Besides the fact that they’re two of the best movies of 2020, First Cow and Palm Springs would not seem to have much in common with each other. One is a meditative journey to the Oregon frontier; the other a zany, time-bending rom-com. However, buried deep in the recesses of their stars’ CVs, Vulture discovered a connection — the 2008 Coke and Walmart holiday ad “Stock Up on Joy,” which has been burned into multiple staffers’ brains since the dawn of the Obama era.
The spot played in movie theaters over the Christmas season for years afterward, and it remains a nearly perfect time capsule of the late aughts: Madison Avenue channeling the handmade, analog vibe of the decade’s indie culture — floppy hair, collared shirts under sweaters, a cheery acoustic guitar. At the center of it all is a young man speak-singing about the holidays in a manner reminiscent of Ben Gibbard, or possibly Conor Oberst. That guy grew up to be John Magaro, whose sensitive work in First Cow capped off a string of impressive art-house performances. And the woman who pops up in a silent, two-second-long cameo as the first girl that he ever kissed? That was none other than Cristin Milioti, in what would be an unintentional parody of the parts she was often saddled with before Palm Springs let her showcase her comedic freak flag.
The two actors ran in the same New York theater circles at the time, and they’ve kept in touch; they’re around the same age, and have a lot of the same friends. And so, as both Magaro and Milioti made the publicity rounds this winter for their respective 2020 films — participating in what will undoubtedly be the weirdest awards season ever — we thought it was the perfect opportunity to reunite them over Zoom to talk all about their decade-old Christmas commercial.
Take me back to 2008. Where were you guys in your careers at the time?Cristin Milioti: If it was 12 years ago, and I’m 18 now, I would’ve been 6. Sorry, that doesn’t translate over Zoom. No, I think I was walking dogs during the day and then I was doing a lot of very weird, Off–Off–Off–Off–Off Broadway theater that no one was seeing, when I was like, shrieking. Just being as twisted and demented and weird as possible.
John Magaro: Were you doing Sopranos by this point?
CM: I was done with that. I’m on that show like, blink and you’ll miss me. But that was my first time in front of a camera or anything.
What were you up to, John?
JM: God, man. I don’t remember what happened last week. It was a daze. I was probably just pounding the pavement, doing downtown theater in weird old churches. And doing commercials. I had worked with that director before on Rock Band commercials with Eric Andre in these little vignettes. He called me in for that Coke commercial. And everyone at Walmart and Coke was like, “He’s too Jewish! Straighten his hair! Make him look like a Gentile!” Somehow he convinced them that maybe, in some parts of the Mediterranean, I could celebrate Christmas.
Do you guys have any especially strong memories of the shoot? I heard that it was summer and it was swelteringly hot.
CM: I have two memories. One is of John. The other is my brother is in the commercial. My real blood brother. He’s in the Christmas hat at the beginning. He would’ve been 16 or 17. I had just signed with a commercial agent and I think they asked me, “Do you know any teens?” He needed a summer job, so he did that commercial, and then he was like, “That sucked. I don’t ever want to do that again.”
JM: You know what I remember? The guy who shot that was Harris Savides, a brilliant cinematographer who has since passed away. He was the master of those long one-shots. Like when Gus Van Sant was doing that stuff with Elephant and Last Days, he shot all that. And then he was with us, [shooting a commercial for] Coke and Walmart.
Cristin, I also heard a rumor that maybe you didn’t get paid?
CM: I didn’t get paid? That can’t be possible. But I do think we were in a situation where we never did get residuals.
JM: Because they only played it in movie theaters.
CM: That’s right. So you were paid for the day. They were like, “Here’s your $200 and get out of here.”
The commercial ended up playing for years and years. When you’re a young actor, is that a blessing or a curse?
CM: I’m literally in that sucker for two seconds, so I don’t know. But I do remember, I actually did a play around the same time with a guy who booked a huge Valtrex campaign. It was him rowing a boat, joyfully or something. He came to the theater that night and he was like, “I’m making more money than I’ve ever seen!” And we were all like, “Oh man, that’s so cool.” And then it started to air and he was like, “Everyone thinks that I have STDs … ”
JM: It’s the necessary evil of what you got to do. You do it and they pay you. There’s much worse things that can happen.
I feel like for both of you, things started to break out around a few years later. Was there a moment that crystallized it for you, like, I’ve made it to the next level?
JM: I’ll answer for her. I think it was when you did Once, right? That was enormous.
CM: I would say so. That felt like a change: “Oh wow, people are seeing this play.” As opposed to the plays I normally did, where it was just my friends and my parents.
JM: And you got, what, a Tony nomination? Did you win?
CM: I did not win, but I did get a nomination, yeah. When did you become aware? I feel like suddenly you were in everything. I would see something, and it’d be like, “There’s John.”
JM: It’s so hard to say. It’s been fits and starts. Even with First Cow, it came out and then the pandemic hit, so they had to pull it out of theaters.
