‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ Star Sidney Flanigan: “I Won’t Live in a World Where You Can’t Get an Abortion”

In January and February this year, despite glimmers of the coronavirus that would completely derail the industry and the world, the Sundance and Berlin film festivals managed to go on mostly unscathed. Featuring at both of those events was Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a quiet, understated drama about Autumn, a young woman who travels to New York with her cousin Skyler to get an abortion. The film takes that seemingly simple premise and moves mountains with it. It tells a story both intimate and massive in scope, mixing at-times harrowing realism with a resilient beauty and narrative strength. It’s a modern-day hero’s journey.

The film won prizes at both Sundance and Berlin, and while it’s cinematic release was derailed by the pandemic, the film has still managed to receive an overwhelmingly adored reception by both critics (99% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences across the world. And at the heart of it is an outstanding performance by 22-year-old Sidney Flanigan as Autumn. It’s a work of uncommon subtlety and strength, working with a confidently naturalistic script to create a reserved yet deeply feeling, empathetic character that speaks for hundreds of experiences, and is eventually able to break your heart with a simple nod of the head. And it’s her first try.

I had the luck of sitting down with the Gotham Award-nominated actor recently, and talked to her about the film – how she’s been part of it from the very beginning, the experience of filming it, its impact, and how far we still have to go when stories like these remain painfully vital.

This interview has been edited for clarity, and contains mild spoilers for the film

SC: So, one; how are you doing? How’s lockdown going for you so far?

SF: I’m doing good! You know, under the circumstances.

Yeah… How’s it been – because I know you’re still supporting the film as you’re going into awards season and all that, which your film is going to be a huge contender (I hope)… so firstly, where were you when you found out about the Gotham nomination?

It was really exciting! I was not expecting it, I just woke up to all these text messages that said, “Congrats!” – I was like, “What is this about?” Then I saw and it was… still kind of processing it. It’s really cool.

I mean, you came right out of the gate with this one… How does it feel having this much success for your first – because this is your first proper acting thing, isn’t it?

Yeah.

Like, did you do anything before like the school plays, or was it just straight going for this?

No, not really. I’ve mostly, like, I’ve played music all my life and performed as a musician, but I’ve never done anything acting-wise prior to the film – so it is really wild being in a film that’s this amazing and also successful on my first time… It’s still very surreal sometimes. But I’m extremely grateful for it.

With that in mind… how did this come your way? Because I know, I heard the story that you met Eliza Hittman [the writer/director] like, years beforehand, so can you tell us the story about that?

Yeah. So, when I was 14 years old, I lived in South Buffalo – I still live in Buffalo now. And Eliza’s partner Scott Cummings was making a film in Buffalo called Buffalo Juggalos… if you know what Juggalos are.

[Laughs] I know who the Juggalos are.

[Laughs] And  I was… it was a weird thing, at the time I was dating this guy who was kind of couch surfing, and he was staying on the couch of this Juggalo house. And a lot of the film was being filmed at this house, and so I would go over there sometimes to visit my boyfriend. So that’s how I met Scott, and there was a day where there was a backyard Juggalo wedding at this house –

– That sounds like fun.

Yeah! It was super wild. There were Faygo showers and everything. It was… [laughs] it was an experience. But so, I was at this wedding, and Eliza had been in town visiting Scott, and we met super briefly – like I don’t even really remember it. But they had added me on social media, and I guess over the years they just kind of – you know, I’d pop up in their feed, and they’d see videos I’d posted of me playing music in my bedroom… and kind of watched me, you know, go through all my awkward adolescent years on Facebook. They reached out to me when I was 20 and said: “Eliza’s working on this film and she wants you to audition.”

