“I’m a girl from Arizona and he’s a guy from Athens. I don’t know how this worked,” she says. Their latest project, Poor Things, may be Oscar-bound.
It’s one thing to cry while performing. Emma Stone can do that. What she doesn’t want to do, and what she found herself doing anyway, is to cry in the middle of an interview.
“I’m such an actor, what is wrong with me?” she said, her eyes welling up with tears.
It was mid-November in Los Angeles and we were out to lunch with Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director with whom Stone has made the cockeyed comedies The Favourite and now Poor Things, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September and is tipped to be a major Oscar contender. Based on the novel by Alasdair Gray, Poor Things casts Stone as Bella Baxter, who may have the cinematic year’s most outrageous origin story: Trapped in an unhappy marriage, she throws herself off a bridge and is resurrected by a mad scientist (Willem Dafoe) who swaps her brain for that of her unborn baby.
Stone gets plenty of comic mileage out of playing this full-grown woman with the mind of a child, but Bella’s eventual arc is breathtaking: As she gains sentience, embarks on a sexual and political awakening, and strives toward independence, Bella must navigate the hapless suitors (played by the likes of Mark Ruffalo and Ramy Youssef) who are drawn to her maverick spirit but also seek to possess her. This is a character who has meant more to Stone than most — “I just love her so much,” she told me — though she tried to laugh off how talking about Poor Things sometimes moved her to tears.
“I’m tired, that’s all it is,” Stone said.
In addition to The Favourite and Poor Things, Lanthimos, 50, and Stone, 35, have collaborated on the short film Bleat as well as And, a comic anthology due next year. “I obviously have full-blown, very intense trust in him,” she said, “and as an actor, it’s the best feeling ever, because it’s so rare that you feel like whatever you do, you’re protected by your director.”
Lanthimos facilitates that trust with a long rehearsal process that has more in common with improv comedy than you might expect: The actors recite their lines while doing log rolls, walking backward or closing their eyes. “We never rehearse as in, ‘OK, how are you going to do the scene and let’s just act it out,’” Lanthimos said. “It’s more about creating this atmosphere of camaraderie and having fun, getting to know each other so we can be comfortable with ridiculing ourselves.”
Some actors forge long-term relationships with auteurs that require sacrificing what has made them into movie stars: To ascend to a more prestigious plane, comedians furrow their brows, beauties cake themselves in dirt and teen idols talk of torturing themselves in the name of their craft. But with Lanthimos, Stone has not had to give up the comic timing and innate empathy that are her greatest gifts as an actor. She instead puts those talents to use in new and daring ways under her director’s unique eye.
Still, this fruitful partnership makes for an unusual duo in person: Where Lanthimos is impassive and a man of few words, his leading lady is wide-eyed, warm and eager to connect. Or, as Stone put it, “I’m a girl from Arizona and he’s a guy from Athens. I don’t know how this worked, because our personalities could not be more different, but it’s amazing.”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Q: When did the two of you first meet?
EMMA STONE: It was June of 2015, in a cafe. I was in rehearsals for La La Land, and I met him to talk about The Favourite. I thought he was going to be really scary and twisted, and he isn’t. It was a very comfortable and easy conversation and we got along right away.
Q: You thought he might be a more intimidating presence?
STONE: Having seen the films that he had made up until that point, yeah.
YORGOS LANTHIMOS: What a cliché.
STONE: I was 26! I was but a child. But from then on, we kept in touch and got to know each other a little bit. By the time we were making The Favourite, we had a rapport and the beginning of our friendship, and then by the end of shooting it, we started talking about Poor Things.
Q: Yorgos, what was going on in your life when you first read Poor Things?
LANTHIMOS: I had just moved to London and started meeting people about English-language projects. It was after Dogtooth  was nominated for an Oscar, and people started taking interest.
STONE: [teasing] Nominated for an Oscar. Everybody was like, “Whoa, this guy’s so great!”
LANTHIMOS: But when I started showing Poor Things to people, it was rejected many times for development.
Q: What reason did they give?
LANTHIMOS: ”It’s too weird, too strange.” Back then, there was a notion of, “Oh, we’ll get a European or non-American filmmaker to do something conventional, they’ll just bring their own twist to it.”
STONE: That still happens.
LANTHIMOS: So that was quite a disappointment because I was very naïve in meeting people and them saying, “Oh my God, Dogtooth is amazing, we want to do things with you.” And then I would produce The Lobster  and they would go, “Oh, no, no, we’re not talking about something like this. Don’t you want to do something more normal?”
Q: Emma, how did Yorgos pitch this project to you?
STONE: He gave me sort of the brass-tacks overview of Bella, what she goes through and what the men in her life experience as a response to how she’s evolving. And I was just like, “Sign me up.” My God, she’s the greatest character I’ll probably ever get to play.
Q: What is it about this character that’s so beguiling?
LANTHIMOS: She’s unlike anyone.
STONE: She’s drinking up the world around her in such a unique and beautiful way that I just dream I could. I find her so inspiring, and living in that every day throughout that whole process was just the greatest gift — it’s the most joy I’ve ever gotten to have as a character. Every person that exists has so much that built them up to what they are in adulthood, and it was interesting to discover that if you strip all that away, all that’s left is joy and curiosity.
Q: We meet Bella when she’s not far into her brain swap: Formerly an adult woman named Victoria Blessington, she’s now like a full-grown baby, impulsive and childlike. What was it like to embody that phase?