CM: But don’t you think that that’s good luck?
JM: That they pulled it out of theaters?
CM: I mean, that happened to us with Palm Springs. But so many people got to see it. By the way, I just watched First Cow the other night, and you’re astonishing in it. I had not read anything about the movie. All I knew is that people were saying, “Go see First Cow.” Oh my God, it was just so beautiful. I feel like I could smell that movie. The dirt, the batter, the oil …
JM: The cow shit.
CM: And the cow shit. The people not showering. I would love to work with [Kelly Reichardt]. I was watching it and my mind would be like, I wonder if this feels like doing a play? I know obviously it’s always different, but it just seemed like everyone was in the same world. It’s also shot so romantically.
JM: We were talking about Harris. [Chris Blauvelt], the guy who shot First Cow, studied under him, and he’s absolutely brilliant. What was it like for you guys? Were you out in the desert? It felt like you guys were on campus together.
CM: It was awesome. We were all out in the middle of the desert. All the wedding stuff, we shot out in five nights and it was very madcap. This was a movie that was shot in 21 days, that probably needed … I don’t know, but definitely not 21 days. Everything was just like, “We gotta go!” We were like Muppets running around from shot to shot. But we got to play around so much because of that. You had to throw everything at the wall because you didn’t get a lot of takes.
These movies are pretty far apart, stylistically. But I am curious if, having seen them both, there are any thematic parallels that you guys have picked up?
JM: Friendship. Love.
CM: I think it’s kindred spirits. Where you’re like, “What are the odds that these two people would find each other?” And it’s an unspoken thing. One of the most beautiful parts of First Cow is the friendship between the two of you, and no one is ever like, “Hey man, I love you.” Everyone’s just stoically loving each other. And while we maybe verbalize it [in Palm Springs], I do think that there’s a lot of not wanting to acknowledge that you’ve met someone who’s changing your molecules.
Also you both had to work with animals.
CM: That’s right. You had to work with a cow. I had to work with a goat.
JM: Was the goat a pain in the ass?
CM: The goat was lovely. But I only had one day with the goat. What about the cow?
JM: Unbelievable. She was so calm. The scenes where it’s night and I’m milking her, they were just the best.
CM: It’s really hard to milk cows, though. I’ve done it once in my life and I loved it, but I also was like, “This is harder than it looks in cartoons!”
JM: I just have the magical touch, then. The milk was just pouring out.
JM: I say this in every one of these things, but she’s retired now. She has a calf named Cookie.
CM: The goat’s name in Palm Springs was Fishsticks, which I really liked.
And, to what John was saying earlier, you both got a chance to show different sides of yourselves onscreen.
JM: That’s always the hope. Going back to the Walmart days, to be an “ethnic” face cast as an Old West character, I wouldn’t have put money down on that for my career. It was nice to have that opportunity.
CM: It’s so good, I was just blown away by it. Is everyone telling you that? “John, you’re so good in this.”
JM: Well, no. It’s funny, because like I said, it kind of came and went and came and went. So people are coming around to it now. I think people in our world are starting to finally get to it. Whereas my rube family and friends are like, “It’s slow.” It’s not quite their taste.
Cristin, what did your family think of Palm Springs?
CM: They liked it. You know, I’m trying to think if anyone said … No, I’m not going to do this game. Because of course sometimes people in your life say things where you’re like, “How did you know that was going to be the thing that was going to hurt me the most?” And they mean it as a compliment but … I don’t even want to dredge those things up.
JM: It’s a little easier with film. The worst is in theater, right after you get off the stage and they’re like, “Woof.”
CM: We were having that discussion on set recently. Me and Billy [Magnussen] and Noma [Dumezweni], it was on our show [Made for Love], and we were talking about, “What’s the worst thing you’ve heard after a play?” When you hear it, you know that someone has hated it so much that they can’t even find … When I go see plays, if it’s not for me, I try to think of at least five things that I liked. I’ll be like, “That actor was incredible, I loved this part.” When people can’t even find one scene …
JM: What’s the words you think are —
JM: There it is.
CM: “Congratulations” is, you’re dead in the water. It means you should be arrested immediately and taken to actor jail.
JM: If I can offer any advice to theatergoers, do not say, “Congratulations.”
CM: Never say “Congratulations.” That’s deadly. And also, “How did you memorize all those lines?” I had an agent that I worked with like 10 million years ago, who came and saw me in a play once. I came out of the stage door later and she went, “God, you were jumping around up there.” And I was like, “Oh no, this person represents me?”
How were you guys feeling about your place in the industry before you hit these projects?
JM: It’s always like, keep going. You gotta keep going and building and trying new things. I should take a step back and look at it with more objectivity, but I don’t know, maybe I’m afraid to do that.
CM: I do always feel like it’s just about to go away.
