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Interview: Writer Cheryl Guerriero Talks ‘Palmer’

Cheryl Guerriero is the screenwriter and executive producer of the new AppleTV+ original film, Palmer, directed by Fisher Stevens. Palmer stars Justin Timberlake as the titular character of Eddie Palmer. 

Palmer, once a hero in his rural hometown in Louisiana, lost his reputation by serving a 12 year prison sentence. Upon his return, he moves back in with his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb). While trying to keep his head down and rebuild a quiet life for himself, Palmer is haunted by memories of his glory days and the suspicious eyes of his small town community. Things become more complicated when Vivian’s hard-living neighbor Shelly (Juno Temple) disappears, leaving her precocious 7-year-old son Sam (Ryder Allen), often the target of bullying, in Palmer’s reluctant care. In time, Palmer is drawn into a more hopeful world as he forges a connection with Sam through their shared experience of being made to feel different by those around them. An inspiring and unexpected journey unfolds for the three of them, but soon Palmer’s past threatens to tear apart this new life.

Cherl shares with Awards Radar the inspiration behind writing Palmer, casting Justin Timberlake as the lead, and discovering Ryder Allen, the young breakout star of the film.

Awards Radar: Well, Cheryl, thanks so much for chatting with me and congratulations on Palmer. Now, I know that on the surface, it doesn’t seem like the type of story that you personally relate to. I know that you’re from the East Coast, born and raised in New Jersey, then went on to live in New York. This is about a man from the South who’s just coming out of prison, grappling with the loss of family, the loss of a good reputation in his hometown after being released from prison after 12 years. So what was the inspiration behind writing Palmer? 

Cheryl Guerriero: Yeah, and thank you, by the way. Thank you for the kind words for our baby, our labor of love. Yes, I am from New Jersey, but I know all the characters in it came from a personal experience of mine. And I just put them in that setting and I did date someone who was from the South. But anyway, it originally came from being around men like Palmer, who had ended up in prison due to drug addiction, alcoholism and had gotten out of prison. And I had the privilege of watching them change their lives and take certain actions and humbling themselves. And I could relate to that. So there was that. And I knew I wanted to write a character like the man I had been around that I can relate to. And I’m gay. I knew at a very, very young age I didn’t quite know what it meant. Then as I got older, I’m like, “oh, this is what this means”. And I was someone like Sam, although I didn’t play with Barbie dolls or wanted to be a princess, I wanted to be like a cowboy or I played with Tonka trucks and green army men. And, you know, I got made fun of because my shoes were typically shoes that boys would wear. But unlike Sam, the minute I was made fun of, I just had so much shame and I never wore those shoes again and kind of hid what I liked. But it really started with the character Palmer. And I didn’t know what the story would be until I was walking one day in Venice Beach and I saw this little boy playing and he was about seven. And my thought was just like, “oh, I wonder if his father knows he’s gay”. And because of what he was playing with his mannerisms, my own experience. And so I just kept walking and the thought was, I guess I live in New York City. I lived in L.A. I’ve had girlfriends. And, you know, we’re not bothered when we walk down the street, although sometimes we are hassled in New York City. It’s just like unwanted, unwanted, just like, you know, anyway. But the thought hit me, you know, like what if this little boy lived in an environment where football was very prominent and you were expected to play football or be a certain way and being a princess wasn’t something that was, you know, the norm, I guess, so to speak. And then the thought then that I knew these two were going to come together and that the little boy would save the man and then the man would save the boy and they’d have their journey together.

So had you already considered penning a script just based on your experiences with these guys, who were your friends dealing with alcohol and substance abuse before that chance encounter at Venice Beach when you saw that little boy?

No, I mean, look, and to all full disclosure, I’m sober. I ended up, you know, I’m like “I’m gay and I ended up in AA”. You know? And, you know, the gay thing I kind of knew early on. And the other thing was like, hey, how do I end up here? But I know how I ended up there and I had no idea I was going to write this story. Absolutely no idea. And I believe it was one hundred percent God inspired. I feel like God gave me the inclination to write the story, the inspiration to write this story. I mean, I believe God may be gay, maybe an alcoholic. All these things. My sister and I as babies were adopted and my feeling about motherhood and parenthood is I just don’t believe you need to come out of someone’s body part for them to be your parent or father. And I’ve always held that belief. And so there was that. But I had no idea I was going to write the story, and I guess you could say because…I mean, the truth of the matter is I ended up in AA. If I hadn’t, I don’t think I ever would have had the inclination or the inspiration to write such a story. And because for me, I relate to Palmer just being very uncomfortable in my own skin for a very long time. And the thing about Sam is it was important for me to write a little boy who was comfortable like he does and the thing that his mother does right, I mean, she’s absent, she’s a drug addict. What she does right is she just allows her boy to be however he wants to be. She buys him the lunch box. She buys him the clothes. She just loves him. And therefore, he’s just like…this is who he is. And there isn’t in his mind anything that makes him feel uncomfortable until later on with what’s going on in his home. And that starts to weigh on him. But, yeah, I mean, I think it’s just my life experiences. I mean, trust me when I tell you ending up in AA wasn’t something I ever saw in my future. And it’s kind of like with Palmer. And being a father to this boy was not like falling in love as a father, as a parent to this kid was not anything he ever saw. So I think it’s that, too, is just ending up in places I never thought I’d end up in. And the miracle of certain things in hindsight, there’s things that happened that brought me to a place of humbling that kind of inspired me.

