The Starling Girl is now in theaters after receiving countless praises at film festivals such as Sundance and SXSW. Though it is writer and director Laurel Parmet’s first voyage into feature film, her debut is a strong yet tender exploration of a young woman’s psyche as she breaks free from the confinements of her childhood. Little Women‘s Eliza Scanlen stars as the titular protagonist, Jem Starling, a teenager whose life has revolved around following the precepts of her fundamentalist Christian until her desires lead her away from her upbringing.
When youth pastor Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman, Top Gun: Maverick) returns from abroad, he immediately captures Jem’s attention despite the fact that he is older and married. While hiding their burgeoning relationship, Jem finds her relationship with her parents (played by For All Mankind‘s Wrenn Schmidt and Pachinko‘s Jimmi Simpson) strained — especially when they plan to let Owen’s brother Ben (Austin Abrams, Euphoria) court her. Jem’s father Paul also begins turning back to alcohol after the death of an old friend from his past, which only adds to the tensions in the family circle.
Screen Rant spoke to Simpson about how he filled in Paul’s backstory in The Starling Girl and the very personal connection he felt to his character. The actor also shared his excitement to return as Liam McPoyle in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Jimmi Simpson Talks The Starling Girl
Screen Rant: I love that, even though the story is told through Jem’s perspective, we get these little glimpses of what’s going on with Paul — especially how shaken he was by Walt’s death. Can you talk about how you established who Paul was before and how he came into this community, and whether you discussed it with Laurel or Wrenn?
Jimmi Simpson: I’ve lost a couple of very, very close buddies, and one of them I hadn’t been in the greatest touch with. The loss we’re capable of feeling when someone is so important to us, and we’ve moved away from them not because of a personal breakdown, but just because life moves us in different places, was relatively profound to me.
It’s that trigger for Paul, who 20 years ago had found himself unfulfilled in his life, like so many humans do. And instead of investigating exactly why, he just jumped to another thing. This is a universally prescribed way to be whole, like a lot of things, so he followed the orders of society of those he knows; those he loves. It’s also that really sad propensity of humans to enter into a condition that’s not right for them and to keep bending to the pressures, thinking, “It’ll shape me into how I should be,” when in reality, how they should be is here. They felt it the whole time, and they’re denying it.
It’s 20 years later now, and he’s saying to Jem, his daughter that he loves so deeply, “Maybe I haven’t been the perfect example, but this works.” And his thought is, “If I just get to her sooner than it got to me, maybe it’ll work for her.” All of these are speculations; sweet but sad speculations on Paul’s part, and hope of what he’s been told. He’s trying because he loves her so deeply; because he sees himself in her. and she does in him. But in the end, it’s not the lesson he was told to tell her. It’s his own lesson that she witnesses, which is, “This is not how to do it. Look at this man that you love and respect so much trying to help you, and he’s lost. Maybe, honey, follow that nagging feeling that you’re not in the place you should be.”
And what a huge responsibility that, and it’s so deeply tragic when a parent has to lose themselves to get the message across to their child. But just the way that Laurel does it, it isn’t about Paul. That’s what I love. It’s not some melodramatic investigation in the life of an alcoholic. It’s about a dad unable to tell his daughter what to do, so he shows her.
I feel like every actor in this project really understands the character despite so little of it being on the page. Did you have some rehearsals to get everything beforehand, or was it on the day of shooting?
Jimmi Simpson: No, there is no ability [for that]. Obviously, with independent films, your days are very, very limited. You’re doing twice as many scenes each day. But I also think the reason why I love doing independent films is not only because that’s why I wanted to do movies, but when you know it’s a tiny budget, you know you’re not getting paid. So, you’re doing it because you believe in it. That is how everybody feels.
You bring in Lewis, Austin, Wrenn — and we were all there because we really cared. So is the crew, and so are the producers, and so is Laurel. Nobody was making any money; we just really believed in the story. I think that’s why you got it. Also, Laurel and [producer Kara Durrett] are amazing at casting folks. Austin Abrams is gorgeous with what he’s doing in this movie. Lewis is gorgeous, Wrenn is gorgeous, and that’s Laurel and Kara just knowing who to best represent the story.
I just have to say that I can’t wait to see your eyepatch again when you return as Liam McPoyle in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Jimmi Simpson: It’s coming. I just was with Charlie [Day] for his movie, Fool’s Paradise, and he said the edit’s quite ridiculous. I’m so excited. I was like, “I haven’t done this in eight years. Who knows if I will be able to again?” I’m getting weird!
About The Starling Girl
Seventeen-year-old Jem Starling struggles to define her place in rural Kentucky’s fundamentalist Christian community. Even her greatest joy of dancing with the church group is tempered by worry that her actions are sinful and she is caught between a burgeoning awareness of her own sexuality and her religious devotion. With the return of Owen, an enigmatic youth pastor, Jem soon finds herself attracted to his worldliness and charm. Slowly, he draws her into a dangerous relationship that could upend their entire community.
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The Starling Girl is currently playing in select theaters.