It was a really bizarre, random email to get; like I thought it was honestly some kind of spam thing. Because as a musician I signed up for all these different websites and stuff that would always send you things like “Big Opportunity!” and it was usually just some advertisements. So I wasn’t sure it was real. Then after, I set up a Zoom session with Eliza, and we talked on there, and I was like “Ok, so this is legit.” I didn’t really know if I wanted to do it because I was really sceptical; I was like, “I haven’t acted before, I don’t know if I’m capable of doing that”, and I talked to a bunch of friends about it, and they said “You should just go for it. You have nothing to lose, really.” So that’s what I did, and I ended up getting the part (!) and I was very shocked… and yeah, you know, it all happened from there.

Yeah – what was the audition process like? Like, were you up against people – what was the vibe for that? Because obviously, it’s such an intimate – I mean, it’s you and Talia Ryder’s characters, but – it’s your film. You’re in almost every shot, every frame, the camera’s so close to you all the time. I rewatched the film this morning – I think it’s the second or third time I’ve seen it – and I didn’t realise – it made me realise that the way that it’s shot, it’s so intimate. It’s like you’re sitting on the bed next to her, or on the train with the two of them, or you’re walking behind them on the subway. Did you know – did you get to read the script before you accepted – like, when you realised “Oh my God, this is my film,” did that change anything?

Yeah, I mean, she did give me the script to read before I went on tape, and I really liked it – I was very drawn to it. But I had a much more unconventional auditioning process than everyone else, I think? Like, she did a lot of traditional casting stuff and they also – I think they went to small towns in Pennsylvania and handed out flyers and things like that… but Eliza specifically reached out to me; she mentions that she always kind of had me in mind, but wasn’t sure if I’d actually be up to it, so that’s when they finally were just like “Let’s just see if she’ll do it!” I did read the script and I was like: “Ok, I guess I’ll tape this audition” so I did it on my iPhone and Eliza went: “It’s kinda hard to tell. I’m just going to fly you down here.”

[laughs] Casually.

Yeah! I was like “I’m not sure if this is how this actually works.” So they flew me down to New York.

At least they didn’t make you get the bus like your character.

[laughs] No they did not. But I met up with Eliza in her apartment, and the cinematographer Hélène Louvart was there and… they just kind of took me around the city and filmed me doing a bunch of random things like – like using a subway card, and eating pastries at that little bakery, the dim sum bakery that we go to in the movie, we did stuff like that. And then at the end of the night we went to Eliza’s office and I just read scenes with Eliza, and Hélène was shooting them, and… yeah it definitely was unconventional because, I’ve been taping auditions from home now, and the audition process is way more traditional now – like, I get a script, I go on tape.

With Eliza it was this whole thing where she was like: “I’m going to take you down here! And I’m going to do all this!” It was really interesting… it’s a time in my life that I remember so vividly, and it all felt like it was happening in a way that kind of felt like I was being pushed in the direction… and like it was all meant to happen, if that makes any sense.

Well, watching the film, I think it’s clear that it was meant to happen. I mean… there’s so many films where like, I think the instinct of a film like this – I was thinking about this while trying to find my way into this interview – the way this film is made, its so on the down low. Like there’s not a big – I was thinking of the scene where you get the positive test, and there’s no intake of breath, there’s no swelling of music – it’s so confidently restrained. And when Skyler finds you in the bathroom throwing up, there’s no “You’re pregnant! Why didn’t you tell me!” – it’s just “How long have you known?” It’s fantastic. Speaking of that, when did Talia [Ryder, the actress playing Skylar] come into it?

So, after I’d been confirmed for the part, they had me come up to New York for a few days to do chemistry reads. So I read with a lot of different girls. There were a good handful of people but no one that I’d really 100% clicked with yet. And I think Talia was one of the last people to read with me, and as soon as she walked in the room it was just like – there was an instant connection. And we both also found out, she’s lived in New York for a long time now, but we’re both originally native to Buffalo, New York. So that was a cool instant connection we had because we were both from Buffalo and we instantly got along – and it seemed like a perfect fit right there. That’s how she came through.