I have to talk about Ryder Allen, because, as you know, he’s one of the most celebrated parts of this film. Just last week, he received a Best Young Actor nomination at the Critics Choice Awards. It really is amazing to see all this praise for such an outstanding performance. How did you find a Ryder and what was that initial meeting like between him and Justin?

I loved him immediately. I mean, there was a wide search for kids. There was a wide search and eventually got narrowed down to six. And I remember seeing Ryder’s audition because {director} Fisher {Stevens} included me on everything and Justin included me on everything. I mean, we were all like a collaborative family. And I know Justin wanted to do a chemistry read with at least six kids. So we were picking them. And I mean, we looked at Canada, UK, wherever. And I remember looking at Ryder’s audition and I’m like, this little boy is doing a Southern accent. And later I’d find out his acting coach worked with him. She’s from Georgia and she’s like, we’re going to do this with a Southern accent. And that’s what got my attention. And it’s funny because she would later tell me she goes, oh, yeah, like casting agents will say, no accent. So I’m like, well, that’s what got my attention. And I was like, Fisher, look at this kid. Look at this kid. And at that time, there was another young boy we had met through, like a friend of a friend wasn’t even one of the casting people. And we thought he might be Sam. But then we did the chemistry read, and I mean, Ryder just walked in, I mean, like for me, having written Sam and seeing him, I mean, that’s Ryder that is sat like because for me, I’m like I always loved Sam. He was a lovable little boy. And that is Ryder. Like, he just walked in and he’s just funny. He’s a funny kid and a lot of love and mature for his age. But there was one moment and just his connection with Justin, because for me, Palmer was this masculine dude and Sam was supposed to be more effeminate. And, you know, Ryder’s seven, he was only seven. They just clicked, you know, like they did the root beer scene together. And Ryder, like Justin, didn’t necessarily have to carry him. You know, like Ryder and Justin clicked. But there was one moment where Ryder walked in on cowboy boots. He had these, like cowboy boots. And he comes in and he sits down and he crosses his legs. And as his legs are crossed, I’m just watching, and he goes, “Fisher. Wait, did you get my legs?” And he’s just like, “did you get my legs?” And we all kind of stop. And he’s like, “because I have mosquito bites all over my legs. You don’t want to get them in in your video”. And I was just like, “I love him. I want him as my child”. And so, I mean, look, he’s a little boy who had never acted before. And he’s like a sponge. He takes direction well. He’s just a lovable kid. He’s just a lovable kid who’s intelligent and gifted. He has good instincts.

I also have to ask about the casting of Justin Timberlake. I think that casting someone like J.T.  who is a major star helped gravitate audiences toward Palmer who wouldn’t have otherwise probably tuned in and walked away with some of the important messages of the film. So I have to ask, how did you go about casting Justin Timberlake?

