A year ago, Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” was less than a month away from opening in theaters. It had premiered to rave reviews at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival with Sidney Flanigan earning major accolades in her professional acting debut. Flanigan never dreamed she’d still be talking to press about the movie 11 months later, but she recognizes it’s probably a good thing all around.
Flanigan portrays Autumn, a 17-year-old who is at a crisis point once she realizes she can only get an abortion in her home state of Pennsylvania with parental consent. With her best friend Skylar (Talia Ryder) by her side, they hop on a bus to NYC where scheduling the procedure takes significantly longer than they both expected.
Over the past few months, Flanigan has won Best Actress honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Boston Society of Film Critics, and earned both Gotham Awards and Independent Spirit Awards nominations.
“It all comes as a surprise to me. I mean, this entire experience working on this film has been a total surprise to me, and it’s really amazing,” Flanigan says. “I feel just so grateful, and it’s so nice to be recognized and that the film is getting so much support. I never really saw anything like this coming so it’s a little overwhelming really in a good way.”
Over the course of our conversation, Flanigan details how Hittman reached out to her for the role approximately six years after they met, just how nervous she was at the beginning of the shoot, how she reached an emotional nadir for the impressive one-shot scene that inspired the film’s title and more.
The Playlist: I’ve read that you met Eliza at a Juggalo event, is that right?
Sidney Flanigan: Yes. I grew up in South Buffalo, and there was this house in the neighborhood that was sort of this Juggalo commune. And I had a friend that was staying there a lot, and I’d go over there to hang out with them. And Eliza’s partner was making a film called “Buffalo Juggalos” at the time, so he would be over there shooting stuff, and I would just be on the fringes. Eliza was there one day when there was actually a wedding in the backyard at this house. And I attended the wedding, and I did the face paint and everything because it was required and yeah, she met me in a very strange place and a strange time. A very interesting twist of fate.
How long between that meeting was it till she popped to you, “Hey, I’m making this moving. Do you want to be the lead?”
Right. I was 14 when I met her at that party.
Yeah. And I was 20 when she reached out to me so there was a big-time gap, and I barely remembered even meeting her. So, when I did get an email about it, it was really bizarre and shocking. I was a little hesitant and skeptical about doing it at first, and there was a handful of factors in play that got me to finally give it a shot and audition for it and eventually ended up getting the part.
When was the last time you’d seen her before she reached out to you about auditioning? Had you kept in touch over the years, or was it literally out of the blue?
I mean, we didn’t really keep in touch. I barely even remember meeting her specifically. I remember [her partner] Scott vaguely because he was there more often. But they did add me on Facebook, and I kind of forgot about that because I was a teenager and you have so many Facebook friends, and you don’t even know most of them. So, yeah, I kind of forgot, but I guess she didn’t forget about me because she had been watching. I’d been popping up on her newsfeed over the years. I had posted videos of myself playing music, and I’d post these lengthy adolescent, emotional posts, and I guess she was intrigued by that.
When she reached out to you, I think you’d been working on your music career. Were you also acting as well?
Right. I mean, I never really thought I would pursue acting. I mean, I still am very in love with music, and I was a musician. I’ve been a practicing musician since I was a kid, pretty much. So when she reached out to me, I was living in a house with a bunch of other musicians and working at a grocery store, and playing in a band. It was wild. In my mind, I always thought, “Well, maybe if I make it as a musician, I’ll do a little acting on the side something.” I was like, “Maybe I’ll consider it in the future.” [Laughs.] But it’s funny how it kind of came first, but not mad about it.
One of the great things about Eliza’s style is so much of it just is how natural so much of it seems. In that sense, How much of the film is improvised? Were there any moments where she would say, “Hey, it’s O.K. to go off script” or did it pretty much just stick to the screenplay?
I mean, the majority stuck to the script. There was maybe a very, very small moment or two where there was what you might call improvisation but not really.
I know Focus and BBC Films financed it, but did it feel like you were making a small, little picture, or did it feel like a big production?
I mean, to me, it felt huge. It was my first time ever being on a set or being a part of something so large. I’ve always, for the most part, as a performer have been performing in small bars and in basements and I had never experienced [anything like this]. I mean, except for maybe playing in an orchestra in high school, I never experienced being a part of something so large and with so many working parts and people involved. It felt enormous. But, then, something about just the contents of the story and the fact that there is a hot issue that was the core of the film also made it feel larger to me in that sense. It felt like this is … I just knew it was going to be powerful, and I just had faith in that. Yeah. So it felt large in that sense.