It’s nice, because – I mean, the script is brilliant, but so much hinges on how much you believe in the relationship between the two. It’s like real life in how you’ve been together so long you don’t need to say anything, really. Like, there’s not a big scene – again you don’t have the music swelling and being “Right, we’re going to New York and I’m coming with you!” It’s just a nod, and then you’re on the bus. So how much preparation did you do – and for the film in general? I mean, I hope you haven’t had to go through anything like Autumn’s had to do. So what was your way into becoming this character? What was your research – what did you find out?

Well you know, coming into it I had no acting experience as we know. I didn’t have any specific way I’d prep for a role. And another thing is that we didn’t really have a rehearsal period. I got to New York and we had three days before we shot. So it was all very fast. And so what we did was, Eliza and Talia and I were at Eliza’s apartment and we went through little pieces of the script there. We did things where, like, she had Talia and I do each other’s makeup, or you saw those nails, while we ran through lines to build an intimacy.

And another thing she did was she gave us these journals with a few writing prompts she put inside them, that were a little personal. And she had us over-night journal in them, with the prompts, and the next day Talia and I shared them with each other privately. It really helped us develop… like, we got to know each other very deeply, very fast. So it helped us feel… because Eliza didn’t develop any sort of like – there’s no backstories for Skylar and Autumn, it was more like Talia and I in real life had connected as women, and I think that was able to translate over.

Did you do any research around getting an abortion in America? Because I know you had to do some googling in the film, and there’s the thing about having to get parental consent – did you look all around America? Because the film’s both trying to say something universal about the abortion crisis, and not really trying to say anything at all, but is just trying to tell this story… so did you try and learn anything to really get it right, since it’s still something women have to go through for some insane reason.

Yeah – especially I learned a lot more knowledge than I had prior to working on the film, because before the film – it’s like abortion rights and things like that I was somewhat aware of, because as a woman you are always aware of the fact that it is under threat. Like, from a pretty young age. Before the film, I’m lucky enough to live in New York State, where it’s pretty protected for the most part, and so I never really had to think outside of my existence sometimes… and so, working on this film did a lot for me in that sense and opened me up to that, because I learned about the crisis pregnancy centres like the first place she visits in the film, where there are these places that are mock-health centres, that are meant to lead women astray and push their own agenda.

And I had no idea that there were so many women that travelled, and crossed state lines in order to get abortions… it was just devastating to learn that there’s all of these sorts of bureaucratic hurdles that people have to jump through just to get healthcare. It’s pretty insane.

Yeah… that seems like a gut punch in the moment when you find out what their deal is – like your character would have put so much trust in them, and then when they come back saying “No, don’t do what you think you need to do – what you know you have to do. Watch this disgusting video.” Also, can you clear this up for me – obviously the person at the first clinic says you’re 10 weeks, and then you find out later in New York that it’s 18 weeks. Did they lie, or did they just not know? Or is that ever clear?

Like when they go to the first place?  I think Eliza had mentioned this before. I think it’s because they’ll tell you that you’re earlier along so that you think you have more time.

Instead of making a more impulse decision?

Yeah, right.

Oh, ok. And going back to that, I think the hardest scene in the film, and I think your Oscar reel from the film, is when you’re in the second clinic where you get asked all the “never rarely sometimes always” questions… and I remember thinking – it’s, like, natural curiosity – because the whole film you don’t really know that much about either of them. And it’s purposeful – you don’t know who the father is and you never find out. It could be the guy you throw water on in the beginning. It could be any of those dickheads sitting in the restaurant. You don’t know.

And I’m always thinking out of curiosity, and it’s bad, but whenever something big happens, especially to someone you know, you can’t help wondering. But when you start getting questioned in the clinic, there’s that close-up on your face, and you’re slowly breaking down… and I was thinking “I shouldn’t be here! I don’t need to know this! This is completely her thing! Get me out of this room that I’m not even in!” How did you go through doing that scene? Because that must have been the one in the script that really challenged you.

