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One Year After Its Big Sundance Premiere, ‘Palm Springs’ Is Still Changing Cristin Milioti’s Career

Reflecting on her Sundance darling and Hulu hit, the actress tells IndieWire how the film gave her the kind of "entire spectrum" role she's always wanted.

PALM SPRINGS, Cristin Milioti, 2020. ph: Chris Willard / © Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection

Cristin Milioti in “Palm Springs”

©Hulu/courtesy of The Everett Collection

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Cristin Milioti is the kind of person it would be easy to wile away eternity with. For one thing, she’s an excellent conversationalist, and while most interviews contain a certain amount of friendly chatter before getting down to business, the “Palm Springs” star happily spent the first 10 minutes of our interview talking about animals (her dog, my cats, birds in Central Park, a cool owl she just saw on a set).

It’s only fitting that we were meant to be talking about her work in “Palm Springs,” a film about passing the time while stuck in a seemingly endless loop, its own little eternity.

Directed by Max Barbakow and written by Andy Siara, “Palm Springs” follows Andy Samberg as Nyles, a restless young man stuck enduring the same desert-set wedding day over and over again (and over and over again) after encountering an unexplained phenomena in a nearby cave. After he inadvertently brings Sarah (Milioti), another wedding guest, into the same conundrum, the movie’s playful time-based twist brings a clever new dimension to a formula that has driven films like “Groundhog Day.”

When the film debuted at Sundance in January of last year, it broke records by fetching the highest price ever for a Sundance pickup. Neon and Hulu snapped it up for a reported $17,500,000.69, placing it just a smidge above the previous record-holder, “Birth of a Nation,” which went to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million in 2016.

“It has been through so many stages, it’s wild,” Milioti said. “I was just texting with Andy [Samberg] and [producer] Akiva [Schaffer] about this the other day. We were sending each other pictures from Sundance, all of us with our arms around each other at the premiere, at the after party, or just on Main Street in Park City and laughing.”

Milioti can still remember the elation of the film’s premiere. “No one knew what the movie was about, and you could hear the audience laugh and cry and scream,” she said. “No one knew about the variety of twists that are in the film, and you were experiencing that for the first time with them.” Since then, as lockdowns took over, the night has additional resonance for her. “Obviously that experience has taken on a whole other layer,” she said, “even outside of my professional life.”

PALM SPRINGS, first two from left: Cristin Milioti, Andy Samberg; in blue shirt at center: director Max Barbakow, on set, 2020. ph: Jessica Perez / © Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection

On the set of “Palm Springs”

©Hulu/courtesy of The Everett Collection

The film debuted on Hulu in July, quickly becoming one of the streamer’s biggest hits of all time. Since then, word-of-mouth has kept the movie visible over many months, and it has remained a dark horse contender in awards conversations. (This week, Siara scored a screenplay nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards.) And while the Oscar race for Best Actress is a fierce one this year, Miliotti has undeniably expanded her profile as the movie has built its fanbase.

With most of the world stuck in pandemic-mandated lockdowns during its release, it came as little surprise that a film about repeated patterns struck a chord with audiences. “Ironically, this movie probably was able to reach more people because of the lockdown, and also reach them emotionally in a different way,” Milioti said. “If we’d come out in theaters in a non-pandemic world, we would have been up against all the Marvel movies and ‘Wonder Woman.’ I don’t know if as many people would have found us.”

Milioti has done a little bit of everything over the years, from stage work (“Once,” “That Face”) to television (as, of course, the mother of “How I Met Your Mother,” plus the second season of “Fargo”), and even a big-screen gig with Martin Scorsese, care of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Still, she was looking for a more ambitious role when “Palm Springs” came along.

“One of the things I loved about the movie so much is that I think it’s very existential, more than I think it’s a romance,” Milioti said. “I think it’s an existential comedy, and it’s about the discomfort of having to sit in your own stuff.” She also argued that the movie, while told through the lens of Nyles’ experience, really belongs to Sarah’s arc.

