Andy Samberg (‘Palm Springs’) on making ‘more than just a straightforward comedy’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Andy Samberg stars alongside Cristin Milioti in the critically acclaimed Hulu sci-fi comedy “Palm Springs.” His performance as Nyles, a carefree man stuck in a time loop, earned him a Critics’ Choice Super Award for Best Actor in a Sci-Fi/Fantasy Movie and he is among the top contenders to earn a Golden Globe nomination for Best Comedy Actor.

Samberg recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Matt Noble and contributing writer Denton Davidson about what attracted him to the Neon film, working with actors like J.K. Simmons and how the film resonated with audiences because of the circumstances of 2020. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby (Matt Noble): Andy, if you were stuck in only one day of your life and you had to repeat it again and again, which day would that be? 

Andy Samberg: It’s a hard one because a lot of my favorite days from my life were also really intense. I loved my wedding day and I love the day my daughter was born. But I think if I live perpetually on those days, I might start going crazy (laughs). So when I’ve thought about this question, I’ve often said it’s not that dissimilar from Nyles. It would be a perfect mellow day at the beach, not too hot, not too cold, water’s warm, couple brewskies, a nice picnic lunch, friends and family. Keep it simple.

Gold Derby (Denton Davidson): That sounds nice. So “Palm Springs” premiered at Sundance, and then when it went to Hulu, it was actually the most-watched film in the history of Hulu for an opening weekend. Do you think a lot of people being stuck at home throughout this COVID-19 pandemic helped them relate to even more than it would in a normal world? 

AS: Yes, absolutely. I mean, obviously, we’re all cinephiles. We were all really excited to see the movie in theaters. We got to see it in theaters at Sundance and that experience was really exciting to watch the jokes land and the emotional arcs land. You put all that time and work in and there’s something about the collective audience experience that you can’t really replicate in any other way. However, we also all know that this summer was going to have a bunch of massive, incredible blockbusters coming out, and our movie, although I think has high entertainment value, is a smaller movie. Our budget was much smaller and it was a little more contained. I hesitate to say we were lucky regarding anything surrounding COVID because no one’s been lucky with that. It’s just been horrible. But I do agree with you that I think the movie got a lot more attention than it otherwise might have because people were at home. Honestly, because Hulu is bundled with Disney+, because of that whole business side of things, I think there was a big surge. “Hamilton” came out a week or two before us, sort of set the stage for people really having a home movie experience. We came out the same weekend as the Charlize Theron “Old Guard” movie, which I know a lot of people watched. We watched it. It was super fun. So it was something that gave it a lot more attention and I feel really proud of the movie. I think we really worked hard to make it something that was good. It gave it a lot more spotlight for other people to see that as well.

GD: The movie is an absurd premise in a lot of ways. How did you approach the balance between the comedy and the realness of the film? 

AS: I mean, it was a lot of trial by error. A big part of that was just that our writer, Andy Siara, and in conjunction with Max [Barbakow] and then later on with me and Akiva [Schaffer] did a great job of blending a bunch of different genres in a way that didn’t feel hodgepodge, but instead felt like they were all working in favor of one another and for me, who, generally speaking, does comedy outside of more serious moments on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” or “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” which is an indie I did, it was a safe outlet for me to try pushing myself a little further in that department while also knowing there was big set piece, hard laughs in it as well, and just general weirdness and cool quirkiness and even sci-fi mechanisms, which is my true first love as a viewer. All I want to do is watch “Raised by Wolves” on a loop (laughs). So for me to get to do what I know I consider myself to be good at, which is the comedy stuff, while also getting to dabble in sci-fi and dabble in existential indie and dabble in a little bit of drama was really exciting for me.

GD (Matt): So really, that’s the day you want to repeat, the day you watched “Raised by Wolves.”

AS: (Laughs.) The end of that pilot, man.

GD (Matt): Yeah, that’s the day you want to get stuck in. Is there a scene or a moment where you think those things came together really well in the film? 

