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Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Unpregnant has everything you’d expect from a classic road trip buddy comedy with plenty of humor and hijinks — but it’s also about a much more serious and political topic than most. In the HBO Max telefilm, Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) learns she can’t get an abortion in her home state without parental permission, so she enlists her former best friend Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) to drive her across the country to an abortion clinic. Along the way, the teens encounter myriad unexpected obstacles, from carnival rides to a car chase, all the while finding themselves and rekindling their bond. In a discussion with THR, Richardson and Goldenberg reflect on how they first met, the challenges of tackling abortion in the telefilm format and how they built an epic BFF handshake.
Before Unpregnant, you had worked together on a Lifetime film. What was your first impression of each other?
RACHEL LEE GOLDENBERG I know my answer because I remember it very well.
HALEY LU RICHARDSON Was it love at first sight?
GOLDENBERG It kind of was! In audition rooms, it can be tiring and it’s a lot because you’re just seeing dozens and dozens of people a day. I remember Haley coming into the room to audition for that role and just immediately loving her and finding her so charismatic and so fun to watch before she even read a line of the script. And then she read and was fantastic, and it made it a very easy decision. The next interaction we had was us casting her and then me asking her if she had any weird skills or anything that I should put right into the script, anything fun that I could include. And Haley, what did you share?
RICHARDSON I, for some reason, thought that my best, most unique quality was the fact that my thumbs don’t straighten fully. My thumbs-up is very weird. I’m pretty sure I sent a picture of that and said that all my knuckles and fingers are just kind of weird.
GOLDENBERG Unfortunately, there wasn’t much creatively in the story for that, but I was glad to know. (Laughter.)
Fast-forwarding to Unpregnant, what was it about this film and story that made it the perfect one on which to reunite?
GOLDENBERG Because I love Haley so much from working together years ago, we’d sort of stayed in touch and I had been waiting as I was working on all these projects for the thing that I could work with Haley again.
RICHARDSON We tried one other time but it wasn’t quite the right thing turns out.
GOLDENBERG It wasn’t a fit, wasn’t a match. But Unpregnant, when I read the script and when I thought about who would be the lead for that, I just knew that Haley would nail it and understand it and go way deeper than even is on the page. So we had breakfast and we talked about it.
Haley, what was your first impression of the story?
RICHARDSON Rachel had just shot me a text saying, “The script is coming and I’m excited for you to read it.” And my agents were trying to describe the film to me — like five of them on the phone at the same time. They were shooting out like, “Juno,” “abortion comedy.” I was kind of confused and extremely intrigued and excited to read it.
Given its subject matter, were you ever nervous or hesitant to jump in, or were you just excited by this fresh take?
RICHARDSON It was just something very new to explore in that way. I didn’t know how it was going to be done and how it was going to work, I guess. So I was unsure in a way at first. But I think it was both. I think things that are refreshing and exciting and a challenge because of the fact that they’re scary in a way or uncharted territory of some kind or something that people could hate. I think that that’s kind of fun, especially with what we were talking about with something that was important. I cared a lot about it. It was kind of terrifying doing the first interviews about it. I was kinda scared about that, but then I realized that you’re just talking about something that matters and that’s okay to do.
What made you nervous?
RICHARDSON It’s such a polarizing discussion talking about abortion. I was getting comments on Instagram that wanted me to like burn in hell because I was even in this movie. First of all, that’s sad that people feel that toward other people and allow themselves to have that lack of empathy. I was scared of people not accepting the movie, not accepting what we’re trying to talk about.
GOLDENBERG I relate to going into the press [and] really wanting to make sure that I got it right, because I made the film in large part because I care about the issue of abortion. I’m very proud of the movie and I liked everything that was said about abortion in the movie. I just don’t want to screw it up when I come in to talk about the movie, because it’s important and I feel a responsibility to the issue and speaking about it in the proper way.
