A programmer trapped in a Star Trek–inspired digital simulation created by her boss, an apathetic wedding guest who gets sucked into a time loop after stumbling into a magical cave in the desert, a suburban soccer mom who finds herself down an online conspiracy rabbit hole, an impressionable woman on the run after discovering her tech-billionaire husband implanted a monitoring device in her brain—Cristin Milioti’s acting résumé reads like a series of bizarre comedy sketches, and that’s on purpose.
If you are thinking Milioti has a certain affinity for the absurd, you’d be right. She thrives in a fantastical world, no matter how outlandish it may be, and commits to her characters full-throttle, making her an utter delight to watch on screen. Subverting expectations at every turn, she’s earned both critical praise and fanfare for her performances in projects like How I Met Your Mother, Black Mirror, and last year’s summer hit Palm Springs, but it’s her most recent turn in the HBO Max series Made for Love that has Emmy nom written all over it. Based on the novel by Alissa Nutting, the oddball dark comedy presents a perhaps not-so-distant reality of technology-influenced utopianism. Milioti plays Hazel, a woman desperately trying to regain her independence after escaping a suffocating 10-year marriage. There’s only one big problem: She has a chip implanted in her brain that allows her husband to watch and analyze her every move and thought. Milioti sucks you in from the moment we meet Hazel, bursting out of a hatch in the desert, soaking wet and barefoot in an emerald sequin cocktail dress, makeup running down her face, and takes us on an enthralling ride all the way to the end. It’s a performance that should not be missed.
Ahead of the show’s final episodes, I jumped on the phone with the actress to talk about her attraction to the bizarre, her complicated relationship with technology, and the story behind that perfect green dress.
The whole concept of Made for Love feels outrageous but perhaps not far off from where things might be headed. What were your initial thoughts when reading this crazy script?
I had never read anything like it. I think that’s what stuck out to me first and foremost was that I had never seen a world like this. I had never seen a woman's relationship with herself explored in this way or a divorce or an estrangement between a parent and a child. And even though it was this heightened, very strange, fantastical world, it still dealt with things that were very grounded in reality. I liked that it’s a sneaky way to examine those things. I love stuff like that. It uses sci-fi and the dark-comedy aspect. You think you’re watching something that’s very far removed from your own reality, and then we sneak up on you. Hopefully, you see yourself in a lot of these people, even though I think you start out feeling like your life is very different.
Following last year’s hit Palm Springs and your roles in Black Mirror and Death to 2020, I get the sense you are drawn to a certain level of absurdity.
Yeah, I am! I really like to just go for it. I want to try as many things as possible and really like to stretch myself as much as possible. I try to sniff out things that I haven’t seen before or, specifically, characters that I haven’t been given the opportunity to play before. That’s sort of what Death to 2020 was. I think that’s probably a pretty apt assessment. I like things a bit demented.
It must be fun as an actress to step into that.
Well, that’s the stuff that I grew up watching. I like things to be sort of left-of-center.
John P. Johnson/HBO Max
There is a Black Mirror element to this show that highlights the darker side of modern technology. How has this project changed your own relationship with technology?
I’m someone who has a very hateful relationship with technology. I throw my phone in a drawer when I go away for the weekend or something. I literally lock it in a drawer and don’t look at it. I really don’t like it. I don’t like what it’s done to our brains. I don’t like how it’s affected the way I read things or how it affected my attention span, in general. I am very appreciative of its merits and of its strengths. We are experiencing that now. We have a vaccine. It’s a miracle of technology and science. On social media, I’ve been able to access voices I may have otherwise not had access to, and that has been life-changing. But I am wildly distrustful of big tech. The fact that there are no regulations, the fact that they are making apps that are designed to be addictive, and the spread of misinformation, obviously. I mean, the list goes on and on and on. I am very distrustful of it, so the show had already found me in a spot where, I mean, this would be my worst nightmare having something like this implanted. I am, at any moment, ready to throw my phone out the window, so maybe it increased that.
As someone who is comfortable unplugging, what is a good way to quell tech addiction?
One thing I like to do is I have a dog, and I take him for walks and will often leave my phone at home. I’ll take him around my neighborhood, and I’m always shocked because in the first couple of minutes, I’m a little bit like, “Gosh, what if I miss a phone call?” Or, “What if something happens and someone needs to get ahold of me?” And within two minutes, it’s gone. I don’t have anything to distract me. I don’t have music. I don’t have texts. I’m just walking, and I notice so many more things. Honestly, I feel—and this is just me—I feel a real calm take over. I find myself growing calmer with each step.
Something I try to do too when I’m at dinner with someone, I used to leave my phone on the table as a habit, and now it goes on silent at the bottom of the bag, and I’m with the person. I think [technology] has given us this terrible sense of urgency to respond, which sometimes, at least for me, translates into being so overwhelmed that I actually end up falling behind with that stuff. It’s like there’s no respect anymore for, well, my phone goes off at 7 p.m. You could send me a work email at 11 p.m., but that’s my time. There used to be such a clearer boundary with that. Technology has eroded our boundaries a bit. I think that’s an understatement. Yeah, it generally makes me pretty nervous and sad, I would say. Not to be a bummer.
