While Andy Samberg is still best-known for his seven years as a cast member on Saturday Night Live from 2005-2012, it was his contributions as a short filmmaker that solidified his fame, as he and his two friends, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, professionally known as The Lonely Island, were the driving force behind some of the mega-popular SNL Digital Shorts like “Lazy Sunday,” “Dick in a Box,” “Motherlover” and “I’m on a Boat,” among others. Samberg and his Lonely Island partners/friends continued to make videos after SNL, as Samberg’s star continued to rise with performances in films like Celeste and Jesse Forever and voiceover work in films such as Hotel Transylvania and its sequel. Samberg also produces and stars in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which just finished its seventh season on NBC with previous seasons on Hulu.
In 2016, the trio produced their first feature film, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and executive produced shows Alone Together, I’m Sorry, and the Emmy-nominated Hulu hit, PEN15. They now have produced Palm Springs, a mind-bending fantasy rom-com starring Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons, directed by Max Barbakow and written by Andy Siara. The film is garnered critical raves and generating some awards buzz, despite having come out more than six months ago.
I recently spoke to Samberg about what it was like to release a film during a pandemic, why Palm Springs feels so much more mature than anything he’s ever done before, whether drama is in his future, the importance of keeping friends together, and which British musician’s approval he craves.
Catherine Springer/AwardsWatch: May I call you Andy? “Mr. Samberg” doesn’t feel right.
Andy Samberg: I feel like I’m so notoriously childish, that “Mr. Samberg” would feel wrong. [laughs]
I’ve been a fan of yours for quite a while, but I have to tell you, Palm Springs just blew me away—it’s my favorite film of 2020. I wasn’t really expecting this kind of film from you or from Lonely Island. Would you consider this as a departure from what you guys normally do?
Yeah, I think in a lot of ways, it was. It was sort of a nice blend, I thought, in that there were parts of it that really did click with things that we were known for, in terms of sort of the more comedic elements and set pieces and sort of how the character of Nyles presents, before you realize what the movie is actually about, and that acted as a really nice entry point for me as an actor, and for us as producers, to then take on something that was a bit of a departure and that we could really develop further, that actually has some heavier themes running through it, and in many ways, it becomes a lot more earnest than anything we’ve done before. So yeah, it was a little bit of both.
You guys remind me of a band, you’ve been together since childhood, you’re basically friends who work together. Kind of like U2, I want to know what keeps you together. But in that sense of being a band, most bands mature with each new album, are you guys feeling some sort of trajectory? Do you sense you are all moving towards a certain goal?
It’s not like something that was ever verbalized, like, hey, let’s start doing things that are a little more mature now. It’s more something that happens organically. If you look at the history of people who have worked in entertainment, there’s a long tradition of it, which is, we’ve gotten older, we’ve gotten married, we’ve had kids and started settling down and gotten older and been producers and dealt with some heavier stuff in both directions of life, older and younger, and we’re just kind of at that adult age now where we understand the world a little differently. But, you know, we’ve shed a little bit of the embarrassment that comes with trying to take things on that are a little more meaningful. It’s just our natural worldview now, by osmosis. That’s not to say that we’re not still fully committed to making some of the dumbest stuff humanly possible. That will always be our first love. [laughs] It’s where we really made our mark, what we’re really good at, but certainly it’s exciting to know that we can stretch what we’re known for. And even the things that we’re producing, like PEN15. The last few years we really didn’t had much to do with it creatively, we just sort of endorsed these wonderful women and their ideas, Maya [Erskine] and Anna [Konkle]. But even that show, which is completely bonkers, and zany and hilarious, also deals with some really heavy stuff, and for us, at this stage, we are, yeah, this is great. We have to do this—without even really blinking.
And, for Palm Springs, you guys have a history together as producers, and you have a history as an actor and a producer, but you brought in a writer and director who are making their feature film debuts. How were you able to click and create the synergy to make such a successful film? You would never think that this was a first-time director and first-time writer.
Yes. Well, the script just came in great. You know, it was sent to me, as, “hey read this, they’re wondering if you would want to attach to act and if you guys would want to produce,” and the deal from the jump was Max and Andy are really good buddies from AFI. They’re both still really young. And they sort of hatched the idea for Palm Springs together. And it was borne of their conversations. So the idea from the get-go was always that Andy would write it and Max was attached to direct, so that’s what came to us. And even though Max was a first-time director, we’re the “keep the friends together” guys, because that’s what we did. For us, it was like, okay, this is how you guys want to do it. You know, it’s a little bit of a dice roll with the first-time director and first-time writer, but that’s what we’re here for as producers. We’ve got a lot of experience and a lot of mileage. And we can help anything that needs helping along and, sure enough, we formed a really solid creative cocoon right out of the gate. Max, as a director, really saw, visually and performance-wise what he wanted, clearly. We helped them as much as we could along the way.
