Time After Time: Cristin Milioti on Palm Springs

Time After Time: Cristin Milioti on Palm Springs

A time-loop rom-com with a twist, Palm Springs sees two lost souls finding themselves trapped in one single never-ending day. Cristin Milioti, creeping into the spotlight as the destructive Sarah, steals the show with energy, wit, and a marrow-deep sense of loneliness that demands to be loved. On the Lonely Island, Leonard Cohen and the allure of dark matter, the actress speaks to Ella Kemp about the role that might just change everything.

This interview contains spoilers for Palm Springs – advance at your own peril.

About 10 minutes into my conversation with Cristin Milioti, she starts apologising, profusely. “My brain right now is complete porridge.” The Palm Springs actress has asked me to repeat a question about working with the Lonely Island guys. It’s probably my fault too. Our interview is taking place over the phone, it’s late at night, the connection crackles every now and then. We’re both a little scattered, but we’re doing our best. It’s movies; watching and talking and writing and feeling things about them, but in lockdown. 

Palm Springs is an accidentally timely and moving film to be watching in the time of coronavirus. It’s a riff on Groundhog Day, rewiring the equation from the inside out – there’s a time-loop, except instead of one person getting stuck in it, there are two. It’s witty and wise, sometimes weird, often charming and occasionally heartbreaking. Milioti, who plays Sarah, is brimming with praise for her collaborators, and for this character. But, like the rest of us, COVID has got to her a little bit as well. 

“I’m so incredibly thankful and grateful to be doing this during this time, but… my brain is having a very tough time catching up,” she admits. It’s reassuring to hear that we share this feeling, of gratitude for our jobs, and for this film, while still wrestling with the inevitable stress and ludicrous new circumstances of it all. 

And so: embracing good intentions and bittersweet energy, we’re here to talk about the movie, a whip-smart comedy full of its own contradictions too, starting with Milioti’s character. “I fell so in love with Sarah,” she says. “All I’ve ever wanted to play is a full-blooded person.” She stars opposite The Lonely Island funny guy Andy Samberg as Nyles – they’re both attending a wedding they don’t want to be at, and then through one twist of fate, they end up stuck there, together… forever. 


Nyles and Sarah work so well together as a double-protagonist because they both suffer from the same things. He’s funny (because of course) but he’s also a bit aimless, narcissistic, cowardly. And Sarah, instead of being the person to fix him, isn’t much better. “She gets to be just as funny as he does,” Milioti says. “And then you also get to see her pain, her joy, her shame, all of her flaws. Sarah is hard to be around sometimes! And I love that we don’t shy away from that.” 

Part of the difficulty in Sarah’s character comes from her destructive behaviour. She ruins relationships, both hers and those of other people – and when she knows specifically what not to do, like, oh you know, running into a cave that will trap her in the same reality over and over again, she obviously does it. “It was very freeing,” Milioti says of such hurricane behaviour to perform. “Sarah’s destructive behaviour obviously stems from a place of pain and shame about who she is, and the harm she’s done to herself and to others. She’s constantly deflecting, she doesn’t want to sit in any of it.” 

The tendency to deflect, to shrug it off as a joke or a drunken mistake, also makes for tremendous comedy. Physical slapstick and pin-sharp dialogue keep the film light, with Milioti and Samberg at the fore bringing it to life. “His comedic chops are obviously incredible,” Milioti says of her co-star. “I’m a huge fan of The Lonely Island – they know comedy so well and are so adept at making people laugh. But I felt, although the irreverence is still there, it was done in a very different way here.” 

Humour is one thing, but Palm Springs stays with you because of the way laughter catches the back of your throat, thinking about the enormous stakes and major feelings also at play. As Nyles and Sarah live tens, hundreds, thousands of days together, naturally, their relationship intensifies. When you only have one other person to share your emotions with, there can be a depth, sometimes a violence, that comes with such intimacy. 

