'La La Land' star left an anxious childhood in Arizona to become America's most freewheeling leading lady – and a heavily buzzed Oscar favorite
'La La Land' star left an anxious childhood in Arizona to become America's most freewheeling leading lady – and a heavily buzzed Oscar favorite
Emma Stone's favorite place for sushi in Los Angeles is a no-frills spot in a Sunset Boulevard strip mall, tucked alongside a laser hair-removal clinic and a FedEx store. It's here, having barely taken a seat, that she starts telling me about her hiatal hernia. "I can't have spicy foods," Stone says. The issue, it turns out, is that part of her stomach protrudes "into my esophagus," which sounds gnarly but is actually pretty manageable, increased chances of acid reflux notwithstanding. "I was born with it," Stone notes cheerfully. She snaps apart her chopsticks. "I was like a little old man as a young lady."
I first met Stone approximately 11 minutes ago, but it feels like I'm hanging with an old buddy. She huddles over the table mock-conspiratorially; drops callbacks to small talk we only just made like she's citing long-cherished in-jokes; tilts her head back and asks me to examine her nostrils because she's sure she detects an embarrassing particle in there. Halfway through dinner, two dudes take a table nearby. Stone, clocking them, falls into a whisper: "Oh, shit, I think Paris Hilton's ex-boyfriend just sat down – the one who looks like an Elvis Presley impersonator." She jabs her thumb leftward, totally unsubtle as she directs my gaze toward a handsome, square-jawed guy. He might be Hilton's one-time beau Paris Latsis, or someone else entirely. I look back at Stone, who, despite the fact that she is Emma Stone – by far the most famous person in this restaurant, and quite plausibly the most famous person on all of Sunset right now – is grinning at this maybe-possibly sub-TMZ sighting. "That's him, right?" she asks.
That Stone is preposterously affable should come as no surprise to anyone who's seen her act. She's a resolutely human-scale movie star – the type that somehow tricks you, onscreen, into forgetting that she's a movie star at all. "She's not full of shit, she's not pretentious, and she's electrically smart," says Jonah Hill, who acted opposite Stone in her first movie, Superbad.
Stone is often likened to her hero Diane Keaton, and the comparison tracks in a few ways: Both are beautiful, funny, repeat Woody Allen muses. But in Stone's combination of gameness, wry wit and ability to make an overriding aura of good-heartedness come off as magnetic rather than dull, she's got a lot in common with another hero of hers – Tom Hanks. She auditioned to act alongside him in Larry Crowne, back in 2011, not because of the script so much as the fact that she adores Hanks. She didn't get the part, she tells me with slumped shoulders, but that same year, Stone got top billing in The Help and stole scenes in Friends With Benefits and Crazy, Stupid, Love, so, you know, things could have been worse. Watching those movies and the others that Stone has elevated over the years – Superbad, Easy A, Zombieland, and The Amazing Spider-Man reboots, among them – you routinely get the impression that she's operating an amused half-beat ahead of everyone else; that she's having a blast on her own terms, unconcerned with whether anyone is even watching.
Stone lives in New York. Her feelings toward L.A., which she once called home, have softened recently, but for a while she couldn't stand it. "It's what I imagine D.C. is like," she says, "where you're surrounded by all these people who are constantly rising and falling in the local power rankings, and it's the only thing they can think and talk about." In New York, she drops in on theater performances or stays in to watch movies with friends – a circle that includes fellow actors Martha MacIsaac, 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." (Stone dated her Spider-Man co-star Andrew Garfield for several years, but tells me she's single these days.)
