By Mary Sollosi
January 27, 2021 at 07:20 PM EST

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival kicks off tomorrow, and while the fest looks different this year — taking place online, and in a slightly shortened timeframe — its packed lineup still promises to deliver some of the films that will define the year ahead.

Among them is Nikole Beckwith's Together Together (one of the few fest titles that's already been picked up for distribution, ahead of its premiere), a dramedy about the unconventional relationship between a sweet if rather unhip single man (Ed Helms) and the adrift young woman who becomes his surrogate (Patti Harrison). EW caught up with Harrison about the tender non-romance, her foray into dramatic territory, speculative applications of laser surgery, this one interview Björk did, and how Together Together will dismantle society's greatest threat to American freedom.

Credit: Bleecker Street

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is a different sort of tone than we've seen you in before. When the project first came to you, why did you want to do it?    

PATTI HARRISON: Well, at the time, I was kind of figuring out what my career trajectory was going to be. I don't want this to sound douchey de-contextualized, because I feel like the quote that I'm about to say is going to be like, mind-bendingly disgusting: I was in a very meditational space in my life. I just didn't know if I wanted to lean more into writing and comedy or if I wanted to try acting, because being on camera really stresses me out. But also, I'd never done anything kind of dramatic before. I mean, there's definitely comedy there, but [the script is] super earnest and it's super touching. It's really funny, but there's a lot of, like, nutrients in there. I like the carbs. I like the diarrhea, poop jokes… which I feel are carbs. There were some vegetables, it was the bone-brothy script.

What appealed to you about your character, Anna?

She's very ordinary. She reminded me, kind of, of someone I would have gone to high school with — maybe a little more quippy. But it was really nice to see like a story about someone who isn't necessarily extraordinary per se. A lot of the auditions and stuff I was getting were like, 'She's a sassy mom! She lets her gay son's freak flag fly! And she's also the town slut! And she also has a secret: she's killed her alien husband!' I was getting a lot of crazy s---. So it was like, wow, this character has so much heart. And she is very smart and very funny. She's not too many shades away from the humor that Nikole is equipped with.

Tell me more about working with Nikole!

Um, we fought a lot. We physically fought on set every day. She would come into my trailer and kind of give me giant wedgie to the ceiling, my head would bonk the ceiling, and then I would fart. And then everyone was filming it, people were waiting outside the trailer. It was humiliating every day, but it's just kind of the culture that she facilitates as an independent filmmaker.

It was like a dream. She really did like a lot of work to make me and Ed feel confident. She just made it so breezy. She's the smartest person I've met, and she can articulate and encapsulate the most profound idea to this little morsel. It's like when you give a sick cat a pill with cheese. She's really good at, you know, putting that pill in the cheese, baby!

Truly, I have boundaries. I am someone who has a very, very, strong, amazing, powerful boundaries. I'm the boundary queen. And I think Nikole is one of my best friends in the world and I would also marry her. And I would also become such a big fan of her that I might kill her. It's kind of [an] I-love-her-so-much-no-one-else-can-have-her sort of thing? It's kind of that.

How about Ed? It's such a delicate relationship your characters have, how did you develop that dynamic?

I mean, he is such a big figure in my brain. He's just been in, as a comedian, so many formative things that I've seen. He's like an idolized figure. So to enter this project where he's also doing something more restrained, I didn't really know what to expect. It was a very chill experience, where Nikole was super supportive and gave so much context to what was going on and was so excited to hear our ideas about it too. I think that helped [because] I think Ed and I were both nervous about how we would play, fulfill the message, the mission of… the art. Of the film. That is a movie.

What did you find most challenging about doing something more dramatic like this?

There were a lot of moments of toning down the jokes, and some pretty grounded, serious stuff happening. And I make a lot of jokes. You're getting bludgeoned with them right now and I'm so sorry. But when I'm nervous, I deflect a lot and it's very easy to fill the space with jokes. And Nikole worked really hard to get me and Ed both out of that reflexive space, to open [ourselves] up to being vulnerable and emotionally feeling out what's happening in the scene.

And something that I didn't really think about is — I remember reading an interview with Björk when she did Dancer in the Dark. And she said that she had a bad experience because she had to be crying, like Lars von Trier would ask her to start crying hours before they started filming and she just had to be crying all day long. I had absolutely nothing close to that experience. But there were some tough scenes where Anna's really upset and she's crying. So I was really pushing through the scenes. And then it's like, you have to do multiple takes and you have to do multiple angles. And oh my gosh, thank baby Jesus for that tear stick, baby! Because, you know, in Hollywood, none of us… I don't have tear ducts anymore. I got those lasered off so long ago, so I can't actually cry naturally, but they digitized a bunch of tears onto my face.

Um…. that's a joke, but I realized on paper that probably sounds real, I'm just like, 'Yeah, they digitized a ton of tears. Because I can't cry, because I don't have tear ducts.' I don't know. Meh, just print it. Just print it and see what happens.

How are you feeling about the film premiering at (virtual) Sundance?

I mean, I think in an ideal world we wouldn't be in lockdown. I know that's very controversial for me to say, politically: I don't like lockdown. But I think it's just an exciting forum. There's a lot of work that's challenging and unconventional [there], and it would be really cool to get to experience that in person, but it's great that Sundance is doing the digital thing, to still be doing it and in a safe way. So it feels really special. It's always been like, a weird little dream. I don't think it's a weird dream — I think a weird dream is like, a dream where a clown's sucking your feet. I think it's probably a normal dream for an actor to be like, 'My movie's premiered at Sundance!' But this is kind of amazing and magical and it still feels really, really dreamy.

What do you hope Sundance audiences take from the film?

Right now, I hope they get good feelings, I hope they get really good-ass feelings, and maybe a little meditational shift in how they view their own relationships and their friendships. It definitely re-jogged how I viewed friendships and family units and family, as a word. I think it reorganizes, or at least opens the possibility of reorganizing, a lot of those ideas. You know, how our little sort of old-fashioned antiquated society frames friendships — and relationships romantically or friendships otherwise, whatever — within this dark umbrella of heterosexuality that is, uh, that is attacking our country. It is an attack. Heterosexuality is an attack on our freedom.

I'm going to quote that.

I feel like I'm making this movie sound like it's, I don't know, some queer military or war movie. Which… we'll get there. Next year.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity, including the omission of a recurring bit about the Diet Dr. Pepper Harrison was drinking at the time of the interview.

Together Together premieres Sunday, Jan. 31, as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

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