But this isn’t a paint-by-numbers romance, he’s not the saviour and she’s not the grateful princess. “One of the things that bums me out about a lot of movies I grew up watching was that there was always this sense that you weren’t complete until the man you were waiting for came around and completed you,” Milioti says, calling it “the Pretty Woman disease”. Palm Springs allows for big, romantic statements – but they have to be earned, and they come with their own nuances. “I thought it was so refreshing, and true to life, that someone can be fine on their own, but then wants to say, ‘I am choosing you. I am choosing to have you in my life’. My favourite line of dialogue is when Sarah says, ‘I will be okay without you, but I do know life would be less mundane with you in it.’” Nyles and Sarah make sense together because they know each others’ flaws, and they are choosing to live with them. 


Much of Palm Springs is defined by this courageous spirit, sometimes reckless, sometimes philosophical, often animated by choice needle drops that bottle the paradoxical mood at work. One crucial scene comes to life gloriously to the tune of Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’, but another moment has Milioti to thank for the perfect soundtrack. “I worship at the altar of Leonard Cohen, I keep the flame on my nightstand, obviously,” Milioti says. 

I ask her about Cohen’s ‘The Partisan’, which screenwriter Andy Siara credits Milioti with. “When I suggested that song, I didn’t know it super well,” she says. “It was just on a playlist of mine, but I think because we were so deep into shooting I hadn’t paid attention to the lyrics.” These lyrics, often haunting and solemn, say: “Oh the wind, the wind is blowing / Through the graves the wind is blowing / Freedom soon will come / Then we’ll come from the shadows” But even without those words in mind, Milioti knew there was something beguiling and urgent lying within. “It gave me this sense of someone chasing themselves, and marching into the inner abyss,” she says. “There was a mournful quality to it, where I imagine this woman walking through the desert and embracing the unknown. It felt like a funeral song that was also weirdly galvanising. You would get ready for battle to that song.” 

Indeed, Sarah goes to war: with the time loop, with Nyles, with herself. She is constantly trying to escape, and in an invigorating twist, is actually given the tools to try. The Palm Springs team conferred with quantum physicists to get their science right – so that the montage of Sarah frantically watching YouTube videos of black holes and molecule patterns would actually hold some water. “There used to be a three-page speech where I explained everything… and it got cut!” Milioti reveals. “It took me two weeks to fully metabolise, where I felt really secure in knowing exactly what it meant.” 

The science – at least to this non-expert writer – still seems convincing, and certainly left an impact on Milioti. “I got into dark matter, how it knows when it’s being observed… and some theories that we all share the same atoms that made up the dinosaurs, like it’s a constant recycling.” She adds, to emphasize the stakes: “Probably one of the atoms in you belonged to Cleopatra.” Even if the actual mechanics didn’t end up making the cut, the effects are still felt. “I only dipped my toe in as far as I needed to for the character, but I found that the little I did explore felt very witchy and spiritual,” Milioti admits. 

Our time, unlike that of Sarah and Nyles, is running out. I have one more question on my mind – I know in advance that Milioti might recoil, but she is, still, immediately honest and accommodating. “Don’t be sorry!” she tells me, after saying she has already been quizzed on her own ideal time loop situation. “I say that we’ve been asked this question a lot as a disclaimer, because I take it very seriously,” she says. “It feels very major.” 

She’s right: during lockdown, every one of my own days has turned into the same one. Same place, same pace, same company and too many of the same thoughts. To have the choice to shift this into another reality, even if it is a science-mandated time loop, feels thrilling. Milioti decides to keep the big, eventful days intact. “If I had to choose a day, it would probably be one I’m not even aware of,” she says. “Probably a day out in the woods when I was a kid, near the woods where I grew up. A blissful day.” And the company? Committing to taking just one other person with you, for all the laughs, the tears, the frustration and the monotony is intense. That decision will change everything, so that choice is more important than anything. “It’s very hard for me to whittle it down to one person,” Milioti agrees. “If I had to shoot from the hip I’d take my dog – he rolls with me everywhere. He’s my little ride-or-die. I can’t imagine a time loop without him.” 

Ella Kemp (@ella_kemp) is a film critic and editor based in London. She is the Contributing Editor for READ ME and the Film Editor for the Quietus. She writes for NME, Empire, Letterboxd and more. Her favourite word is “verklempt” because it’s what she often is.

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