonishness has several defining characteristics: her gigantic almond-shaped eyes, upturned nose, heart-shaped face, and long, thick brown hair, all of which congeal to form a nearly spot-on re-creation of a Disney princess; her ability to effortlessly stretch her elastic face onscreen, moving from sweet contentment to pointed fury to sagging melancholy within a matter of seconds; and the way she talks, which is essentially a full-body effort. But below the surface, Milioti — who’s been working since she was 19 in an assortment of roles that haven’t always let her show off her full Lucille Ball–meets–Janeane Garofalo range — vibrates on a darker, weirder frequency. She’s quick and snappy, her wit shot through with a black streak. It’s a huge part of what makes her lead performance in this summer’s Groundhog Day–esque rom-com Palm Springs such a revelation. As Sarah, a furious depressive trapped inside an endless desert wedding with a nihilistic stranger (Andy Samberg), Milioti wields every tool at her disposal to move from screwball banter to profound pathos, often in the span of a single scene.

Palm Springs, out on Hulu and in select drive-in theaters, is also, quite accidentally, the pitch-perfect film for our current national mood. At one point in the film, a desperate Sarah, stuck as she is in a time loop, pleads with Nyles, “How do I stop it? I don’t want tomorrow to be today! I want tomorrow to be tomorrow.” He looks at her pityingly. “Yeah, that’s natural,” he says. “Unfortunately, that’s never gonna happen. Tomorrow will always and forever be today.” The timing of her movie’s release hasn’t been lost on Milioti, who’s video-chatting me from her friend’s Los Feliz home, where she became suddenly (but cheerfully; there’s a pool) trapped after filming on HBO’s Made for Love halted production in March. She hasn’t been back to her Brooklyn Heights neighborhood since January, and has been cycling through the same four outfits. “That’s what I love about the time-loop mechanism,” she says. “At the beginning [of lockdown], people were like, ‘We can’t escape ourselves!’ One of the great works of one’s life, I think, is to learn how not to escape yourself.”

Though Milioti and I have agreed to make a mid-afternoon cocktail together, we keep getting distracted by all manner of topics, beginning with her outfit, which she describes as “Adam Sandler on the press tour of Hotel Transylvania 2.” (Later, she texts me this photo by way of explanation.) Milioti is wearing high-waisted jeans, no makeup, her hair loose, and a T-shirt featuring “Famous Witches”: Stevie Nicks, Frida Kahlo, Cher, Marsha P. Johnson. (“Witch, to me, is the highest compliment one can be given,” she explains.) At several points over the course of our conversation, Milioti stands to emphasize a point, hurling her tiny body around the kitchen as she expounds on everything from her scruffy little dog, Rupert (“he looks like he would solve mysteries with Charlie Chaplin and live in a trash can”), to her recent experiences with depression and self-doubt, to her lifelong obsession with one specific witch, Ursula from The Little Mermaid. Milioti gets swept away in a spontaneous pantomime of Ursula. “There was something I auditioned for years ago and I watched her obsessively for inspiration,” she says, shimmying and dropping her voice to a bellow in an imitation of the sea witch’s “body language” moment. Then, as she does many times during our chat, she transitions seamlessly into a more serious register. “I think she comes from a place of extreme pain.”

Milioti could easily be describing Palm Springs’s Sarah. When we meet her, Sarah is dissociative and sardonic, a grown-up Daria in heels pounding full pours of wine at her sister’s Instagram-ready nuptials. But there’s an ineffable, mischievous charm beneath her hard shell — when she meets Nyles, Sarah slowly lights up, trading flirtatious barbs as the two bond over their shared detachment. And when, soon after, Nyles accidentally sucks her into the quantum time loop he’s been living in for some version of eternity, Milioti grabs the entire film by the balls, cycling through a variety of responses to her fresh dystopian plight: She pitches herself fully clothed into a pool, she vomits violently into a trash can, she hurls her body in front of traffic, she drives across the country chugging energy drinks, all in a fruitless attempt to defeat the very concepts of time and space. Milioti roots all of Sarah’s behavior in a real sense of pain and frustration. “So much of Sarah’s journey, I think, is her inability to escape her shame. I think that she’s operating from such a place of white-hot shame and trying to run from herself,” she says. “I’m a big Brené Brown fan —” She pauses, as she often does during our conversation, to immediately double back and make fun of what she just said. “I mean, honestly, I should just go work for Goop right now. I should quit my acting gig and sell vagina-scented candles.”