Yeah, that’s fantastic. And we have to talk about how good your co-star Cristin Milioti is. How did she get involved?
Well, Becky Sloviter, who is a producer on the movie, along with me and our company, and I had been sort of talking about Milioti non-stop at the office. This was back when you could go to your office. [laughs]
I don’t really remember anymore, but ok…
I do not recall the taste of strawberries. [laughs] But yeah, I had watched Cristin in the second season of Fargo and her episode of Black Mirror back-to-back just randomly. But it really made a huge impression on me where I was like, who is this actor? I just saw her in two things, playing completely different roles and just being incredible in both of them. And Becky was like, “Oh, yeah, Cristin Milioti, I love her, we have to figure out something to ask her to be in.” And then almost that week, Palm Springs came in. So it really felt like there were some connective energy happening there. As soon as I read Palm Springs, I asked Becky to read it and she was like, “Ooh, I love this.” And I’m like, “You know who would be great?” and she was like, “Milioti!” She came in for a general meeting with us and we all hit it off. After she left, we were like, okay, we have to get Cristin to be in Palm Springs now. And it just worked out, we were really happy she was into it.
Yeah, she was fantastic. What is it about Black Mirror? I don’t know if you’re a fan, like I am…
I haven’t seen them all, but every one I’ve seen sticks with me so much. I want to see the rest.
Yeah, and the acting is amazing.
So good. They really do keep breaking incredible people.
Thinking about Black Mirror, Palm Springs sort of falls into that vibe, where you think you’re watching something that looks like a rom-com, it’s nice and cute, but then it takes this turn. There are some pretty deep themes here. It doesn’t fall into any one category. People are calling it a rom-com, but I really don’t feel that way, I don’t think it’s any one thing. How do you how describe it to people?
I appreciate you saying that, because I feel the same. Obviously, we’re dealing in some rom-com tropes in the emotional arc for the two lead characters—the spine of it, so to speak, is, you can argue, from a rom-com, but one of the things I responded to so strongly about the script the first time I read it was it feels like this sort of unprecedented blend of genres. On the surface, there’s a rom-com element, but it’s also sci-fi. It’s also a big, broad comedy in parts, with comedic set pieces. It’s also an existential dread indie, you know? [laughs] It’s talking about sitting with your own shit, facing your demons and forgiving yourself for your transgressions, and learning to love again, giving yourself the respect and space to allow love back into your life, all of those things. So, the reason that it was so exciting to me was, it’s very rare you see a script that’s even attempting that much, but a lot more rare to read a script where you feel like it’s actually being pulled off. Most times, there is a cool idea, some cool scenes, but it doesn’t really feel like one piece. Whereas with Palm Springs, when you read it, it felt like a singular tone, even though it’s dabbling in all these different palettes.
For me, it was sort of a double-edged sword because it came out much earlier in the year, so I was worried people would forget about it.
But then when it did come out, it was perfect, because it was in the middle of the pandemic. I had to watch it again the other night, because I want to make sure that my love for it and the way I viscerally responded to it wasn’t just because I was locked away. And it did hold up. You had no idea it was going to come out during a pandemic, but all the themes of the movie, as you mentioned, really are everything we’re all going through as a as a human race, the whole planet. Do you think the reaction to this film would have been the same any other year? It just was, unfortunately, perfect timing.
Yeah, I think that’s a good way of putting it. It’s just unfortunately, a perfect timed release. I mean, who knows. There are so many variables that probably would have changed if there was no pandemic and no quarantine, like, I doubt we would have tried to put the movie out in the dead of summer, in theaters against all the blockbusters that were scheduled to come out this year that never came out, that we’re now waiting another year for, the massive tentpole stuff that we’re all excited to go to the theater to see. So, in one way, that probably never would have happened either, who knows how it would have landed.
But we’ve been consistently told it resonated with people when it came out because of when it came out. And I think that’s the kind of thing obviously you can never plan for or know was going to happen. As much as we love the reception it’s gotten and love how much attention we got because we came out in the dead of summer when people couldn’t leave their houses and it felt like something people really enjoyed and connected with at that time, if I could still snap my fingers and have it gone a different way and have not had to go through quarantine, of course I would. It’s kind of a difficult thing to discuss, I hesitate to be like “It was great!” [laughs] Because nothing really about this year has been great, but it was in some ways, certainly fortuitous, in terms of capturing, maybe a bigger audience at that moment.
There was a captive audience, and it’s good that it didn’t get lost.
Yeah, for sure. And the fact that I’m still talking to you about it now is incredible. Especially for a movie in this day and age. The cycle of things move so fast now. I’ll watch something and love it, but I’ll have to be reminded a few months later that I watched it. At the time, I was really excited about it, but there’s just so many things coming out so many platforms and in so many ways. There’s a lot of really great stuff. So I’m just thrilled that it’s something that people still want to talk about.
