Academy Award nominee Emma Stone turns in a dazzling performance opposite Ryan Gosling in Damien Chazelle’s new musical, “La La Land.” Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress caught in an endless loop from her boring barista day job on the Warner Bros. lot to tedious, dead-end auditions. While trying to catch a break, she repeatedly bumps into the same disgruntled pianist, Sebastian (Gosling), whose life ambition is to become a great jazz artist amidst a ruthlessly fast-changing pop culture. Stone weaves her character’s complex inner world into gravity-defying dancing reminding us why she’s one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actresses.
At the film’s recent press day in Los Angeles, MoviesOnline participated in a roundtable interview with Stone. She revealed why she’s drawn to love stories that are poignantly romantic, what it was like working with Chazelle for the first time, his collaborative vision and the creative freedom he allowed his actors, the film’s visual love letter to the City of Angels, what makes L.A. so magical, her work with music producer Marius de Vries and choreographer Mandy Moore, the complex interplay between music and choreography, what fuels her spectacular chemistry with Gosling, how filming “La La Land” compared to singing and dancing live on stage in “Cabaret” on Broadway, her reaction to the film’s Oscar buzz, and more.
Here’s what she had to tell us:
QUESTION: I’m curious in your career, did you ever have a moment as an actress where you didn’t think you were going to make it or you didn’t think you were good enough?
EMMA STONE: Yes, definitely, but I think that might also be part of the life of a creative person — those sort of ups and downs and security and insecurity. It’s just part of the lot in life when you’re pushing yourself and hoping to always keep growing and expanding. It’s emotionally tricky.
Can you talk a little bit about the creative freedom that you had within such regimented choreography and song and how you felt about all of these elements coming together?
STONE: I felt a lot of freedom. Everybody was so open and we had so much time to rehearse that it was nice. Ryan and I were rehearsing with Mandy Moore, our choreographer. We were learning to tap dance, learning to ballroom dance, and she got to know how we were dancing in order to choreograph with us. It was the same with the music, with Marius (de Vries), our music supervisor. We would go to his house and record the songs so he could hear how we were doing. I would work with my vocal coach and we would be like, “Okay, I can’t belt this, so I’m going to have to sing it here and then we’re going to move into it.” We had so much freedom. It was technical, but it was very free.
What about the physicality? For example, when you’re in love, your posture is different than later on in the film?
STONE: That was also part of my [character]. In things like that, Mia is five years younger for the majority of the film than she is in the end. So, just that little bit of discernment was important to keep up youthful energy.
You did this film right after doing “Cabaret” on Broadway, which was a tremendous critical and box office success for you. What was the big difference between doing live singing and dancing on stage eight times a week versus creating this timeless musical?
STONE: Well, lots of things. I think that to tell a story chronologically every night from beginning to end is incredible. When you’ve been doing film, you’re like, “Oh my God, it starts here and it ends here,” instead of, “And today I’m in love and today we’ve broken up,” and you’re bouncing all over the place. That’s a really nice thing. Also, doing a show eight times a week, I’m sorry, it is infinitely harder than film could ever be. It is so hard. It’s incredible.
Does it require a lot of stamina?
STONE: Oh my God! When you look at it, you go, “It’s going to be two and a half hours every night and I’ve got the rest of the day free. I’m fine.” But no! You live like a monk. I was on steroids. A two-show day is like, “Are you fucking kidding me?!” You try to take a nap and then you do it again. It was so physically and mentally demanding. There is no time for anything else in your life. Whereas, on film, you are doing one scene in a day and you’re doing it a bunch of times, but then also, on film, it’s forever. If you mess up the performance on stage, you do it again the next night. You’re like alright, you let yourself off the hook, and you’ve got to go back in there. Whereas, with a film, I would go home and be like, “Well, I’ve ruined the arc of the character forever. That scene is never going to work. I know because I can never shoot it again.” So, it’s all miserable, but in different ways.
If you feel so miserable and insecure, why do you keep doing it?
STONE: It’s the best! I have to. I do make it sound awful, but I loved doing “La La Land.” It was such a joy. “Cabaret” was the single greatest experience of my life. It reinvigorated how much I love being an actor. Playing that part and getting to sing that song at the end of the show in that spotlight was absolutely mind blowing. It was pure joy with my friends learning to ballroom dance. It’s the best job ever, but it’s also fucking awful.
Is that part of the reason you moved back to New York so you might do more musicals?
