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Before Emma Stone became, you know, Emma Stone, she was Emily Stone, a teenage would-be actress from Scottsdale, Arizona, who moved to Hollywood with her mom and lived in a two-bedroom apartment right near the Farmers’ Market. She kept a John Lennon poster on her wall, burned incense (“I was sixteen,” she protests), drove a red Volkswagen Beetle to auditions, and, in an oft-recited but irresistible biographical detail, worked behind the counter at Three Dog Bakery — mm-hmm, a bakery selling dog treats.
Stone was one of thousands of young fresh faces who arrive every year in Los Angeles carrying the hopeful but brutally difficult dream of Making It in Show Business, and you can find all that collected ambition inspiring or melancholic or a little bit of both. I should point out that none of this is ancient history to Stone, who turns 28 in November and can still tick off the Three Dog Bakery’s top sellers.
“Pup Tarts,” she says. “Pop Tarts, but for dogs. And Pupcakes. Then there was a kind of dog Oreo made with carob and honey. A mom would come in and buy them for her kid because she thought dog Oreos were healthier.”
The reason Hollywood is Hollywood is that it’s a town where someone can go from selling dog Oreos to seeing his or her face on a billboard over Sunset Boulevard. This is pretty much what happened to Emma Stone. It’s the sort of timeless dream that lifts every showbiz striver and serves as the engine for a romantic and rather brilliant musical movie that Stone stars in this December. Called La La Land and directed by the Whiplash wunderkind, Damien Chazelle, the film tells the story of an aspiring actress named Mia (Stone) and a would-be jazz-club owner named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they try to navigate their respective careers in a sunny but cruel town. Big, sweeping, and refreshingly uncynical, La La Land is the sort of movie that studios used to make all the time but don’t anymore. Stone and Gosling sing. They dance. They fly — literally, in a breathtaking scene among the stars inside the Griffith Observatory — and fall in love. In an age of thumping and frantically edited franchise flicks, La La Land is both retro (there are nods to the MGM-musical heyday and the French New Wave director Jacques Demy) and utterly radical. When it opened the Venice Film Festival in late August, the audience burst into applause barely ten minutes in (Stone would go on to win the festival’s Best Actress award). Similar praise and accolades followed in Telluride and Toronto, as the early Oscar buzz for Stone and the entire production intensified and Tom Hanks said after catching a screening, “If the audience doesn’t go and embrace something as wonderful as this, then we are all doomed.”
For Stone, it is another leap in a career in which she has moved swiftly from newcomer to an Oscar nominee known for her vast comedic and dramatic talents — and yet also for being a vulnerable, relatable, self-deprecating human being. “Makes fun of herself with ease,” says her friend Brie Larson. “Just authentically her,” says Martha MacIsaac, who met Stone at a table read for 2007’s Superbad and shortly afterward became her L.A. roommate. “A doll and a badass,” says Sarah Silverman, who costars with Stone in the upcoming Battle of the Sexes.
At this point, even Stone’s tiniest cameo can click into a cultural moment. She’s practically an honorary cast member of Saturday Night Live (she’s hosted twice, dropped in other times, and was brought on to do an homage to the late and beloved Gilda Radner for the show’s fortieth anniversary). In the summer, she and Maya Rudolph did a sketch on Rudolph’s NBC variety show in which they sang Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” while tapping out the rhythm with plastic butter tubs, and the clip melted the Internets, as they say. (“Emma’s one of those people you think can do everything,” says Rudolph.) Meanwhile, if you saw Stone on The Tonight Show move effortlessly from Blues Traveler’s “Hook” to DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” during a lip-sync battle with Jimmy Fallon, you know that she is probably Our Greatest Living Karaoke Star.
She also once played backup tambourine for Prince while nursing a bleeding foot. More on that in a minute.
As a gravity-bound resident of Planet Earth, I am here to tell you that despite Stone’s remarkable liftoff, she has not gone Hollywood on us. During our time together in Los Angeles, she did not use the word entourage in a sentence, refer to Robert De Niro as “Bobby,” or wear a wig or prosthetic nose to throw off paparazzi (this being an election season, however, she did wear a cool T-shirt that read GIVE A DAMN, and announced her unequivocal support for Hillary Clinton). If Stone owns a personal helicopter or a collection of rare dinosaur skulls, she did not brag about it. The actress still pretty much finds everything that’s happened to her in Hollywood as nutty as the rest of us do. She remains the sort of person who can get nervous about a formal gala, who finds the ritual of posing on the red carpet more than a little strange, and who continues to sound like an outsider when she recalls the night a seventeen-year-old Emily Stone found herself, of all places, at a party at Paris Hilton’s house.
