The first thing you notice about Emma Stone are her eyes, green and enormous.
But she squinted almost as soon as she glided into the luxe room of the Whitby hotel in Manhattan last weekend where she met with journalists to talk about her new film, The Favourite. A blaze of light had bounced off the adjacent building and seemed to beam exclusively on the La La Land actress and it irritated her eyes.
“It’s a spotlight,” she laughed. “I’ll scoot over.” The light moved with her. “It’s literally following me. It’s hilarious!” Journalists rushed to the window to draw the heavy curtains and block out the offending light.
Stone’s charisma serves her well in Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ psycho-sexual political saga, his third film in English. Stone co-stars with Weisz and Olivia Colman in a trio of complicated and powerful women in the court of Queen Anne (Colman) in the early 1700’s. But this is not your mother’s Masterpiece Theater period piece. The words “fuck” and “cunt” are flung around, often, usually by the women and at each other. Witticisms and zingers fly so swiftly and stealthily in this clever and sharp script by Deborah Davis (her story) and Tony McNamara (his barbs) you have to be on your game just to keep up.
At the heart of The Favourite is the cut-throat rivalry between the steely Lady Sarah Churchill (Weisz) and the social-climbing Abigail (Stone) for the love and influence bestowed by the Queen. Loosely based on historical events, Anne was too sick with gout and grief to rule, so she left her closest friend since childhood, Lady Sarah, to run the court and often the country. The wheel turned when Sarah’s cousin, once aristocratic but now destitute, arrived to the palace and schemed her way from chambermaid to Queens’s confidant and finally to her bed. For the first time Stone bares her breast on screen, in a scene that conveys to Sarah that Abigail means to usurp her place with the Queen. MovieMaker had a chance to catch up with Stone about her invigorating new performance.
Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): The production notes say there were three weeks of rehearsals prior to shooting but you don’t talk about characters or story, so what do you do during the rehearsal process?
Emma Stone (ES): We jumped around, acted like human noodles, and we walked backwards without looking at each other, trying to sense where the people were behind us. When they asked us to speed up, we moved faster backwards and tried not to crack our heads open (laughs)… We rehearsed all of the lines but not in the way they would happen on the day of shooting. We even read other people’s characters. It felt like we had been working together forever. I felt really comfortable around everyone. That was three weeks it was like a super course into becoming not self conscious around each other.
MM: During the prep, what was going on with you and Rachel and Olivia in terms of how you got to know each other, and the guys too?
ES: Olivia had Rachel and I over for dinner pretty much right away. Pretty quickly, we started spending a lot of time together. Olivia’s a real momma. She’s a host, but she’s also very, very loving and maternal. There is no ice to break when you’re around her, so she made everybody feel just fantastic and very loved. It was the same with all of the guys as well. Joe [Alwyn], Nick [Hoult] and James [Smith], we all spent a ton of time together. But I mean, three weeks into that kind of process, working together, embarrassing ourselves in front of each other, then realizing we didn’t need to—it all felt very natural.
MM: You get slapped and shoved into the mud, not to mention pushed down hills. How much of that really happened to you?
ES: Yes, there was a lot of physicality and, of course, I did a great job with it. I was always excited, so much that I didn’t even have a stunt double for scenes like the one where I rolled backwards down a two-story hill. That was just me. [She’s joking of course.] It was a daily question of “How is Abigail going to be hurt today?” Falling in the mud, being slapped, slapping someone, getting tackled. You know, hitting myself in the face with a book. But again, it’s movie magic… So, in all actuality, when Nick Holt pushes me backwards down the hill, I did not roll backwards two stories down the hill. I’m certain, though, that if Yorgos could have gotten me to, he would have. He was like, “Why not?” And I was like, because I will break my neck and my (stunt) woman Claire was wonderful.
MM: The costumes designed by Sandy Powell are so fantastic, especially the designs that look period but crafted from materials that look modern and even punk. How did that help you immerse yourself in the role?
ES: The corset affected me deeply. But that was because I had never worn a corset before. Knowing what it was like to be in that time period—the way it makes you stand, the way it makes you move, how proper it makes your stance, and even how it affects your speech patterns was really astounding. I mean, it’s incredibly painful and that was the reality.
MM: What was your initial reaction to working with Yorgos? Were you familiar with his movies?
ES: I read the script, but I hadn’t seen any of his films at that point. I watched Dogtooth before I met with him. That was about two years before we actually made this movie, and so I got to sit with him and get to know him a little bit. His actual personality is so different from the films he makes. He’s very kind, normal and not near as obsessed with killing children as you’d think with The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Yeah, by then I had seen his films and was practically begging to be in this. It wasn’t like I was offered the part outright, so I did need to work on the accent and do an audition and everything.