STONE: I moved to New York eight years ago, but I am here in L.A. a lot. I rented a house here before, but my base has been New York. I’ve just kind of bounced around working on stuff.
Your chemistry with Ryan is legendary. What is it about that rapport that you find makes you able to act with him so beautifully when you’re on screen?
STONE: I don’t know. He said this a couple of months ago, so I’m going to steal his answer because I think he’s right about this. It’s that in our first ever audition together, which was seven years ago, we were asked to improvise. We immediately had a rapport that you can find a lot with someone if you improvise with them. And, if it works then, then it usually continues to work in that way, such as a similar sense of humor, a similar sort of mentality. They kept letting us do that in each film, and Damien let us improvise a lot in this. I think that really helps build a trust with each other as actors.
Going back to the dancing sequences, did you guys prepare together as far as learning your choreography? Or, was it separate and then you guys came together at the end to perform?
STONE: It was separate for a lot of it while we were first learning, especially with the ballroom dancing. Once we got in the room together, I would dance with my dance teacher and he would dance with his. We would spin down the dance floor at the same time, but not together. Then, we were like, “We can dance together. It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” Then, we would dance together and they’d be like, “Okay!” That was not it yet, but we would dance in sync. It was closer to the end that they put us together.
Were you guys in the same room with your teachers?
STONE: Sometimes. Later on. That was at the end.
How many months were you learning?
STONE: About three months total — two and a half or three months.
Was everything recorded before you started dancing the way they used to do it in Hollywood’s Golden Age where you’d have a soundtrack and you’d lip sync, or were you doing it live?
STONE: The duet dance number in Griffith Park, we recorded that and we were lip syncing to that part where we were talking to each other and moving in to dance. And the City of Stars was live and the Audition was live. So there was dance. It was hard to Beyonce.
Without giving too much away, this is a bittersweet love story. Do you like sad love stories better than you do happy, upbeat things like “Singing in the Rain”?
STONE: I do love a bittersweet story, for sure. I don’t find it sad necessarily. I find it bittersweet, but I find it also kind of realistic in a way that you don’t…it doesn’t all come true for anyone ever. It’s not exactly how you pictured it. “Oh my God, my life is so perfect.” That’s why it makes me so crazy to look at social media when you see people post, “It’s just the best life ever. I couldn’t be happier.” You’re like, “Shut up! That is not true. Not everything comes together in the best way ever every day. It just doesn’t.” Even when your dream that you set out comes true, it’s not always perfect, and there isn’t always the kiss at the end, and we all get to live happily ever after. That’s not the reality of life. And yet, she’s still happy and he’s still happy. They’re just happy in a different way than maybe they originally hoped or expected to be. I love that. I think that that’s heartbreaking, because the most heartbreaking things are the ones that are sometimes the truest.
This is such a love letter to L.A. and you’re not from here. Can you talk about what the L.A. experience was to you prior to the movie and then during the filming of?
STONE: It was all different things to me prior to the movie. I was talking to my friend yesterday and she was saying how wild her relationship is to L.A., because she’ll drive through it and go, “What am I doing? Why do I live her?” Then, she’ll remember that this is the city that gave her the opportunity to live the dream that she is living now, the thing that she always wanted to do. I have a very similar relationship to it in that way. Obviously, I moved away eight years ago, but I lived here from 15 to 20 or 21. It was tough and cool. There are so many different areas to explore. There are so many different types of people. It can crush your dreams or help them come true. There’s no city like it where everyone is sort of in the same boat or hoping for at least a similar thing, because almost the whole city works in the entertainment industry in some capacity or works with people from the entertainment industry. There’s nothing like it. So, I had a complicated relationship to it. I still do in a way, but it was so much fun during the movie to rediscover all this great architecture, these beautiful iconic landmarks, and to see the production design with them making them look even more beautiful and glorious than they do in everyday life. Even now, I’m looking in the mirror and I can see the reflection of the Hollywood Sign and Griffith Observatory or Downtown L.A. It’s just so crazy. I really saw it in a new light and that has followed me. I do find it inspiring. It is magical in a way. What a crazy town!
What’s not so crazy is the Oscar buzz that’s being generated for the film and for your performance. You’ve been through this before. How does it feel this time? How do you cope with all the extra attention or pressure?