STONE: Tough. That was the hardest stage for me, just because that’s where she’s at her most primitive. Acting is inherently embarrassing — this, as a job, is just silly and you can feel really stupid. Thankfully, with Yorgos, it’s much more freeing and I feel confident because we can quickly get to, “I guess this one’s not working, let’s go somewhere else.” Also, I can cry to him if I’m freaking out about something, which I have many times.
We’d been working on this for so many years, and to actually commit it to film is always terrifying. I find the first two weeks of filming anything really difficult because you’re still finding your footing and the tone of what it actually is in practice, not just the idea of it. So the first week was really challenging to just give myself over to it and trust the process of it, and I think you felt the same way.
STONE: We were talking about it every day, and I was like, “What am I doing?” You were like, “I don’t know.” We were both figuring out who she was.
Q: How does your trust in one another extend to how you filmed Bella’s sexual awakening?
STONE: It simplifies everything. Whenever there was a scene like that, it was only four people in the room, other than whatever actor might be in there. There was Yorgos and our [director of photography] Robbie Ryan, who looks at me like I am a lamp — he’s seen me naked so many times, it’s so beyond nothing — and then Hayley [Williams, the first assistant director], and Olga [Abramson], our focus puller. That was the room.
LANTHIMOS: Sometimes not even sound. We would rig mics when we could and we wouldn’t even have a boom operator there. So it’s just very intimate.
STONE: And also, an amazing intimacy coordinator [Elle McAlpine]. Stupidly, at the beginning, I was like, “It’s fine [without one], I’ve known you for so many years.” And then once it came to actually doing all those scenes, having her there was so wonderful — she really made the energy so calm and professional. But it was weird ultimately to see the movie because doing those scenes was such an intimate experience and then I was like, “Right, that’s in the movie!”
But I mean, that’s Bella. She has no shame about her body and her sexuality and who she is, and I am so proud of that aspect of the film.
Q: Does it embolden you to stay in that space?
STONE: Just to stay naked all the time? Yeah. I’m going to be a nudist now, I’m emboldened!
Q: I meant Bella’s head space. Do you feel emboldened when you spend so much time in a character free from shame?
STONE: I wish I could say yes. It has stuck with me in some capacities, and if I could live as Bella, I would love to. It’s really hard when you have your own history to deal with, which seemingly everybody has except for her. But I find her so inspirational in general that I’m always trying to think if I could be a little bit more like her.
Q: Yorgos, you acted in the Greek film Attenberg earlier in your career, which required you to take part in some sex scenes. Did that give you a unique perspective on directing them?
LANTHIMOS: For me, that aspect was never an issue. Sex in movies, or nudity — I just never understood the prudishness around it. It always drives me mad how liberal people are about violence and how they allow minors to experience it in any way, and then we’re so prudish about sexuality. To me, what was difficult about being an actor was that there was a lot of waiting around, and that’s why, when I make films, I try to have the least amount of business possible: No lights, no gear, no nothing. Nobody goes anywhere, nobody leaves. There’s no time to smoke a cigarette, because we just keep on going.
STONE: That’s why you have to switch to vaping.
Q: Emma, do you want something different out of your projects now than you did in your 20s?
STONE: I hope that when it comes to projects or characters that it’ll always be a surprise and slightly scary. But also, how scary can it be? It’s acting, I’m not saving any lives. It’s such a lucky thing to be able to do, so to sit here as an actor and be like, “This was so hard,” is crazy.
LANTHIMOS: I think about that as well. “Oh, I’m making films, what’s so incredibly difficult about that?” But I do have a horrible time. The stress.
STONE: He’s really miserable while we’re filming.
LANTHIMOS: Yeah, it’s insane. It’s immense.
Q: And it hasn’t gone away over time?
STONE: It’s gotten worse.
LANTHIMOS: You try to rationalize it: “Why are you so upset? This is a movie.” Of course, when you compare it with other things that are happening in the world, it’s ridiculous. But for you, in that moment, it’s everything.
STONE: Also, a lot of times you’re on location. You’re away from your quote-unquote real life, you’re working so many hours a day, and it’s so consuming.
Q: So how did it feel to near the end of an all-consuming project like Poor Things?
STONE: I was a mess. Oh my God, I was devastated. I couldn’t even get through the scenes we were shooting on the last day because I was crying so much.
Q: You didn’t want to let go?
STONE: I wanted to be done because we were exhausted, but I really didn’t want to be done. It was such an important experience to me that it makes me sad now thinking about it.
LANTHIMOS: The last day was in the studio, and we did her jumping off the bridge.
STONE: I’m getting teary. I’m sorry, this is so stupid. Bizarre. That last day, I did the jump that Victoria does off the bridge when she’s pregnant, and I was so emotional. You can imagine, if I’m sitting here years later like this!
I said to Hayley, our AD, “Oh my God, this is so sad. I’m shooting a suicide, and it’s the end of the movie after this whole joyful experience.” And she said, “No, this is the birth of Bella.” I was like, “It is the birth of Bella! Because Victoria being gone is the birth of Bella.” It’s so nice to end on that.
[Wiping her eyes.] Yeah. Anyway, it was cool. No big deal. Fun movie, we had a good time, it was just a paycheck.
Poor Things is in NZ cinemas from January 1.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Kyle Buchanan
Photographs by: Thea Traff
©2023 THE NEW YORK TIMES