Interview: 'La La Land' Star Emma Stone on the Evolution of Her Acting
by Alex Billington
December 2, 2016
"I feel very excited as of late for what's to come, whether it works or not." I can't say enough how much I adore Damien Chazelle's musical La La Land. It's an exhilarating cinematic experience, full of so much joy and happiness, along with superb dancing and exuberant singing and beautiful sets and gorgeous sunsets. Aside from Ryan Gosling, the other co-star of La La Land is Emma Stone. Her first big break out role was playing Jules in Superbad back in 2007, and over the nearly 10 years since she's earned an Academy Award nomination (for Birdman) and worked with some of the best filmmakers around. I was lucky to spend 15 minutes chatting with Emma about her career and her work on La La Land and it was an absolute delight.
I met Emma at the Telluride Film Festival only days after La La Land had premiered there (and at the Venice Film Festival). I fell head over heels for La La Land at Telluride, writing in my glowing review that "I want everyone else to witness this grand accomplishment and feel as inspired and as amazed by it as I am." Stone is wonderful in the film, and I am glad I had a few minutes to talk with her about it. She seemed more nervous than I was in the interview, at one point joking that "this could be [her] worst interview ever." We laughed it off. I asked at the end "aren't you an expert at interviews now?" She responded: "No… I'm the opposite." Nevertheless, she was as charming as ever and did her best to answer my questions. Let's begin…
Are you where you want to be in your career now? Are you where you felt like you would be?
Emma Stone: Yes. I guess, yes. Yeah, I feel really excited and reinvigorated – I guess is the word for it. I got to do "Cabaret" and that's set on stage in New York and that reset my brain in the craziest way. It was so amazing. And then I did La La and then I did this movie, The Battle of the Sexes, the tennis movie I was telling you about. And it's been just an amazing past year and a half on those three projects. And it's been really, really – it's gotten me so excited about everything. Not that I wasn't before, but I feel reinvigorated.
Do you have more of a chance to do what you want nowadays?
Emma: I think I'm clearer on what that is nowadays. So I don't know if it's a more of a chance or just more of – I think things are easier when you're clearer on the kind of experience you want to have and not as… Maybe at certain points I felt like, of course, I should attempt something because of a variety of factors. And now I feel a little more aware of a sense of what I might be able to bring to the table, rather than the outside coming in. Maybe that's maturity. Or maybe I just was a late bloomer. I don't know what it is.
I think it is maturity…
Emma: Not that I haven't felt that way before. On Easy A, I was so dead set on doing that. I mean, after that I was like a crazy person.
Right, that film seems like a major turning point for you.
Emma: Yeah, and it was very that yeah… With La La Land, Damien did come and talk to me about it and we had such a long dialogue about this movie. That went on for a while and he was very patient and I was asking him every question in the world because I was wondering… I don't know, I just had a lot of questions and he made it make sense. And that was a very lucky thing that came my way.
Do you now have any say in the filmmakers you work with? Or are you more aware of who you're going to work with? Do you prefer certain ones? Alejandro Iñárritu [director of Birdman], is an example of someone that people want to work with because there's a certain experience working with certain filmmakers.
Emma: Absolutely. Over the past couple years, there's been a variety of filmmakers that I worked with and learned a lot in the process of just how different everybody can be. I've been working – this is very strange to say, but my first movie was 10 years ago. So I've been working for a decade, which is very wild. So that's quite a few different directors and filmmakers. So in having worked for that amount of time I've seen different kinds of experiences and known what to, you know, look out for and not look out for but to be honest with you, that hasn't really necessarily changed the experience of making the film itself.
Emma: At the end of the day, yeah, because things can happen on set that were never originally planned. That are unexpected and confusing, or unexpected and amazing, or… You never really know. As much as you can talk to people about their experiences of working with someone or even if you've worked with a person before, it can… It's just, it's a crazy thing. But I guess that is that way for probably every job, right?
Yeah, I think so. What you're saying is that there's the potential for discovery through what happens on set and… if something goes wrong or something is different than what you expect, it could still turn out great in the end?
Emma: Yeah. Or it could not…
Yes, that's true too.
Emma: You know? So you can… Going in with your heart open and your eyes clear, I think that's been a good [focus]…
That's the best way to proceed.
Emma: Yeah. I think — staying clear eyed.
Is that something you came to recently or is that something you've been thinking about your entire career?