MM: Did the weirdness of the previous two films give you any second thoughts about working with him?
ES: He makes such interesting, dynamic, fascinating, unique films. It’s so rare to find a director that actually wants to work with you, too, that’s able to make films like that. So, I thought this was a great situation. That made me want to do it more.
MM: It’s rare enough to have one strong, three-dimensional female role. What are the dynamics like when there are three and you’re playing off each other?
ES: Very loving in real life. On screen, it leads to feeling really safe to go to all those places with these women. I think it’s helpful when you love the people you’re working with and when they feel like people you can trust. I was just talking to Olivia and Rachel about it yesterday. Every day was so exciting, coming to set knowing that you were going to get to play these multifaceted people. With the way my character evolved, I always had a clear sense of what point in her journey she was on. Whether she was quiet and charming, or absolutely devious, it was a really wonderful path to track.
MM:The Favourite has been described as more accessible than Lanthimos’ earlier films. How do you see similarities in his imprint in The Favourite compared to his other films?
ES: I think the composition is key. A lot of the visuals are uniquely Yorgos. He always seems to involve animals in some way, but here, the film is not anywhere near as violent as some of his previous films. The way that he sees humor, however, the way that he doesn’t like to beat humor over the head is as present as ever. Obviously it’s broad when you’re doing physical comedy or there’s a lot of falling (as with my character), but he has a very specific way, very matter-of-fact way of presenting humor. Even though I actually do think that this feels a bit different from his other films, all of his signatures are still there.
MM: What do you think makes your character, Abigail, tick?
ES: Abigail is a survivor. She fell from grace. She was part of an aristocratic family before her family’s house burned down. Her father even lost her in a game of cards and she went on to live in squalor and abuse for a long period of time before coming to the palace. I think her driving force is to remain safe and out of harm’s way, which she takes to greater lengths as time goes on, as she begins to be threatened by Sarah. She does get to a point that I would call pretty villainous by the end, but I do believe at her core, she is just trying to survive.
MM: That kind of mindset, that sort of individualism of me before everything feels very now in this country. Do you think there are parallels to contemporary politics or society?
ES: I don’t think so. They were working on the script for nine years before we even shot it. There is the interesting element where people keep asking if it’s timely because of everything going on. Is it timely that there’s this film starring three women in these complex roles? Was All About Eve timely? Was Faye Dunaway’s character in Network timely? People want to see great female roles I think. It’s half the population you just don’t see great female roles on the screen as often as you should.
The timeliness is more coincidence than a commentary on the place we are now, but yes, there is something very interesting in the differences between Sarah and Abigail. I believe Sarah is consistently looking out for the good of England, and Abigail is on her side, as she says. Abigail is a survivor, a sign of the individual’s struggle, while Sarah is involved in the political struggle of trying to deal with this petulant leader who is overwhelmed by her own insecurity, pain and trauma. There’s definitely a lot to chew on, and a lot of interesting realms to go into that can talk about where we are today. However, I don’t think that was the intention.
MM: What was it like being the only American in the cast?
ES: It was great in the sense that everyone around me was British, which helped a lot with my learning process. They were also able to knock my accent back on track if it was going off the ropes at all. It was also special because the house we were shooting in was the house where Queen Elizabeth I lived in as a little girl. There was so much rich history that I just hadn’t experienced in my home country—The Favourite takes place in the early 1700s before America was even founded! So, it was this entirely new world to me up close on location.
MM: The lesbian triangle and the relationships are so different between you and the Queen versus Sarah and the Queen. Can you tell me about how your character uses that romance more like manipulation or is it a genuine sort of love story?
ES: I think Sara and Queen Anne truly love each other and have since they were children. Yes, there is a manipulative aspect to Abigail’s longing for Queen Anne. At least in my understanding of Abigail, there are parts of her that truly do love the Queen, because she is so grateful for the opportunities that she’s being given. It’s a truly complicated sexual dynamic between the three of them. And one that, in the end, is really heartbreaking. Without giving away the ending (so don’t read on if you haven’t watched), it does seem to me that Abigail realizes what she’s done, and that the Queen has come to realize that she let go of her true love for a sycophant. It’s a fascinating triangle that we’ve got going on there. MM
The Favourite opened in theaters November 23, 2018, courtesy of Fox Searchlight. All images courtesy of Fox Searchlight.