She's in Los Angeles right now because she has an excellent new movie coming out, called La La Land. It's a musical, captivating in its sweetness, about two broke-and-scrappy Hollywood dreamers – Stone as a struggling would-be actor at her wits' end, Ryan Gosling as a stubbornly dedicated jazz-head with fantasies of opening his own club – who fall in love while dancing and singing their way in spectator shoes across L.A. The film's unabashedly romantic view of the city is pure throwback – the opening sequence, staged on a freeway, sets the tone, transforming textbook abysmal Angeleno gridlock into a euphorically choreographed fantasia. Like Stone herself – who sometimes seems like a screwball comedienne beamed into the present – the movie bridges classic and contemporary eras. "I needed someone who'd make the traditional musical feel relevant and accessible to people who think they don't like musicals," says La La Land writer and director Damien Chazelle. "Emma's very modern, but there's a timelessness to her, too."
Even before its release, La La Land has emerged as a hotly tipped Oscar contender and, this being mid-November, Stone's awards-campaign blitz is well underway. The other night she dropped in on the Academy's annual Governors Awards dinner; tonight she's got an Academy-organized Q&A; tomorrow she's got a red-carpet premiere for La La Land's umpteenth film-festival screening, and on and on, into 2017. "I feel like I started promoting the movie back in August," she says, "and it hasn't stopped since."
Not that she's complaining. La La Land features Stone's most bravado performance yet, and she's emerged as an early Best Actress Oscar contender herself. When I mention this, she says, "I'm trying not to think about that" – her default mode being self-deprecation, not self-promotion; jokes, not bluster. "I just focus on what I've got to do at any one moment, and don't necessarily think about where it's all leading."
There's something else she's been trying, and failing, not to think about: It's mere days after the presidential election, and Stone was a pin-wearing Hillary Clinton supporter. Donald Trump's win has her vexed. "It's still so hard to process what happens next, or what to do," she 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."
Drinking helps. "Do you want sake?" she asks. We get a bottle and Stone pours me a glass, per Japanese custom. I return the favor, mentioning that I once discussed this bit of etiquette with a chef in Tokyo, who likened filling one's own sake glass to public masturbation.
"Masturbation? I've only heard it's bad luck!" Stone says, laughing. When I finish my glass a few courses later, I space-out and absentmindedly refill it myself. She gasps: "You just jerked off on the table."
I apologize and pour her some more. "Go ahead, please," she says. "Jerk me off, too."
Emma Stone recently turned 28, but she gave her first performance at age six, in a Thanksgiving-themed school musical called No Turkey for Perky. She grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, the daughter of a homemaker mom and a contractor dad, with a younger brother. "My dad started his own company," Stone says, "so we had no money until I was probably eight – not no money, but living on credit, not a free-for-all. Then his company got successful." The Stones raised their kids Lutheran ("Diet Catholic," Emma says) and were supportive, permissive parents – "reins out," as she puts it, when it came to discipline. "Like, 'If you're gonna drink at a party, call us and we'll pick you up.'" They named her Emily, Emma being the name she chose later upon joining the Screen Actors Guild and discovering another Emily Stone in its ranks.
"In the past, making a movie ... I've been told that I'm hindering the process by bringing up an opinion or an idea. There have been times when I've improvised, they've laughed at my joke and then given it to my male co-star."
Her childhood was comfortable in some ways, turbulent in others. She was a deeply nervous kid, ill-at-ease and 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. "I wrote this book called I Am Bigger Than My Anxiety that I still have: I drew a little green monster on my shoulder that speaks to me in my ear and tells me all these things that aren't true. And every time I listen to it, it grows bigger. If I listen to it enough, it crushes me. But if I turn my head and keep doing what I'm doing – let it speak to me, but don't give it the credit it needs – then it shrinks down and fades away."
Another way to shrink the monster, she discovered, was performing – devoting herself to a made-up world in order to take her mind off the real one. "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." She was a comedy geek who loved The Jerk and saw something of herself in Gilda Radner's Judy Miller – a misfit Girl Scout who is most comfortable when putting on an imaginary television show in her living room.