AS: Well, it depends which part you’re talking about. There’s a sequence in the movie that I know comedically is where we really clinch it, which is when Sarah, Milioti’s character, decides to give herself over to the loop and we do an extended sequence of them just doing the fun and games. Frankly, if you’re a scriptwriter, the wish-fulfillment section for the trailer stuff, where there’s the bomb in the cake and they crash an airplane because they know there’s no consequences, that dream come true of, “What if you could do anything you wanted and none of it mattered?” I think that is really where we stuck the landing comedically.

In terms of the other stuff, for example, one of the things that excites me the most personally about the movie is the moment when Nyles and Sarah see the dinosaurs because it’s not a concrete, “This is exactly what’s happening.” It’s more of a question moment and it’s more of an alluding to a feeling or a notion. It’s also a little muddy, which I love that Siara did it because they’re tripping on mushrooms, but they’re also near, presumably, a rift in time. So you’re like, “Well, they could be just hallucinating, but they’re hallucinating the exact same thing, which means even if they are hallucinating, there’s some intense, energetic connection between them.” And it also could be they’re hallucinating and their pupils are so dilated that they’re seeing through the rift and back into time, which is also super cool.

But also, ultimately, just from a symbolic standpoint, and Andy Siara has said this a lot and I really like it, is they’re two people that have given up on themselves who don’t believe they can be loved or are capable of loving and they are falling in love in this moment, which to them feels impossible and another thing that is impossible is to see dinosaurs. So it’s almost like the physical manifestation of them accepting that this impossible emotional thing might be happening, which I thought was awesome (laughs).

GD (Denton): Yeah, I love how the three main characters are all sort of in a different space within the realm and J.K. Simmons, I mean, he’s pissed. Roy is just tearing through town, coming after Nyles hard and to me, that’s one of the funniest parts of the movie. What’s it like bringing someone in like J.K. who’s got so many dramatic accolades to bring him into a comedy like this and to work with him? 

AS: Yeah, I was joking with him that the role is kind of a combination of his “Whiplash” role and his “I Love You, Man” role because it’s very arched and silly and funny, but he’s also torturing me with aplomb, with relish, and that’s partly why it’s so funny but also it’s terrifying. He’s, like, waterboarding me and shit in the movie (laughs). So we knew as soon as the idea of J.K. came up that he was who we wanted because we knew he could do the comedy and we knew he could do the grounded stuff and there was a little bit of history between he and I, just for having done that movie before and also we were just a little bit friendly, which gave it a nice shorthand between us. But we also really needed to make sure it was someone like him who, when it gets to that scene in Irvine, he can really stick that landing and bring it down, and all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, right. Roy has been in a lot of pain.”

That’s what a lot of these characters are dealing with is facing themselves and facing their own pain and learning to be at peace with their lot in life, which I think is something we’re all struggling with, obviously. It’s really hard. Because we know so little ultimately about existence to get to that moment where you’re just zen and you’re like, “I’ve got friends and family and the things that I care about and I contribute to what I care about and that’s my lot and I’m going to just be at peace with it and try and be more zen about it as opposed to just always pushing, pushing, pushing.” I think that was why it was so important to us to have Roy be someone like J.K. and really specifically for it to be J.K. If he had said no, we would have asked other people, but he was who we wanted. When we were on that day shooting that scene, that Irvine scene, the wind was gently whipping and it was just one of those nice moments when you’re shooting something but even though you’re shooting the scene, you’re just like, “Oh, I’m in the movie. I’m watching it.” It just felt like it was happening because he’s great. He’s a master.

GD (Matt): With your comedy work from “Saturday Night Live,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” now “Palm Springs,” is there something you particularly look for? They’re very different works but is there something you look for in comedy and something that you think is a through-line that just makes things funny? 

