Emma Stone and Yorgos Lanthimos on ‘Poor Things,’ Crazy Rehearsals and Never Making a Taylor Swift Joke Again

Emma Stone and Yorgos Lanthimos have a sense of comic timing that rivals Nichols and May.

Case in point: When I ask Lanthimos how he became aware of Stone, the 50-year-old Greek director hesitates for a moment before addressing his 35-year-old muse.

“I was aware of her work,” he says. “I thought of her for ‘The Lobster,’ but didn’t use her.”

“Do you want to say why?” Stone asks.

“Do you want me to say?” Yorgos responds.

“Tell him why it didn’t work out,” Stone says. “I’m not embarrassed.”

“The reason I didn’t actually go to her,” Yorgos says, “is because there’s a lisping character in ‘The Lobster,’ and I didn’t want her to be that character. But Emma has a lisp of her own, so I was like, ‘That’s going to be confusing. If someone who’s not the lisping woman in the script has a lisp, then the whole film will collapse.’”

“Makes sense,” Stone says.

And thus a beautiful friendship was born. Since then, the duo have collaborated on 2018’s “The Favourite” and now “Poor Things,” a favorite, of sorts, to bring home serious hardware in March commensurate with the film’s 11 Oscar nominations.

In a way, “Poor Things” is the culmination of Lanthimos’ earlier films, almost all of which fall into the “WTF did I just watch?” category — notably 2009’s “Dogtooth,” the tale of cloistered children seeking some understanding of the world through sex and ’80s VHS tapes; and the before mentioned “The Lobster,” from 2015, which deals with the cheery premise that single folks have 45 days to find a new mate or they will be turned into animals.

As I said, Stone, who won an Oscar for “La La Land,” first worked with Lanthimos on “The Favourite,” where she and Rachel Weisz compete for the affections of a queen played by Olivia Colman. “Poor Things” is, to paraphrase Neil Young, neither the middle of the road of “The Favourite” or the ditch of “The Lobster” and “Dogtooth.” The film tells the story of (deep breath here) Bella Baxter, born out of the husk of a distressed pregnant woman who commits suicide but is brought back to life by scientist Dr. Godwin “God” Baxter (Willem Dafoe), with her fetus’s brain replacing her own. She eventually undergoes a sexual awakening in a steampunk world filled with gondolas, cruise ships and Dafoe’s gastric bubbles.

Lanthimos built Bella’s world on a massive soundstage in Budapest. He then assembled his actors, including Stone, Dafoe, Ramy Youssef and Mark Ruffalo, for something rarely seen in modern filmmaking: rehearsals.

“It very much reminded me of theater rehearsal,” Ruffalo says. “I’ve never done anything like that in film.”

Ruffalo plays Duncan Wedderburn, a lascivious creep — think Snidely Whiplash with sex appeal — who sets out to seduce Bella, with things not quite going as he planned. Ruffalo tells me that the actors did not work on characters so much as a vibe the director wanted his troupe to find on their own.

“He didn’t give me specific directions,” Ruffalo remembers. “He’d just say something like, ‘Check out the Peeping Tom dance company out of Belgium.’ The one thing that we all developed in that rehearsal process was this kind of communication that wasn’t always verbal — it’s a lot of feelings.”

For our interview, Lanthimos arrives a few minutes before Stone. We chat about EuroLeague basketball for a while until Stone pops her head into the interview space and mentions that she needs another minute.

“Where is she going?” asks Lanthimos.

“She has to pee,” an assistant says.

Lanthimos rolls his eyes heavenward. “For the love of God!”

Stone then enters and we have a quick conversation about a mutual friend, casting director Allison Jones, who gave her her first big break in “Superbad.”

“She changed my life,” Stone says. I mention that Jones still calls her Emily. Stone smiles. “All my friends still call me Emily.”

This is just a few days after the Golden Globes, where Stone has won for best actress in a musical or comedy for “Poor Things.” At a backstage press conference that night, she was asked about her friend Taylor Swift, who had been cheering loudly for her. That night, Stone joked, “What an asshole, am I right?” Ninety-nine percent of the universe would have known she was kidding, but — well, a few Swifties were offended.

“I definitely won’t make a joke like that again,” Stone says now, “because I saw headlines that really pulled it out of context.” She points at herself and says, “What a dope.”

We are in a nondescript room in a Los Angeles mid-rise that would work well as the location for an IRS audit. Adding to the fun, the lights are going off and on, much to Stone’s delight.

I’ve set you up in our plushest holding cell.

Emma Stone: This is gorgeous. Thank you.

Yorgos, when you were getting ready to make “The Favourite,” did Emma just immediately pop to mind for the part, or did you see thousands?

Yorgos Lanthimos: She was my first choice.