Emma: It's something I've been thinking about a lot recently. But I, no, I think I've been thinking about it throughout but it's just, like with any career I guess, things ebb and flow and change and evolve. And I don't know, I just feel… I feel very excited as of late for what's to come, whether it works or not. It's been so much fun and it's so rewarding and challenging. And I guess that's all that really I can really control.
Did you have any expectations while making La La Land? On set, did you finish a certain scene and think this is so awesome. People are going to love it.
Emma: It's hard to ever be fully, fully objective. Maybe this is as an actor. I don't know. The filmmaker probably doesn't feel the same way in any particular thing. But I'm never exactly sure what people will love or not love about certain [scenes], especially with something like this. We could be so proud of a dance sequence that we worked on for three months, and everyone on set is clapping and excited about us finally getting it. It's hard to tell if a mass audience is going to think that dance sequence is as exciting as we did on set.
But you hope they would at least.
Emma: You hope they would, of course. I'm always hoping that people are, of course, going to respond to the work that I'm doing. I don't mean me personally, I mean the thing I'm working on. But you never really completely know. Or at least I don't… Maybe other people do.
Was there something going into La La Land that you felt like was going to be a challenge and wasn't? Was there anything you went into that you thought was going to be easy but became a challenge?
Emma: I thought the dancing was going to be a challenge in a way that ended up being just a pure fun. And because Damien took the pressure off of us in a way that if we flubbed a bit or if we weren't at the level of Gene Kelly, it wasn't going to be a deal breaker. So learning to tap dance really legitimately for the first time, or learning to ballroom dance just became… we were doing it every single day for a long time. And it ended up being my favorite part of every day. Something I thought would be easy that turned out to be hard… There were certain sequences like the fight at the dinner table that I thought, with Ryan – who I trust – we're gonna do this… And there was this, I don't know, there were certain days where I personally was feeling like I do not know how I'm going to get there. And then you find things or you don't. But you try.
Emma: Yeah. There are always days like that. But then again, that's one of those things like you get there on the day, you can think about a scene for six months and then you wake up that morning and you're like, “What? This is going to happen? That scene is going to be forever and it's going to be today.” So it's always a certain negotiation with yourself of how to, you know…
Are you confident now going in to perform? Or are there still things that make you nervous?
Emma: Oh — there's probably more that makes me nervous now. I think I get more nervous now, but… the one thing I'm much more confident about is that I'm willing to open up and to try anything. I mean, barring, you know, catastrophe hopefully.
Has that happened? I have to ask…
Emma: Yeah… But, no, I mean, yeah. There's been… There's been things that have again, yes, there's been elements of things that are not expected that occur. But nothing – life threatening or physically threatening, no. But yeah, it's… I do, I feel, maybe a different sense of myself now and so I feel more comfortable trying things.
What recent performances or movies have you seen that have really inspired you?
Emma: Oh, I just saw Arrival today.
You loved Arrival?
Emma: I loved Arrival. And I thought Amy Adams was absolutely mind blowing. And I just saw Manchester By the Sea also.
Oh, it's great.
Emma: And Casey Affleck is incredible. Michelle Williams is incredible. And then Katherine Hahn in Bad Moms. I don't know if you've seen Bad Moms.
I haven't seen it.
Emma: Katherine Hahn is a damn national treasure. I don't know how to explain how lucky we are to have Katherine Hahn. She's incredible. They all were. But damn, I love Katherine Hahn. What else? I don't know what else I've seen lately. I haven't been seeing enough this year.
What inspires you the most in terms of actually performing and acting? Is it another good performance or is it something you see in real life?
Emma: It usually is… I get really, really like ahhhh when I see a great film. It makes me… when I was a kid I used to go see movies and then for the next hour or two I thought I was the character in the movie. So I'm going to the bathroom at the movie theater afterwards and I'm thinking like her or him. It was so nice being a kid, you get so lost in what's happening on screen that you really… I thought, I felt like I was thinking like that person for an hour or two afterwards. So I still kind of feel that way. I still kind of find myself, you know, feeling along with [the film], which is I guess the hope for any audience to feel all the characters.
Emma: So that doesn't – that's nothing too different for me.
A big thank you to Emma Stone for her time, and to Lionsgate for coordinating the interview.
Damien Chazelle's La La Land first premiered at the Venice, Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals earlier in the fall (read my glowing review). The film opens in theaters starting December 9th, with a wide release the following weeks. Go see La La Land! One of the best films this year. See a behind-the-scenes featurette.