'Palm Springs' Stars Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti on Defying Expectations With Their Existential Romantic Comedy

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti
Taylor Hill/FilmMagic; Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

The duo recall the "huge mixtape energy" of their first meeting, the camaraderie on set and the thrill of reading a script that keeps defying all expectations.

In Hulu/Neon's Palm Springs, two single wedding guests played by Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti find themselves caught in an endless time loop, reliving the same manic day over and over again. The romantic comedy was a smash at last year's Sundance, selling for a then-festival record $17.5 million (and 69 cents). It was up for a Golden Globe for best picture, musical or comedy, and for Samberg's lead performance. The film's stars spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the existential comedy that proved to be the perfect entertainment amid a pandemic.

What were your first impressions of the script, and why were you excited to do this movie?

ANDY SAMBERG It kept surprising me and making me laugh. Every character had turns in it I wasn't expecting, which is always my favorite thing. Is it hard to make a movie where the characters defy your expectations in a way? The answer is yes, it's really hard, even though it's always what people like. And there's just something that you can't always put your finger on about it that this had, where I was immediately engaged. I was laughing. I was interested in the story. I liked the premise. I liked the characters. I liked the jokes. And it all was clicking for me — my taste connected with it.

CRISTIN MILIOTI It really kept me on my toes, and I couldn't see where it was headed. And when you read a lot of scripts, you get really used to being able to anticipate what's coming. I had no idea what was going to happen next at any turn. There was a perfect amount of mystery with each character, and the way that it unfurled was really beautiful. I was really moved by it.

Was it a challenge to play certain scenes over and over again, knowing that your characters are actually changing throughout?

SAMBERG It was such a small budget, so you're in one location, doing a bunch of scenes all in a row. And generally speaking, we would do those scenes chronologically — we would shoot everything out of order, but when we were at one location, we would start at the beginning of the script and then move our way through. We were kind of doing mini arcs at each setup. That was not easy to crack.

MILIOTI It's a fun and engaging obstacle to revisit over and over. I mean, it's not fun for the characters. But it was a challenge that I really relished. And the more we shot, the more we would tie [it together] like a puzzle.

Did you follow the script exactly, or was there room to improvise or ad-lib?

SAMBERG We tried to do everything fully scripted at least a few times. When we were rehearsing, we'd feel it out and maybe change it a little, [if something felt] less natural. Like, "I almost feel like we want to say this here, because I'm craving to get that out as a character." It's less UCB-style improv and more like [finding the flow] as we worked.

MILIOTI And opening it a little bit. I can think of numerous parts in the movie where our interaction wasn't totally scripted that way, but we were all on the same page with it.

SAMBERG When J.K. [Simmons] came on, one of the first things we filmed with him was at the bar. There's a moment where I said, "You know, I like your hat." And he said, "Of course you do." [He just said it] in our first rehearsal. And then [director Max Barbakow] was like, "Oh yeah, that's in the scene now." Like, we're just fucking around and then everyone laughs.

Did you ever feel lost in the time loop yourselves? Did you ever stop in the middle of a scene and wonder, "When the hell are we?"

MILIOTI One of the first things we shot was a scene toward the end of the movie, where we're sort of deciding to break up or whatever. But it was like day two or three.

SAMBERG It was definitely the first week.

MILIOTI We were still figuring out who they were. And I remember that white-hot panic terror. It's the scene where he says, "I love you." And I was like, "I don't know what's happening. I don't know who we are."

SAMBERG That is scary, especially with emotional, big scenes like that, where you don't know what you're referencing yet.

Had the two of you met before production began? What was your process for building your characters' chemistry?

MILIOTI It was hours of trust falls.

SAMBERG And she just let me fall every time! (Laughs.) We had a really fun general meeting. [Producer Becky Sloviter] and I had been talking about Cristin a lot, because I kept seeing her and being like, "She's so rad." You know how much everyone loves general meetings? But she came in, and it was just a delight. We just hung out for a long time, way longer than the allotted time.

MILIOTI That first meeting went on and on and on for hours. They're not built for that. [A general meeting] can feel really stilted and that you were all asked to be there, but it's not organic. But ours was such a ball.

SAMBERG It had an energy right out of the gate of like, "I'm going to make you a mixtape."

MILIOTI Huge mixtape energy, and everyone was going for deep dives. It just felt refreshing and very familiar. The rehearsals really helped solidify it. But I think we were quite lucky that we get along and have similar tastes and proclivities and senses of humor.

Tell me a little bit about working with the rest of the ensemble.

MILIOTI It was its own challenge for sure, so many personalities into this space. You know, some eggs are going to get broken, some heads are going to get cracked. (Laughs.) Oh, it was a joy. Andy, I've heard you say this when we've done interviews, but it is really true: No one was there for a paycheck. Everyone was there because they really loved this movie. I didn't get to spend a ton of time with everyone. I think of the week we shot the wedding, and I wish we'd been able to do that for three weeks. We were all laughing and making fart jokes and playing really demented games in between setups.

SAMBERG We knew going in that we had a stacked cast. Meredith Hagner was not just killing it, but elevating every scene. Chris Pang in that nudie suit, Tyler Hoechlin just being all ripped and suave. Peter Gallagher — the second he walked on set, we were like, "Oh yeah, he's anyone's dad he wants to be." It was that wonderful thing you always dream of where everyone is insanely good and elevates the material. I mean, June Squibb! We had her out there in the freezing cold at 4 in the morning, giving her new pages that we were writing on a phone.

Did you have any expectation that audiences would respond so positively?

SAMBERG I'm always worried. I'm never confident. I was bummed that we weren't going to have a theatrical release. That was out the window, and it was like, "All right, so we're going on Hulu. Either people are going to watch it, or it's just, that's it." And it ended up being way bigger than I was expecting. We were pleasantly surprised.

MILIOTI Similarly to Andy, I'm just racked with fear and anxiety and convinced that I'm the worst part of it and that I've ruined it somehow and that it will come out and everyone will be like, "What a bad thing!" I wasn't sure if people wanted to see something like this. We were all isolated, it felt crazy. I was really proud of this, too, and wanting people to see it, wanting people to enjoy it. I sort of thought that maybe it would just come and go.

Yet here we are, still talking about it.

SAMBERG I have to say, the awards season stuff was very unexpected. I'm now getting emails and texts from people being like, "Hey, I finally saw your movie!" It's giving it a second wave. But it's always been the same goal: for as many people as possible to watch it and enjoy it.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.