How Abortion Focus in 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' Sparked Star's Acting Debut

Never Rarely Sometimes Always Still 1 - Sundance Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Newcomer Sidney Flanigan plays a teen dealing with an unintended pregnancy in Eliza Hittman's acclaimed, award-winning new film.

Sidney Flanigan never really thought about becoming an actor, but after meeting director Eliza Hittman through tangential ties to the Insane Clown Posse, she took on the lead role in the filmmaker's latest film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, with the hope of using the drama as a platform to speak out about abortion rights. 

Flanigan, 21, plays Autumn, a 17-year-old girl faced with an unintended pregnancy who travels with her cousin, Skylar (newcomer Talia Ryder), from Pennsylvania to New York to try to get an abortion. Through their journey, the film sheds a light on the obstacles that face women, especially young women, seeking safe and legal abortions in the U.S.

Previously performing as a musician in Buffalo, New York, Flanigan first caught the eye of Hittman's partner and editor Scott Cummings while he was filming the documentary short Buffalo Juggalos, about the fans of hip-hop group Insane Clown Posse, known as juggalos. Though Flanigan maintains that she doesn't "necessarily associate with juggalo culture," her then-boyfriend (whom Flanigan calls "a complicated person") was sleeping on the couch at the house where Cummings frequently filmed. Hittman came to the house for a wedding, and soon she and Cummings were following Flanigan on Facebook.

"I guess they would watch my videos of me playing music and were just interested in me, and they reached out to me all of these years later," Flanigan tells The Hollywood Reporter. Though she initially insisted she's "not an actor" and wasn't sure if she was "capable" of starring in Hittman's drama, Flanigan ultimately Skyped with the director and read the script, where she realized its focus on reproductive rights made it an "important" and "interesting" project that she wanted to be a part of.

"I always wanted to be able to contribute somehow to the cause, and this was an opportunity to do that," Flanigan says.

The Focus Features film, which has been available for rent via on-demand services since April 3, arrives at a time in which there's frequently talk of Roe v. Wade being overturned and abortion access curtailed after Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court and a number of states passed laws, currently being challenged in courts, that would ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected. In early March, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case involving Louisiana abortion providers.

Since its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival in January, Never Rarely Sometimes Always has earned rave reviews, currently boasting a 99 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Hittman also took home the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Neorealism at Sundance and the film won the Silver Bear prize at the Berlin Film Festival.

In his reviewThe Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney writes that the film, "should continue to widen the admiration for Hittman's signature blend of unadorned realism with moody, melancholy dreaminess, while providing an impressive showcase for talented young screen discoveries Flanigan and Ryder."

Flanigan, who recently signed with Gersh and is pursuing additional acting opportunities, hopes to use her role in Never Rarely Sometimes Always as a platform to speak out and volunteer for abortion rights. "I just want to try to get as involved as possible and be a voice," she says.

Flanigan opens up about how she approached her mostly quiet starring role, including what it was like to film the emotional scene that gives the movie its title.

You mentioned you weren't an actor. How did you feel as you approached starring in this film? Did you feel pressure that the movie was on your shoulders?

Not entirely, but I kind of was excited to take the risk and dive in headfirst and give it a shot. I did my best to transfer what I knew about performing as a musician over to acting. I think that, as a musician, a lot of times I take another persona onstage. I have to get into a different emotional headspace in order to deliver a song a certain way. I kind of thought it applied a little bit.

This movie's very quiet — there's not a lot of dialogue and there are a lot of close-up shots of you and Ryder. How did you feel about the quietness and having to tell the story through your expressions?

I actually really appreciate it. At first I was a little nervous because, even though I had never acted before, I was like, 'How do I get all of these things across without words?' But I really did like that it was like that because I think with the subject matter it's so easy for a film that deals with an issue like this. It's so easy for the characters to sound like they were just saying things to explain to the audience what's going on rather than being real people, and I think the quietness of the film really helps communicate a lot of subtleties and ideas without sounding like it's propaganda superimposed on characters.