AS: I’m sure if I sat down and mapped it out, I would realize I have things I gravitate towards. I generally try not to think about it that way and the thing me and Akiva and Jorma [Taccone] always say, which holds true, is if you think something is funny and you’re excited to watch it, you just go straight at it and then figure out why later. It’s so easy to write an average comedy that hits all the beats and probably would do fine and has some real laughs in it and then you go into it and you punch it up and you make it better and it gets to be pretty good, and then you made one of those.

But the search for us is always finding something where we’re like, “Whoa, I don’t know if I’ve even seen that one,” and it oftentimes will be something where you don’t get appreciated for it until a while down the line. But for us, forgive this, artistically as comedians, we have trouble resting on our laurels. We always want to be doing something that makes our head kind of tingle and be like, “Fuck, I don’t know if we should do that. I don’t know if we can get away with it. But I have to say, it’s making me really laugh right now, so we should probably pursue it.”

A perfect example of that for me was me and Akiva put out this super weird niche musical poem on Netflix last year about the Bash Brothers, who were Oakland A’s players from our childhood and we knew it was for no one (laughs). But we just kept thinking about it and we kept sneaking into the studio and writing more songs as those guys and all of a sudden we put together a whole project and put it out and it was worth it because we felt happy and excited while we were making it. You let the chips fall where they may after that.

GD (Denton): Andy Siara wrote the script for this, which is great. Did you have a relationship with him prior to this or was this your first time working with him on a film? 

AS: I had not met him or Max before this. I was sent the script cold through agents and I read it and immediately it was like, “Oh, yeah. Yes.” I’m pretty sure I’ve said, and I think this is true, the moment in the script where Nyles and Sarah are about to hook up and then Nyles gets shot with an arrow, that was always for me the moment reading it, where I was like, “Oh, I’m going to do this.” (Laughs.)

GD (Denton): And is there a difference when you’re just being cast in something and you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to produce this”?

AS: Yeah, the difference was that it didn’t have a producer, so I felt like from a creative standpoint, script especially, I saw very clearly a path towards expanding it and giving it a bigger scope and also just clarifying some of the arcs a little bit. They’ve talked a lot about how the time loop wasn’t even a part of the script for a really long time. It was more like “Leaving Las Vegas” death march kind of a movie. But then I think by osmosis, they got to this place that was actually a lot more hopeful and had a little bit more of a rom-com structure, like a backbone to it so when we first all talked about it, I only had a few things to say. One was I thought that we could expand the third act and pay off the rom-com arc of it a little more. The other thing was I thought we could have more set pieces comedically and the third thing was that I wanted the Sarah character to have more, which they said they were already thinking and totally agreed with. So, creatively, it was love at first sight with me and those guys. We just hit it off and we were off and running and working on the rewrite pretty much immediately.

GD (Matt): What was your favorite moment in the film to shoot? 

AS: I mean, I loved all the stuff with J.K. It was just fun. I really liked a lot of the goofy stuff with Cristin, too. She’s such a lunatic. I love her. But doing the bomb in the cake, not to keep talking about it but that was a scene we added, and then she asked to have the hook hand and the eyepatch, like, really get into the dinner theater of it all and it was just fun. There was a lot of times we’d shoot it and we’d be like, “Well, I’ve never done this before,” which is always, to me, a good sign that you’re at least pushing it and trying things that you haven’t necessarily seen a million times, and that’s always our goal, ironically, since it was a time loop movie, which we have seen (laughs). But I think that made it even more important that we were like, “We need to push this beyond what people already know about this genre and try and give it a new spin so that it feels fresh.”

GD (Matt): It’s interesting, your character, we’re coming into you and you’re already in the time loop. 