RICHARDSON And also just the fact that Rachel, you made this movie and you put your personal stamp and your heart on it. Like, the movie does speak for itself. When we were promoting it, all I wanted was to get people to watch it. I personally felt like I just wanted every type of person to watch this movie, like families maybe whose parents are like Veronica’s family. I envisioned families like that being open to watching this movie and being inspired to have a conversation with their daughter or their son about sex and being a person and abortion.
Rachel, was the plan always for Haley to be Veronica or did you ever envision her being Bailey?
GOLDENBERG No, she was a Veronica. (Laughter.) I don’t know if her true life personality is necessarily Veronica, although we were able to find some parallels. In terms of playing the role, I knew that she would nail Veronica.
Haley, you’ve had previous roles where you’ve touched on heavy subject matter for a younger audience, such as The Edge of Seventeen and Five Feet Apart. What, if anything, did you pull from your experiences in those roles to help prepare for this role?
RICHARDSON I think, just in general, acting’s all about understanding their situation and putting yourself in it, even if it’s completely different. Like Rachel was saying [how] Veronica’s personality type isn’t so much how I am, but I wanted to understand her, and I had to like her and empathize with her to be able to go through whatever a character is going to go through that I’m playing. I think the more you do that, the more you kind of get better at it and get more comfortable with it.
GOLDENBERG I just want to say that I think that Haley does that in a really deep way.
RICHARDSON (Laughs.) To a fault, almost.
GOLDENBERG I disagree. It’s necessary for her to do her job to believe what the character is doing and saying, and as a director, all I want is someone who cares and is committed and is there to figure out the best version. Starting with looking at some of the scenes in the script and giving her thoughts on what Veronica was doing and why, and whether that led to changes or just led me to need to have a better answer for that. It was like really going deep into the character and making sure that every scene, every movement, literally every time that she crosses a room really feels real to her. And I think that’s where the authenticity of the movie comes from.
Did you both have a vision of who you wanted Veronica to be and then how did that change along the way when you were talking about the character?
RICHARDSON I think we really made her [Veronica] specific together. When I first read the script — I was very honest with Rachel about this — there were things about her that I just really didn’t like, that I found annoying. I wanted it to be more clear just in the way that she was written, like why she was that, why she felt like she needed to be this perfect Type A person because of all of this external pressure. And I feel like Rachel and I figured it out together somehow. Rachel was really open to doing that with me and together and making her have some more kind of faults as well because she was so perfect. But just seeing through the cracks at times, I think is what made her kind of charming or like a person that I could connect to and then play.
GOLDENBERG I think that process also had the added benefit of making it more believable and understandable [was] that she and Bailey were best friends too. Sort of making her a little more…
GOLDENBERG And a little funnier helped with that aspect as well.
How were you able to balance the comedic elements with exploring such a serious topic?
GOLDENBERG For me, tone is everything, especially for this movie. What got me excited about it initially was that when I read the script, I saw opportunities to have a chase scene and a horror scene and these really emotional themes between the friends. So, designing the tone and tracking the tone is not only my job, but something I really love to do. It’s based on instinct and based on trying to find the right way in. For this, the times they’re the most genuine are also the times they’re the craziest. So we’re finding a way to balance the craziness with the genuine emotion.
RICHARDSON Yeah. That was challenging. I didn’t expect it to be so hard, but I think it’s because I am hard on myself and I care. I have a really hard time getting through a scene if I don’t believe it. It’s hard to do that when the tone is a comedy and crazy things are happening. I just had to do it and trust Rachel that it was going to work. I have a lot of respect now for comedy actors when they are in a movie that’s like this where there’s a very true, deeper through-line to the comedy. I think the best I’ve ever seen it done in a similar vibe of the movie and someone my age was Hailee [Steinfeld] in The Edge of Seventeen. She’s so good in that movie. It’s obviously very different characters and stories, but I would YouTube scenes of her and watch and be like, “How the heck did she find that balance?”