Yeah. When that day came up I knew it was a peak scene and that it was going to be really emotional. I remember Eliza and I – we were shooting at an actual Planned Parenthood, and they took one of the offices and let me sit in there just by myself for a little while beforehand so I had some time to just be with myself away from all the craziness of the set and try and connect to that place. And I went to the room and they also had two cameras – like one was on the side and the other was really close to my face, so there was definitely this feeling of vulnerability.

I remember also, Eliza told me when I’m answering the general medical questions, she said “You can just answer them how you might answer them” because it’s just kind of like “No, no, yes yes, no.” So I kind of just went through it… and just kind of touched with a place in myself… I don’t exactly want to give too much away about my personal life, but I just touched into a really deep place. I talked to that counsellor – she’s a real counsellor! So that was really cool; she wasn’t an actor and she just went through it with me. There’s this really genuine feeling about it. I don’t know, it kind of just happened. I remember that was the first take we did.

WHAT?!

[laughs] Yeah! We tried doing a couple more takes, but they were a little more stoic and it was harder to get that organic reaction, so that first take was definitely – it felt really amazing. Something about it was really cathartic… it was a really amazing scene to shoot.

It definitely felt like… a relief for your character. Obviously, throughout the whole film she’s kind of bottling up, she doesn’t want to say anything – she just says it’s “girl stuff” at the beginning. She’d prefer to go through the whole thing without having to think about why it happened, which are things that are only hinted at in the finished thing. With the questions, is that something that happened a lot in the script? Did you have, like, the idea of the scene but be a little looser with it so it played more naturally to the situation?

For the most part we stuck to the script. There were really only, like really tiny moments and details that I could play with, but for the most part we just stuck to the script.

And… what was the process of shooting the film? Because a lot of it is in very close, intimate settings – and a lot of it is on the streets of New York. How was that, obviously with the camera so close to you two all the time. What was it like? Did you shoot it chronologically? Did you shoot a scene, then have to put yourself back into something that supposedly happened a few days ago? How was that?

Yes, so we definitely shot everything super out of order. Like, there were a lot of days where we were just shooting on a bus – you know, the Greyhound bus? There were so many Greyhound bus days, and those were crazy because everyone was so squeezed up together in the aisle of the bus and just trying to hang over the seats. There were a lot of moments where Hélène and I were super close together. I remember – I don’t know if it made it into the film but we did shoot a scene in the Greyhound bus bathroom and it was so hard because it was just Hélène and I in there together on top of each other – there were a lot of moments like that where everything was very tight and there was a camera really close to me pretty often. But after a day or two of doing it you get so used to it that it doesn’t bother you anymore and I just kind of… it became part of my life for the next two months.

The whole film is from your headspace – one of the things I think is great about it is – just being someone of my gender I’ve never really had to feel the sort of, just, I don’t know – this is a film where whenever a man comes onscreen you get that “Oh no” sort of feeling – there’s the guy who’s straight-up jerking off on the subway, or Jasper, who starts off as a creep, and then you start thinking “Oh, is he just an awkward guy” before he ends up pressuring Skylar into doing something she really doesn’t want to do… so in building that tone, it must have been a razor’s edge in getting that right.

Yeah, I mean I see the male characters in the film – Eliza talks about how in the film there’s not just one set antagonist, it’s kind of the environment itself and the male gaze. I think they’re all examples of different macro and micro aggressions that women face from males – because they’re not always intentional, while some are. It’s just something that – women are always feeling on alert and generally uncomfortable. Especially with the Jasper character, he thinks that he’s charming. In his mind he’s charming but really he’s being intrusive and pushy. That’s the thing they’re dealing with all the time besides the fact they’re also dealing with all these hoops they’ve got to jump through just to get healthcare.

