The brilliance of Emma Stone’s range is perfectly evident in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman. It’s not just that she plays against her good-girl type as a bitter, warts-and-all daughter of Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, rather it’s how she effortlessly flips emotions: In one scene, she slams her father for his irrelevance in showbiz, after which we see her face melt into a guilty frown. If her turn in Birdman isn’t bold enough, Stone is making her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles in the revival of Cabaret. How does Stone sympathize with her Birdman dad’s plight on the treacherous Great White Way? Says Stone: “What Riggan does is more daring, as he’s taken on all the pressure of being the director, writer and the star of his play. I’m just doing a show that I’ve loved since I was kid.”
You’ve been around Hollywood. Do you know someone like your Birdman character Sam?
I knew people who had all kinds of pieces that led to her, like kids who decided to tattoo their hands at 19, as well as children of famous people who are always living in the shadow of their parents. Death of a Salesman came to me in the sense that Sam had this anger as a result of her father blowing her up full of hot air. Sam’s whole thing is that Riggan was never there, but he tried to make up for it by constantly telling her she was special in a way that was just false. And there’s this implosion that happens in people when they’ve been told they’re the best by someone who’s so absent.
The scene where you blow up at Riggan—how many times did it take to nail?
What you see onscreen is one whole take that had to be perfect. And if something went wrong, we’d have to start over. We probably did that scene 25 times. Even when I was in the middle of yelling at Michael Keaton, I would hear someone yell from the other room, like the camera dropped, and we would start again.
But you had a rehearsal process…
Yes, three weeks. In that sense, Birdman was like theater because you had done these scenes so many times and they were so blocked for camera moves. Everything had to be technically perfect, but then you had to be able to completely let go and play the truth of the scene, versus a choreographed dance. It was like everyone was walking on a tightrope. With our script Alejandro gave us the Man on Wire photo where the guy is between the Twin Towers. If anyone hit your rope, everyone fell. At first it was daunting because you think, “What the hell is everyone attempting to do here?” And then by the end of production it was, “Why aren’t more movies made this way?”… The process felt like an audition all the way through, just in the sense that Alejandro can tell if you’re bullshitting even the slightest bit—and he cuts and you have to go again. It creates this sort of fury in you, and then you end up realizing that he just got so much out of you that you didn’t even know you had.
You’ve made nine movies with Sony, starting with Superbad. How have the executives there been mentors?
I did Superbad when I was 17. I remember going to Matt Tolmach’s office when he was a studio executive and I met him when Judd (Apatow) wanted to cast me. Then several years later, Tolmach was the producer on Amazing Spider-Man and was no longer working with the studio. And Doug Belgrad was the executive on The House Bunny and now he’s in a different position at Sony. I’ve known these people since I was 17, so that’s almost 10 years. There’s always been a long-standing relationship and Amy Pascal has always been in contact. She’s always been a very supportive person in my life and in work. I know this is a business, but with the ebbs and flows and changes throughout people’s lives and work, Amy and Matt have always been kind to me.
You’ve had this great run in major studio films, but were you looking to challenge yourself with a movie such as Birdman?
I’ve had these great opportunities to do movies like Superbad, Zombieland or Spider-Man. But in 2008, I did Paper Man, which was just one of the great experiences of my life and I absolutely loved those filmmakers, Kieran and Michele Mulroney. And I was thinking more about the directors that I’d love to work with, such as Woody (Allen), Alejandro Inarritu or Cameron Crowe. On a Woody Allen movie, the budget is not huge, but it is Woody. And with Alejandro, I still don’t know what the budget would cover, honestly, but I knew I wanted to work with that man… On a smaller film everybody is there to make the same movie. There isn’t a separate trailer with six PAs talking to each other about you going to the bathroom—it’s like that on a bigger movie set. And doing Cabaret now, it’s the same feeling like on Birdman—everybody relies on each other and you’re just a cog in a machine and that feeling is so much better than being treated like a precious stone. Oh, God! Stone! My last name! I made a pun! (Laughs.) You’re just like another human being. It tends to be the bigger the budget, the more they tend to treat you as if you’re precious cargo, which is just silly.
Emma Stone photographed by Mark Mann