Stone: Well, we’d met. That helped.

Lanthimos: And we’d met.

Stone: Yorgos feels like a lot of his process of working with people or putting people in his films has to do with who they are as a person. It’s not just performance-based. When we’ve gone through casting stuff, you usually send me people’s interviews rather than their films.

Lanthimos: Yeah, it’s very important, the person. So there’s always this thing where casting directors or agents are asking, “Is this an offer?” And I always go, “Well, I need us to meet first.” How am I going to offer a part if I don’t speak to the person, see how we get along? So we met and we got along really well. And, yeah, I guess my only question, because I’m not a native Anglophone, was about the accent. And so we just did some … Emily, Emma, what am I calling you here?

Stone: My name’s Emily. Can you just call me Emily?

Lanthimos: Emily, she had some sessions with Joan Washington, a dialect coach. And then we just did a session so that I could see that we could work the way I work. And then we had a lot of English people listen to it. I just wanted to make sure that she’d be protected, because I wouldn’t be able to say like, “Oh, that sounded weird,” or whatever on set. Not that the accent is the most important thing, but I think there needs to be a certain kind of level.

Stone: Well, especially when everyone else in the cast was actually British.

[The lights go off.]

Stone: The ghost is here. Uh-oh. [She does serious movie-narrator voice.] It begins.

Well, Emma or Emily, I’m sure you’ve done rehearsals before, but had you done anything on that level coming into “The Favourite”?

Stone: For “La La Land,” we did a ton of rehearsals for a very long time, but it was very specific: dancing and singing. But when Yorgos was talking about rehearsal, I didn’t know what exactly that entailed. And it turns out that his rehearsals, they have nothing to do with what you’ll ultimately do on the day. But what it does, I think, subconsciously or in a subterranean way, is it lets everybody feel very comfortable with each other. You’re playing a lot of games.

Did you think, “Oh, this is cool,” on the first day? Or were you like, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Stone: Oh, no, I loved it. I loved it. Yeah. And I realized by the time that we were on set, we all felt very close to each other. We had all gotten to know each other in a much more intimate way than we would’ve if we’d just been blocking and saying our lines over and over.

Lanthimos: I usually just improvise. I give them certain exercises. Everyone gets in a line and starts following each other in circles, and then they have to synchronize their steps. There’s this game that we play with chairs.

Stone: That’s my favorite one.

Tell me more. 

Lanthimos: It’s just a game. It just …

Stone: It’s so silly.

Lanthimos: Let’s say if the cast is eight people, seven of them are walking around in space with their eyes closed.

Stone: Let me show you. We go like this. [She rises, closes her eyes and starts walking in a small circle, somewhat stiff-legged.]

Lanthimos: Yeah, that’s it.

Stone: Like around and around. It’s all of us. And someone is holding a chair — the one person who has their eyes open. And all of a sudden …

Lanthimos: … she starts sitting down. So I have to grab the chair and put it under her so she doesn’t fall.

Stone: There’s multiple people doing this at the same time, so you don’t know when other people are sitting too. People could be sitting at the same time and one person falls, and who do you save?

Lanthimos: It’s one person or two running around with chairs trying to accommodate the sitters, let’s say, who do not see if someone’s actually putting a chair behind them or not. It’s a bit of a trust thing.

Does anybody occasionally just fall on their ass because the chair doesn’t get there in time?

Stone: Of course!

Lanthimos: It’s just having weeks and weeks of just playing games, laughing and being comfortable with each other.

Stone: It makes the environment on set so much more freeing and so much more fun, when you have that level of comfort with each other.

The first time you mentioned “Poor Things” to Emma, did you send her a working script?

Lanthimos: No, I think we had started the process of adapting it with [screenwriter] Tony McNamara, but I don’t like to share scripts when they’re rough. I want to feel confident about the script before I show it to anyone. I need to feel that it’s really close in order to share it. I don’t want people just going on in different directions and making assumptions — and having to correct all that. So, yeah, I don’t think I shared the script with her until a year or two later, maybe, after I mentioned it. Not two, maybe a year.

Stone: It was two.

Lanthimos: It was two? OK. I don’t have a good memory, by the way.

Stone: You don’t.

[The lights go out again.]

Stone: It’s nice to do this in the dark, honestly.

The lights go on and you guys have switched clothes.

Stone: Switched clothes and he’s hanging from the ceiling.

Emma, before rehearsals, was there a lot you could do in terms of preparing for Bella?

Stone: Not really. I think with Bella, because everything is so new — and because we started at the beginning of the movie in her most primal, primitive stage — it was nice to be building that physically in rehearsal before we started filming, and not have it be something I had been working on for a long time that felt very mannered or trained.

I read that you had watched some videos of toddlers walking, and that you concluded, “This does not help.”

