Emma Stone’s ‘Poor Things’ Journey: Why a Stripped-Down Approach Was Key to the Strangest Role She’s Played

TheWrap magazine: “She doesn’t shy away from any life experiences, whether it’s food, or politics, or philosophy, or sex, or dancing, or travel or science,” Stone says

Emma Stone
Emma Stone (Credit: Francois Berthier – Getty Images for Louis Vuitton)

Once upon a time, Emma Stone seemed to be one of those “America’s sweetheart” type of actresses: cheery, wholesome, fun, but with serious acting chops that surfaced in films like “Easy A” and “La La Land,” for which she won the Oscar. Sure, she showed a tougher side in “Birdman” and had fun being evil in “Cruella,” but she always had the potential to be a rom-com queen if she were so inclined.

She’s obviously not so inclined these days, though, because Emma Stone ’24 is one seriously twisted movie star. She’s got a TV show, “The Curse,” that’s basically designed to mess with our heads in the service of black comedy. And then there’s “Poor Things,” in which she pees on the floor, flings plates around the kitchen, stabs a corpse in the eyes, masturbates with fruits and vegetables at the dining room table and cavorts naked through a whacked-out steampunk Victorian landscape. It’s a world that could only have come from the deranged imaginations of Scottish postmodernist author Alasdair Gray and Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos.

Her character, Bella, is a gleeful Frankenstein monster of sorts. She’s an experiment by scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), who transplants the brain of an unborn child into the body of a woman who has killed herself. Bella has no memories; she starts as a feral child and learns quickly as she voraciously consumes experiences.

Stone heard about this for the first time over dinner with Lanthimos after they’d wrapped “The Favourite.” (“Poor Things” was the third of five projects they’ve worked on together.)

“I obviously hadn’t read the book and hadn’t heard of it before,” Stone said. “But he basically said that it’s about a woman who goes through this kind of reanimation process and therefore she approaches the world and anything that someone can experience for the first time through fresh eyes. And she doesn’t function like anybody else. She’s rapidly growing and evolving. And that alone was enough to interest me. I just wanted to know more and more.”

Emma Stone in "Poor Things"
Emma Stone in “Poor Things” (Searchlight Pictures)

Where she’d normally build a character’s backstory to flesh out the experiences that made them who they are, Bella in “Poor Things” didn’t have those kinds of memories — Baxter created her and she remembers nothing about the life her body lived.

“I thought this was an incredibly difficult role at first,” said Stone, who served as a producer on the film and worked with Lanthimos over a period of six years to develop the project. “It felt really complex and really challenging. And then I realized that the challenge was actually her simplicity. In a way, she’s the simplest role that I’ve ever played, just because it required stripping away rather than adding to.

“Whenever you’re typically building a backstory for a character or fleshing out how they’ve gotten to the point they are now, you’re building from things that have happened in their lives. But this was about taking away as much shame and self-judgment as possible to see it through her eyes.”

For the most part, she also stayed away from studying the behavior of babies, even though Bella is one in some ways.

“I thought about that at first,” she said. “But we didn’t want to be literal about this because the whole thing is a fairytale and a metaphor. So when it came to her physicality, there was a lot of opportunity for experimenting and inventing things. We didn’t look at other reference points – it was just rehearsing and finding what felt right for her.

“Even the weird science behind her that they talk about in the film – her hair grows really fast, she learns 25 words a day – none of that is comparable to an actual growing child. So we never ascribed ages to her different stages. In my mind, she isn’t really a child – she’s more of a creature, in the Frankenstein sense.”

The early stages of the creature, though, were the most difficult to nail.

“I knew where she would wind up, but her start was where we invented her way of speaking and her physicality. That was the most challenging for Yorgos and for me,” Stone said. “We shot that first – and even after talking about this film for four-and-a-half years by the time we shot it, the first week or two was kind of terrifying. But I think a lot of that had to do with me trying to peel away self-judgment and free myself up a little bit.”

Playing Bella was also a daily exercise in wonderment, as she did absurd things while surrounded by dazzling sets and re-creations of a London, Libson and France that never were.

“Every piece of this film was just so outlandish in its own right,” she said. “Just being in that environment, I felt like, I can’t believe we’re doing this. With the beautiful insanity of Bella’s journey, that was a daily feeling for me.”

Yorgos Lanthimos - Emma Stone
Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone on the set of “Poor Things” (Searchlight Pictures)

Best of all, she said, was the day Bella and her obsessed suitor Duncan (Mark Ruffalo) launch into a deliriously unhinged dance in a swanky ballroom.

“That was an exhausting day because we did a bajillion zillion takes,” she said. “That’s the scientific number, a ‘bajillion zillion.’ But it came near the end of the shoot, and Mark and I had been rehearsing for a long time. So we were so excited to get to really live it up, and to have a fun, sweaty, silly two days.”

Stone had to dispense with her own sense of self-consciousness and shame to play Bella, one of the most overtly sexual characters a major actress has played in years.

“Each character has different requirements,” she said. “And so how my quote-unquote ‘process’ works differs from film to film, hopefully to serve the character. For this, I was in lockstep with Yorgos in my understanding of who Bella is and what this story required. So my comfort was there because of her lack of shame.

“I guess I see my job as an actor as giving myself over to that element and not thinking about how people are going to react.  It’s just: How can I serve this best?” She paused. “I’m not saying that my nudity is serving everybody best.” A laugh. “But it’s just that that character is so free. She doesn’t shy away from any life experiences, whether it’s food, or politics, or philosophy, or sex, or dancing, or travel or science — all the things that she leans into. I saw it as just one part of her bigger hunger for life and experience.”

In a way, “Poor Things” is a movie that suggests that you can grow up not caring about social pressures, shame and all the things that make us worry and doubt ourselves. It’s a twisted movie, you might say, with a healthy message.

“Great!” Stone said, laughing. “I love it. I felt like that too. And Bella definitely rubbed off on me. Living in her shoes for a while does make you question all these rules: possession of other people, or that women are only meant to be a certain way. Bella’s so forthright and honest about what she’s feeling and what she wants to experience. And she doesn’t change who she is based on who she’s with in any way.

“She’s doing what she wants and learning and evolving from it. And the interesting thing about the story is what her being herself triggers in other people.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Ava DuVernay photo by Maya Iman

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