“I saw someone puking in a closet,” she says. “I don’t remember who it was, but I was like, ‘Do you think that’s a bathroom? Or is the line too long?’”
She laughs. It is midsummer, and we are sitting in a booth at Little Dom’s restaurant in Los Feliz, which will soon be crammed with diners hungry for the $18 prix-fixe Monday supper. Stone orders rice balls with marinara and a glass of white wine. Or maybe rosé? (Give me a break, it was 85 degrees outside; I know she didn’t order a Scotch.)
While we’re discussing meals: It was a little less than two years ago that Stone met Chazelle at Brooklyn Diner in New York, ordered the chicken potpie, and listened to the director outline his vision for La La Land. Soon Stone found herself in voice and dance rehearsals back in Los Angeles, on the verge of undertaking what is probably the biggest gamble of her career to date. “The reason I wanted to do it was because Damien was so passionate,” she says, taking a sip from her glass. “But I think I freaked out 40 times.”
“Obviously it was a big swing to do an original musical where she’d have to sing and dance and the whole gamut on-screen,” says Chazelle. “But Emma just has that presence. She’s a great comedienne and also can be tremendously moving. She can play every single register.”
From the beginning, Chazelle wanted La La Land’s musical numbers — composed by his former Harvard classmate Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — to be filmed “head to toe,” using fifties-style, wide-screen CinemaScope, and performed in a single take, like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire used to. This would require loads of practice and technical expertise and more than a little old-fashioned “Let’s put on a show!” moxie. “Tons of prep, tons of training, tons of rehearsal,” says Chazelle. “The camera had to be just as choreographed as the dancers.”
It helped that Stone and Gosling were old friends who’d already made two films together — Crazy, Stupid, Love in 2011 and 2013’s Gangster Squad. “It was nice to be friends with the person you’re doing all this crazy stuff with — learning to ballroom dance or sing duets live,” Stone says. Says La La Land’s choreographer Mandy Moore (not the singer, different Mandy Moore): “The chemistry was already there.”
If La La Land has a signature moment, it occurs roughly a quarter of the way into the film, when Stone’s Mia and Gosling’s Sebastian run into each other at a party in the hills and get lost trying to find Stone’s parked car (this is not a spoiler; calm down). It’s dusk, and the L.A. sky is a vivid purple. A song — “A Lovely Night” — ensues. Gosling and Stone tap dance, then twirl together. It’s the first time a romance seems possible. (OK, that’s a mild spoiler; don’t hate me.) Attempted over two nights at magic hour in Griffith Park, the scene lasts around six minutes and required intense planning and more than a bit of luck. When Gosling and Stone finally nailed it, “everybody just exploded,” Stone says.
It goes without saying that Stone very much remembers when she herself was a Mia, an unrecognizable stranger at Paris Hilton’s party who several times a week was in that red Beetle shuttling to and from unsuccessful and sometimes soul-crushing auditions. She recalls the time a woman screamed at her on camera for not properly memorizing a monologue. “That was more bizarre than anything,” she says.
It’s the actor’s predicament that even the successful ones worry that they could be right back there again. Stone is no different. Sure, it’s good now — she acknowledges that her mentality has shifted from “What can I get?” to “What do I want?” — but there’s always a fear that after a few missteps, she could be right back behind the dog-cookie counter.
“You always feel a little bit like that,” she says. “That you could again be an outsider, that something could make people never want to hire you again.”
Point taken, but let’s be real. Do any of us think this is going to be an issue for Emma Stone?
The first time I met Stone, it was early winter of 2014, and we built a bear. (No, really, we made bears at a Build-A-Bear in the mall, and my kids still have the bear, a grizzly cub who wears sneakers and says, “Go to sleep!” in Emma Stone’s actual recorded voice, a fact lost on my toddler children, who only care about movies with talking garbage trucks.)