“I tried to strike a balance between Selena [Gomez] and [Adam] Sandler,” Milioti says of her self-styled photo shoot. “And honestly some Kevin James is sprinkled in there somewhere as well I’m sure.” Photo: Jake Wilson

Bougie parfumée and TED Talks aside, a year or so before she filmed Palm Springs, Milioti was struggling with her own impulse to run. Having endured years of self-doubt and confusion as an emerging actress, Milioti wasn’t sure where she fit in the entertainment industry. “When this movie came to me, I was in a place in my life of having tried for a long time to escape myself,” she says. “This world is wildly overwhelming, and it’s easy to just pretend not to care, because the stakes are so high. You can totally throw up your hands and numb yourself and let things happen to you.”

And the roles happened to Milioti. For a long while, her career was bifurcated into two sorts of parts. There were the gigs she was “extremely proud of, but no one saw”: starring roles in tiny indie films, like Sook-Yin Lee’s now-unavailable sex comedy Year of the Carnivore; a Grammy-winning role in Broadway’s “immensely sad” love story Once; and “fucked-up Off Broadway plays” like Zoe Kazan’s After the Blast. She also had a few scenery-chewing cameos, where she was still able to flex: as a “sexy baby” on 30 Rock, and as a cucked housewife in The Wolf of Wall Street, both of which she adored because they were “larger than life.” “That’s the type of shit I live for,” she says. “If you can let me get cartoonish, it’s my dream.” But then there were “the jobs where I was just desperate to pay my rent,” she says. These parts, she says, usually fell into a dull, predictable box: a conventionally beautiful woman who’s a little bit quirky, but not strange enough to threaten a male ego. Women who, as Milioti puts it, “exist in this man’s world, as this fuckable, cool, ‘I love beer, I eat nothing but pizza, oh God, I’m such a nerd, but also I love blow jobs.’”

One of Milioti’s most well-known roles — the one many might describe as her “breakthrough” — was that of “The Mother” on the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother, a character who wasn’t introduced until the show’s final season in 2013. After HIMYM, she landed her own network sitcom, A to Z, a short-lived, will-they-won’t-they rom-com that was canceled after five episodes. Milioti remains incredibly grateful for both experiences, but has come to the conclusion she wasn’t meant to be a network TV star. “I’m immensely grateful to [HIMYM showrunners] Carter [Bays] and Craig [Thomas] because they took a chance on me when no one knew who the fuck I was — and many still don’t,” she says. “But I think that I didn’t fit into working for a major network. I’m certainly not the first actor to express that.” Looking back, she wishes she would have been allowed to give The Mother more dimension, but in the same breath recognizes the show’s limitations. “It was a half-hour comedy, and they dealt with some very heavy shit in that show, but I don’t know if the mother’s rage quite had a place there,” she says. “Would I have loved to see it? Yes.” She felt similarly stultified by A to Z. “I feel like there were colors of that character that were embraced by the creative team and were completely rejected by the giant corporation,” she says. “It had to be more wrapped up in a neat little bow. Life isn’t like that.”

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in Palm Springs. Photo: Jessica Perez/Huu/2020 Hulu

Growing up in New Jersey, Milioti says she was raised equal parts earnest and “raised eyebrow.” She was an emphatic theater kid — a trained mime — who loved the Coen brothers and Disney films. She agonized over Belle’s choice to “abandon her dreams of owning a library to fucking live with this hot guy,” finding more solace in Fargo, Kill Bill 1 and 2, and Beetlejuice. “I was a weird kid,” she deadpans. In high school, she had a “buzz cut and a mustache,” and was subsequently bullied, thrown into lockers, and sometimes mistaken for a boy by her teachers. The theater department was “the only place where I wasn’t pushed or kicked in the knees.” Although she describes herself at the time as “extremely neurotic,” she also possessed a preternatural confidence: When her high school performed Oliver!, Milioti demanded to audition for the part of the Artful Dodger, because the female roles “sucked.” “I was like, ‘This is the most sexist play! The one female role is a woman who’s beaten to death! No!’” Not only was Milioti allowed to audition, she landed the role. It was a “big turning point,” one that eventually led to her campaigning to do an all-female version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with her in Jack Nicholson’s lead role. “Obviously they said no,” she laughs.

