In The Unicorn, a couple enters their fourth year of engagement with no wedding in sight. So they decide to venture out to Palm Springs to try and have a threesome to rekindle their spark. The film stars Lauren Lapkus as Malory and Nicholas Rutherford as Caleb (Rutherford also co-wrote the script with director Robert Schwartzman), and it recently played as part of the SXSW film slate. It’s there we got the chance to talk to Lapkus about her character, the joys of improvising with her co-stars, and more.
What sparked your interest in The Unicorn initially?
It felt like a story that I could relate to, not in the sense that it’s about a couple who try to have a threesome, I have no experience with that. It’s about a couple that has been together for a long time and reaches a point where they don’t know if they should stay together or not. Are they an interesting couple? Are they boring? Are they tired of each other? They just don’t like even really consider their relationship enough, they almost take it for granted. I think that’s a really relatable story that a lot of people have experienced in their lives and I really like that.
The only stories I’ve heard from anyone who’s tried a threesome is usually something along the lines of, “Oh, it’s the worst.”
Yeah. I’ve pretty much only known bad stories about that. So, it’s not something I’m looking to do.
This movie doesn’t really sell you on it, either.
No. No, it doesn’t make it look that fun.
The story is really carried by the rapport you have with Nick Rutherford and the interplay between your two characters. Knowing he was one of the co-writers, how much of that was on the page and how much of that was something like you two were able to work out together?
The writers definitely did a great job with that. It was really helpful that we were able to improvise within the script a lot. Before I officially got the part we kind of did a test run at Robert’s house with Nick and myself. Running through a couple of the scenes and improvising within them finding the relationship through each time we did it, kind of changing a little bit and seeing what works.
I think they had definitely established a good relationship on the page. That was really helpful going into the film because usually you don’t really get a rehearsal before starting something. So it was nice to feel like we had built a little bit of a connection. Then coming on set and being able to improvise and find stuff, it really built our characters up and made them more three-dimensional. You kind of see that relationship being a little bit more real than just words on a page.
The two of you really sell the idea that you’re a couple that seems to have sort-of grown tired of one another.
I hope we weren’t totally tired of each other, but we were spending a lot of time together because it was this indie movie we were on set all the time. No one is, like, disappearing into [their] trailers. So we got to know each other which I think really helped with just the comfortability between the two characters. Which definitely can read as tired of each other. I think that is something that happens in real life all the time.
I wasn’t aware of the term “unicorn” before I watched the film.
I had already heard the term “unicorn,” which is a person who offers themselves up to couples to be a threesome, like the third in the relationship without any strings attached. I listen to a lot of Savage Love podcasts, so I was very familiar with that idea. I think there’s also elements [that] a unicorn is an imaginary creature. It’s a thing that like doesn’t exist. Even someone who says they are a unicorn, are they? Is that even possible to be somebody who comes into a relationship and doesn’t mess it up in some way? I don’t know. It does seem like it is a fantasy all around.
The film does speak to that imaginary aspect. It seems like it would be impossible to go into a situation like this where there isn’t jealousy or resentment.
Because this couple has so much shared history and they know how to push each other’s buttons or what they get sensitive about or whatever. When a new person comes in you could feel protective even in a negative way of that other person. You’re predicting what they’re going to do or say. I think that, at least in this film, it gets in the way of them having any fun most of the time. They know too much about each other.
There are some moments in the film that seem to echo Ben and Elaine’s relationship in The Graduate.
Yeah! I like the way it leaves a little bit up for interpretation. It seems like they’ve figured out what they want, but, looking at them you can kind of see this almost blankness. Then you’re like, ‘Hmm what’s going on in their heads?’ I think when you have an experience like what they went through together, they both have processed it completely differently. They have grown apart a little bit from all of that. Even if it’s brought them together in some way, it also makes them grow apart because they are not sharing completely what they’re feeling. That was also an issue in the relationship to begin with. When you look at them at the end you can kind of wonder if they are on the same page anymore or not.
There were some fun moments, too. Like when the two of you plot to go out barhopping while pretending to be other people. Is that easy to capture since you’re on a film like this, away from your home for so many days, and waking up being someone else?
I think you are out of your comfort zone so many times as an actor, you’re kind of thrown into weird situations and have to just like go with it. I definitely relate to that moment. It felt easy to play that up because it was like, “Oh let’s be outside of ourselves and make this work and make it more fun.” There is something you turn on in yourself, maybe not everyone but I feel like see this in myself like you turn on a little switch to feel more comfortable; by whatever part of yourself you enhance to like fit into a situation or make it comfortable for yourself. There are little tricks that you learn about yourself.
You also got to work with Beck Bennet and Kyle Mooney from SNL. That had to be fun.
It was great. Beck and Kyle are so funny. My mom was actually Beck’s pre-school teacher.
I didn’t know him then. That’s a cool little nugget. They’re both hilarious. Those were two of my favorite scenes from the whole movie to do because we got to improvise together. They’re just so funny. I mean honestly just broke laughing through
Do you ever watch yourself on screen after a project wraps?
I don’t hate watching myself, mainly because I’ve started to see it as an acting less so. When I watch myself and go like, “Okay I could do this better or do this differently.” It really helps to watch other actors, but there’s something about seeing yourself and going, “Oh, that’s not what I thought I was putting out in that exact moment,” or “I thought I was doing this but it could have been a little more heightened” or whatever. It’s very helpful to watch. I can’t watch things too many times, but, one solid view will give me a feeling of I’ve learned a few tricks for next time.
It seems like subtle parts of performing, like expressions and body language, can be overlooked.
I think it is really helpful to try and change it up each time and give something a little different. I don’t know if I always achieve that, but, it’s definitely a goal.
Anything on the horizon that you’re excited about?
I finished shooting Holmes and Watson [last year], the new Sherlock Holmes movie with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. That’ll be out later this year. I am really really excited about that. It’s very funny and a movie with those two you can’t go wrong.
Do you have a preference for bigger studio projects like that over smaller-scale films like The Unicorn?
It’s interesting thinking about the difference between the two because they both offer such different things. Obviously, doing a huge studio movie is like a dream come true and I feel so grateful for any of those opportunities that I’ve had. Getting to work with like big stars and all that is really wonderful, but, there is something so cool about doing an indie where you don’t have a trailer and you’re all working together and all spending every hour of the day together even if you’re not in the scene. You’re watching everything. I think you really become like a family, even if it’s a temporary family. We build a bond that lasts in a way that is so different from any other experience that I’ve had. It’s been very cool to come to the festival with this film.
Is it bittersweet then after you wrap production and you have to walk away from that community?
It is bittersweet, but, the nice part is that if you really become friends you hang out. I have made a bunch of friends from that movie that I like go out with and that feels really great. It’s hard to make friends as an adult.