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Why Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti got over rom-com jitters for ‘Palm Springs’

“Palm Springs” team, photographed in the L.A. Times Studio at the Sundance Film Festival
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti of “Palm Springs,” photographed in the L.A. Times Studio at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are having a hard time wrapping their brains around the fact that their oddball sci-fi-romantic-comedy “Palm Springs” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival less than six months ago. Given how much the world has been upended since then, it feels more like six years ago.

“That was the last time I was in a movie theater with tons of people, sitting in a dark space experiencing a story together,” Milioti said by phone last week from her temporary home in Los Angeles, where she has been staying since the COVID-19 pandemic prevented her from returning to her home in New York. “I’m so deeply thankful I got to experience that.”

This is a deeply weird time, to be sure. But in a way, it couldn’t be a more fitting moment for a movie like “Palm Springs,” in which time itself gets deeply weird. In the genre-scrambling film, which will be released via streaming on Hulu and in a handful of drive-in movie theaters Friday, Samberg and Milioti play Nyles and Sarah, a pair of disaffected guests at a wedding in Palm Springs who find themselves caught in an infinite time loop and are forced to relive the same day over and over again. Think the 1993 Bill Murray comedy “Groundhog Day,” but R-rated and, well, weirder.

“Palm Springs” became one of the breakout hits of Sundance, selling to Hulu and indie distributor Neon for a stunning $17.5 million (reportedly breaking the previous record held by the 2016 drama “The Birth of a Nation” by 69 cents). Samberg, whose “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is expected to return this fall for its eighth season, and Milioti, who earned a Tony Award nod for her work in the musical “Once,” have each drawn raves for their work in the film, which Samberg produced with Lonely Island partners Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone.

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For “Palm Springs” director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara, who are each making their feature debut with the picture, it’s been a head-spinning turn of events. “The film was very much born out of this bizarro process of creative therapy,” Barbakow says. “Its DNA is not simple — it kind of meanders and touches a lot of different genre elements. We were so lucky to find partners who saw what was special about it and went into it for the same reasons we did.”

The Times spoke with Samberg, 41, and Milioti, 34, about shaking up rom-com conventions, mining existential angst for laughs and coping with the profound strangeness of these times.

Actors Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti and Camila Mendes of “Palm Springs.”
Actors Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, middle, and Camila Mendes of “Palm Springs.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

This movie might look like a traditional romantic comedy on the surface, but it really blends different genres and deals with some serious emotional and relationship issues. Was it always clear to everyone what the tone would be?

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Milioti: Yeah, I always thought of it as an existential comedy as well. I mean, there’s absolutely a love story at the center of it, but it also spoke to these bigger themes of what we’re doing with our time on this planet, trying to escape yourself, having to practice acceptance of who you are and taking responsibility. That’s one of my favorite parts about it. I think it’s an amalgamation of many things, as well as being so funny and moving.

Samberg: Agreed. And I will say, everyone who was attracted to the project did see it similarly and that was kind of why it all congealed well. It’s a small movie — no one was doing it for a paycheck, as [costar] J.K. Simmons kept telling me.

It was just something that everyone believed in. We were all really excited about the genre blending and the sort of up-and-down nature of it, going from really arch comedy to existential dread to hopefully resonant romantic connection to self-forgiveness. Not to mention a full-on sci-fi-fantasy element, which was another big part of why I thought it was fun.

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in "Palm Springs."
Cristin Milioti as Sarah and Andy Samberg as Nyles in “Palm Springs.”
(Jessica Perez/Hulu)

Have either of you ever considered doing a more conventional, down-the-middle studio rom-com before? I assume those kinds of projects have come your way.

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Milioti: It’s definitely come my way, for sure. But I just never came across one — and I’m sorry, this is going to sound so pretentious — that was something that got me really jazzed. There was one where there was the role of the villain and I was like, “Ooh, can I do that?” But in terms of a straight, down-the-middle… no, they weren’t necessarily the thing that I was down for.