After graduation, Milioti followed her odd muse to NYU. “I took out a bunch of student loans, and was accruing all this debt to essentially sit in a classroom and get to act for, like, eight minutes a week,” she says, laughing and scrunching her face into mock fury. “People would show up without their lines memorized, and I’d be just absolutely combusting in the back. Just seething and in a flop sweat from rage.” She dropped out after a year, landed an agent who’d seen her doing an experimental black-box play, and got a tiny role on The Sopranos. She says it was a 19-year-old Jersey girl’s dream, until it wasn’t.

“I had a recent memory from it that I think I’d pushed down really far,” Milioti says. She was hired to play the sister of a bride, and in the first costume fitting, was put in sweatpants and a T-shirt. But when she arrived to film the scene, her costume had changed to a bra and underwear. “I was so afraid to say anything because I’d never had a job before, and I thought I was going to be fired if I said I was uncomfortable,” she says. “And this is when my memory gets very, very weird. I was asked to walk into a room and show my wardrobe to all of these male producers, and I remember being in my bra and underwear, shaking in this side room. I couldn’t tell what was happening, I had no one to talk to, I was so scared. We shot the scene and I was shaking so hard. I was so embarrassed. And they cut the scene anyway.”

Not long after, a male director she won’t name asked her to take her top off while shooting a nonsexual scene. Milioti says she became “immensely frustrated” by the direction her career was going. “I was getting nervous that people thought that I was only capable of one thing,” she says. “I was being sent a lot of things that were very similar in tone and genre, and I knew that the things that I’d always been imagining were not that.”

“The face glitter I’m wearing is all Kevin. Paul Blart: Face Glitter.” Photo: Jake Wilson

Milioti wasn’t necessarily imagining a streak of unconventional indie projects of the type that kept her creatively fulfilled in her early career. “I’m not at home snapping my fingers listening to beat poetry, being like, ‘I refuse!’” she jokes. For her, the ne plus ultra female role was The Bride in her beloved Kill Bill. “That was a huge studio movie that reached a 17-year-old in New Jersey,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s an option? You can be a woman who is enraged? Yeah! I feel that! Wow, look at her fucking go!’”

In Betsy Solverson, the terminally ill character she played on the second season of the FX series Fargo in 2015 — a woman who’s “always the smartest person in the room, five steps ahead of everybody” — Milioti found some of this rage. She turned down a “very big” studio movie to take the role (“I think a lot of people were mad at me for choosing Fargo over that”). She was immediately drawn to the series’ humor, a more disturbing kind of comedy. Then she landed the lead on Black Mirror’s “USS Callister,” a 2017 breakout from the series that won several Emmys and gave Milioti the chance to go full Jack Nicholson as a young woman trapped inside an incel’s deranged fantasy. “That experience was really huge to me,” she says. “It was a send-up of a woman being forced to be in a man’s experience of her: ‘You can’t even have genitals. You can’t have any agency, you have to fit into my perfect fantasy of what a woman is.’ And she’s fighting tooth and nail to be like, ‘Go fuck yourself!’” Milioti says, getting visibly worked up. “That was my dream.” She saw the role as retroactive justice. “[The Sopranos producers] remind me a lot of the Black Mirror episode, where it’s like, ‘This is my right to do this to you. You exist in my universe.’”

Following the success of Black Mirror, Milioti found herself being more selective about the parts that came her way: “I was very, very actively trying to turn the wheel.” Subsequently, work dried up for a while, both because she was turning things down and because the meaty roles she wanted came with more competition. “I felt like there were two or three good roles a year, and it was like a gladiator battle in a dusty ring,” she says. “It would be, like, me and someone who was very fancy. And I had no shot.” She spent a full year writing an irreverent comedy pilot about a group of 30-something women that she describes as “If It’s Always Sunny had met Sex and the City, except that none of the things about Sex and the City were there, except that they were in their 30s.” Around that time, casting directors started to think she’d quit the business. “I walked in to audition for some piece-of-shit romantic comedy — I don’t know what — and they were like, ‘Where have you been? We thought you were gone,’” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! I spent the year doing a fucking FX pilot! A year of my life!’”

The pilot wasn’t picked up. Milioti was left with a lot of time and space to examine the personal life she’d pushed aside for her career. “I’d gone through some things in my personal life that were really sad and eye-opening, and sort of ego-shattering,” she says, though she won’t get more specific. “I had a moment of waking up and being like, ‘Wow, we’ve tried the same thing over and over and over again for years. What if we tried something else?’” So she took off for the Adirondacks with her dog (“very Bon Iver”) and then to Tanzania with her best friend to spend phone-free weeks among wild animals. “I don’t know how to say this without sounding, like, both basic and disturbing as a grown woman,” she says, then affects an exaggeratedly girlish tone. “‘The thing about me is that I actually love animals.’” When she got back, she sat with the parts of herself and of her life that had been bothering her. She realized she needed to let go of her compulsive need for control in all aspects of her life (“I’m a control … enthusiast,” she jokes), and, more specifically, “let go and let God” when it came to her career.

