12:00pm PT by Jackie Strause
'Black Mirror': Cristin Milioti on Battling a "Misogynistic Bully" in Empowering Space Epic
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the Black Mirror season four episode "USS Callister."]
When Cristin Milioti's Black Mirror character wakes up to discover she is stuck on a space fleet that is run by a tyrant, she understandably has a lot of questions for the rest of the seasoned crew. But when she is told that there are no genitals in this alternate, Star Trek-familiar galaxy, she has a moment where she reclaims her power: "Stealing my pussy is a red fucking line."
The "grab 'em by the pussy"-evoking scene was an original line written in Charlie Brooker's script. The creator-writer of Netflix dystopian anthology series Black Mirror wrote the Milioti-starring season four episode "USS Callister" before President Donald Trump's election, but the real world seeped in when the cast filmed the 74-minute space epic in January. The moment now takes on another layer of relevance when airing amid a national reckoning on sexual harassment. (All six episodes of season four are now streaming on Netflix.)
Midway through the episode, Nanette Cole (Milioti) realizes that all those aboard fleet USS Callister (including Jimmi Simpson and Michaela Coel) are actually digital copies of their human selves that exist in the real world. All are employees for a bullied CTO of a virtual gaming company named Robert Daly (skillfully played by Jesse Plemons). He is a technology genius who abuses his power in the secret fantasy world he has created by trapping clones of his employees, who are fully conscious of the outside world, on his virtual ship. But when Lt. Cole joins the crew, she initiates an uprising. Cole, also a tech genius, finds the weakness in Daly's program and, with her crew's help, is able to save their starship and boldly go where few women have gone before.
"My 12-year-old self was just flipping out," Milioti tells The Hollywood Reporter of the episode's ending, where she takes control in the captain's chair — telling her crew and the audience "I got this" — with an empowering smile. "That’s not who we see in the chair growing up as a girl," she now adds.
Below in a chat with THR, Milioti hones in on the resistance at the core of the episode, and muses about spinoff ideas and why there could still be much more story to tell. She also reflects on a timely story about office harassment getting the elusive Black Mirror happy ending — something Brooker said he had been more open to doing after the Emmy-winning "San Junipero," the series' lone happy ending story prior to season four.
When you first read the script, how did you react when you got to the twist?
I screamed. I loved it. I couldn’t believe that I was allowed to do this. I remember being beside myself and that I read it twice to make sure that I was playing this woman. It could not have been more of a dream to do.
At what point did you realize that this episode was really your character's story?
Not until I read the script! I had been given two scenes to read to audition; one was when she decides to blackmail herself and the other was with Daly when she was at work. I loved the writing, but I didn’t know who the character was at that point. I was thinking, "Part of it is on a ship, part of it is in an office, I guess?" I also think Charlie [Brooker] edited certain things out of the pages during the audition. So I was just beside myself, I couldn’t believe it.
Since you filmed this episode out of order, what was most challenging — and also some of the fun — of going back and forth between Nanette Cole in reality to Lt. Cole on the USS Callister?
We shot the office stuff last. [Plemons shaved his head so he could wear a hair piece, instead of a bald cap, for authenticity; so the office scenes were shot after the fantasy sequences.] I think the challenging part for me was a stamina thing. When this woman realizes she is trapped in this place, on the fleet, she’s operating at such a high level of anxiety and stress the entire time. That was definitely something that I had to be aware of and on top of and keep up. But it really was fun and like a dream job.
What does it say about your character that in this alternate world she's able to discover what she's truly capable of?
The message of that is pretty universal. None of us really know what we’re capable of until it’s asked of us and we're pushed to that limit. Then on another level, it’s amazing to see this woman fight to win this battle against this small-minded, misogynistic bully. Especially because we shot this episode right after Trump was elected. To say that wasn’t going through my mind would be a lie. That’s not necessarily what they wrote on the page — they wrote the episode before the election — but I just love that there is this story of this woman who you write off at first, who just seems small. She’s meek and very polite and always does the right thing, and yet she has a lion inside her. And in the end, she wins. I think it’s amazing.
Brooker has been credited with predicting the future. In this episode, after finding out that the space clones of yourselves have no genitals, Cole says, "Stealing my pussy is a red fucking line.” Was that added as a Trump nod, and how did it feel to say?
It was always in there. I asked about that. I was like, “So this is cause of… right?” And they said no, it was always in there. That’s one of my favorite lines I have ever gotten to say. Regardless of what was going on and of what continue to goes on in the world around us, that was an incredible line for that character to say. To say that I didn’t relish that scene would be an understatement. It felt so good for that character. Then it also, of course, felt so good to say in the climate we were shooting it, of having just seen this person saying these horrible things about women and to still to be given the keys of the city. I love that line and Charlie is eerily prescient. He and [executive producer] Annabel [Jones], I don’t know how they do it. They just write it. "Callister" is feature-length and it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever been asked to be a part of. It’s poignant and moving and thrilling. If this was one movie it would be an accomplishment, and they make six of them.