At the time, Stone couldn’t hide being a little bummed about a missed career opportunity: playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret, which was on its way to Broadway again, codirected by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, and once more with Alan Cumming as the Emcee. Stone had seen the production as a teenager and called it one of the things that made her want to be an actress. She’d traveled to London and auditioned for Mendes, winning the part, but the deal unraveled because of her commitments to The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Michelle Williams wound up taking the role.
“Michelle Williams is going to be incredible,” Stone said graciously then. As for her own chances of playing Sally, “it still remains. Someday.”
“Someday” wound up happening sooner rather than later. Williams did seven and a half months in Cabaret, but in November of that year, Stone, free of Spidey’s web, made her Broadway debut as Sally at the Studio 54 theater. Though she wrestled with the flu during the run, the experience was everything she’d hoped for, and the notices were excellent. The New York Times’s Ben Brantley called Stone’s Sally “a shot of heart-revving adrenaline”; the New York Post called her “fantastically confident”; the Daily News praised her as “sublime.”
“She brought a sparkle,” says Cumming. “She’s got this really good quality of sparkling and being vulnerable at the same time.” Marshall calls her Sally “a marvel! Infectious, brave, funny, and tragic.”
“It completely reinvigorated my love for everything,” Stone says of Cabaret. “The whole thing was just a really special time.”
It was during her Cabaret run that she began talking seriously with Chazelle about La La Land. The show gave her confidence. “I felt more prepared than I ever would have before,” Stone says.
Another project she and I talked about the first time we met — well, we didn’t really talk about it, because it was one of those movies wrapped in a veil of secrecy — was a new film from Alejandro G. Iñárritu. That turned out to be Birdman, of course, a wildly innovative smash about the behind-the-scenes makings of a Broadway show, which wound up winning the 2015 Academy Award for Best Picture. Stone, who played Sam, the tormented daughter of Michael Keaton’s almost-washed-up actor Riggan Thomson, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, her first Oscar nod.
To the ceremony Stone wore a beaded green Elie Saab gown, took her mom, Krista, as her date, and actually enjoyed herself because she figured that Patricia Arquette, a prohibitive favorite for Boyhood, was going to win the category (and did).
“There was no pressure,” Stone says. “My mom and I got to sit in the front row, and my mom sat next to Michael Keaton. It was the year of The Lego Movie, so I got a LEGO Oscar.”
It was a whirlwind month. A week before the Oscars, back in New York, Stone had been part of that SNL fortieth, for which there was, naturally, a historic after-party, at the Plaza Hotel near Central Park. This brings us back to the time she played tambourine for Prince — with a bleeding foot.
“I’d taken off my shoes to dance because I am one of those people who dance at parties,” Stone begins. “And I stepped in broken glass. It was embedded into my heel. I walked off and was bleeding all over the place.”
Someone from the Plaza, Stone says, “grabbed a knife and took the glass out of my foot. I swear to God. And then 60 seconds later, one of the SNL people was like, ‘Prince is onstage. Do you want to go on and play the tambourine?’”
And that is how Emma Stone wound up on a stage after midnight, surrounded by people like Rudolph, Fallon, Martin Short, and the Haim sisters, playing backup tambourine for the one and only, and now dearly departed, Prince.
Next year, Stone will arrive in Battle of the Sexes, which chronicles Billie Jean King’s legendary rise from tennis star to gender-equality crusader, culminating in her famous 1973 Astrodome exhibition match versus Bobby Riggs, who is played in the film by Steve Carell. The movie is directed by the husband-wife duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and required Stone to hit the weights and physically transform herself.
“Oh, my God, she got buff!” says King, who turns 73 this month and continues to work nonstop in tennis and social activism.
“I’d never played a real person before,” Stone says, “and to play someone who was just totally fully formed and inspiring. . . . Billie Jean is a firecracker. She’s bold and funny and I love her.”
“She didn’t want to disappoint me,” King says. “I said, ‘You can’t disappoint me if you give it all you got.’”
There was the matter of developing Stone into at least a passable tennis player. “I worked my ass off,” she says. She trained with the former pro Vince Spadea as well as with King herself. “When I first met up with her, she threw balls at me because the first thing you need to do is just go where the ball is,” Stone recalls.