GOLDENBERG I think also the balance between you and I, Haley, is part of what works about the movie and part of why I’m happy with it. It wasn’t just like me pushing you to be in the movie’s tone. It was the positive wrestling with you advocating for the truth for Veronica and me advocating for what I know the movie needs to be and us sort of meeting in a place that feels real and grounded and the movie has its levy. It took work to get there, but I feel like that was, it was productive work.
RICHARDSON Yeah I completely agree. I’m proud of us!
The heart of the film is this rekindled friendship between Veronica and Bailey and the chemistry between both of you and Barbie Ferreira is so key to the story. Haley, what was your first impression of Barbie and then how did you go about formulating that chemistry together?
RICHARDSON Well my first impression of Barbie was just that she was the coolest person I’d ever seen and I’ve met. She just continued to be that. It’s kind of intimidating how cool she is. (Laughs.) They were doing chemistry reads for Bailey and I was there cause I was already attached and everything. Barbie was just like Bailey. Right? (Laughs.)
GOLDENBERG Yeah she was delightful. It was obvious that the two of them were just sort of magic together and that it would be doing a disservice to the movie to not let other people see what they can do together.
What was important for you to get across with Veronica and Bailey’s friendship?
RICHARDSON Well I think feeling the history and feeling their love for each other. And then, in the end, it coming to a head where neither of them meant to hurt the other person. It’s just your pains, even at a young age, can cause resentment and make you feel bad. And then you have distance from even people you love. But then also something that I’ve been saying a lot, which is literally my favorite thing about the movie is Bailey and Veronica share a lot of love and history, but they’re very different people and they see the world differently. They talk differently, they look different and they love each other anyway and the differences and the polarity creates this harmony and this love and respect despite all the differences and that’s something that I just love about that friendship and what I think the main message of the movie I feel really is.
Veronica and Bailey have this rather epic handshake. Can you talk about the creation of that?
RICHARDSON (Laughs.) Rachel was very excited to get that right!
GOLDENBERG I was asked by the line producer if we needed to get a choreographer for the handshake and I was like, “No, that’s certainly something that Haley and Barbie need to come up with together.” (Laughs.) I think our first rehearsal was them creating this handshake with me giving notes about things. But then they were practicing it and even for a couple of weeks whenever they saw each other just doing it so that it felt like second nature. It worked really well as a bonding moment. What they came up with was just perfect.
How long did it take to perfect it?
RICHARDSON Barbie and I just hung out all the time while we were in New Mexico. We would hang out and would just do it in the middle of conversation, like every 30 minutes. So, we got it down pretty quick, but we at least needed one good night’s sleep on it. The next day, I think we were pretty good. Weren’t we?
GOLDENBERG And you performed it beautifully!
RICHARDSON We really did have to get it down because we were doing it while we were driving and Barbie didn’t have her license or just barely did. So, to not be good at driving and having to do a handshake and act and have cameras in the back of the car — that’s a lot going on!
Rachel, are you able to perform the handshake?
GOLDENBERG I think I sort of knew it at one point, but it’s not for me. (Laughter.) It’s really for Veronica and Bailey and it’s not mine to do.
It’s safe to say that Veronica and Bailey are put through the wringer and have quite a wild adventure. Does any moment stick out to you as the most challenging to film and then is there any personal favorite moment?
GOLDENBERG I mean the ride is always going to be my…
RICHARDSON Oh the ride was really good! Rachel really wanted that specific ride and apparently, we weren’t going to get that ride for some reason. I don’t know, what was the reason?
GOLDENBERG There’s only four of those rides in the entire country and two of them are stationary in Coney Island and somewhere else. It’s much more complicated than I initially thought.
RICHARDSON We were going to have to be on a different ride that wasn’t as intimate and wasn’t as crazy and Rachel was very sad about it. The day that we got the news that we got that ride, Rachel literally shed a single tear of happiness. Her face was just so lit up and she was just crying a single tear of joy. (Laughter.) But that ride scene was so cathartic and Barbie and I were so worried that we were going to vomit and hate it, but we ended up both loving it.
