The Arizona-born actress takes a wild road trip with co-star Barbie Ferreira in Unpregnant, the Superbad of abortion movies.
“I’d love to play an alien,” the actress Haley Lu Richardson tells me over a Zoom call when I ask her what kind of role she’d like to tackle next. While it’s unclear whether she means the cyborg-headed, drooling kind that dry heaves into Sigourney Weaver’s ear or one more akin to the kitschy, operatic belter in The Fifth Element, one thing’s for certain: she’s done playing teenagers (well, maybe just one more).
Today, Richardson, with tousled hair and oversized glasses, is curled up on her couch in a tawny cardigan, despite the roasting, ashen weather outside of her Los Angeles beach home; she just wants to feel cosy, she explains.
For several years, Richardson has oscillated between Hollywood high-earners and more evocative, prestigious indie fare. For her performance in 2017’s Columbus, Richardson received a Gotham award nomination for Best Actress; her performance in Support the Girls the year after was also met with critical acclaim.
Following a string of early career desultory indies, Richardson broke out as Hailee Steinfeld’s frenemy in 2016’s millennial cult-ish classic The Edge of Seventeen, which led to her getting cast as a cheerleader tormented by a psychotic James McAvoy in the blockbuster Split. Last year, she starred opposite Cole Sprouse in Five Feet Apart, a terminal teen romance depicting the real life couple that inspired The Fault in Our Stars, in which her character suffers from cystic fibrosis. Then she got the call for Unpregnant, a HBO Max road trip abortion comedy in which she must get, well, unpregnant before her devout parents find out.
I inquire about her position as a career teen. “I’m drawn,” the actress pauses to let out a stifled burp, “to young adult stories when they also explore something with depth, or that’s real and universal,” she explains. “The worst kind of teen genre movies to read are the ones where it’s like ‘teenage heartbreak!’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t care!’ I’m 25 years old now, I really don’t care about that anymore.”
Richardson stars alongside Euphoria breakout Barbie Ferreira (“I’ve never seen an episode of that show,” she shared). The actress felt disoriented on the phone when she found out about the audition, a discordant jangle of her agent’s voices scrambling to describe Unpregnant’s plot. “They were all trying to talk over each other trying to explain this movie, which, as it turns out, is very hard to explain.”
In brief, Unpregnant follows Veronica (Richardson), a 17-year old, straight A/type A student who discovers that she’s pregnant in the stall of her high school bathroom. Mid-piss-on-the-stick, her former best friend, the band tee-wearing, Nickelodeon slime-haired Bailey (Ferreira) barges through the door.
Refreshingly, there’s not much debate in the film about whether or not Veronica will get an abortion: “It’s not a ‘should I’ or ‘shouldn’t I’ situation for her,” Richardson explains. Rather, it’s about how she’s going to get the procedure. Unpregnant is set in Missouri, one of 37 states in the US that requires parental involvement in a minor’s decision to get an abortion. So when Veronica’s dopey boyfriend (Alex MacNicoll) admits to a condom breaking during a recent car hump, she’s certain that she’s not ready to become a mother. The bad news? Veronica’s parents are ultra-religious, and telling her mother is out of the question. The nearest clinic that doesn’t require parental consent is some 1,000 miles away in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Veronica has exactly three days to get there and back before her sleepover coverup is found out. Only, she doesn’t have a car.
Unpregnant is the Superbad of abortion movies. It performs a genre-bending juggling act, finding a surprising balance between the earnest friendship at the core of Booksmart mixed with the high-octane adrenaline of Thelma & Louise. At its zaniest, the film enters hostage territory Cape Fear style, swapping out a tattoo-knuckled Robert DeNiro for an anti-choice couple with serious road rage. Continue reading