I’m going to assume that you went in slightly nervous like anyone would be if this is their first time out there.
Oh, yeah. I was a wreck. I was so nervous. That was part of the whole thing. I feel like, as an artist, I was a musician going into this, but that was part of what was so, I don’t know, glamorous-seeming about it. I was like, “This would be a huge challenge.” You want something to scare you a little bit if it’s going to be worth it. You want to take a risk. So, yeah, I went into it very scared, but it all kind of informed it a bit, as well.
I don’t know if it was the first day of shooting or when exactly, but do you remember a moment during the filming where you thought, “Oh, O.K. I got this. This is going to be all right”?
The first day, I was very, very, very nervous. And by the second day, I was still kind of getting the hang of things, but I was also a little overwhelmed. I’m the kind of person who tends to get easily overwhelmed by sensory things, like a lot of commotion, noise, and so going onto a movie set was like the worst thing for that. I think it was at lunch, and I remember, I think, Eliza noticed and she and one of the producers kind of pulled me aside and they talked to me. They told me I’m always welcome to talk to them, and I can always let them know how I’m feeling. They really created this feeling of intimacy and safety between me and them. And as I got to know everybody on set, I just started to feel comfortable. Yeah. I just remember feeling like, “These are good people. I think I’m going to be all right.”
I have some silly questions, also, for you, and I apologize, but I just have to know. So the live chicken in the chicken game at the arcade., I have never seen that anywhere around the world in my entire life.
Eliza has more detail about that, but she told me that it used to be in arcades, and I think she said Chinatown when she was growing up. So I think that was what she told me, but I guess that used to actually be a game you can go play in an arcade.
I was just like, “That is crazy.”
Yeah. It’s very crazy.
And the karaoke scene, you are a singer. I hope I’m not insulting you by asking this but was the goal to sing it badly on purpose?
Yeah. I mean, the first take or two that we did it, I did it more so as I, Sidney, would do it, and projecting and really just going all in. Yeah. So I was just asked to sort of reign it back and try to do it more like as the character and also like under those circumstances in that moment, so I had to keep that … But once I kept that in mind, then it was just altered the performance.
Also, did you know that song beforehand or no?
Actually, when we were choosing the songs, I remember Eliza was showing me some of the options we had for the song to include in that scene, and she played that song, and I was like, “Oh, my God, it has to be this song.” I was so in love and deeply connected to that song in high school for my own personal reasons, and I hadn’t heard it in so long. So, when I heard it in that moment we were selecting songs, I was like, “It has to be this one.” It just felt like it came out of my past. In this moment, for that reason, it felt perfect.
Then this is a more serious question. The question and answer scene where your character is being asked the “never, rarely, sometimes, always” questions is a long one-shot take and you’re quite remarkable in it. Was it always meant to be one take? And how difficult was getting to that emotional moment for you on set?
I believe it was intended to be one long take. Eliza would know better than me, but I believe that was the intention. We did about three takes. I know the shot in the movie is the first take because the first take came to me a lot more organically, and then the next couple of times it was still fine, but it wasn’t as good. Yeah. That scene, it’s a big one, and that required really, really diving into your most vulnerable places. There are a lot of factors at play that really helped aid in creating that emotional place. Like, Eliza allowed me some time by myself in a quiet room away from everybody else to just reflect and go over the scene. Then she had two cameras set up that were very close on me that already creates this feeling of vulnerability, and then I was sitting across from Kelly Chapman, who was a real social worker who used to do this kind of thing all the time. It helped really create this real feeling, and I dived into places of my own that were difficult. And in some way, as I was doing this scene with Kelly and it felt like I was telling Autumn’s story, but it was almost therapeutic for me in my own way to have this moment that I just be vulnerable, also in front of a crew and a camera. It felt really powerful to sort of harness your own emotions and your own experiences to tell someone else’s story, as well. And it felt like there were these layers going on, and it really made me appreciate the craft so much more in the moment. I felt like that was the first moment I really felt like I understood acting.
I know that the movie came out right before the pandemic hit. Do you still want to act? Have you taken virtual meetings, or have you auditioned for other projects?
I’ve been auditioning for stuff for the last year. I have something lined up. The date’s still up in the air because of COVID. I’m actually in Chicago right now. It’s supposed to start shooting something tomorrow, so I’m currently in an Airbnb waiting to do that. So, yeah, I’d say that I’m still acting.
[This interview was condensed from a longer conversation]
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is available on PVOD and currently on HBO Max.