A version of this story about Sidney Flanigan and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
In a year of powerful performances from such established actors as Viola Davis, Frances McDormand, Sophia Loren, Carey Mulligan and Kate Winslet, a 22-year-old musician with no acting experience has quietly taken her place among the potential contenders. Sidney Flanigan, a musician from Buffalo, was recruited by writer-director Eliza Hittman to star in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” when she was just a teenager — and though her performance rooted in stillness and silence, it still packs enormous power in the way it shows a teenage girl’s attempt to get an abortion turn quietly harrowing on every level.
And it’s something Flanigan never imagined doing when Hittman reached out to her about the part. “I was always very much into performing in general, and I was never opposed to the idea of branching out to other mediums,” she said. “But it did take a moment to process, because I really was not expecting anything like that to ever come my way, and at first I was a little skeptical of my own abilities.”
Still, she agreed to do what turned out to be an unusual audition. She flew into New York City to find Hittman and cinematographer Helene Louvart waiting. “We just headed out into the streets of New York and just shot a bunch of random stuff with me riding the subway or eating sweets in some bakery,” she said. “When I was flying back to Buffalo, I was like, ‘I don’t even know what’s happening. What did I just do?’ It felt like I was being catapulted into this new world, which was exciting and terrifying all at the same time.
“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the most unique audition experience I’ll ever have.”
In the film, Flanigan’s character, Autumn, faces a variety of challenges as a Pennsylvania teen trying to get an abortion — but while the stakes are high and the emotions dramatic, Autumn says little and remains determined but almost passive. It requires enormous understatement in her performance, which Flanigan said wasn’t necessarily a problem because she didn’t know any other way.
“Not having any prior experience, I’ve never had to do the big acting, per se,” she said. “Now, I’ve done auditions where there’s more dialogue involved, and it’s much different than like what I was doing in ‘Never Rarely.’ But for the most part when I was working, I just remembered the mindset or the emotional head space I needed to be in and kind of put myself there. And when you’re emotionally in a certain place, your body’s mannerisms and reactions can be quite organic.”
For Flanigan, the hardest parts of the film were scenes where her character, Autumn, tried to induce a miscarriage by punching herself in the stomach. “That requires being in a pretty heavy mindset,” she said. “I had to find the balance between putting myself in such an emotional place and then also taking myself back out of that when the day was done.
“A lot of the times when I went home from set, I tried my best to journal. Some nights I was so exhausted I would only manage to write out two sentences, but I really tried to get those leftover feelings out on the page in order to feel refreshed for the next day.”
The film’s subject matter, Flanigan added, “was probably 70% of why I wanted to go into making this movie. This is very much a reality for so many women that it’s incredibly important to me. Reproductive rights have always been under threat, and it always seems to be fluctuating depending on who’s making the rules. So artists can keep using their tools in order to make people aware of these things that are going on, and people can keep fighting for those rights.”
Flanigan is continuing her music career, though without the live performances that the pandemic has made all but impossible. But she said that the experience of appearing in “Never Rarely” has had an impact on the rest of her art as well.
“Acting has given me like a new perspective into performing,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to me to explain right now, but it definitely gives you a new way to see things and perceive different emotions in the stories. I definitely enjoy how acting has blended into myself as a person and my other art, and I also feel like it’s given me a new sense of confidence when it comes to being there physically and emotionally.”