'Landline' Newcomer Abby Quinn on How Character's Teen Angst Is "Mimicking" Family Dysfunction

Abby Quinn - H Getty 2017
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The actress, who has her first major film role in the '90s-set dramedy, talks about what inspires the movie's swimming-pool confession.

[Warning: The following story contains spoilers for Landline.]

The 1990s-set indie dramedy Landline is often described as a reunion of the star (Jenny Slate), writer-director (Gillian Robespierre) and writer-producer (Elisabeth Holm) of Obvious Child. But the Amazon Studios movie, currently in theaters, also marks the first major film role for Abby Quinn, who plays teenage younger sister Ali.

At the beginning of the film, Ali has seemingly isolated herself from the rest of her family, mouthing off to her parents and her adult sister Dana (Slate). But after she discovers, via floppy disk, that her father (John Turturro) is having an affair, she confesses that secret to Dana and the two of them grow closer as they investigate their dad's infidelity and learn about each other.

Off-camera, Quinn says her bond with Slate developed organically. The actress began performing at age 6 in her school's production of The Wizard of Oz, and prior to Landline she appeared on Law & Order: SVU and in the films The Sisterhood of Night and The Journey Is the Destination. She's also a singer and musician who has played guitar since age 7.

Quinn's own parents divorced when she was young, and the actress was drawn to the script's fresh take on the end of a marriage and how the outspoken 17-year-old was different than herself. Born a year after the movie takes place, Quinn felt like she was able to go back in time via the movie's authentic '90s setting.

Quinn, who is set appear in the Transformers spinoff Bumblebee, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about her Landline character's journey, including what inspires Ali to blurt out to Dana that their dad is having an affair when she does, and whether Ali and Dana's sisterly bond will endure.

What was it about Ali and the script that you really liked?

My parents got divorced when I was in fourth grade. I think there are a lot of films that are made about divorce, or at least dysfunctional families, but I think what appealed to me was that it was a totally different spin on the way that divorce has been portrayed or just talked about, and it was completely different from my own experience with divorce and my parents being divorced, so that was really appealing to me — just to be able to go through it as a version of myself but in a completely different way. Also the character of Ali, she's pretty different from who I am, and she's very unapologetic and able to just freely speak her mind and isn't wary about how she comes across, which is something that I do struggle with and I'm not like that. Like, I'm very bad with confrontation, so just getting to be her for six weeks felt very therapeutic to me. It felt like a release of something, and I felt that immediately reading the script.

How would you characterize Ali's attitude at the start of the movie — is it just teenage angst or is there something more going on?

Probably it is a little bit of teen angst, but even though nothing's being explicitly said about her dad cheating on her mom or any sort of dysfunction there, I think a person can sense it. So she's living in this house as a 17-year-old girl with these two parents, and obviously it's not a very happy household and it's not very open — no one's talking about their problems. So I think after a couple of years of that or even a childhood of that, for Ali she's going to grow up into a person who's mimicking those things but in her own way. So she isn't really open with anyone and if she does open up to people, I think she doesn't trust that they have the time to respond. If she actually sits down and opens herself up to people, I don't think that she trusts them enough to respond in a way that's going to help her, so she takes a lot of her burdens on her own and she tries to handle them that way. I think once she finds out what's going on between her parents, I think she feels for the first time like she sees them as people who need to be taken care of and it kind of becomes her job, and in the process of that she does soften up a bit because she becomes close with her sister and reveals this huge thing she'd been keeping a secret for a couple of weeks. I think she's still the same Ali but for the first time in a long time, she's more emotionally available and not such a loner with her family. She's actually talking and opening up with them.

Why do you think Ali decided to confide in Dana about their father's affair and tell her when she does?

They've been swimming together and playing around in the pool and Ali blurts that out. Ali's whole reason of going to the lake house with her boyfriend was because of this huge fight that she had with her dad and mom. The fact that they were going to come into her room and talk to her about her grades or anything about school when Ali knows about what's going on with her dad cheating on her mom, I think it pisses her off that that is even happening. And she turns to her mom and is like, "No wonder he hates you." So she kind of drops the bomb there. I don't think she's capable of keeping it all in for any longer. Like she's already revealing stuff that she knows is going on. And then by the time she gets to the lake house with Dana, I don't think that they spend a lot of alone time together at all. They're kind of shocked that they're in the same place. So they find themselves in this pool together, somewhere that they went when they were kids, alone for the first time in forever, and I think all of the heaviness of it all hit Ali in that moment and she needed someone to help her with this because she's trying to navigate it on her own or spy on her dad alone but it wasn't working.

The movie leaves things open-ended in terms of what happens to this family. What do you think happens after the credits roll? Do Dana and Ali stay close? How is Ali dealing with her parents?

At least between the parents, I think that they do separate but I wondered after reading the script and seeing the movie, if they're going to get back together or if this is final and they're just going to be friendly. But I do think it's just an example of divorcing and remaining friends and being able to celebrate their daughter's birthday in the same room. I think between Dana and Ali, I don't know if they're going to go right from this to being friends for the rest of their life because there is still a lot of stuff between them. But they have this horrible experience together and that has bonded them. Ali's still 17, so she's going to graduate from high school and go to college and go through huge transitions, which take a toll on any relationship. But I hope that from this experience, they have a better understanding of each other or at least just some desire to be in each others' lives. I don't think that was there at the beginning of the film — they just couldn't care less about what was going on with each other's lives — but I think they're both invested in each other now, so I hope that would carry on.

What sort of work did you do with Jenny Slate to create this sisterly bond? Did you spend time together before filming or during downtime on set?

We really didn't spend much time together beforehand. I think I met her two days before we started filming, and it was for a table read, and then I didn't see her until the first day of shooting. [That bond is] something that happened really naturally, and a lot of it's in the script, too. The base of the relationship is in the dialogue and in the scenes. But Jenny and I never had to have a conversation explicitly about how these sisters act. That's sort of why it comes off as natural and a true sister bond because it wasn't calculated. When we were taking breaks between scenes, it was an opportunity for us to get to know each other as people, which inevitably helps when you're in a scene with someone. I'd say by, like, the second week, there was already a relationship between us in real life and a lot of our scenes where we're supposed to be closer — like the scene in the pool and the dancing and the one with the mom in the bathroom — all of those sort of came toward the end of shooting, which I think sort of worked in our favor because we had had weeks of screaming at each other and being really distant and mean to each other to warm up to that point of being open.

What was it like filming in this fake '90s environment with floppy disks and skipping CDs and old computers and clothes from the period?

It was really fun. I was born in 1996, so I didn't really have any life that I remember in the '90s. Walking into my bedroom just completely added an element to my character because it was so detailed. Everything was really authentic and it just totally heightened everything that I'd come up with for my character in my own time. It didn't feel like it was this huge thing to be doing a piece in the '90s because it kind of felt like any other film. It didn't feel completely different from other projects that I worked on that are not based in a different era.

Looking forward, what do you hope to do acting-wise in terms of film or TV or theater?

Right now, I think film and TV is probably what I'll be doing for a little bit, but I do come from a theater background, so I'd love to do theater and musical theater one day. Right now, I think my main focus is on film and TV. Living in L.A., most of the things that I audition for are for film and TV. But I hope I get to keep doing projects that allow me to play completely different characters and keep working with really talented actors and directors — pretty much what happened on this film.