Samberg: Same. I have been offered them in the past, but it takes something more like “Palm Springs” for me to feel comfortable. It’s not that I wouldn’t watch a more down-the-middle rom-com — I’ve definitely enjoyed them before, as recently as “Always Be My Maybe,” which was super funny. If I was sent something like that, I would consider it. But it’s not something where I’m actively like, “All I want to do is a big, broad, glossy rom-com.”

The best rom-coms, the ones that really last and resonate, feel honest. There has to be some sort of honesty and connection there that people can be aspirational with, where it feels like real human beings.

Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti), shown in "Palm Springs".
Andy Samberg as Nyles, left, and Cristin Milioti as Sarah in “Palm Springs.”
(Hulu)
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Milioti: That was one of my favorite things about the script. [In typical romantic comedies] it’s usually like a 25-year-old living in a $10-million New York penthouse, being like, “Ugh, working at the coffee shop is hard when you want to be a DJ.” [laughs] This is not that.

Sarah and Nyles are so human. They’re human beings with all of their flaws. Sarah does things throughout the film where you’re like, “Oh, my God, why are you doing that?” There are things about her that you would maybe question having to be stuck in a time-loop with. But that was also what I loved about it: that she is a human being and so is he and they call each other out on it.

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This movie gets compared a lot to “Groundhog Day,” which was also a romantic comedy about being stuck in a time loop. Are you guys fans of that movie or other movies or TV shows that mess with time?

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Samberg: Cristin hasn’t seen “Groundhog Day,” so she’s going to bow out. But I’m a huge fan. I’ve seen it a million times. We bow at the altar of “Groundhog Day.” It’s an incredible movie that I truly love. And Cristin probably should see it. [laughs]

Milioti: How have I not seen it? I don’t know, I was watching other stuff. I was watching “Addams Family Values” and “Hook” and “Beetlejuice.”

Samberg: That’s Cristin in a nutshell, those three movies. That’s your DNA.

Milioti: It’s true. I was a huge fan of “Russian Doll.” I thought that was brilliant. And I finally just saw “Back to the Future” in quarantine. It’s great, but can I say, no one had quite prepared me for the element that [Michael J. Fox’s character Marty McFly’s] mom is straight-up trying to bone him.

Obviously, you never could have imagined that “Palm Springs” would be coming out at this moment where, because of the pandemic, we’ve all been experiencing time in this weird way. On one level, every day feels sort of the same and at the same time, things are changing incredibly fast. How have you guys been experiencing this real-life time loop we’re all stuck in?

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Milioti: You don’t have the ability to escape yourself or distract yourself from this. Trust me, I’ve tried... I’ve watched all of “Better Things,” which blew my mind. I watched “90-Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days,” which really rotted my brain. I’ve been watching a lot of “Rick and Morty.” I watched “Showgirls” for like the 20th time the other night. [laughs] And at the end of it, you’re like, “Oh, I still have to sit with all of this stuff.”

Samberg: I would concur. Time moves in a strange way right now.

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, screenwriter Andy Siara, Camila Mendes and director Max Barbakow of “Palm Springs,”
The “Palm Springs” team together at the Sundance Film Festival in January. From left, actors Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, with screenwriter Andy Siara, actor Camila Mendes and director Max Barbakow in the L.A. Times Studio in Park City, Utah.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

It’s also a great time to have a movie coming out direct to streaming given how hungry people are for fresh content they can watch at home. But are you disappointed that, aside from a handful of drive-in theaters, there won’t be a traditional theatrical release for the movie?

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Samberg: Given the circumstances, we’re insanely lucky that we have something at all right now — that we were done shooting, that we shot safely. I’d sound like [a jerk] if I started complaining about how sad I was that people can’t see it in theaters so they can all laugh together.

We’re just grateful that we have jobs and we’re going to be able to put it out. We’ll take it. Hopefully, people will find it and watch it and it gives them a little bit of relief.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


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