From director Rachel Lee Goldenberg (Valley Girl), the HBO Max original dramedy Unpregnant follows 17-year-old Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) who enlists her ex-best friend Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) for a 1000-mile wild road trip over three days in order to get an abortion. It’s a decision that she never imagined she’d have to make, but a positive pregnancy test has led to the unexpected choice, and she’s going to need genuine support to get through it.
As part of the film’s virtual press day, Collider got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with Haley Lu Richardson about her reaction to reading the abortion comedy, being involved in the character and story development, the challenge of blending multiple genres, doing stunts, shooting on a carnival ride, and where these characters might be in five years.
Collider: When this project came your way and you found out that it was an abortion comedy, what is your reaction to that?
HALEY LU RICHARDSON: It was definitely ambitious. I was definitely nervous and I really had to think about it and think about, “What if it doesn’t work and what if the balance doesn’t come out right?” And then, I was thinking, “What if it does and what could that do and what conversation could that potentially spark?” That challenge that it presented, of being so ambitious, is what ultimately inspired me to want to do it.
When you got to read the script, did that help with any of the fear, or were there still a lot of questions that you had about it?
RICHARDSON: There were still questions. When I first read the script, it was right when Rachel [Lee Goldenberg] had come on and she did her initial rewrite and brought her voice into it. I read a very early draft of that. I actually knew Rachel from before because we had done a Lifetime movie together [Escape from Polygamy] eight years ago or something. Because of that, she was very welcoming with me to collaborate with her and receptive to my ideas, coming at it from an actor’s perspective with Veronica and things that could make her more grounded and more of a well-rounded person that would aid people to really see all of the aspects of her, so that they could hopefully have more empathy for her. So, Rachel invited me to be a part of that character development and story development, which I really appreciated. Through that collaboration, I started feeling more at ease. It was like, “Okay, we’re collaborating. We’re all on the same page of what we’re trying to accomplish. I think that this could work.” It was very hard. Scene by scene, it was definitely a challenge with the balance.
There’s also such a blend of genres in this.
RICHARDSON: When we were doing it, it felt like we were filming ten different movies. When we started filming, the first week was in the high school and that felt like a completely different movie than when it was just Barbie and I on the road trip. That felt like Thelma & Louise. And then, we’re in this horror film when Kate [Sugar Lyn Beard] and Mark [Breckin Meyer] pretty much kidnap us. And then, we’re in a limo with Giancarlo Esposito and that’s sketchy. It’s very complex. There’s just a lot of ground that’s covered and explored in the movie, and then this very real circumstance as the through line throughout it all. It was definitely a tricky line to balance for me, as an actor.
And if you’re going to have somebody save the day, of course Giancarlo Esposito is guy you want to have save the day. What was it like to have him around? How much fun was he to hang out with?
RICHARDSON: He was so committed to that character. I just remember all the ways that he was improvising, like when we first go into his little limo shop/end of the world chamber that he’s in. It wasn’t even written that he starts eating or drinking a can of beans, and then he has this knife in his pocket and he pulls out the knife and opens the can of beans with this knife. It was just so jarring for Barbie and I. We were like, “What the fuck?” He just had a lot of fun with that role. That whole sequence with him felt like it was a different movie. Each situation just felt so different. Hopefully that makes the movie seem dynamic.
How did you feel about the car chase and the stunts?
RICHARDSON: Literally driving a car was a stunt for Barbie because she can’t drive. Her stunt double would drive me down a main road but when there were close-up shots, Barbie would have to drive into a parking lot or pull out of a parking lot or slowly drive by. She’s actually pretty good at stunts, considering she was doing a lot of them. There were a couple of days when the infamous RV is chasing us and we jump out of the car and roll around in the dirt where that was not a set. That was not a safe environment. There was a time that I remember the camera was on the ground in the middle of nowhere in the desert in Albuquerque, and I literally had to jump and roll in front of it. We really did do a lot of it. We also did have stunt doubles that did a lot of the driving or the extreme stuff, but we did a lot of running around out in the desert. There was one wide drone shot of us where we had to run probably a whole mile in the desert. It was far away and we weren’t recording our sound, so the whole time Barbie and I were like, “We fucking hate this. It’s hard.”