There's one scene that seems to have really struck a lot of people — where Autumn is being asked the "never, rarely, sometimes, always" questions. What was the experience like, for you, of filming that scene?

It was definitely pretty intense. There were two cameras on me, very close, so it created already this kind of feeling of vulnerability. The social worker that I was working with in that scene was a real social worker, so it created this atmosphere of authenticity. I just remember trying to figure out how to bring that emotion out. I just reached for something in my personal experience that may not have aligned with the context of the scene but still had the same emotional substance. I just tried to reach into myself for that and just allow it to trigger whatever reaction that it would and it worked out.

One of the things that's so powerful about that scene is that viewers see Autumn being so guarded for the rest of the film, and that's a moment when her emotions break through. What do you imagine she's thinking or feeling? Why is that what gets her to cry like that?

I never really quite thought about that specifically. I think when it comes to the people we know in life, it's a little scarier to open up because then they might get clues as to who, what and where. It's so much easier, I feel like, to kind of talk about what's going on when it's someone that doesn't know you and they're unbiased, like the very reason that therapy is so beneficial. I think she was sorting out a lot of — maybe she was thinking had this not happened, maybe I wouldn't be here right now, and having all of the "what if" anxiety.

She sort of confronts the sexual abuse she might've experienced there. It's not entirely clear how she got pregnant or who's been abusing her — there are hints with her stepfather and one of the boys at school — and that sort of doesn't matter. But did you come up with a backstory with respect to how she got pregnant and what those relationships are like?

No, I never came up with a backstory for the pregnancy itself. I was more so focused on the crisis that was presently going on. I maybe sort of created a vague idea of trauma not necessarily related to the pregnancy. For that scene in particular, it is shocking that we learn that that's something that happened to her, but at the same time, I think it speaks to the fact that most women have had at least one experience — even if it was not as violent as some others. I think it's really common, more common than we'd like to know.

How do you think Autumn feels about Skylar at the beginning of their trip and as they go on their journey together?

I think that she is grateful to have the company and somebody that does support her but she obviously is under a lot of stress and pressure, and I think she unintentionally lashes out a little bit. I don't think it's because she's that way inherently—it's just circumstantial. I think they do have to have a really good bond in order to communicate in the way that they do. I mean Skylar just decided she was coming on this trip without even talking about it when she was stealing the money, like "Oh, we're doing this." It just didn't even need to be talked about.

I know you only had a little bit of time for rehearsal, but was there any work you did with Talia that helped you in developing that relationship?

Yeah, I mean we did a couple bonding exercises. We wrote in these notebooks that had writing prompts — personal questions — and we shared them privately with each other. We only had two days to rehearse.

What do you hope audiences take away from this film with respect to the state of abortion rights in this country and the bureaucratic hurdles the film illustrates?

I hope that it gives people a real glimpse into the experience itself and that, due to all of the obstacles, it's really not easy and it's not the easiest decision to make. I don't think that it's really like somebody gets pregnant and they're just like, "Oh, gotta go get an abortion now." There's a little more thought involved and because of all of these obstacles, it's even more — due to the obstacles it can be kind of traumatizing. I really hope that people can just take away that it's really painful the way they have it set up, and I hope that they can stand in solidarity with other women.

What does it mean to you that the film is coming out at a time when it seems like abortion rights are being threatened, both in the form of restrictive abortion laws being passed and court cases, like the Louisiana case before the Supreme Court?

As soon as I came home from making this film, I remember seeing articles about the heartbeat bill, six-week ban, and I was just like, "Wow, I can't believe all of these things are happening right now." I had just gotten home. All of the work I'd done had become even more urgent. And now there's this court case going on right now, and I've just been keeping tabs on everything and watching documentaries and reading articles. It feels like this is like my life's work at the moment. It's terrifying, like looming over me. I'm also prepared to be on the front lines. It's something that's so important. I can't imagine a world that is so regressed.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.