“Palm Springs”

“That was one of the things that I really flipped out for when the script was sent to me, was what she gets to go through, her arc and how much she changes and how much he doesn’t change and all the things that she has to reckon with,” Milioti said. “I was so thrilled to see a role, specifically for a woman, that’s like this, where this woman is refusing to reckon with her own culpability, with the things that she’s been a part of, with the things that have happened to her. I fell in love with that, as well as the fact that she gets to go through an entire spectrum of emotions and experiences.”

In recent months, Milioti has continually pointed to a somewhat unexpected professional inspiration: Michael Keaton. “I don’t know why I keep focusing on him!,” she said with a laugh. “I just grew up really loving Michael Keaton. You have him doing ‘Beetlejuice.’ You have him doing ‘Multiplicity.’ You have him doing ‘Batman.’ You have him doing ‘Birdman.’ He does everything. And granted, he’s his own entity clearly. But I remember, as a kid, specifically watching Beetlejuice and Batman and being like, ‘That’s the same person. I want to do that.'”

As her career has grown, Milioti said that dream is becoming more tangible. “The last couple of years, I’ve been really, really lucky to be more selective and take the time to find the thing that I love and believe in and want to throw myself into 100 percent,” she said. “I try to do stuff that is as different from the last thing that I did as possible. Sometimes I’m not successful with that, and sometimes I am. And sometimes things come up that are unexpected that I’m like, ‘Oh, actually, I don’t know why, but I really want to do this.'”

“Palm Springs”

Hulu

When IndieWire spoke to Milioti in late December, she was getting ready to head home to New York City after 11 months in Los Angeles, having been waylaid by the pandemic and needing to sit tight to finish shooting her new series, the HBO Max show “Made for Love.” The series, based on Alissa Nutting’s novel of the same name, took a shooting break that stretched to eight months, leaving the actress with plenty of time to, well, wile away.

Like a lot of people, she watched spent the time catching up on television. She’s fallen hard for “The Crown” as well as “I Think You Should Leave” and its charming comedic mastermind, Tim Robinson, who wouldn’t be out of place in the big-laughing, deep-thinking world of “Palm Springs.”

“It’s just absolutely demented in the most incredible way,” she said. “I can’t believe how his mind works. So that gives you an idea of what I waffle between: royal people staring longingly out of windows in different Scottish palaces and then the sketch where Tim Robinson drives the hot dog truck through a store and is dressed like a hot dog and is wondering who did it.” (At the same time, we both yelled, “We’re all trying to find the guy who did this!”)

Milioti may seem like she’s still diversifying her profile, but she’s been covering a lot of ground for years. While her turn as the eponymous mother in the long-running sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” might seem like the role she’s most readily recognized for, she says that’s not the case.

Cristin Milioti joined the cast of <em>How I Met Your Mother</em> to play the mother herself in the final season. Josh Radnor has played Ted for nine years. Tonight, they meet.

“How I Met Your Mother”

CBS

“I’ve got to say, the times that it does happen, I always find it immensely flattering,” she said of being recognized by fans. “They’re usually for different things, which also really means a lot to me. Sometimes it’s ‘Black Mirror.’ Every now and then it’s ‘Fargo,’ which really blew my mind, because I feel like I had like my Anton Chigurh haircut in that. Most times, people think that I’m someone they went to camp with.”

And “Palm Springs” just might be her next calling card. Even during a pandemic, people see Milioti and instantly recognize Sarah. “Over the summer I had something delivered to this house that I was living in, and I had a mask on and I opened the door and this young woman was standing there and she handed me this package,” she said. “Then she looked at me and she was like, ‘Oh, my God. Are you from “Palm Springs”?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And she was like, ‘I just watched that last night. This is flipping me out!’ And she was very, very flipped out by it. It was delightful.”

“Palm Springs” is currently streaming on Hulu.

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