When Ryder Allen learned he would be auditioning for a starring role in “Palmer” opposite Justin Timberlake, the then 7-year-old actor had one question. “I was like, ‘Who’s Justin Timberlake?’’ Allen recalls with a laugh. “Now he’s like my best friend. So look at me now.”
It’s become commonplace to talk about child actors as “wise beyond their years,” but Allen just seems like any other 8-year-old kid who happens to be acting opposite one of the biggest stars in the world. He enjoys playing “Bakugan” on his Nintendo Switch and a game he invented with his sister where “we have a pillow and then you need to get the pillow. But it’s way more complicated.”
“Palmer,” arriving on Apple TV Plus this Friday, stars Timberlake as a former college football star who returns home after 12 years in prison. His grandmother (played by June Squibb) allows Shelley (Juno Temple) to keep her mobile home on her property and often babysits Shelley’s son Sam (Allen), a kind boy who plays with dolls and likes to dress as a fairy. Sam’s refusal to conform to gender norms doesn’t go over well in their small town, and Palmer soon finds himself the unlikely caretaker of the child.
Scripted by Cheryl Guerriero and directed by Fisher Stevens, “Palmer” is one of the most pleasant surprises of the season – an unexpected story of friendship and family anchored by the central performances of Timberlake and Allen. Their contagious chemistry and Allen’s compelling performance are made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s the actor’s first film. And while it may be Timberlake who first draws audiences to the movie, there’s little doubt they will walk away talking about Allen.
The adorable, bespectacled Allen followed his older sister, Gemma Brooke Allen, into acting, telling his mom at age 5 that he wanted to try it. His first job was on the series “Law and Order: True Crime,” where he played a young Erik Menendez. Asked if he liked the experience of being on set, he replies: “Oh my gosh, yes.” He relays a story about being in the front seat of a car with the actor playing his brother and being told to “just press any button.” He reveals, “I pushed the thing down on my foot, which technically isn’t a button. And then the car started moving. And I almost drove off the set.”
When he first heard about “Palmer,” he didn’t read the script but focused on his character. “I knew that Sam likes dolls and that he had a not very good mother,” Allen says. “But I didn’t know much about the movie.” And though he didn’t know Timberlake, his mother did. Asked what she said when she learned Timberlake was in the film, Allen lets out a long, sustained scream. She then had him listen to “every single one” of Timberlake’s songs. “We would listen to him all day,” Allen notes. “And she would say it was practice.”
He eventually met Timberlake at a chemistry read, but what he remembers most about that day was that there was a pool table in the waiting room and he played with other actors waiting to read. “When it came time for the reading with Justin, it was just so easy and so much fun.”
He found out he got the role while at the Topanga Mall with his parents. “I was in the Gucci store and I got the call that I booked it,” Allen reveals. “And then I literally just started dancing inside the Gucci store. And they were all clapping for me and stuff. It was crazy.”
“Palmer” was shot in late 2019 in Louisiana, primarily in Hammond, which is about 45 minutes from New Orleans. Both he and Timberlake arrived a couple weeks early to get settled in and rehearse. When not on set, Allen loved taking in the local sites – including a crocodile tour where he got to hold a baby crocodile.
Another first for Allen? A scene in which he and Palmer go for a root beer float – it was the first time Allen himself had ever tried one, and now he’s a fan. “It was one of our first days of shooting and I was having so much fun with Justin,” Allen recalls. “I felt like I really connected in that scene with Palmer and with Justin at the same time, too. “
He also adored working with Stevens, noting that if he ever did a line that the director didn’t buy, he would simply say, “No baloney.”
Most of all, Allen enjoyed playing Sam because he’s “an amazing person.” Says Allen, “He knows that by giving somebody a hug, that can be the highlight of their day. Just the act of love can be so powerful. One of the best things about Sam is that if you push him to the ground with all your might, he will get up, and he will do nothing to hurt you back.”
Asked about what’s next, Allen says he is currently looking at other scripts and hopes his future jobs will also have “good messages.” He then adds, “You know what I really want? What would be the best thing ever?”
Ask him to tell you and Allen quickly responds: “A sequel! Every time I see Cheryl I’m like, ‘Write it down!’”