“I had her stand behind me to try and get the rhythm of how I bounce the ball . . . and my slice backhand,” King says. “If you’re going to do me, you’ve got to have a slice backhand.”
In the end, the film used Stone for tennis close-ups and pro-level body doubles for rigorous on-court scenes. Getting the look right, Stone says, “means more to me than being a hero and doing crappy tennis.”
Of course, Battle of the Sexes is a far bigger story than a tennis match. King’s triumph over Riggs kicked off not only a tennis boom in America but also a broader discussion about equal opportunity and financial fairness in the workplace. To this day, tennis is the only major sport that comes close to equality in prize money; this past September at the U.S. Open, the men’s and women’s singles champions were each paid $3.5 million.
At the same time, financial fairness is a topic that has been roiling Hollywood. Stone’s contemporary and friend Jennifer Lawrence has been outspoken about being shortchanged in the past compared with her male costars, and wanting to eliminate the pay gap. I ask Stone if meeting King and making Battle of the Sexes made her think about inequality issues in her own workplace. “Of course,” she says.
“We should all be treated fairly and paid fairly,” she continues. “I’ve been lucky enough to have equal pay to my male costars.” She stops herself. “Not ‘lucky.’ I’ve had pay equal to my male costars in the past few films. But our industry ebbs and flows in a way that’s like, ‘How much are you bringing into the box office?’ ‘How much are you the draw or is the other person the draw?’ I felt uncomfortable talking to my agent or lawyer about it because I was like, ‘Do people want to see me as much as they want to see Steve Carell?’ It’s a weird conversation to have because it’s trying to see oneself from the outside.
“What are we at [nationally]? Seventy-nine cents to the dollar?” Stone asks. “It’s insane. There’s no excuse for it anymore.”
Here’s what counts as an Emma Stone scandal in 2016: She is terrible at bowling. I know this because I am also terrible at bowling. The day after our dinner, Stone and I meet at Highland Park Bowl, a meticulously retro-furnished bowling alley and cocktail cave. Stone orders a pizza and beer, and we wind up tying with a score of 71. If you’re into bowling, you know that a 71 is basically a score you’d get if you drank half a bottle of tequila, blindfolded yourself, spun around backward, and rolled the ball between your legs. We did not do those things.
Bad bowling completed, we go for a walk around the neighborhood. Later that night, Stone is due for a meeting with the director Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, Beasts of No Nation) about a dark-comedy short-run TV series called Maniac, which she intends to star in with her friend and former Superbad costar Jonah Hill. Also down the road is The Favourite, a take on the eighteenth-century British reign of Queen Anne from The Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos, and the live-action Cruella, with Stone playing the 101 Dalmatians villainess Cruella de Vil.
Oh, this: Stone is single now. You may or may not have known that. That’s on purpose. For four years, she was in a relationship with the actor Andrew Garfield — “Someone I still love very much,” she says as we sit on a bench — but the pair called it off about a year ago. “I’m really glad you’re sitting down so I can tell you,” she says drily. She and Garfield were very private about their personal lives, and remain so. She’s polite about it, but I can tell you Stone would much rather talk about rolling that 71 in the bowling alley than what it’s like to be single.
“It’s been interesting,” she says. “It’s been a good year. And sad. Pros and cons.”
It’s early evening, and around us, people are returning from their jobs. A Metro — an actual train in L.A.! — rolls by on the tracks. It’s likely that at least a few of the passengers are coming from auditions for parts they won’t get. Or maybe they will. Stone says that making La La Land made her “re-fall in love with that Hollywood idea of Los Angeles because I wasn’t looking at L.A. that way at all.”
Soon Stone will go off on a European vacation with friends, doing short hops in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Paris, and London, where paparazzi will photograph her out for a stroll with Garfield. She will go to the La La Land premieres in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, where the enthralled reception leaves her emotional. “I cried, like, halfway through at the screening,” she tells me after Venice. “I’d already seen the movie with some people who worked on it, and we were excited, but you never know until it gets out there.”
I should have mentioned it before, but during the time we meet, Emma Stone is boxing up her things in Los Angeles and getting ready to move back to New York City. There is something almost perfect about that, very La La Land. Just when you become one of the dreamers in this crazy town who actually have a dream come true, it’s probably time to try someplace else.
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