Armed with the comedic punch and snap of That Girl’s Marlo Thomas and the poise of Audrey Hepburn, Cristin Milioti has built a rapidly blossoming career of deconstructing the romantic heroine.
The characters in repertoire may come off as the nice girlfriend, but they’re dealing with significantly more baggage than any Hepburn protagonist, from Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Regina Lampert in Charade, could bear.
And by the way, it’s not the girl in Milioti’s world who has the problems, it’s the guy.
Whether it’s an obsessed software developer boss whose trapped her in a Star Trek-like virtual game (the 2017 Black Mirror episode “USS Callister) or an overbearing paternal doorman who gets in the way of her promising love life (the 2019 Amazon anthology series Modern Love), Milioti’s alter egos have complicated lives.
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In the HBO Max comedy series Made for Love, the actress plays Hazel Green, the wife to tech billionaire Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen). From the outside, her life appears perfect, relaxed and cushy living in a technologically advanced modern home (“The Hub”) against what looks to be a Northern California landscape. However, Byron has made Hazel a prisoner in their own domicile, a virtual one no less, and has even inserted a piece of spyware in her head to monitor her emotions, sexual feelings and whereabouts. Hazel escapes to the only living person she knows who might be able to save her: Herbert, her estranged deadbeat, single dad (Ray Romano) who lives in the desert with his synthetic sex doll, Diane.
In many ways Hazel feels like a soul sister to Nanette Cole, your Black Mirror character. Both are trying to flee, and are set on outsmarting domineering men. When you read Made for Love for the first time, did that resonate with you?
Not even remotely did it cross my mind. It was brought to my attention later when I started doing press for Made for Love, when people brought up the parallels that both stories are about a woman trying to escape a man and the reality that he’s forced upon her. But, to me Hazel and Nanette are such wildly different people, and that’s all I could see.
When I’m trying to decide whether to do something, I weigh a lot of factors, such as the material, who the people are that I’m working with, but I also always try to find the people that I’m going to play. I want them to be really different. Nanette always felt really grounded to me, whereas with Hazel, there’s the fact that she has no idea what she’s feeling and that she doesn’t think before she acts. With Nanette, I always felt like she was such a giant brain and was able to completely outsmart this guy. Hazel is, I don’t know, Hazel is cut off from herself. There’s some- thing about rediscovering herself, and I think also because I was really drawn to the relationship between her and her estranged father. That was also a big centerpiece of it for me where I was like, oh, wow, I haven’t seen this: two people who are so similar trying to navigate their fractured parent-child relationship.
Made for Love EP Christina Lee mentioned that there’s a video interview between Elon Musk and his then-wife Talulah Riley which served as some influence in the set-up between Hazel and Byron. Essentially that interview shows how two people, who are sitting next to each other, are experiencing two different realities. What were your takeaways after watching it?
I definitely saw that specific one, and then I also watched a lot of footage of—I don’t want to say who because they’re still around in the world—but couples in the public eye where I sensed they were in two different realities. I tried to study their body language.
One of my favorite things we got to do in the show was when Dateline comes to interview us as a couple. We were really able to show, even though one may not be able to put their finger on it when you’re watching, that these two people are in such stark realities. She is completely cut off from herself, and he thinks everything’s fine, and she is just grinning and bearing it, and certainly that video of Elon Musk and his wife was very helpful with that.
Did you know in advance how Season 1 would end?
From when I signed on, I always knew that the eventual plan for the end of Season 1 was that she returned, and it had also been that it was going to be something to do with her father Herbert, and that it ended with her literally reentering [the marital home] The Hub. I just didn’t know the ins and outs of how we were going to get there, but I was always intrigued by that because it’s devastating and also very human. There was something to me about this continuing cycle of imprisoning her without her consent.
I understand there was clever, impromptu decision made by you to take Byron’s hand in the final shot.
I remember that we tried a bunch of different things, but there was something that we all agreed on. I think we did a couple takes of him taking my hand, and then we were like, “Oh, that feels too on the nose.” There’s something even more devastating about her just slipping right back into that, right? And it’s devastating, and it also is complex because you’re like, “Well, she’s the one that reaches out.” It’s not like she’s being led back in like a dog on a leash or something. She is also complicit in this return, and it was a bit out of her hands, and it’s just like there’s so many colors there, and I get really, for lack of a better term, jazzed by ambiguous moments like that.
It’s quite a milestone in a young actor’s career to nab a role in a Martin Scorsese film—The Wolf of Wall Street. Looking back, what were some of your most memorable takeaways?
When I got that role, it was like one of those phone calls where you pinch yourself. It’s a crazy phone call to get. I tested with Leonardo DiCaprio and [Scorsese] in a room in midtown, and it had been such an out-of-body experience.
Something I learned on that set is that Scorsese creates such an environment of freedom, and in fact, if I have one regret about that experience it’s that I didn’t pick up on that sooner. I think I was so afraid of failing everyone because I’d just never been a part of a movie that big. The first couple things I shot, I look back now and I’m like, “Oh, I wish I’d known that I was in such a safe space to experiment,” and then I figured that out, and then it was amazing because he really is there to get the scene. And this is where too, when you work with someone like that, studios give him the time. I have not experienced that since, the amount of time we could take with a scene to find it together as a group of actors with this brilliant director. It’s a dream, I miss that.
We would try it every single way. That scene when I find them in the car outside of our apartment, we filmed that one scene for 16 hours. Just one scene, which is unheard of. We did it all night long, and we did it 50 times, from all these different angles. We really explored it and took it apart. He also isn’t precious about dialogue. He’s like, “Go with your gut.”
Sometimes on camera it can feel a little compartmentalized because of just the way things are edited. We just need this angle, then this angle, and then just this one action sequence is actually six different setups of things that are 20 seconds long. It can feel a little disjointed, and that experience felt very much like I was just allowed to let loose. It was great, it was an honor, and I hope I can work with him again.