No. And you know what? Thank you for saying that because I really can tribute, you know, Justin’s the reason and yes, beautiful story and all that, but Justin’s reason why people worldwide are tuning into this movie. So thank you for saying that if it wasn’t for him, I do not think we’d have the reach that we have. I don’t think we’d be breaking records at Apple if it wasn’t for Justin. One hundred percent. And so thank you so much for saying that, because I think he deserves that. And the interesting thing about Justin is when we met for the first time, he’s a very down to earth guy. Like when we were filming, {he was a} complete professional, like I forgot he was this mega worldwide star. Now with the press and the fans, I’m like “Jeez, wow!”. You know, but when I was working with him, he felt like a guy that maybe I grew up with, like his friends are friends that he’s been friends with for years. But how he came into the picture is so we were supposed to make this in 2018. I was working with Fisher Stevens, the director, since 2016, and we were supposed to make it in 2018 with another actor. The money fell through. I’m so happy it did though in hindsight. But at the moment you’re a little devastated because it’s like wait, your movie is supposed to be getting made and then the movie just fell out. So that actor who was attached to play Palmer the beginning of 2019 rolled around and he was off on something else. So Fisher has worked with Appian Way and Leo DiCaprio and Jennifer Davidson, and they’ve made documentaries together. And they said to him, what about Justin Timberlake? And so, Fisher called me and I remember I was on the streets of New York, he’s like, what do you think of Justin Timberlake? I’m like, I think he’s a fantastic actor. I like Inside Llewyn Davis, Alpha Dog, Wonder Wheel. And here’s the thing; I pay attention to the women he’s costarred against, like Kate Winslet, Amy Adams, Juno Temple. And he doesn’t, he doesn’t disappear. He’s right there with them. So I was like, yes. And I hadn’t seen him do something like that. So the script was given to his manager who read it. And I’m so grateful Rick Yorn read it, liked it, gave it to Justin. Justin was on tour at the time, you know, like he’s in one city and then another. I don’t even know how he found time to read it, but he read it quickly. And then when he was in New York during this whole tour, he met with Fisher Stevens. So they sat down, had their initial talk and I’m like “how’d it go, how’d it go?” He goes “I think it went well”. So then there was a phone call that I was involved with, with Justin and Fisher, just collectively, creatively. And the phone call went very well and he was still on tour. And then he wrapped up and we had another phone conversation. So we’re getting to know one another. And it was great because he was on the same page. And I think that’s very important. So then we did a table read in New York. I forget when that was and it went really well. And I remember it was kind of surreal because there were other actors there that I really liked as well. And so afterwards, me, Fisher and Justin talked about it. And there were a couple of things I had bumped on in my head and we were talking about it. And Justin bumped on the same things. And I’m like, I really love his instincts. And and then shortly after that, he’s like, “I’m in” because we’re like, “are you going to be doing this? You’re my baby’s daddy or what?” He says he always knew he was doing that. He gets to know the people he’s going to work with. So that’s how that came about. I mean, that was, you know, so that was like beginning/mid 2019. And then once he was on board and he goes, you know, he actually said he’s worked with Juno and that she’d be great for Shelly. She’s amazing. So that’s how that came. She got the script and she liked it. And you know, with June Squibb, like, you know, she’s another one. She’s flawless. Amazing. The woman’s ninety! So she got it. And we’re fortunate with scheduling. II didn’t even know this, but she was doing Ted Lasso and she flew in and on her first day of filming, she did the scene where she gave Sam away. And it was like, unbelievable.

I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions about projects you’re currently working on, because I know that you had your debut suspense novel coming out the other year, Girl on Point, and it’s currently slated to go into production later this year as Aurelio De Laurentiis, the Italian film producer, picked up the movie rights. What can you say about that project? How are things going there?

Well, we’ll see, because COVID kind of put a stall on that. I mean, I think I will find out actually at the end of April. I think I’ll know one hundred percent what’s happening with it this year. So to be determined. But yeah, I mean, the script is done and I’ll just say this. I threw myself in the ring to potentially direct it because prior to COVID, they were going out to some directors and over the holiday break it just hit me, like, I think I want to direct this one. So we’ll see if that happens. But I have to wait. It’s a financing thing. So I think we’ll know by April.

I have to ask about another project you’re writing which is titled “I Have Something To Tell You,” based on your own coming out experience. How is that going?

Yeah, well, that was interesting because I was just supposed to have a general meeting with these producers and they do what I do. You Google or you research people that you’re meeting with. And they came across my appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, you know, the segment where they showed a part of a coming out documentary I had made. And I guess they called my agents. They said, “would Cheryl be interested in adapting this into a movie?” I met with them because I was like, “Ok, how do you see this?” It was Alan Powell and Steve Barnett who are producers and a couple other really good guys. I mean, like, you know, We talked about it creatively. We’re going to do it over the course of this family dramedy. It’s going to take place over the course of like a long weekend where news is revealed that isn’t readily well received. And that’s with my parents. I love my parents. I’m close with them. But they had a you know, their dream wasn’t for their daughter to be a lesbian, but they’ve since gotten over that. And I’m the favorite daughter. But, yeah, it’s about, you know, whatever the issue may be. But it’s a family drama where it’s about family and again, about acceptance and but yes, I have started it actually. I started over when I realized I was and that’s just how I am. Like before anything’s dried. If I know I’m going to write something I like to write right away. I’m someone who would study two weeks ahead of a test. I get to the airport like two hours early, so. So that’s how I work.

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Written by Max Geschwind

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