She stops herself again mid-thought. “I say all this and I’m cringing a little bit,” she laughs. “It’s hard for me to talk about these things because I believe them very deeply, but also I come from New Jersey. I’ll read these books that are like, ‘You’ve got to learn to love yourself before you can love anyone else,’ and I’m like …. ” — here Milioti morphs into a hilarious sort of Real Housewives of New Jersey drag — “‘Are you fucking kidding me? Get back!’”

“There were many days on that film where it was a real pinch-me moment, like, Oh my God, I imagined doing this stuff when I was a kid and here I am getting to do it.Photo: Neon

In 2018, Milioti sat down with Samberg and his producing partner Becky Sloviter for what was meant to be a brief introduction; they ended up talking for three straight hours. When they sent her a script afterward, Milioti was thrilled by what she saw on the page: a woman who didn’t exist in somebody else’s universe. “Sarah gets to be just as irreverent and funny as [Nyles] does — and she gets to be angrier,” she says. Milioti enjoyed playing Sarah as someone who slowly cedes but then yanks back control over her own life, temporarily severing herself from Nyles’s “sad boy” vibes and beginning the perilous process of trying to escape her quantum hell. But because she has, quite literally, too much time on her hands, Sarah also gets to spend some of the film leaning into total lunacy: Milioti spent weeks with Samberg choreographing an ’80s-esque dive-bar dance routine. She improvised a seduction scene alongside a drunk wedding guest played by Conner O’Malley. She erupted into a spontaneous pirate accent during a scene wherein she and Samberg plant a bomb inside the wedding cake out of sheer boredom.

“I went to the props department and said, ‘Can you get me the jankiest hook and eye patch?’ I hid it under my jacket, we rehearsed the scene a bunch, and then I put the hook and the eye patch on and came out with the accent, because I knew that it would completely throw Andy off, which it did,” she says. “There were many days on that film where it was a real pinch-me moment, like, Oh my God, I imagined doing this stuff when I was a kid and here I am getting to do it.” That included tapping into what director Max Barbakow referred to on set as “a slight Joe Pesci energy,” especially during her more physically comedic scenes. “I was told that I had too much Joe Pesci energy sometimes,” laughs Miliioti, “and it was not an energy I was consciously tapping into.”

Made for Love — an adaptation of Alissa Nutting’s riotous 2017 novel that’s halfway done filming and should arrive on HBO in some dimension at some point in time — hits similarly bizarre beats. Milioti plays Hazel, a woman who moves in with her father (Ray Romano) and his sex doll after escaping her Elon Musk–esque tech billionaire husband, who’s got her under 24/7 surveillance. Milioiti was drawn to the show’s irreverence and general strangeness, but more specifically to Hazel for being “a heavily flawed human being,” she says. “She has this ego, but then she’s also so broken, and I think she doesn’t know herself at all. There’s so much pain there, so much resentment. The men in her life have completely fucked her. Of course she’s allowed to be angry.”

About halfway through Palm Springs, Sarah, sitting on the side of the road in handcuffs after one of her panicked attempts at escape, realizes that Nyles is not only content living his frozen life, but that he’s been lying to her about its specifics. Milioti plays the moment with increasing fury, her face registering new emotions at an almost inhuman rate: Those giant eyes blink and dilate with rage, go limpid with despair, then turn completely blank. Just as quickly, she lurches into comedy. “I’m getting out of this day,” she whispers, leaping to her feat, storming into the road and placing herself squarely in the path of a passing truck. The whole thing lasts about 90 seconds, but it’s a master class of tone and control. Milioti uses that Disney-esque façade — once considered a disadvantage — to subvert expectations, and to cycle almost supernaturally between humor and vengeful wrath.

Milioti says the scene as it was written in the script drew her in like a magnet, especially Sarah’s ultimate realization that, as she puts it, “I’m the only one who’s going to save me.” On the heels of her own self-rescue, filming it felt vastly different for Milioti. “I sat myself down and asked, ‘What if you just trusted yourself? What if you trust that you’ve done all the work?’” she says. “This world can be horrendous and shocking and scary. But to walk around as a clenched fist is no way to live.”

Cristin Milioti, Forever