Yeah… and that’s the film in general, isn’t it? I think the thing that scared me the most about that initial scene at the anti-abortion clinic is, I think that woman – I got the sense that she genuinely thinks she’s helping Autumn here. You don’t get that – I mean, the video’s horrible but you don’t cut to a tv of Mike Pence rubbing his hands with glee at cutting abortion rights. You get the people at the clinic but you don’t have them screaming or throwing rocks at you. So, was it ever hard trying to push for that really understated emotion that let you get across the scene? You had to do so much and make it look so little – how was it, knowing how far you had to go for each scene? A lot of the times, whole emotions – whole worlds are being conveyed in a gesture or a look – so how did you know?

I mean, for the most part I really don’t – I really didn’t know! I went into this like I was learning as I was going. Eliza was helpful – I mean, she’s a director; she directs, so she would give me pointers in that sense. I don’t know, I just felt like I was constantly on edge and anxious as this character, and I can tell this is Eliza’s style from watching her other films. Her films aren’t super loud. I just knew that there was something – I didn’t want the character to feel hyper or a victim, or one of those big characters that are always dealing with a dramatic feeling. I wanted to make sure it was quiet; I just put myself in that headspace and sort of let my body react to that naturally. It’s a really intangible thing to describe, it’s very hard.

Have you seen Juno?

Oh, yes!

I really like Juno! But Never Rarely is like, the complete anti-Juno. Because on the one hand, the ending of that film is very different, and also it’s a very Hollywood film, very sweet. That character is incredibly lucky; she has the love of her family and friends, the boyfriend stays around and she makes it work. But obviously this one is way closer to what it actually is. Do you think putting this film out there is a good – not like, antithesis, but a good statement?

Yeah… It’s a good counterweight, I guess.

And you were talking about just going through the process day-by-day, so did the acclaim the film got – you were at Sundance and Berlin, you got to deal with that before the world ended. Did that surprise you, how much people took the film in?

I mean… yeah! It’s really hard to describe. There are tons of times when I’m just like “I wasn’t even trying to pursue acting and now I’m at Sundance.” There were moments when I was there and I didn’t even think I was, but it was really amazing to see. Because I wasn’t sure whether we were going to get a lot of backlash from conservative types. I didn’t really see that happening at the film festival necessarily – people were so warm and receptive. Like, I was expecting to be harassed a little more on the internet. [laughs] Which I really haven’t been. I’ve only gotten people messaging me saying really nice things about the film, and that’s been really awesome. Overall it’s just great to see people, like, not even in the States but all around the world are really appreciating the message and also the quality of the film itself. It’s been really nice to see people reaching out like that.

Obviously, I’d rather this pandemic didn’t happen and I’d get to see this in a cinema, but the first time I watched that clinic scene I had to pause it afterwards and just go outside for a bit. Do you think people can – I mean, this is a heavy film – people can watch it in the comfort of their own home, they can go through it in their own pace, especially of aspects of it hit close to home for some women. Is that ok? Or would you still really love to have people be in cinemas for this?

I definitely would say from watching it in a theatre with an audience, and watching it at home, it’s definitely… I think it’s so much more powerful in a theatre, especially with other people around you. Because you can just feel the energy of what everyone’s feeling around you. And it was just so powerful to watch it with an audience, the few times I got to watch it. I’d definitely say I prefer that, but at the same time I still want people to see the film because it’s a really important story. I just want to get as many people, especially women and young women, to see it and feel validated by it.

And I can’t help but… I know it’s the biggest thing in the news right now, but I can’t help but mention – it’s been an insane year for America. Especially in terms of abortion rights – I think I read somewhere that this story was inspired by a woman’s death in Ireland [Savita Halappanavar, whose death led to the passing of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013] that they’re taking steps on now, and the current president who’s on his way out, along with his administration. But also we’ve got a new Supreme Court judge who’s very much looking at chipping away at Roe v. Wade. I mean, did you ever stop to think whilst shooting – “Why are we still making films like these?” I think for me, this falls into my category of ‘great films that shouldn’t have to exist.’ Was that something you thought about?