CM: I mean, that’s not true. I feel a bit less than I did at the time, that Oh no. But I do remember being confused. I was doing so many plays at Off Broadway places that were like Playwrights Horizons and New York City Workshop, things that are [legit]. And I couldn’t pay my rent. I remember being like, “How is this possible that I did the thing that I said I was going to do?” I came to New York and I’m in plays and I’ve done a couple of weird indie films. And how can I not pay my electricity? That was devastating and confusing, that I couldn’t make it all work. And obviously quite naïve too. But I remember that very viscerally, that But I’m acting!
JM: That helps me, to think about where I am now. Financially, it used to be a test, almost daily. That’s gotten easier. Things are a little more stable and more comfortable. But you saying that made me really think about our friends who primarily do theater and how devastating this thing has been for them. We have been lucky enough to have some film and a little TV. They are out at sea.
CM: I realized, being back [in New York], what a huge part of my life here is going to see live performance. One of the reasons I’ve never left New York, even though I work in L.A. all the time, is that I see everything. It’s a huge part of what my friends and I do here. Not only plays, but concerts, drag shows, cabarets — everything. And it is devastating.
First Cow was at Telluride in 2019. Palm Springs played Sundance last year. You both had this communal experience of seeing your movie on a big screen with a crowd. And then when they came out, people still liked them, obviously, but you did lose that element of it.
CM: I can only speak for Palm Springs. I think our plan originally was we were going to come out this fall. We would’ve been up against Wonder Woman and the Marvel … the Scarlett Johansson spider one. Huge franchise films. No one would have seen us. I think weirdly we ended up being seen by more people than we would have. I also think, and I’m no scientist, but the Spanish flu lasted for two years and everything shut down. Then we slowly came back, and there was theater and live performance and movies and everything.
JM: I get what you’re saying. A movie like First Cow would’ve gotten blown out of the water by Dune and Wonder Woman and all those.
CM: Dune was going to crush us. Dune was going to grind our bones to make its bread. No one was going to see us. There would be no way.
JM: We wouldn’t be talking to you, Nate. We wouldn’t be here.
CM: It is sad, though. I got to see the premiere of Palm Springs at Sundance with an audience of hundreds of people who knew nothing about it. To see the twists that it takes and to see them be like, “Oh!” all together. And then laugh all together, and gasp all together, and not know what they were watching, I now treasure that in a way that I could never have predicted. I do believe that we’ll come back. We love it too much.
Cristin, you mentioned in an interview with Vulture that you’re not a scientist, but you did have to learn about theoretical physics. And John, you had to learn how to make oily cakes. For an actor, which is the greater challenge?
JM: God. I think quantum physics is probably a little more difficult than cooking oily cakes.
CM: Yes. Although, I learned all that stuff in the way that my New Jersey public-school education prepared me to, which is to just cram and understand it for only the day that I needed to. And the minute they were like, “Moving on,” it was like I never knew it. It immediately left me.
JM: Do you think, if it was a Jeopardy question in three years, it would come back to you?
CM: Not on your life. I had a whole folder about Cauchy horizons, because there used to be a long monologue that I had that explained exactly what happened. It took me two weeks to memorize, and I don’t usually struggle with that. I spent hours learning about it so that I would know exactly what I was saying and truly could explain it to Andy’s character. They did friend-and-family screenings and no one cared. “We don’t need to know why.” Now, I know the Cauchy horizon has to do with a certain type of black hole and what it does to time, but that’s about as much as I can remember.
JM: Luckily, cooking wasn’t that hard. If anything, it was relaxing. You know, meditation as you’re cooking.
CM: Do you bake ever? That’s a stupid question.
JM: I love to cook, but I don’t really bake because I’ve got to keep this figure. But because I worked with these frontier cookbooks, I started making a lot of stews. And my wife is like, “Stop making stew.” But not really baking. I’m not a dessert guy.
I want to end with a more open-ended question. If each of you was a casting director, what would you cast the other as?
CM: Ooh. I’m trying to think of it in two parts. I know you, but I don’t know you super-well, and I’m like, “What is the thing that he most wants to play?” And I love unexpected casting choices, so what is the thing that I would never …
JM: For you I could be glib and say this general, archetype thing. But I’d like to see you in like, Succession, Jeremy Strong’s character. The female version of that. That’d be so cool.
CM: I’d like to see you as an alien in disguise as a human.
Like Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black?
CM: Yes, that’s what I mean. Like you’re an alien in a human suit, and you have to come to Earth to do some important stuff. Because there’s something about you when I watch you in things — and I hope this is okay to say — there’s a silent-film aspect to you. I think it’s because you have such expressive eyes. You can convey so much without words, which is incredible to be able to do. So I guess that’s why I would love to see you as an alien who’s trying very hard to be an assimilated human being.
JM: Sometimes I feel like that in normal life.
CM: And you want to see me rap at my wealthy father’s birthday party.