STONE: Not pressure. I think that it’s really, really cool that people are responding to the movie in a good way. People seem to like it. I mean, maybe not everyone, but a lot of people that I’ve talked to. It’s fun in that way. It’s definitely so exciting and fun to hear. I’m just sitting here today and none of that has happened, so I literally have no idea what’s to come. I try to just stay in the moment.
It’s hard to imagine that you could ever give a bad audition, but I’m sure you have your war stories and your scars from these sorts of auditions?
STONE: It’s not hard for me. Yes and no. We brainstormed with Damien about the auditions in the movie. He was like, “Guys, tell me, what was the worst?” The audition at the beginning was Ryan’s story. He had been in an audition when he was a teenager and was crying in the middle of something and the casting director answered the phone and was talking to someone in the middle of crying. Then, she hung up and said, “Continue.” Damien said, “That’s great. I’m putting that in the movie. It’ll be great.” Ryan was like, “Okay, man, you’re okay. Glad it’s useful.” What sat with me the most was when I first moved out to L.A., I was 15. I was with a youth agency and they were sending me out on a lot of Disney Channel and I was pretty much the same as I am now. I was loud and seemed like I do now, and for a 15 year old auditioning to play a cheerleader, it was not the most obvious choice at the time. I was getting nothing, and I was going on lots and lots of auditions, and then it was just radio silence, nothing. I didn’t get any auditions for months, and that to me is more painful than auditioning a lot and getting rejected, because you’re lucky if you’re auditioning a lot. That’s not to say that every actor feels this way, but if you’re auditioning a lot and getting rejected, at least you’re getting a chance when you’re trying and it’s not working out. When you don’t even get to try, you’re like in a vacuum. Nowadays, there’s opportunities maybe in a different way to put yourself out there, or not even, because I was talking to Molly Shannon the other day, we interviewed each other, and she said, “Well, when I moved to L.A., I put on a show and I did all my different characters.” I said, “You didn’t go to Pilot Season?” And she said, “No, they wouldn’t get me. So, I just put on a show.” It takes Mia six years in the movie to get to that point. I never even considered, “Oh, I’ll write a show and just put it up there so people can get me.” I was like, “That is awesome that you did that.” That really is a great opportunity now where you can put yourself on the internet. You can get yourself out there maybe in a different way than when I moved 13 years ago. I find the worst audition is the no audition.
Do you think the movie makes a statement about art for art’s sake and art for commercial sake?
STONE: Definitely. Damien made it very clear he wanted Sebastian to represent the kind of … “If you write the greatest poem ever written and you put it in a drawer, no one ever sees it. It’s still the greatest poem ever written.” And Mia’s character was like “Isn’t art meant to be shared. It’s kind of a tribal thing. It’s communal.” Both arguments are probably true. That definitely was something that he talked about in our two characters and inspiring each character to move into… you know, Mia moving into “Alright I’m going to make it for my sake. It’s a one-woman show. I’m putting it out there, but it’s going to be my story.” And Sebastian is signing up to be in this band that goes everywhere. That was definitely a theme of the movie that he wanted to highlight.
Can you talk about working with Damien and your expectations after seeing “Whiplash”? Was it different than what you expected once you actually worked with him hand in hand?
STONE: From the beginning of meeting him, and I loved “Whiplash,” I thought he seemed really, really enthusiastic and present and very clear about what he wanted to make. I was blown away in just how collaborative he was. I had a lot of opinions and a lot of thoughts, as did Ryan. He was so open to our ideas, our mistakes, our hashing it out with him, and rewriting things, and improvising, and writing things down, and reshaping situations, and on the day just exploring things, because it is such an ambitious idea and because the set pieces were there and never changed in the script. It opened on the freeway, we went to the Planetarium, our fight was at the dinner table, the ending was exactly as it was written, that all remained the same. But developing those characters with him, he was just so collaborative. That is the number one quality in a great director from an actor’s perspective. It’s that they’re open and they listen and they care about what you’re bringing to the table. And to do that, and not to be reductive about the fact that he was 30 years old, but he was 30 years old, and had this vision for such a long time, and had such a hard time getting it made that you would think that if actors came in and said, “Hey, I really think that she should be…” that he would have been like, “Yo! Stop! No! I know what I’m making. This is my vision.” But he wasn’t that way at all. He was so open. I think people are going to talk about him for hundreds of years. It was an honor to work with him on his second film of what’s going to be 600 films.
“La La Land” opens in L.A. and N.Y. on December 9th and nationwide on December 16th.