GOLDENBERG There was a first take [and] the footage is the funniest thing. I was crying laughing in the edit room because the first take they do was their first time on the ride. And they were just screaming the entire time. Then poor Barbie, you can see if you watch it, she keeps remembering she’s supposed to be saying dialogue and so she spits out a line and then starts screaming again. But when I was watching on set, I was like, “Oh, shit are we not going to be able to shoot this scene? Are they able to speak while they do this?” But by take two and three and then certainly by take eight …
RICHARDSON We did eight takes?
GOLDENBERG Well you rode it eight times cause it was four shots altogether.
RICHARDSON I feel like I got pretty good at it by the end. Normally on rides, I have this reaction, my teeth start chattering really bad. It’s like a panic attack that I have from rides, but I enjoy myself. So it’s really confusing for people. I was doing that the first probably two times. Then by the end, I wasn’t even really scared.
Then apart from the ride, you guys also have quite an action scene with a car chase. What was it like filming that?
GOLDENBERG I loved it. I love filming action sequences. We had only a day to shoot all the action moments, which is very short compared to what a normal action movie would take, but we really wanted to just get the most out of it. And so it was very specifically planned and a busy day with the cars and the action and stuff. Then just to tell all our secrets, we shot their [Richardson and Ferreira] side on a greenscreen. So all of their driving stuff was greenscreen-based, which was also maybe as hard.
RICHARDSON That was fun to do though! It felt stupid at first, but it was also kind of liberating. And that’s probably how people in superhero movies feel like, cause it’s so dumb what you’re doing but it’s liberating because you just feel like a kid.
GOLDENBERG But the other sort of action thing you guys did was running for the train and running away.
RICHARDSON There was a lot of running in the desert, all those pokey weeds.
GOLDENBERG We actually had some pickups we did later with some stunt runners and I think the stunt runners just didn’t anticipate how fast Haley and Barbie were. Haley and Barbie were running so much faster than our stunt runners ran so kudos to them. That one shot where you’re running away after the car’s crashed and I said, “Just keep running.” And you said, “When do we stop?” And I said, “You just don’t stop.”
RICHARDSON We literally ran a mile. Do you have the audio of us talking when we were running? Because we were talking shit. (Laughs.) We were like, “Should we look back? Should we stop?” And [Ferreira] was like, “No, we can’t!”
GOLDENBERG I said, “We’ll do it once and that’s it.”
RICHARDSON I don’t run. I’m not a runner. I don’t understand people that are runners like that’s their thing.
GOLDENBERG Haley, someone right now is reading this and considering casting you in the very best movie about a runner overcoming all the odds and you’re blowing it right now.
RICHARDSON Well … [I’m the] best sitter in the world. (Laughs.)
What do you both hope people take away from this story and these characters?
GOLDENBERG I hope that people enjoy the film, first and foremost. I hope that it emotionally engages them and hopefully, it makes them laugh. The thing that I most hope it can do is just, help be a small step in normalizing and de-stigmatizing abortion. That’s what inspired me to make it. What I’m hoping is to see a character like Veronica who wants an abortion and that it’s way too hard for her to get it, but she gets it and she’s grateful that she was able to get it. That kind of story is not a story that you get to see very often. I’m hoping that people can sort of be able to talk about it more. One thing that happened to me after I graduated high school was a friend told me that she had gotten an abortion in high school and she had had a hard time with it and she’d gone alone and she hadn’t told anyone, and I felt really badly that she didn’t think she could come to me. So maybe if some teenagers have said, “Oh, I’ve seen Unpregnant,” maybe one of those teenagers can know, “Oh, maybe I can talk to this friend about needing to go get an abortion or wanting an abortion.”
RICHARDSON Making movies is cool because you can start conversations like this and you can do it in a creative, entertaining, different way that makes you feel things watching a movie like this. I feel like there’s something in it for everyone. And I feel like it’s not just young girls who should watch this and have these conversations. The Kevin character in the film is not a perfect guy and he could have benefited from watching a movie like this and having conversations about love, sex life, how to treat people and things like that. I hope people just continue to find it on HBO Max and watch it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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