EXCLUSIVE: It’s impossible to ignore Emma Stone’s eyes. At least until she begins speaking, but we’ll get to that. First, not to be reductive, but jeepers, creepers. Even, or especially, on a crummy December day, in office lighting at the taste-free conference room where we’ve met, them there eyes make me wonder: Are these the uncredited models for Tim Burton’s Big Eyes? No, those Keane urchins are all pupil, while Stone is all iris, heather blue leaning toward green.
Obviously, the camera loves them: Check out any scene in Birdman, where she plays Sam, the seen-it-all-including-rehab daughter of Michael Keaton, a washed-up movie star desperate to make a comeback in a serious Broadway play. Those eyes play altogether different roles in Sam’s scenes with Keaton, on the one hand, and Edward Norton’s strutting cock-o’-the-walk actor, on the other: In the former, they betray a grown child’s molten mix of anger, regret and revulsion. In the latter, they signal the world-weary flirtatiousness of woman whose availability is tempered by the fact that she’s heard every line and doesn’t suffer fools or bullshit artists. Well, maybe bullshit artists.
We’re speaking the morning after news broke of her Golden Globe nomination for playing Sam. It’s also just a few days after she’s won exultant notices for her altogether different performance as Sally Bowles in Cabaret on the stage of Studio 54, opposite the Tony-Award winning MC of Alan Cumming. She’s wanted to play the part — a barely-surviving night-club chantoosie scratching out a life as a British emigre in the twilight demi-monde of Weimar-era Berlin — ever since her mother brought her to the show all the way from Scottsdale, Arizona, apparently thinking it would be a high-kicking song-and-dance musical. It was 1998, the MC was this same Alan Cumming, and playing Sally was Natasha Richardson. Nobody’d told mama, to paraphrase Sally’s first big number in the show. Emma was 9.
About the voice: Like her eyes, you can’t ignore it. In conversation, it’s mid-deep and mature, a little husky. But when she sings in Cabaret, this actress who’s never done a musical before, she sings with the mad confidence of a trouper to the manner born (as in “Don’t Tell Mama”) and poignant vulnerability of an A-list saloon stylist. Until the climax that is the title song, which she makes entirely her own with a take-no-prisoners ferocity and wrenching anguish. You won’t forget it.
JEREMY GERARD: You’ve never done anything like Cabaret before have you?
EMMA STONE: No. My last theater performance was Noises Off in high school.
GERARD: What made you want to do it?
STONE: Oh God, I’ve wanted to do it since I was nine years old. We got rush tickets and we were sitting in the front row, front table on the left. You know how “Maybe This Time” takes place stage right? We were right in front of Natasha for it, and I was just hooked. I just fell in love with that part. I didn’t really know what was happening fully, but I knew how it made me feel. The other night Jolie Richardson, Natasha’s son Daniel — Natasha and Liam Neeson’s son — came and saw the show. He was too little, you know, to see her. [Richardson, who also won the Tony Award for her performance in the Roundabout Theatre Company production, died in 2009 following a skiing accident.] I got to tell them how she’d made me feel.
GERARD: Well how did she make you feel? Did you already know the show?
STONE: At nine? Nooo. I don’t think my mom had any idea what to expect. I don’t think she had seen the movie. Obviously you probably wouldn’t take a nine year old if you had any idea that it was about Nazis and abortion. I guess what Natasha made me feel was, her voice was so, well it wasn’t beautiful. In all the musicals that I had listened to, everybody sounded so beautiful, with these incredible voices that I didn’t relate to or have and so I just thought Oh, I’m never going to be able to do this. Of course at nine, I don’t think I was thinking of it from a professional level.
But Natasha, everything she was feeling it was like her chest was wide open, you know? Even to a nine year old, maybe even especially to a nine year old in some ways, you can feel that sort of purity of feeling in a way that doesn’t have all judgment on it or Oh, this isn’t what a Broadway singer is supposed to sound like. There was just that kind of authentic feeling that she was having in that song.
GERARD: Let’s talk about working with Alan Cumming, and how having to do eight complete performances a week compares with making a film, scene by scene.
STONE: Twelve performances next week! It’s going to be my second holiday week of 12 in a row. I’ve been calling it Broadway boot camp. Alan has very quickly become someone that I absolutely love and adore. He’s one of the most generous people. He truly is the MC — he hosts all of us every night in his dressing room. I think he could feel from me how much I cared about Sally and about the story.
GERARD: Is there a through-line from Sam, in Birdman, to Sally Bowles?
STONE: There’s a through-line in that sort of bubbling, I don’t know if rage is the right word, but just this kind of really needing to be seen. Although it’s kind of funny because Sam wants to be seen for who she truly is. Sally wants to be seen for who she wants you to think she is. I also have such a space in my heart for Sally because this woman became famous for who she was trying to be. I just think it’s fascinating. So they’re different of course, but there’s still that sort of constant tension bubbling beneath the surface.
Shooting Birdman wasn’t typical of making a movie. It was similar to Cabaret in the sense that you had to become incredibly technically aware and your choreography had to be so nailed down that you could then let go of everything and be free. Of course, you were doing each scene for a day, instead of the full story all the way through each day. Alejandro [Iñárritu, the director of Birdman] keeps emailing me asking me if I feel like I’m in Birdman every day, because I’m walking through these hallways of Studio 54. It does feel like Birdman. You couldn’t have picked a better movie to make if you had to prepare for theater, because every other movie has felt very different than what I’m doing right now.
GERARD: Sally and Sam, they’re both kind of raw nerves, too.
STONE: Yeah. Live wires. The song “Cabaret” feels to me like Sam’s monologue to her father, because I always thought that monologue was something she had written in rehab. It was so pointed it didn’t feel like something that came after thought. Alejandro just wanted it again and more straightforward and more memorized really.
GERARD: How many times did you do it?
STONE: Oh God, 25 or something. Maybe less, but it felt like a million.
GERARD: I’m glad to hear it because it’s the monologue I wanted to say to my father. I think so many of us wanted to say that.
STONE: And it’s something that you’ve written down, you know? You’ve written down in your journal and you poured over and you’re finally getting to say it. For the first time, as the words are coming out of her mouth, Sally’s connecting to what she’s actually saying. So that’s similar to that monologue. It’s this thing that I’ve always wanted to say to you and I’m only now realizing what the repercussions of these words leaving my mouth will be. I guess that’s where it draws parallels for me.
GERARD: Do you feel pressure to move to the West Coast or are you going to stick it out here?
STONE: I lived on the West Coast for about six years and then I moved here five years ago. I think my ideal scenario would be to be able to go back and forth if that’s possible. Hopefully that will be at some point.
GERARD: Who in your generation of actors is doing it right in terms of career?
STONE: Who’s doing it right? A lot of people. I can name more people who are doing it right than are doing it wrong I think at this point. Most of the girls or women in my age range seem to be doing a pretty damn good job. It’s an interesting time in life, in your mid-20’s, because you’re still establishing who you are and what you want to be and what you want your life to look like. Do you want to live in a small town and fly places to work, or do you want to live in L.A. or in New York? I’m still figuring out so much about what I want my life to look like that it’s hard to know whether I’m doing anything right or wrong at this point. I’ve got to figure out that whole thing but right now my little apartment is pretty nice.