One of the elements in this film is the effect of having no consequences. Is there anything you would do in life, if you knew there would be no consequences?
And don’t say storm the Capitol, because I won’t accept that.
[laughs] I would NOT storm the Capitol! I feel like a lot of the stuff I do in the movie, honestly, which is part of why doing the movie was so fun, why I was so excited to do it. Like, you know, turning your life into a big goof, and having no consequences. Try any drug you feel like, jump out of an airplane, do whatever crazy thing you always dreamed of doing you were too scared to do, any and all of that. Eat like a lunatic… [laughs]
It really does tap into that sort of that carefree feeling we wish we all had, right?
Yeah. Especially right now.
Let’s switch gears a little bit and go from being totally carefree and let’s talk a little bit about quantum physics.
This movie is a fantasy. But I have to tell you, I see all those professors listed in the Special Thanks in the credits, from MIT, Dartmouth and Georgetown.
Come on, is there something you figured out that that we need to tell us? Are time loops real?
I think that actually might be for some of the footage we use for the lecture she was watching but we did consult with a physicist, this guy Clifford Johnson, who was wonderful. He was recommended because he advises on Avengers and Marvel movies and stuff. So we did talk a lot about trying to contextualize the anomaly of the time loop in our movie in a way that, you know, for anyone who knew even a little bit about it would be able to go like okay, well, there’s no proof any of this exists, but at least they are covering their bases in terms of making it not just gobbledygook. He actually ended up in the movie, we had him on the FaceTime with Sarah in the diner. She realizes she’s actually learned more than he has over God knows how long she’s been working on it. So, yeah, that part of it is really fun for me. In my life I’m comedy first but in what I like to watch, I think if I had to choose one genre, it would be sci-fi. It’s just what I enjoy the most of anything, I watch everything sci-fi. So the fact that there was any of that in this, and that’s and I got to actually talk to a physicist about time loops and quantum theory was super fun and exciting for me.
You actually show some serious acting chops in this movie. Any desire to do drama? Is there an Uncut Gems in your future?
Oh, my God, are you kidding? I would die to do an Uncut Gems, that movie is so fucking great. But yeah, I would be down for anything. My feeling on acting is always just, I’m open to anything as long as I feel like I would want to watch it, and I feel like me being in it wouldn’t ruin it. If I feel I have the right angle on it and can strike the right tone, I’m excited to try.
Have you come around to accepting yourself as an actor? You broke in as a musician, right? Do you consider yourself an actor who plays music? Or do you consider yourself a musician that occasionally acts?
Oh, well, actually, I’ve long sort of claimed neither. I’ve always just insisted I’m a comedian. The music we’ve made is still comedy, so I would even categorize that as being a comedian. But the short answer is, yes. I do consider myself an actual actor now and I’ve done enough of it that I’ve understood how it’s actually really hard to do well. [laughs] And I enjoy it, and I respect the craft of it and all that stuff.
Comedy is the hardest.
Well, comedy never felt like the hardest thing for me, though. To me, dramatic acting feels more challenging and difficult than comedy. The trick with dramatic acting, I’ve found, is finding material that is compelling, and then you can do as little as possible and it’s still good. [laughs]
What are you most proud of with this film?
Oh, man, that’s a good question. I think the thing I’m most proud of, both from the acting and producing perspective is that we got the spirit of what was in the script on screen. I think all along what everyone agreed was special was this sort of crackling energy that the script had and a tone that didn’t feel like every other movie you’ve ever seen, but for some reason read very clearly. And that’s a credit to Andy and to Max, and the work they did. It’s so easy for good scripts to get ruined along the way with invading forces and ideas and that kind of stuff. But in the end, I feel like we did a justice, and the spirit of it is on the screen.
Last question, which I have to ask: who picked [Kate Bush’s] “Cloudbusting” at the end? An absolutely perfect needle drop— one of my all-time favorite songs.
Well, this is great with me, because it was actually my idea! It was actually an idea I had in the first meeting with Andy and Max. We talked about adding a scene at the end where Sarah is walking into the cave strapped with C4 and that song is playing, that’s what I pitched, and they totally went for it. But yeah, it’s one of my all-time favorite songs, too. And I was really thrilled that we got the rights to it, I wrote Kate Bush a letter. [laughs]
Did she write back?
She didn’t write back, but we got the rights, so either someone who she trusts read it and approved it or she read it, and even that possibility makes my brain kind of explode, thinking about it.
I imagine Kate Bush actually watched your movie too, which has got to be awesome, too.
I hope! And if she did, I hope she likes it.
Palm Springs is currently available to stream on Hulu.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Photo credit: Joe Seer / Shutterstock