I understand that. Even working from home these days, it’s more difficult to set those boundaries.
Oh, sure! How do you do it? When do you shut off? And then the things that used to give us relief from that, like the human-to-human interactions, are gone, and it’s all based on Zoom. I have this very naïve hope, but when it’s safe for us to be back in the same space together when we are back in office buildings, I am hopeful there is a bit of return, that people will be so sick from staring at screens. It literally makes me feel sick sometimes. I hope there is a real zealous return where we sit by the water cooler and we talk about what we watched last night or something. Or we go outside for lunch. All these things that we used to take for granted.
Is there a part of the utopian world in Made for Love that makes you think, This could be interesting, or is it all a no-go for you?
For me personally, it’s all a no-go. The cons so outweigh the pros for me that I couldn’t… yeah, no.
This seems like a project that was a blast to work on. What were some of your favorite moments from filming?
I think the people were probably the number one. I mean, listen: Everything that you see, that was so much fun [to film]. It’s so much fun to do stunt work. It’s so much fun to be shot out of the ground. It’s so much fun to work with a CGI dolphin. It’s so much fun to run around with a shotgun. It’s also so much fun to have these meaty scenes with some of my favorite actors on the planet. We are a very close cast. I adore everyone. Everyone is very game for anything. There are no egos in this group, and everyone is very willing and ready and excited to throw down and try anything, and that’s not always the case. It’s wonderful. I would say that’s the most fun part.
I want to talk about the green sequin cocktail dress. Hazel is wearing the dress when you first see her crawling out of a hatch in the desert, and then you see later that it was the dress she wore on her first date with her husband, Byron Gogol. Can you tell me how the look came to be?
I will say that was the biggest decision, at least wardrobe-wise, of the entire series. Our brilliant wardrobe designer, Jennifer Eve, she’s just fantastic, and we went back and forth endlessly, all of us—me, Christina [Lee], Alissa [Nutting], Jennifer. It’s so important and because—I don’t want to give any spoilers—but you really come to see what that dress symbolizes for her. It had to be not only visually arresting and make sense for the story, but when you begin to see what the story of that dress is and what it symbolizes for her when she tries to kill herself, that’s huge. That dress was designed for us, but the fittings were like weeks and weeks and weeks from what I remember. And [there were] six different versions of what we ended up going with in terms of different hems, different shoulders, different sleeve lengths, different levels of tightness because it also had to be a dress that I could swim in. It was wild. What I love about that opening image of her crawling out of the ground, literally being rebirthed into the world—there are a lot of metaphors going on there if you want to get super woo-woo about it—you have to convey so much in that image. You immediately know when she bursts through that hole, you are like, “Wow, why is this woman in this type of dress that is such a specific type of dress? She has makeup running down her face. She clearly came from…” It has to say a lot, and I think Jennifer did such a gorgeous job of that.
John P. Johnson / HBO Max
It’s always so interesting to hear how these crucial looks came to be. Pulling back and looking at Hazel’s style evolution from this very polished, almost Stepford-wife look in Byron’s world to the more casual streetwear vibe when she is back in her hometown, what was the thinking behind this fashion arc?
Well, there are a lot of subtle cues going on. [In Byron’s world], she doesn’t wear any color. It’s all drained. The life is drained out of her. It’s all whites and beiges and grays, and everything, with the exception of one look, is extremely cinched. So I was uncomfortable at all times, and that was by design. That was something that Jennifer and I felt really passionate about because everything is designed by Byron, and he would design her to be like a doll. Every bathing suit I wore, there was no relaxing; everything was sucked in and cinched together. That Alexander McQueen dress that I wear, the white one with the embellishments, I couldn’t sit down in it. Everything was made by design to make me as uncomfortable and as stifled as possible. Whereas when Hazel gets back into the world of Twin Sands and when she’s with her dad, all of her clothes are from high school and a lot are her dad’s clothes, so it’s all stained and loose and of a different time, like a little kid wearing her father’s clothes. Again, if you want to get meta with it, which you know this is all by design, she’s having to return to how she ended up in this marriage [in the first place], and why did she allow for these things to happen? Why did she take Byron up on his offer? Who is she? Why is she unable to feel things? So she is returning to that teenage self. She is sent right back to where she was 10 years ago. All of that was definitely by design.
Before I let you go, I want to talk about another facet of your work: your music. You released a single earlier this year, a cover of Bon Iver’s “715 Creeks.” Is more music in your future?
Hopefully. I have been working on stuff, but I am my own biggest obstacle, I would say. If I could get out of my own way, I do have more stuff to release. It just takes me a while to pull the trigger. Music is the first love of my life. Music is playing in my house from the minute I get up to the minute I go to sleep. So there will be more, hopefully.
Made For Love is now streaming on HBO Max.