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The Sweet East: Talia Ryder on her wildly surreal new road trip movie

At 21 years old, Ryder, who’s speaking to me in late March, already boasts an impressive, varied filmography. Aged 17, she starred in the abortion-drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which she followed up with scene-stealing performances in West Side Story, Dumb Money, and Do Revenge; in Olivia Rodrigo’s “Deja vu” music video, she drives the singer to insanity. However, it’s really The Sweet East, a road movie in which Ryder has to conjure up comic chemistry with a swath of eccentric, increasingly dangerous oddballs, that most proves the actor is chameleonic, daring, and inherently watchable, especially with Williams’ gorgeous 35mm cinematography.

“The first time you see yourself in a movie, it’s really jarring,” says Ryder. “It’s good to be comfortable with what you look like, because you have to be comfortable in your own skin to do this. It’s nice being a character versus yourself.” When the opening credits of The Sweet East morph into a music video, it’s apparent that Lillian knows she’s in a film. “I’m very cautious about the roles I play,” says Ryder. “I understand the power of movies. I really liked the idea of playing a character that was in control in all of these situations.”

“The unique challenge of Talia’s part is that in fact a lot of it isn’t in the dialogue,” says Pinkerton over email. “Her character is very often being talked at by people who are desperate to impress her or impress themselves on her, and she’s often wary, vacillating, noncommittal… gives people just enough of herself to keep them on her side, but not more. So a lot of the performance is a matter of reactions, and a lot of the pleasure in the performance is watching the character think – seeing her carry on her own private conversation with herself while these various blowhards are yammering about one thing or another.”

Alongside directing, Williams is an influential cinematographer whose credits include Good Time, Heaven Knows What, and Her Smell. Pinkerton, meanwhile, is a renowned film critic. Together, they’ve produced a movie for young people – not just the casting, but in its raucous energy, nods to online culture, and an infectious, bratty attitude – that, unlike YA movies on Netflix, doesn’t care about likeability or positive representation. “The world is a pretty upsetting place sometimes,” says Pinkerton, “and there are a lot of people with dubious motives out there, and sometimes you’re going to be the person with dubious motives, and if you’re going to negotiate all of that confusing, ugly stuff I think it’s probably helpful to have examples or reflections of it in art that can provide a little perspective and maybe even help you muddle through.”

Aware that Williams and Pinkerton are white, middle-aged men, Ryder requested to chat to the duo prior to signing on. Throughout our conversation, she refers to them as two of her best friends. “I’ve had bad experiences working with men before,” she says. “But Sean always gave me room to speak, and for questions he didn’t know the answer to, he’d say, ‘What do you think? I’m not Lillian.’” At times, Lillian is so aware of her surroundings, she practically breaks the fourth wall. “Lillian is stepping into whatever role she has to play to earn the knowledge of people older than her, but also to find her voice, which is special, because I feel like that’s what I’m doing,” says Ryder. “I want to make my own movies one day. While Nick and Sean put Lillian on the page, I’m the one who brought her to life.”

In fact, Ryder made a 20-minute movie – it’ll come out somehow, she’s not sure when – about her time at last year’s Cannes when The Sweet East premiered in Directors’ Fortnight. In addition to composing music, dancing (she started out as a 12-year-old in Matilda on Broadway), and writing poetry, she shot a short film in Vegas with friends that she plans to turn into a feature. “I really look up to David Lynch,” she says. “He captures feeling in a way that’s really exciting to me.”

Escalating at such a rapid pace, Ryder’s career is redolent of Lillian’s freewheeling navigation of opportunities in The Sweet East. So much so, the film ends on a title card with three words: “EVERYTHING WILL HAPPEN”. I remind Ryder that, four years ago, when she was selected for the Dazed 100, she emphasised that if anyone will fix the world, it’ll be Gen Z. “I do still think that,” the actor says. “There’s not a lot left for us unless we take things into our hands. More of my generation is deleting social media, turning off their phones, looking up, and trying to figure out what’s actually going on. There’s a lot of bullshit and propaganda that people are trying to feed us through our phones.

“The ‘EVERYTHING WILL HAPPEN’ quote is under the belief that there are infinite timelines with infinite outcomes. If every timeline will happen, why not make this the good one? Why not be the main character of your movie in this one? Why not throw away your phone in this one? Why not change the things that suck in this one?” However, while she’s deleted most of her social media, Ryder isn’t immune to checking Letterboxd. “It doesn’t hurt to know if people like you or not,” she says. “You have to make the stuff you want to make, and tell the stories you want to tell. If everyone likes it, it’s probably not worth telling that story anymore.”

The Sweet East is out in UK cinemas on March 29

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  • Source of information and images “dazeddigital”

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