Talia Ryder on the Best Advice Steven Spielberg Gave Her
Photographed by Michael Creagh
Before the actress Talia Ryder started filming the new Eliza Hittman movie Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, she only had 48 hours to prepare.
Alongside her co-star Sidney Flanigan, the 17-year-old New York native traveled to New Jersey with Hittman to test out cameras, try on costumes, walk around, and talk to each other. Hours later, they had lunch, where they worked through the script, and Hittman gave the two actresses—who both make their big-screen debuts playing cousins in the film—journals to fill out. That was their homework, as Ryder put it: to write their thoughts and come back the next day to share them with one another. On the second morning, Flanigan and Ryder met at Hittman’s home in Brooklyn a few hours before the rest of the crew. The director had just moved in at the time, and hadn’t yet bought any furniture. In the empty apartment, the three went over scenes; while Ryder read lines, she did Flanigan’s hair and makeup. Flanigan played her favorite music. They watched YouTube videos of 12-year-old girls piercing their own noses.
“I can’t picture it happening any other way,” Ryder said recently, speaking on the phone from her home in New York City. “I feel like if we had more time, there would have been a lot more room for us reading into things too much. Eliza spent a lot of time just building our personal relationship, rather than focusing on backstories.”
At the time we spoke, the actress was quarantined like the rest of us, holed up in her house during spring break (her brother, who was playing Fortnite in the background, could be heard yelling at the video game from time to time). It was a rare occasion, having her family together at the same time—her sister, Mimi, is also an actress, and co-starred alongside Talia in the Broadway show Matilda. Their schedules are demanding.
Talia Ryder is almost finished with her senior year of high school, but it isn’t clear whether she’ll have a proper cap-and-gown graduation—as of now, all her classes have shifted online and she’s on track to finish on time in June.
“I hope everything will be back to normal by then,” she said.
Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always first screened at Sundance, then released in select theaters and was slated for wide release until the coronavirus pandemic caused a rift in the schedule. But the film will now be available for streaming starting April 3—like Emma and The Invisible Man, other movies that shifted onto early streaming releases in the wake of theater closures—creating a new avenue for viewers who might have missed its run in theaters before the quarantine hit.
The plot of Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always centers around Autumn (played by Flanigan) a teen who becomes unexpectedly pregnant, and her cousin Skylar (Ryder), who accompanies her on a trip from their home in rural Pennsylvania to New York City, where Autumn is hoping to get an abortion. Much like Hittman’s 2017 film Beach Rats, the movie is presented in an art-house, documentary-esque style, providing a real look at a difficult topic that can sometimes leave the viewer feeling a little uncomfortable, squirming at unflinching medical scenes and the tough interviews Autumn must do at Planned Parenthood in order to secure treatment. But both actresses are captivating in their no-fuss presentation, laying down the facts without being preachy: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always documents Autumn and Skylar’s journey, their hardships, the tough emotions they encounter, and what it’s like to attempt getting an abortion. That’s it.
For months, Ryder, Flanigan, and Hittman filmed inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City, where much of the film takes place. Because of legal limitations, they were only permitted to shoot between midnight and 4 a.m. Plus, Ryder was a minor at the time, so more limitations were placed on how much work they could do at any given time. Coupled with the subject matter, it meant Ryder was, at times, mentally and physically exhausted.
But the experience, if overwhelming, was irreplaceable, Ryder said—and when Hittman hosted a private screening for Ryder and Flanigan to watch the movie together before its Sundance premiere, the two teenagers spent most of their time in the viewing room giggling together, reminiscing on filming in the dingy, gritty New York transit hub.
“You know how, after you watch a movie, you sit there and you’re like, ‘Wow, let me think about that?’ I felt that way after just reading the script. That’s when I knew, ’Okay, this is an incredible project, and exactly the type of story I want to be a part of.’”
It might be too early for any projections concerning Ryder’s future career, but she has given some thought to how she sees her work on Broadway and the big screen co-existing—and it is epitomized in her next project, the film adaptation of West Side Story: a perfect blend of the two.
The shooting process and being on set for West Side Story could not have stood in more stark contrast to Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always. Alongside fellow newcomers Maddie Ziegler and Rachel Zegler, Ryder worked with the choreographer Justin Peck (whom Ryder idolizes, given her background in dance), Rita Moreno, and director Steven Spielberg.
“That first day of rehearsals, I think I was a nervous wreck,” Ryder said, laughing.
Spielberg, as it turned out, had “so much” advice to give, Ryder recalled. But one comment he made really stuck, and helped her prepare in a new way, one that she hadn’t considered before but felt like a natural fit for her inquisitive personality.
“Steven really encouraged us to ask questions, and to be curious beyond our roles on set,” Ryder said. “The biggest thing I’ll walk away with was that value of curiosity.”
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