Terrified and tired, a 17-year old girl named Autumn fights back tears while sharing details about her relationships and sexual history. The counselor is sympathetic, but as she asks more personal questions — probing to find out if the young woman has ever been physically hurt by her partners or forced to have sex — Autumn’s guard crumbles.
Few movie scenes have been as emotionally wrenching as the intake sequence that forms the dramatic apex of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” an acclaimed indie that tracks Autumn as she navigates bureaucratic hurdles to obtain an abortion. Shockingly, Sidney Flanigan, the 22-year old who brings Autumn so vividly to life on screen, makes her acting debut in the movie. It’s a role that has already earned her awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, as well as an Indie Spirit nod. It’s also one that could snag her an Academy Award nomination. If she does earn an invite to the Oscars it will be largely due to her bravura work in that scene. Flanigan’s approach throughout the production was simple.
“I relied a lot on instinct,” she says. “I loved that the characters were so grounded in reality. It did not feel overly dramatic or prettied up. It felt real.”
Director Eliza Hittman took pains to make the movie authentic, shooting the scene at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Manhattan and pairing Flanigan with a social worker named Kelly Chapman. Before cameras rolled, Hittman had Flanigan sit by herself in a nearby office so she could prepare herself emotionally.
“I made sure she quarantined for a couple hours,” Hittman says. “I didn’t want makeup to bother her or hair to bother her. I knew she just needed a place to sit with her thoughts. Right before, I went in and said, ‘I don’t want you to worry about the character so much. In the beginning of the scene answer as yourself. Don’t worry about the character’s fake medical history.'”
To get a sense of what Flanigan was able to pull off, Variety is exclusively sharing the 12-minute uninterrupted first take. Much of the performance made it into the finished film, albeit with some edits and cuts to Chapman, but the raw footage shows how deep Flanigan dug to deliver the knockout moment.
“I was scared every day on set,” Flanigan said. “I was making myself vulnerable constantly and there were always so many eyes on me. The whole experience was scary, so this moment just felt like reaching into my deepest places to find that vulnerability. There was almost something cathartic about being able to harness my own emotions for the sake of art and to draw on my own experiences to create that performance.”
Hittman filmed the scene with two cameras, in one long take. After it was over, Flanigan did another take, but the director sensed she already had what she needed.
“After we filmed that, she was kind of tapped out,” Hittman says. “The second time, she did something more stoic, which was affecting, but different.”
Flanigan has enjoyed being on the awards season trail, even if this one is largely virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, she isn’t allowing herself to get overly excited by the prospect of scoring an Oscar nomination.
“I’m trying to not get my hopes up,” she says. “I’m trying not to jinx it.”