“Well, let me say I certainly wouldn’t take Short Circuit today,” Fisher Stevens says when we ask him about one of his first film acting roles as comic relief Indian character Ben Jabituya in 1986’s Short Circuit. “It was a different time. I was a 21-year-old actor trying to get a job and I was originally cast as a white dude and then they rewrote the script and asked me if I can do an accent. And I was like, ‘Yeah, great.’ You know, I was 21. Now today… No. I don’t think that it’s right at all.”
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s safe to ask whether young actor Ryder Allen – who plays Sam in Fisher Stevens’ latest effort as director, Palmer – also exhibits effeminate characteristics or was he putting it on for the film?
“Ryder doesn’t wear dresses, but I think he’s very comfortable doing all these things. Ryder is an incredibly self-possessed seven-year-old, incredibly bright. And he just embodied this character and we shaped Sam around Ryder as much as we could. But Ryder is an actor and he’s a great actor, and his personality really came out of who he is. I feel so blessed that I found him, because the movie hinges on him and Justin.”
Justin is Justin Timberlake, who plays the titular character in Palmer, a once great high school footballer, who went off the rails, did jail time, and now returns to his hometown to start afresh. Staying with his grandmother, Palmer meets a troubled woman and ends up looking after her son Sam.
“I had been trying to make this movie since 2016,” Stevens tells us from his home in upstate New York. “I had a list of actors that I agreed would be great to work with and yet would also help finance the film at a small budget. Justin wasn’t even on that first list. It looked like it was going to go at one point with somebody else but it fell apart.
“I had been making this documentary with Leonardo DiCaprio [And We Go Green] and his management. I gave them the script to read to get their advice. They suggested Justin Timberlake. I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a brilliant idea.’ I remembered him in Social Network and Inside Llewyn Davis and Alpha Dog. I sent him the script and he’s from the South, he knew these characters…
“It took a long time to get Justin to agree to do it. He wanted to make sure we had the right kid and I had the right people around me in terms of the crew and the necessary support. Once he said yes, he’s like, ‘Well, we can do this, but we can’t do it until we have the boy.’ And by that time, the boy I had found had grown too much. So, we had to go back and read a ton of kids. I read 300 kids on video and then another hundred plus in person and went around the country, finding this boy.
“It was pretty clear when Ryder got in the room with Justin that he was our kid. Even though he was seven, he was younger than I wanted, which meant I’d have less hours to work with him, but it was clear he was it. He wasn’t necessarily physically what I had imagined, but he brought so much more than I could have imagined too.”
At Palmer’s core is an exploration of gender norms, a topical subject which resonated with Stevens when he read Cheryl Guerriero’s screenplay. “My nephew Max at seven years old was Sam. He was playing with dolls. He was wearing dresses. He only had girlfriends. He’s now going into college and having this incredible time. He’s a dancer, singer, performer. He was very nurtured by my sister and her husband. And I was just blown away when I read this character of Sam, I was like, ‘These kids need to be represented in movies, right’. And I loved that Sam was not in liberal Chicago, but placed in the heart of the red state of America and how people treat Sam and how people relate to him was a fascinating and personal story for me.
“The other thing that was personal to me was second chances. I really related to Palmer having to reintegrate with society, not that I have personally ever been incarcerated, but I certainly have known people who have made big mistakes in their life and gone to jail; or made big mistakes in their life and gone into rehab and almost killed themselves. I wanted to explore that redemption story, that story where you’re trying to re-enter and trying to get your shit together. I love that element of the script – these two misfits find each other and basically become a family.”
A busy actor, producer and director, Fisher Stevens was 8 weeks into the edit of Palmer when Covid hit New York. “We were the first and the worst in America. We all went our separate ways and started editing remotely.”
When the film was completed, tough decisions needed to be made about Palmer’s pathway to audience.
“I had a film at South by Southwest, a documentary, but that festival was cancelled,” Stevens tells us today. “We figured Toronto is basically going to be cancelled. We made a big gamble and showed it to the streamers, and we got lucky with Apple. I liked Apple because they don’t have a lot of movies. They’re not inundated with content and I just felt like this film and Apple was a good marriage.”
And how has this multi-hyphenate dealt with the disruption forced onto the film industry by Covid? “I haven’t stopped working,” he says. “I’ve been finishing Palmer, I’ve been making a documentary on The Lincoln Project, this group of Republicans that went against Trump, and I’ve been acting on a TV series for the last two months too. It’s been full on, but with masks and being very careful. But let’s see where we go as the world turns on this pandemic.”
Palmer is streaming now on Apple TV+