Cailee Spaeny has played all manner of characters, from a murderous cult member in “Bad Times at the El Royale” to the daughter of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “On the Basis of Sex.” But playing Priscilla Presley, wife of the most famous rock ’n’ roller in the world, in Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” was a chance for Spaeny to “demystify” a woman whose story many people weren’t aware of.
But Spaeny stayed away from other interpretations of Priscilla Presley, from Susan Walters’ in the 1988 TV movie adaptation of Presley’s 1985 autobiography “Elvis and Me” to her friend Olivia DeJonge’s recent turn in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” because Spaeny feared it would affect her performance. “I just wanted it to come from my time with Priscilla herself, and the book and my own view on it and my opinion on [who] I thought she would be,” she said.
Spaeny, who was born in Tennessee and grew up in Missouri, said her family were huge Elvis fans. But it wasn’t enough just to be a fan; Spaeny was determined to find the humanity behind a woman so often relegated to the shadow of her legendary husband. The real Priscilla Presley offered herself up as a resource for Spaeny—and after a rocky start, the two engaged in several phone calls and one-
on-one interviews. “I had a whole list of questions written out and prepared, over-prepared, for sitting down with her,” Spaeny said. “And the second that she sat down they all went out of my head. There was an awkward silence until she had to then remind me that I’m here asking her questions. Then I was like, ‘Oh, yes, of course. Let’s get into it.’”
What did you ask Priscilla in order to figure out how to play her?
Cailee Spaeny: It was just like, “Take me back to the night that you first met him.” And then letting these questions flow naturally. Asking her, “So you didn’t tell anyone that you went to school with about your time with him?” And her saying, “No,” and me saying, “Well, that must have been a really lonely experience. How did you balance going to high school and also then staying up all night with Elvis and his boys?”
She would tell little details. For example, the first night they met she said she was starving before she went there. She got to the party in Germany, and he made her a sandwich. She said she wanted to eat so badly, but couldn’t imagine eating a sandwich in front of Elvis Presley. And she would laugh like she was right there, back in that moment. So it was those details that were really so essential in putting this puzzle together.
Sofia tells it like you’re entering a memory. It’s very impressionistic. We never stay on a beat too long. It’s an Alice in Wonderland- type dreamland where she’s trying to find her way and then comes out on the other side seeing things more clearly. So it was very important to talk about emotions rather than about events. One of the things she told me is, “Make sure that the love is there.” And I think that me and Jacob [Elordi] held on to that. [We] show the lows but also make sure we show the highs in their relationship because when she talks about these times, she looks back at these memories fondly.
There are so many moments where we see Priscilla surrounded by men, dwarfed by all the activity going on. How did you find a way to stand out in those scenes where Priscilla is made to feel so small?
Jacob and the other actors who are playing the Memphis Mafia were incredibly helpful to me feeling lost in this whirlwind. Those actors are from Toronto and they’re comedians, so they’re improvising the whole time. It always felt like a boy’s world on set and they leaned into that in between takes as well. So I always felt like I was trying to figure out where I fit into this world. Along the way I thought about [how] she was always sort of in character, which she felt like she needed to be in front of him. Trying to fit into this world and never quite clicking in, that’s the way I saw it.
You and Jacob play off each other so well. Did you two spend a lot of time talking out scenes?
There were scenes I’m sure we talked about beforehand, or ones that we found trickier than others. Overall, we wanted to make sure we were comfortable around each other before we went into filming this because we only had 30 days to shoot this movie, and we shot it wildly out of order. I knew I had to feel like I could trust the person [who] was going to be playing Elvis, so the second I found out he got the role I was really excited because I was a fan of his work. I messaged him right away and I wanted us to make sure that we spent time with each other.
What was the challenge for you filming a movie in 30 days?
It was shooting everything out of order and playing an age range from 14 to late 20s, making sure those ages felt genuine and distinct from each other, and that that emotional arc was clear. [That] was always my biggest fear, filming in the way that we did. I always had complete faith in Sofia, but I never wanted to let her down and give her a one-note performance.
There is a very intense sequence between you and Elvis where he throws a chair at your head. What was that day like on set?
That was a funny day because I specifically remember there was a whole thing with the chair. We only had two breakaway chairs. It was tied to a string, which was a safety precaution so it was never going to hit me. They also wanted to have a stunt person throw the chair, but Jacob felt strongly about him being the one to actually throw the chair because it would have hurt the momentum of the scene to stop, yell “cut!” and have someone come in and throw the chair at me. That switch that Jacob did so beautifully was really important. I’m so glad that he fought for making that choice because it really helped my reaction. I was genuinely scared.
The final scene between Priscilla and Elvis is not the final scene of the movie, which ends with Priscilla leaving Graceland. Considering the out-of-order nature of filming, how did you navigate filming that sequence and the finale?
The shot of me driving away from Graceland was shot on day two, I believe. That was really stressful because we only had two takes to shoot that because we were losing light. That scene was tricky to know what I wanted to be doing or saying in that moment because it’s a silent moment. It’s no dialogue but obviously that song [Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”] was so important.
Sofia was so relieved when she got to use that; she had written it into the script. She also had it playing in the backseat of the car when I was filming that scene, which did so much. It was such a personal song between Elvis and Priscilla. Priscilla says that Elvis was singing it to her when they left the courtroom when they were getting their divorce. Elvis always wanted to record that song, it had so many layers. Also, Sofia found it really important to have a female voice at the end of the movie.
That was a crazy day to shoot. I don’t really know how to drive a car, and on the second day of filming I was trying to impress everyone and I was like, “The car is broken.” I just didn’t have it in drive, which was very embarrassing and also really disrupted the mood, but we got there.
Then the other scene [between Elvis and Priscilla], which was the actual last day of filming, was a relief to film. It was so heavy and emotional on the actual last day because my head was swimming through all different sorts of thoughts. To come from southern Missouri, being the small-town girl growing up on Sofia Coppola movies, being such a fan of her work, and then flashing forward to me being 24 on her set and it coming to an end, lent itself to the scene. I know Jacob was feeling the same way. Everyone was emotional to be wrapping the film, and thinking about what the characters were going through at that time wrapped it all together.
This story about “Priscilla” first appeared in the SAG issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the SAG issue here.