Having also been a dancer yourself, was it fun to have a dance scene where you could just be wild and crazy?
RICHARDSON: Yeah, that was fun. Rachel actually added that in for me specifically. We were trying to figure out how we could make Veronica more nerdy and quirky, and show that side and their stuff in their friendship from the past. She and I came up with that together. My backstory with that was that Veronica maybe took dance classes when she was younger, so she was good at dancing but is making a joke out of it. Any moment or scene in the movie where I was allowed to just be nerdy and goofy and not hyper focused on the situation was a breath of fresh air for me. I’m very hard on myself, so if I don’t feel honest about the things that I’m saying and how I’m acting in a scene, and I don’t like to feel really connected to it, it’s really hard for me to accept it and move on. So, any scene where I could just goof around and dance was fun, like at the carnival when we were watching the cars and there was a moment where we just forgot about everything that was going wrong and all of the responsibilities. That was definitely relieving, as an actor.
You have a whole scene on a ride at the carnival. What was that like to do?
RICHARDSON: We were on the ride to shoot that. Barbie and I were like, “We’re gonna get this scene and maybe one or two shots. We won’t have to do it more than twice.” There was this take of us, the first time we did it, where we got out maybe one line of the actual scene, and I’m crying and Barbie’s hysterically laughing because we’re both apparently really bad at roller coasters and rides. Once we actually got it and we got through the scene, it felt incredibly cathartic, personally and through our characters, to be able to feel safe screaming at the top of our lungs, this thing that we have so suppressed down within us.
Is it ever hard to actually remember to get through the dialogue in situations when you’re doing a scene like that?
RICHARDSON: Honestly, yes. And we had a lot of night shoots where it was 18 degrees and freezing cold. Poor Barbie. At least I had a long sleeve shirt on, but Barbie was in shorts and a T-shirt. There were times where it was so cold that our teeth would be chattering because we were freezing, and then they would call action and we’d take off all of our layers and our heaters out of our hands and had to do a scene. I was just so proud of myself that I was able to get through a scene without my teeth chattering because of how cold I was. Seeing the movie, I’m very impressed that we don’t look like we’re freezing the whole entire time because we were.
When did you and Barbie Ferreira first meet, and did you have a moment when you realized that things were going to work between the two of you?
RICHARDSON: Yeah. I didn’t know her before this process. There was a day when they were doing chemistry reads for a couple of different potential Baileys and I was there reading with all of them. Everyone was great and I had fun that day, but Barbie is so much Bailey. She just inherently brings so much of herself to the movie and to that character, so when she was doing her chemistry read, and we actually did that roller coaster scene together in a little audition room and we were sitting in chairs next to each other, pretending like we were on this crazy ride, it was just a really fun moment. Everyone in the room was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s the girl. That’s Bailey.”
If we could catch up with these characters in five years, what do you think they’d be doing? Do you think this experience bonded them together and they’re still friends?
RICHARDSON: They’re still friends, for sure. They’re maybe living in different states, doing their own thing but for sure, they’re still friends. I think the movie takes place over two days. It’s such a short amount of time but so much happens. Even over the course of the film, the amount that she grows personally and comes to terms with these things that she’s been hiding from herself and her friends, and this front that she puts up to the world because of all of these external pressures, she lets go of so much of that. So, I would hope that she continues to do that and she finds a real confidence and comfortability with herself. She’s probably out of college and has started some amazing job somewhere that’s fulfilling for her, and doing what she’s meant to do in the world.
This is definitely such an interesting way to have a message in a film without making it feel so heavy.
RICHARDSON: Yeah. It’s definitely very ambitious. Obviously people will disagree with this movie. I don’t know if people will think that it all worked, in terms of balance between the comedy and the truth, and all of these different things that we explore and talk about, but I watched the movie and I was like, “Oh, wow, we actually did it. We actually managed to address all of these things and make it this crazy road trip teen movie.” I don’t know how we did it. I’m still confused.
Unpregnant is available to stream at HBO Max.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.