AS: And I will say, that was the main adjustment they made that made me feel OK about doing a time loop project, period. When we signed on to it, I was like, “Well, there’s ‘Groundhog’s Day’ and there’s ‘Edge of Tomorrow,’ but this is like the comedy one that’s not the ‘Groundhog’s Day’ one. It’s like it’s the dirtier comedy one, you know, it’s a little edgier.” And then after we signed on to the movie, I think “Russian Doll,” “Happy Death Day,” and I think a few others started getting announced and coming out and they were all good and we were like, “Should we not make this movie? What are we doing?” But we kept thinking about it. A lot of people talk about that, that I know that work in entertainment where they’re like, “There’s just something about that one I couldn’t shake.” That was this for me and for all of us. So we just plowed through and it worked out.

GD (Denton): It’s interesting, too, because it’s one of those movies, if you see it more than once, there’s a whole bunch you can catch the second time you’re watching it and there is one scene right at the beginning when your character Nyles is talking to Jerry in the pool and Jerry’s someone who, I think we call them entanglements, at some point in the film. But he sort of hints, “Oh, anything can happen today” and Nyles is like, “Not today.” So it really makes you wonder, is there anyone else in the loop that we’re not really seeing in the loop throughout the whole film. 

AS: Well, we never decided on that definitively. I know there’s a lot of speculation about Nana, because we added a scene towards the end, which was a scene initially intended just to remind the audience that Sarah had lost her mother, which is a very traumatizing thing, especially when it happens to someone at a young age and not that it excuses bad behavior, but it’s the kind of thing that can really spin a person out and affect their personality and how they view themselves within the world, feel kind of untethered and especially her dynamic within her own family, the fact that her dad remarried and she now has a sibling who has both parents, all of those things, even though the movie, generally speaking, is pretty light, the subtext of that is pretty fucking heavy for her character. So I thought it was important to remind everyone of that right towards the end, especially right after Sarah does the day “right” and is there for Tala and is the model sister that she always should have been, to show that she’s grown that much.

The Nana thing, her maybe suggesting that she’s aware of the loop or some sort of departure that Sarah is considering, I categorize it under the same thing as the dinosaurs. It’s less important whether or not we can say concretely that she does or she doesn’t, it’s that she’s keyed into something. She’s feeling energetically something, and maybe it’s because she’s old so she’s closer to the end and more attuned to different things or maybe it just means that she’s going to leave the wedding, who knows? It wasn’t meant to be like, “If you peel back the layers, you will see this definitive answer, which is that Nana is or isn’t…”

So personally, that was something that I was really excited about as an element to the movie, just all of those moments and I will say, first time we ever met on it, our mission statement at the end of the meeting was we wanted it to be emotionally satisfying and really fun to watch and have people leaving the theater having discussions about what they think happened, and that goes for the dinosaurs, that goes for Nana, that goes for whether or not they got out at the end. There’s all these different key pivot moments that speak to that feeling and the thing we kind of loved about it, even in our own inner circle creatively that were making the movie was even within us, everyone had a different opinion about what was and wasn’t happening and it really fascinatingly starts to show you people’s worldview a little bit, beyond just glass half full, glass empty, but partly that, too, like how they view themselves, how they view relationships and marriage and commitment in general and all of those things and it became really fun in that way.

GD (Matt): People are asking the question, where do they get the bomb for the cake? 

AS: They get the C4 from Spuds at the gun range. I believe that was in the script and then we lost whatever scene showed you the C4 ‘cause we had such a tight schedule. But yes, that is a definitive answer and it was addressed in the script (laughs).

GD (Matt): There you go, an exclusive for Gold Derby. Andy, thank you so much for talking to us today. Just to finish off, for people who may have not seen the film yet or for award voters that are considering voting for “Palm Springs,” what is the one sentence you have to convince people to see the film or vote for it? 

AS: I don’t know, I guess just watch it. If you like it more than the other movies, please vote for it (laughs). I know comedies don’t traditionally get a lot of love at certain award shows, which I have my own feelings about in general, but I would also say this is more than just a straightforward comedy. It has a lot on its mind and if you’re someone who watched it and really enjoyed it and experienced all the different levels of it that we intended, then we’d be thrilled to have a vote.

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