Fisher Stevens talks directing Justin Timberlake in new drama 'Palmer' and America's cultural divide
Like a majority of blue state voters, Fisher Stevens remembers being surprised by the 2016 election, which elevated Big Apple real estate mogul Donald Trump into the Oval Office on the strength of red state support. So the actor and filmmaker tried to process America’s growing cultural divide the best way he knew how: by making a movie. In the aftermath of the election, Stevens picked up the screenplay for Palmer, Cheryl Guerriero’s drama about a former college football star — played by Justin Timberlake in his first live action role in four years — who returns to his small Southern town after serving time in prison.
“I had felt out of touch with most of the country when Trump was elected, and I felt that I’d better learn more about America,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment during a break from filming the third season of HBO’s Emmy-winning drama, Succession. (Stevens plays Roy family associate, Hugo Baker, on the show and describes the experience of shooting the delayed Season 3 during COVID-era restrictions as “necessarily intense.”) “When I read this script, I thought, ‘This movie is about people coming together, and finding unity and family in the most unlikely places.’”
Three years ultimately elapsed between Trump’s election and Stevens finally stepping onto the set of Palmer in the fall of 2019, and the film cycled through different iterations during the course of that period. Originally written to take place in Alabama, financial restraints and scheduling pushed the setting to Louisiana. Stevens had different actors come and go from the project as well, the first of whom would have changed the project significantly. “I offered the movie to a Black actor originally,” he reveals. “We didn’t get very far with him, but I started the conversation. I was very interested in that story, and it would have been a very different movie. Being African-American has its own challenges, and I think this is a movie that could be made by an African-American director, too.”
With that initial idea jettisoned, Stevens worked his way down the list of other available actors — a list that didn’t include Timberlake. “He hadn’t been acting in awhile,” the director says of the Trolls star, whose last on-camera role came in Woody Allen’s 2017 drama, Wonder Wheel. But he was persuaded by Timberlake’s management company to meet with the Memphis-born musician, who was touring with his Man of the Woods album at the time. “I started having a dialogue with him, and he was very thoughtful and collaborative. He hadn’t been in a movie other than Trolls in quite some time, so he was getting back into the swing of acting, and this was kind of the perfect way back in for him. At one point, we talked about him potentially singing back-up on one of the songs for the movie, but then we decided, ‘No, let’s just keep this pure acting.’”
As a Southerner himself, Timberlake also served as a guide for Stevens as he sought to capture the social and cultural realities of the region, and how they impacted individuals like Eddie Palmer, who returns to his grandmother’s home after his prison sentence ends, and struggles to find work and avoid falling back into trouble. Helping him on his path is a young boy named Sam (Ryder Allen), whose addict mother (Juno Temple) abandons him for long stretches of time. “Justin and I were both drawn to the idea of people who have fallen on hard times,” the director says. “Not just those who are coming out of jail, but also people who had been addicted to drugs and alcohol, and were trying to get their lives back together. We were shooting in places where there were lots of prisons around, and where meth addiction was a problem. All of these things were very real in the places where we were.”
The small town seen in Palmer is actually a composite of three Louisiana locales: Ponchatoula, Hammond and Reserve. “The people there let us into their lives,” Stevens notes. “We got along amazingly well. In fact, I gave the script to a lot of people who lived in the area and they were like, ‘My God, do you know my sister? This is her story.’ Or, ‘Do you know my cousin Rufus who played football? This is his story.’ It was like they kind of gave me the stamp of approval.”
Even as he bonded with the residents, Stevens was hyper-aware of the divisions between them, divisions that still exist in the post-Trump era with President Joe Biden now in the White House. “There was an election while we were there for governor, and obviously that brought up a lot of conversation about the political situation in this country,” Stevens remembers, referring to the 2019 gubernatorial race between Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards and Republican challenger, Eddie Rispone, a vocal Trump supporter. (Edwards ultimately won re-election.)
“We couldn’t have been more different politically, but we saw things similarly in terms of being neighbors and human beings. One of the things that President Biden said in his inauguration speech that I loved was, ‘Be willing to stand in the other person’s shoes just for a moment.’ That’s what I try to do when I make movies: put myself in peoples’ shoes as a filmmaker and not judge. Part of the beauty of making this was we didn’t judge, we just kind of presented a slice of life.”
While Stevens and Timberlake successfully embedded themselves in the Louisiana landscape during production, one heavily-publicized incident did remind him of the perils of directing an internationally-recognized face. In November 2019, Timberlake was photographed in New Orleans holding hands with his co-star, Alisha Wainwright, setting off a wave of tabloid coverage that eventually resulted in him making a public apology to his wife, Jessica Biel.
Stevens, who was there that night with the rest of the Palmer cast, remembers the surreality of seeing the story go viral. “It was so harmless,” he says now. “It was just drinks with the cast. Unfortunately, the photographer caught Justin and Alicia at a moment where they were talking about a scene. I wish I had been there directing them, but I wasn’t — I was in the background. It’s a bummer when that stuff happens: a photographer with a very long lens shooting very selective moments of a conversation.”
Even as Stevens hopes that Palmer will, in some way, aid in Biden’s call for national unity on a cultural level, he remains deeply critical of the position many Republican lawmakers have on issues like voting rights and the environment — a cause that’s near to his heart. “We're finding that a lot of climate deniers are a lot of the same people who are pushing Ted Cruz theories that the election was rigged,” explains Stevens, who directed the 2016 climate change documentary, Before the Flood. “It’s all misinformation, and the antithesis of what Palmer is about. The movie is about bringing people together, and that’s the opposite of what Cruz and the climate denialism movement is doing to this country.”
“But I have to say that I'm so happy that we have a Native American, Deb Haaland, as Secretary of Interior, and Michael Regan as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency,” Stevens continues. “And Biden has issued an executive order getting us immediately back in the Paris Agreement. When I made Before the Flood, I felt like we were on a good path to getting the world back into a place of acknowledging climate change and doing something about it, and then Trump brought us back to the dark ages. Around 2018, I even wondered if I could continue to make environmental films because there were so many dark forces fighting us. But now there’s light.”
Palmer is currently streaming on Apple TV+.
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