Stone: It wasn’t helpful. She gains 25 words per day, and it takes a toddler a year to do that. So her way of moving and ambling through the world, a lot of that is based not just on her mental development, but also her physical development — not growing at all. She’s not growing and getting taller and all of the things that you have to navigate if you’re small.

I can only imagine how difficult it was to try and get a hold of this character. In the first week of shooting, were you …

Stone: … panicking? Yes! I think because I had lived with her in my mind for so long and I was so deeply in love with Bella, it terrified me not to live up to her as a character. I felt like I was failing her in the first week, and failing Yorgos. It was just difficult. I could talk to him about it, but I couldn’t talk to her about it.

Was there a moment when Bella came alive for you, or was it just gradual?

Stone: It was just a gradual comfort with it. I could talk to Yorgos about it, and we were able to discover as we went. And because it’s a safe environment, it doesn’t feel rushed. His sets don’t feel like, “Oh, we have to get this, and we’ve got to move on, even though I don’t want to.” Or at least he doesn’t communicate that to us.

You shot “Poor Things” on a Budapest soundstage, which isn’t something you’ve done with your other films. Why?

Lanthimos: I think the whole idea from the beginning was that we would build this world that was more of a reflection of how Bella experienced the world. I started thinking about what’s the best way to do that? And I think older films and old-school techniques are still the most beautiful and the most believable, in a way — more humane and more tactile. And so we knew that we wanted to make everything and not shoot on green screens. And then it started becoming bigger and bigger when we started imagining what we actually needed. We were building exteriors of cities inside a stage. It just started becoming huge.

My previous films were all shot on location. We didn’t use any lights in my previous films — it was all natural lights or practical lights. So there were a lot of new things, and a scale that we had never dealt with before.

Emma, I know you’ve battled anxiety. I thought of that as you’re doing the first incredibly rapturous, joyful steps of Bella dancing, when you get up on the table and you’re just moving. I wonder if there’s something about that character that you thought, “Wouldn’t it be super fantastic to just have no shame or not be concerned about what others are thinking?”

Stone: I think that’s why I was so crazy about her. It’s the idea of not living with that self-judgment or shame, as you say, or the social contracts that you make as a child growing up. And part of the nature of anxiety is that you’re always watching yourself. In some ways — this is horrible to say — it’s a very selfish condition to have. Not to insult other people with anxiety — I still have it — but it’s because you’re thinking about yourself a lot. You’re thinking about, “What’s going to happen to me? What have I said? What have I done?” Whereas Bella’s way of approaching the world, it’s just about experience. It’s just about how she feels about things.

Much of the buzz around “Poor Things” has been that it’s this feminist document — a look at how every man, even those who love Bella, is trying to take something from her. How do you see it?

Lanthimos: I don’t really like going into an analytic conversation about what it means, what the themes are, what the characters are. As I said before, I feel confident about the script. So that means it conveys a lot of things, I think, to intelligent people. So there’s no need to discuss it further.

And I actually think it’s dangerous to go too much into those conversations because things start becoming a little too one-dimensional. Like there’s only this aspect of this film, and this is what we’re thinking this is, what we’re trying to do. I try to make films more open than that.

I wonder if either one of you could just speak about Mark Ruffalo.

Stone: [Laughing] I like that every time someone brings up Mark, we laugh.

Lanthimos: Yeah.

He seems like he’s having a fantastic time. And I know he’s said, “I didn’t know if I could pull it off, and I thought I was going to let other people down.” 

Lanthimos: I think he does have the time of his life while he’s doing it. And then when he stops the take, he goes into this other mode: doubting himself, insecurity and whatever. And then when the camera starts rolling, he immediately gets into it again. He’s that kind of actor. In the moment, he can do anything. He’ll work hard for everything, and then he’ll doubt himself. He’ll be like a normal human being, basically.

You operate with a very small crew. 

Lanthimos: We don’t use lights in the traditional sense; there’s no gear on set. It’s just a camera that moves around. When you do one shot, the camera moves, and then you can do the next shot right away. So people don’t just … we try to keep them there as much as we can. I like to keep everyone engaged.

What’s the deal with you and animals?

Lanthimos: What do you mean, “What is the deal”?

They play a very crucial part in many of your films.

Lanthimos: I don’t know. Everybody asks me that, but do I have more animals than other people?

Stone: Yes.

I think so. Just one man’s opinion.

Stone: And one random woman’s opinion. You never had a pet.

Lanthimos: I never really had a pet. [Lanthimos now has a dog — a Greek shepherd mix named Vironas.]

Stone: Until literally three months ago!

Lanthimos: I’m fascinated by the humanizing of them and how we treat them. I find it weird that sometimes we are more worried about them than other humans. I like to play with that notion.

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