Stone also adored John Candy, whose work as a grieving-but-optimistic shower ring salesman in Planes, Trains and Automobiles she calls "one of my favorite performances of all time. He does that incredible thing that Shirley MacLaine does in The Apartment, and that Gene Wilder did so beautifully, too, which is combining heartbreak and comedy. That's what life is, right? There's still weird, funny shit that happens even when life is really dark."
She kept doing plays and improv, and started training with a local acting coach who "had been with William Morris or something in the Seventies," Stone says, and who tapped some old Hollywood connections to set Stone up with an agent. So it was not outright delusion when Stone, at age 14, notified her parents that she wanted to drop out of high school, move to L.A. and try her best to go pro. She made her pitch in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, which she entitled "Project Hollywood." Other parents may have been taken aback, but hers had come to know this hyperlogical side of Emma: When she was 12, she'd made a different PowerPoint presentation, successfully campaigning for them to homeschool her.
They decided to let her give acting a shot, too, and in January 2004, Stone moved with her mother into a unit at the Park LaBrea apartment complex, just south of Hollywood. The move was ostensibly temporary, Stone says, "Like, 'We're going to be there through pilot season, not forever.' I auditioned for three months pretty steadily, got absolutely nothing, and then they stopped sending me out." Not ready to give up, she got hired making treats at a bakery for dogs – a ridiculous gig that she clung to "because I was, like, 'Now I'm working, see? I'm not getting auditions, but I gotta stay here.'"
She booked just enough work to keep hope alive. "I did an episode of Malcolm in the Middle," she says. "And an episode of Medium." Somewhat less glamorously: "I was the voice of a dog on The Suite Life of Zach and Cody." Stone also landed a one-episode part on Louis C.K.'s fantastic, little-seen HBO sitcom Lucky Louie, playing a troubled kid. "He was incredibly sweet to me," she recalls. "And very protective, because I was 16 and my character was, like, offering to blow him. I've bumped into Louis since and we're always like, 'Heyyy, sooo, remember that?'"
Stone got crucial encouragement from casting director Allison Jones, a veteran comedy talent-spotter who helped launch the careers of James Franco, Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen. "I auditioned for Allison for three years," Stone recalls. "She would bring me in for things and they'd never work, but then one Friday evening she called me and said, 'Hey, my office isn't even open tomorrow, but I want to put you on tape for something.' It was Superbad." Stone got the part, playing Hill's high school crush Jules, a popular beauty who slings orgasm jokes with the best of them.
Ever since, Stone has steadily broadened her range, pushing, like Hill, into serious dramas. The unifying trait across her portrayals is a core decency – on display from The Help, where she played a privileged white woman in the Sixties-era South, to the Best Picture winner Birdman, where she got a Best Supporting Actress nomination playing Michael Keaton's daughter, fresh out of rehab. This part is one of the very few times that Stone has portrayed a fuck-up (since offering to blow Louis C.K., anyway). She describes herself as having an eager-to-please side, and she concedes that it's hard to imagine her getting cast as a villain anytime soon. "If part of what you've craved in your life is to not upset anybody," Stone says, "it's easy to be drawn to characters that aren't gonna upset anybody."
One night in 2013, though, while shooting Birdman, Stone lost her shit – and it felt fantastic. The film, which director Alejandro González Iñárritu wove together from a series of extremely long takes, demanded not just emotional rawness from Stone but technical exactitude. "I had to come in at the very end of this one scene, and it was so scary, because everything was timed out." She botched a take. "Alejandro told me, 'Emma, you have to go faster around the corner or it's going to ruin the movie!' And I was like, this is a horror, this is so hard, it's actually insane. Later that night, Edward Norton and I were shooting on a rooftop at, like, 2 a.m. We'd done this scene 30 times, and Alejandro wasn't getting what he wanted. He said, 'Maybe it's not going to work.' I went to my dressing room, pacing, like, I can't do it. I'm losing my fucking mind. This thing came over me. I'm usually a people-pleaser, but I felt like, fuck it. I don't even care anymore. So when we went back to do the scene, I was crazy, spitting. And Alejandro goes, 'Beautiful — there it is!'" Stone shakes her head at the memory. "I wasn't trying to make it perfect anymore."