Last season’s Emmy-winning “San Junipero” episode resonated in part because it was a surprise happy ending that came shortly after the U.S. election and in the wake of Brexit. Do you see how “USS Callister” has similar potential, with its empowering female story coming not only under Trump, but during this sexual harassment reckoning?
It’s completely relevant and yet it’s also timeless. It’s the story of a little person breaking through and breaking this seemingly unstoppable force. She does it. It’s timeless and yet relevant at the same time, but it does feel especially poignant right now.
All of the season four episodes have female protagonists, a thread that executive producer Annabel Jones responded to by saying, “Why not?” How did this role feel to you; is it rare to come across?
It does feel that way, sadly, but it also feels joyous for me, because I got to do it. I get to play this woman who is not fixated on who she’s dating or whose love interest she is. To play that is, regrettably, so extremely rare, but it is getting so much better. It’s incredible, it felt like flying. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve gotten to play a lot of very strong women, but I’ve also been pretty picky because a lot of what comes around is not that. And not that I have some sort of decree that I will only play strong women — because, really, every woman is strong. But it’s an incredible thrill to play a fully realized person and not just some foil or sex object.
You filmed this episode in January so the real world influenced your portrayal, but did anything else inspire how you played her genre-wise?
My favorite film is Kill Bill, volumes one and two. I do love stories of women just throwing down and saying, “No fucking way.” I’ve always loved stories like that. I watched those movies a couple times before I went and filmed it. Just to sit there with this warrior spirit. In Kill Bill she’s a trained assassin, compared to my character being a programmer who works in an office, but it’s that same inner fire of a woman being pushed to the edge and fighting to survive.
In the end after overthrowing Captain Daly (Plemons), your character assumes the captain's chair. What was going through your head when you shot that final smile to the camera?
I had three takes for that shot, we had a really tight schedule. I won’t say what was running through my head — there was plenty! — but I will say that it was the coolest fucking thing that I’ve ever gotten to shoot. My 12-year-old self was just flipping out: To sit in a captain’s chair in a spaceship and say, “I got this” is crazy! That’s not who we see in the chair growing up as a girl, which is why Wonder Woman resonates. And I don't want to say this episode is all about one thing; it’s multi-faceted, which is what makes it so different. You also feel for Daly, something [Brooker and Jones] do so beautifully. You feel for this man who is being taken advantage of and bullied and who is so alone, and you kind of get why he’s doing what he’s doing until you get to the point where you say, “This is unconscionable.” Just because he is being treated poorly doesn’t give him the right to treat others poorly. They hit a bunch of chords in this episode, while being a Star Trek sendup. They’re pretty amazing.
In the end, a second player (voiced by Aaron Paul) tries to gain control of their ship, but they laugh him off and escape to another galaxy. What was your takeaway from the ending – that all humans are disappointing?
(Laughs.) It may be an overly positive viewpoint — I can only speak to what’s in my head — but I think she discovered her best self in the alternate reality and actually becomes the truest form to herself that maybe she was afraid to believe, or didn’t know she had in her. I like to think they go on a bunch of swashbuckling adventures and she’s the captain and it’s completely baller. I would love to see what they get into, that rag-tag crew. That crew is amazing. What would we do in space? Just kicking ass in weird computer space.
Director Toby Haynes shared some ideas for a Callister spinoff when speaking with THR, including turning it into a TV series. [Read that interview here.] What do you think about that?
We would talk about that a lot at the end of filming. I would die if they turned this into a spinoff series because I do want to see that group of people figure it out, because it’s so real. They’re very funny and very dysfunctional, but it’s also a group of coworkers from an office — it’s like The Office in space. They’re stuck in this thing they didn’t even create and they would just have to battle aliens. It’s such an incredible concept. Maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part, but I would love to see that.
There are also questions still lingering — like, what will happen when the police investigate Daly’s death?
Oh, I thought so much about that. We all talked about it at the wrap party. If this were ever a spinoff, in the fake world she would be kicking ass and battling aliens. And then there is the real world where her prints have been found inside Daly’s apartment. He’s dead in his apartment and she has to figure that out. It’s pretty remarkable, I can’t believe what comes out of [Brooker and Jones'] brains.
What did you think of "USS Callister"? Tell THR in the comments below and keep up with all of THR's Black Mirror coverage on Live Feed.