‘La La Land’ star on what it was like filming a musical, her anxiety attacks and keeping up with Joaquin Phoenix
On Sunday night, Emma Stone won the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical for her work in the dazzling movie-musical La La Land. Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonah Weiner spent several days with Stone for the cover story of our latest issue. Here are some of things he learned from the experience.
La La Land allowed her to flex muscles – literal and figurative – that she hadn’t before.
“This is someone who’s at the end of her rope, doubting herself, trying to ply a trade that requires you to expose yourself emotionally, and be rejected, daily,” says director (and fellow Golden Globe winner) Damian Chazelle, of Stone’s character Mia — an aspiring actor hoping for her big break. “I didn’t want Emma to shy away from that kind of rawness and vulnerability, and one of the greatest pleasures making this movie was watching her go somewhere deeper and darker than we’re used to. Musicals are a genre where you have to be willing to literally flip or tumble or stumble — you can’t really go into it with too much of a protective shield. What’s scary about the genre is what’s exhilarating, which is that it forces you to wear your heart on your sleeve.” For her part, Stone says, “I had a lot of thoughts, daily, about building the character. Damien would write and rewrite, then I’d read it and call him at six in the morning, like, ‘I gotta come in, we gotta change this.’ Then we’d improvise and he’d write that down.”
She had only 10 takes to nail one of the movie’s trickiest dance numbers.
One of La La Land‘s showstoppers is a duet, staged in Griffith Park and captured entirely in a single shot, as Stone and Ryan Gosling fall for each other. “We had two days to shoot it,” Stone recalls. “We’d rehearsed it for like four months, but it had to happen at magic hour, so we only had five takes each day before we’d lose the light. So the pressure was on. Ryan and I would finish a take, run back to the bottom of this hill, then do it again. If one of us fell, that take was completely ruined and we only had nine left. It was like when you’re entering your iPhone password – it will lock you out forever if you get it wrong 10 times.”
She suffered from crippling anxiety as a kid – but improv comedy helped her work through it.
In her preadolescence, Stone was prone to debilitating panic attacks: “My brain naturally zooming 30 steps ahead to the worst-case scenario,” as she puts it. “When I was about seven, I was convinced the house was burning down. I could sense it. Not a hallucination, just a tightening in my chest, feeling I couldn’t breathe, like the world was going to end. There were some flare-ups like that, but my anxiety was constant. I would ask my mom a hundred times how the day was gonna lay out. What time was she gonna drop me off? Where was she gonna be? What would happen at lunch? Feeling nauseous. At a certain point, I couldn’t go to friends’ houses anymore – I could barely get out the door to school.” Gravely concerned, her parents arranged for Stone to see a therapist. “It helped so much,” she says. Also helpful? Performing. “I started acting at this youth theater, doing improv and sketch comedy,” she says. “You have to be present in improv, and that’s the antithesis of anxiety.”
Her onetime co-star Jonah Hill is a big fan – and says she’s as down-to-earth off camera as she seems onscreen.
Stone’s first movie role came opposite Jonah Hill in Superbad. Hill, who’s gone on to make movies with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, calls Stone “one of the best actors, straight up, I’ve ever worked with. She’s a beast.” On Superbad, he recalls, “What her part required was someone who was completely beautiful and charming but didn’t look down on anybody else, and that’s Emma – she’s one of the best hangs in the world, and she never makes anyone feel less than.”
One of her craziest-ever acting experiences was trying to keep up with Joaquin Phoenix in a Woody Allen movie.
Starring with Phoenix in Allen’s Irrational Man, Stone says, “I felt like if I wasn’t the most present I’ve ever been, it would be a miserable failure – Joaquin changes directions constantly. He makes a different choice every time for the scene, and you don’t know which way he’s gonna go. You have to be so on, following him.”
She’s buddies with Jennifer Lawrence, and they like to watch early-1990s comedies starring Bette Midler.
Stone’s circle of friends includes fellow actors Martha MacIsaac – who played Stone’s pal and Michael Cera’s crush in Superbad — Sugar Lyn Beard and Jennifer Lawrence. “We go on trips together, we hang out at each other’s houses, watch shit,” Stone says. “I was over at Jen’s place last month – we watched Hocus Pocus.”
She was a pin-wearing Hillary Clinton supporter, and Donald Trump’s win has her vexed.
“It’s so hard to process what happens next, or what to do,” Stone says. “It’s terrifying, the not-knowing. But I can’t stop thinking about vulnerable people being ignored and tossed aside – marginalized more than they’ve already been for hundreds of years – and how the planet will die without our help. It comes in waves.”