La La Land, like Birdman, depended not only on an emotionally authentic performance from Stone, who is onscreen for almost the entire movie, but precise choreography, too, which she had to nail over a daunting series of uninterrupted takes. When she was first considering the role, Chazelle recalls, "She said, 'How much prep time do you have, because I don't wanna half-ass this – if I'm gonna tap dance, I wanna learn how to tap dance. I don't want to cheat it" with forgiving camera angles and misleading close-ups. "That's not normal for actors, or for people, period: wanting to make something harder for yourself."
"[Lucky Louie costar] Louis C.K. was very protective, because I was 16 and my character was, like, offering to blow him. I've bumped into Louis since and we're always like, 'Heyyy, sooo, remember that?'"
Stone describes the film as a breakthrough in another way. "There are times in the past, making a movie, when I've been told that I'm hindering the process by bringing up an opinion or an idea," Stone says. "I hesitate to make it about being a woman, but there have been times when I've improvised, they've laughed at my joke and then given it to my male co-star. Given my joke away. Or it's been me saying, 'I really don't think this line is gonna work,' and being told, 'Just say it, just say it, if it doesn't work we'll cut it out' – and they didn't cut it out, and it really didn't work!'" (Stone goes off the record before elaborating further.)
When I ask if she's considered writing a script herself, or directing one, Stone's eyes widen. "Writing's interesting, but I've never done it in any way," she says. "And directing, God, that's a hard job. It's all the things you don't think about as an actor. 'We lost a location.' 'That costume is wrong.' 'That actor won't leave their trailer.'
"Coming out of improv," she continues, "where everything's so reliant on the team, it's still hard for me to be out front – even when it's a big role. I like being a cog in the machine."
Stone is riding shotgun in my rental Nissan compact, cruising through Hollywood. The valet at her hotel raised his eyebrows an extremely dignified millimeter when Stone came through the front doors and hopped aboard. "This is definitely the first interview I've done in a Sentra," she says as we head east. It's a couple of days after our dinner, and we've decided to go for a morning hike at Griffith Park. She's not dressed for the trails, exactly, wearing a felted-wool riding cap with its brim pulled low over dark-tinted shades, a thin-gauge sweater with a small hole in the back, skinny jeans and a pair of velcro-strapped Acne sneakers. "All black," I observe. "Incognito," she replies, nodding.
The fact that her red hair is almost entirely tucked into the hat does wonders for her, stealthiness-wise. At the park, the only guy who stops Stone seemingly has no idea who she is – he just wants directions to the Griffith Observatory. We duck into public bathrooms. "There was so much piss on the floor," Stone says when she emerges from the women's side, shuddering, then deadpans, "and not all of it was mine."
We amble up a dusty hill and are breathing hard embarrassingly soon. Barely a quarter-mile in, Stone doubles over at a switchback as though she's about to barf on the trail. She points at a ridge above us, shoulders heaving for comic effect: "Are we going up there? Are you fucking kidding me?" She was in good shape for La La Land, she says, and got straight-up buff for her next gig, the Billie Jean King biopic Battle of the Sexes, in which she "put on 15 pounds of muscle" thanks to hardcore weight training. "But," Stone adds, holding up a nonexistent bicep, "I lost it so fast."
We find a spot to sit. Fitter hikers pass us. Ants march across our legs. Far out in front of us is the Pacific, waves shimmering; to our right is the Hollywood sign; the Observatory juts out from a cliff behind our heads. If it weren't for the dust-caked piss on our sneakers, it could almost be a scene in an old-time musical. "Does anyone ever get sick of this?" Stone asks, catching her breath and taking in the view. "I mean, who could ever get sick of this?"
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