It is honestly devastating. How more relevant this film is becoming since we made it, since we stopped shooting. I remember coming home and like a month later there were articles about states trying to implement the six week ban and the heartbeat bill. And it just kept going from there, there was all these new blocks. Even when the pandemic came up they were trying to say that it was not an essential procedure, and trying to block it in states like that.

That’s insane.

It’s scary, it’s still scary – there’s still a lot of tension. But at the end of the day, all we can do is keep fighting for that because… I will not live in a world where you can’t get an abortion. I will not. Because they will come after acceptable birth control next. I just know it. I don’t want to let them even get that far.

It’s just the hypocrisy of it as well, right? [George] Carlin did a great skit on it where he talked about how Republicans – how they ‘care’ so much about the unborn, but once you’re born they don’t want to know about you. You don’t get healthcare, you don’t get free education. Did you ever get any understanding around why these conservative types feel this way around it? Would it be helpful, or was it something you didn’t need to understand?

You mean, like, understanding the perspective of conservatives and things like that? I mean, yeah, at the end of the day I think that… I don’t look at people, especially when it comes to people that are working class and such – anyone who aren’t billionaires or politicians, I’m just sorry. It’s like “I don’t agree with you, but at the same time, we’re technically on the same side. All these issues are meant to divide us so we’re not teaming up against the other guys. I’m not going to get into that whole thing because that can take forever…

I can understand the moral confliction. But the way I look at it, is that it’s not up to you and the government to regulate that. I can understand them not wanting to pay for it with their taxes. I’m all for the option to opt out of that even though for the most part that’s not the situation… I don’t see them as evil people. I see them as people who have for years been conditioned with propaganda, but at the same time they’re human beings, even though they do things I disagree with.

That’s the thing – they’re pro-life, but who’s life is that? Because Autumn is so clearly not ready to be a mum, she says it outright. And if she wasn’t able to have an abortion and she carried it to term, that kid would be born but her life would be completely upended. If you can opt out of that, you should! Because her family life is – you only get glimpses of it but it’s not ideal.

Also before I forget, how was working with Sharon Van Etton? [She play’s Autumn’s mother] Because I love her so much. Since you’re a musician as well, how was it?

She’s really awesome. I only got to work with her for a few days because she’s only in the movie for a brief amount of time, but I wish I could’ve got to have more in-depth conversations with her, but just the time I had was so amazing – she’s so down to earth. I hadn’t actually heard her music prior to working on the film… afterwards I started listening and now I’m just obsessed.

Remind Me Tomorrow is an all-timer.

Absolutely.

As we wrap up, I want to ask – if there is one, what is the main takeaway you want people to take from this film? I know this isn’t really a message movie, but it has so much to say about the topic. So what’s the main thing you want people to come away thinking, or wanting to do after watching the film?

Yeah… for one, I’d like it to validate the experiences of other people who’ve had abortions or been in these situations. And then I’m hoping that it gives a realistic and intimate perspective to people who could not understand this world or experience, or may never have it for themselves. That they can see it from a perspective that isn’t, you know, an exaggerated or hysterical portrait of what we usually think is abortion. I’ve had some friends tell me they watched it with their parents that aren’t really the most radical, progressive people… and they said it was a great film for that.

Because it’s not pushy. It’s just a story about this specific situation and I think it’s good for that. I think people can really watch it from that place rather than “Oh, I’m having this “”leftist propaganda”” being shoved in my face!” [laughs] But it’s just a little more you can be focused on the story and the experience, and I think it can open up a discussion better that way.

That’s fantastic… So, what’s next for you then? You said you’ve been getting scripts, and I assume if have got something you probably can’t tell anyone, but have you got things coming up once you can get back to work or…?

Right now I’ve just been auditioning, going on tape and reading scripts and stuff. I’ve been spending my free time practising with my band and writing music with them. That’s been pretty much the main thing.

Yeah, Starjuice! I listened to the three singles you put on Spotify – they’re great.

Oh thank you!

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available on DVD, Amazon Prime on-demand, and Now TV in the UK.

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