After successfully making the rounds on the festival circuit, The Starling Girl has finally arrived in theaters to much critical acclaim. Writer and director Laurel Parmet’s feature film debut is an exploration of danger and desire in a repressed religious community, a story that takes elements from her own life and her research. At the center of the thoughtful tale is teenage Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen, Little Women), whose highly structured life is upended when she falls in love for the first time.


The object of her affection is married youth pastor Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman, Top Gun: Maverick), who returns from an extended trip abroad and finds himself isolated from his church and family. Their bond is equal parts tender and traumatic, allowing Jem to free herself from her previous restraints while also rendering her vulnerable to being taken advantage of. The ensemble cast of The Starling Girl, who exist primarily through Jem’s eyes but nevertheless flesh out the world, include For All Mankind‘s Wrenn Schmidt as Jem’s mother, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Jimmi Simpson as her father, and Euphoria‘s Austin Abram’s as Owen’s brother.

Related: The Starling Girl Review: Parmet Delicately Balances Abuse Vs. Agency

Screen Rant spoke to Pullman about how he and costar Eliza Scanlen utilized the rehearsal time they were blessed with while filming The Starling Girl, which scene stood out to him most, and what he hopes to see in Top Gun 3.

Lewis Pullman Talks The Starling Girl

the starling girl lewis pullman & eliza scanlen foreheads touching

Screen Rant: I love how The Starling Girl is told from the perspective of Jem the whole time, but we get these little glimpses of what everyone else is going through. How much do you discuss with Laurel about what is really going on in Owen’s family life with his wife? How much of what he says to Jem is true?

Lewis Pullman: Yeah, I love that you picked up on that. There are some people who I’ve talked to after who are like, “That’s right, I guess there are no moments in the film that we witnessed that Jem wouldn’t have witnessed.” It’s kind of a sneaky approach, but it really is effective because you get so much storytelling in the periphery of these moments. And sometimes that is a lot more illustrative than spoon-feeding it to the audience. It’s almost like people-watching when you see somebody at the airport, and you make up this whole story. oftentimes, your imagination is so much more exhilarating than what’s actually happening.

But obviously, I had to fill in the blanks and fill in each moment. Because you witness Jem through this whole journey, and you witness Owen almost in a strobe-light fashion, right? Every time you see him, something’s happened in between that time, and we don’t really know what because we’ve been following Jem. It was fun for me and Laurel to fill in what was going on with him to justify those changes, because every time you see him, he’s in a little bit of a different place. But we haven’t been along for the ride to see how he got there, so that was fun.

It felt like I was participating in the storytelling in a way that was really affecting the story. I ran by everything by Laurel, and she’s something else. She has been working on this movie for years and years, so she knew exactly how she wanted it to be, but was also extremely flexible in her collaborative openness.

Eliza said that it was a priority to be able to have some rehearsal time. How did that affect your dynamic together and your understanding of this very complicated relationship?

Lewis Pullman: It was crucial. Laurel talks about this openly, but she had a relationship sort of similar to it. And because I had a lot of questions, and I had a lot of things where I wasn’t sure of how far we wanted to go, or what our pocket was, and where we wanted to be totally. That week of rehearsals, we were able to explore how far was too far, how far was not far enough, and to build a common language and a shorthand between me and Eliza and Laurel. So that on the day, we knew exactly what versions we wanted to try.

Laurel could say a couple words, and we know exactly what she means. And it just gave Eliza and I an opportunity to play. We would do a lot of improvisation in order to expand our idea of how they might interact outside of the dialogue. And that, I think, allowed us to feel comfortable. On the day, it’s rare to get those rehearsal days, even on a huge budget movie. I think Kevin Rowe and Kara Durrett, the producers, and Laurel really fought for that week. They protected it, and that was a big part of it.

Do you have a scene in the film that either resonates the most with you, or that you were proudest of seeing from its inception to its actual execution?

Lewis Pullman: I think the scene where Jem and Owen end up wrestling in the river. Having that conversation was special for me because that’s the kind of scene that you build up in your mind so much. It feels like such a pivotal moment for them and for Owen; he’s so expressive in that moment, and he’s so truthful and earnest in this way that I think he can’t really be with anybody else — or he feels like he can’t be. I think it really is a part of what made his love for her make so much sense to me; what he says in that, and how she responds.

That was one we had, like, 30 minutes to shoot because it was getting towards the end of the night, and that river was freezing. We were both shivering so much, but poor Eliza. We had to do my close-ups first, so I was already warmer, and I could hide the shakes a little bit. Then she had to go after me, and she was doing an impeccable job recruiting all of her energy to make sure she wasn’t vibrating. But it added this energy and fueled this interesting vibration to that scene. I really thought that was a beautiful scene, and it turned out well.

I also loved you in Top Gun: Maverick. What are your hopes for Bob in Top Gun 3?

Lewis Pullman: Oh, my gosh. You know, I’m all about low expectations, low disappointment. I don’t want to fantasize too much. But, of course, that was such an incredible experience. We would love to revisit it, and everyone on that movie is like family now. We could sink back into those characters so easily. It’s just about finding the right story that feels like it needs to be told in order to further Maverick’s journey.

About The Starling Girl

Eliza Scanlen as Jem in The Starling Girl
Eliza Scanlen as Jem in 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.

Check out our other The Starling Girl interviews here:

The Starling Girl is currently playing in select theaters.

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