Emma Stone talks Birdman…
How was it doing a movie with so many long takes?
It was a challenge in the same way theatre is a challenge. You’re doing the same thing night after night yet having it seem like you’re doing it for the first time. It was the same with this film, except you were doing the same take 24 times a day. But that’s part of the job – to be able to let it all go and just live in the moment, having done extensive rehearsals earlier.
The film sort of makes fun of superhero movies but, having done two Spider-Man films, you’re part of that world…
The funny thing is that even though I was in two Spider-Man movies – and this may be completely out-to-lunch of me – I don’t feel most identified with having been part of that. Maybe it’s because I didn’t play Spider-Man so I don’t feel that closely associated with a costume or a suit or a legacy, although I do feel associated with the legacy of Gwen Stacy of course. The challenge Riggan [Michael Keaton] has isn’t something I relate to even though I was in two films in a franchise.
Still, there’s a big fear amongst actors about getting typecast, isn’t there?
God knows I’ve been in danger of being typecast and God knows I’m sure I have been typecast many times, but I’ve never felt associated with one particular character over another. I haven’t had that struggle, at least in my mind. Maybe in my mind I refuse to lock myself into one identifiable character. I’m sure that’s a fear for some people but it’s that public perception thing. It’s the struggle in this movie: “What do you value more? What people are telling you you are or what you know you are?”
Following on from that, you seem happy to mix things up and play all kinds of roles and also you don’t always have to be the lead character…
I learn an equal amount from any experience, no matter how big the budget is or how many people are working on the crew. And I don’t think the size of a role is any major consideration. It’s about what I can learn and what I can offer the project. That’s the only real draw.
Your character in Birdman speaks up in defense of social media but how do you feel about social media yourself?
I’m not on Twitter. I try to be as much myself as I possibly can be. I try to be as authentic to who I am when I’m being interviewed about a movie but I don’t feel the need to be on Twitter or Instagram or to give a snapshot into the shoes I bought today or what my dog is doing. It’s honestly a personal choice, just like it is in any capacity – whether you feel like sharing things with a bunch of people you don’t know or not. But I don’t think it has anything to do with being an actor.
Is there anything you’ve learned from doing Birdman that you think will be useful when you do Cabaret on Broadway?
The way we shot this film felt so much like theatre so I’m sure the muscles that were used in doing a movie like this will be very applicable in a real theatre setting. It was tirelessly rehearsed, then kind of captured at the final moment but over and over again – so yes, it felt like doing a play. We had, I think, three weeks of rehearsal before we began, then when we got into the practicalities of the locations there were a lot of rehearsals and a lot of blocking. Every moment and every movement had to be very carefully worked out. It was probably more complex than theatre because of the blocking and the fact we had to move with the camera floating around us.
Sally Bowles in Cabaret is such an iconic role. Do you have any nerves about playing her?
[Laughs] No, I feel incredibly confident. Actually I’m completely terrified, but why do something if you’re not terrified?
Some people have an issue with the age gap between you and Colin Firth in the new Woody Allen film Magic in the Moonlight. How do you feel about that?
Honestly, it reminds me of My Fair Lady or Pygmalion. It’s like Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. There’s a professorial relationship there and that’s how we viewed it all along.
Unlike Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who is very precise, Woody Allen is known for giving his actors very little direction. Did you find that to be the case?
It’s funny because I’d heard that a lot about Woody but I didn’t find it to be true. I think he directed everybody in the movie, but the precision thing is funny. Birdman was to the word and to the movement. Woody is sneakily precise. He’ll go “I don’t care, rewrite all my words, just say whatever you want, do it, make it natural, add things, whatever.” So you’ll do that, then he’ll come in and go “Hit this like this”. He’ll go “Let me do it” and then he does it his way and you go “Alright, I’ll do that”. But his precision is more subtle, I guess.
How much did you know about Birdman before you signed up to work with Alejandro?
He gave me the script right away. I was immediately drawn to working with Alejandro because of course he’s so brilliant. You’d have to be crazy not to be drawn to working with Alejandro but he gave me the script and I knew what the role was.
What did you initially think about the character?
Obviously she’s seethingly angry and numbed-out in many ways. She’s pretty checked-out of the world and there’s that kind of glaze that the 22-years-old-and-under set have when they’ve lived their whole lives through a screen. I thought there was something really fascinating about her because she’s the daughter of a famous person. That struggle is a very specific one and I’ve seen it; I’ve seen kids who are the now-grown or growing children of someone who is well known. To have their parents stuff projected onto them their entire lives – and many of them don’t have a close relationship with their parents or they feel abandoned by their parents because their parents prize public opinion rather than their relationship with their child… I thought that made her a very interesting character because yes, she’s just out of rehab and yes, she’s angry and kind of a mess but there’s something heartbreaking about that. I found a lot of humanity in her and a lot of things I understood even without having an actor father myself.
She’s described by Edward Norton’s character Mike Shiner as “a great mess”. Is that how you viewed her yourself?
She’s a very wounded, shut-down girl who is so desperate to open up. You see that scathing speech she makes to her dad and then there’s sort of a registering that she can actually get through to him. She doesn’t think he even sees her in any way, and then he does in that one moment. Ed’s character is able to see what’s happening underneath all of that posturing.
Were you really perched on the edge of a roof above a Broadway theatre?
Yeah, I was. I’m not scared of heights but also there was a little hook on my back for safety.
You mentioned fear is a driving force for you as an actress. Were there any particular fears associated with doing this movie?
I started acting because I wanted to do comedy. Comedy in my heart has always come very naturally to me because since I was very young I’ve been in touch with the sadness of life and I think when you’ve known sadness for a long time you want to go towards the light. So I wanted comedy in my life and I still do, so much. But the fear, I don’t think, used to be as present as it is now – the need to be scared, the need to be truly challenged, the need to feel that I am failing every day. It’s actually pretty new for me, wanting to go into that world, so this was incredibly challenging because Alejandro does not let you lie. Even when you think you’re telling the truth he knows that you’re not. Until it became the rawest of raw he wouldn’t let you move on and it was terrifying and challenging as an actor and as a person. That’s why I think this was the most important experience I’ve had thus far as an actor. Because of working with him I want more and more to be afraid because the more afraid you are the more you open up and the more true vulnerability comes out, and that’s what creates the great performances I’ve loved watching – and I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about other people I’ve loved watching in my life. That’s a new draw – that fear. And this character is terrified so it was a very lucky symbiosis.
It doesn’t sound enjoyable…
[Laughs] It sometimes wasn’t. I think we put a really high premium on everything being fun. I put a premium on things being fun but then I realized that sometimes in life where you grow is not necessarily when it’s fun – it’s when it’s really hard. That is so important. There’s something culturally where we want things to come really easily and to not have to work too hard at things anymore. We want to be able to Google it or have quick fixes to things, but the good stuff is hard, it’s really hard, and then it’s the most joy you could possibly imagine when you tell the truth. So yeah, it was fun and really difficult. Growing pains.
Were there times when Alejandro was insisting you weren’t telling the truth but you felt you had nothing more to give?
Yeah, there were times when I was going “I don’t know what to do”. There was a lunch break where I was going “That’s it. I’m going to break. I’m going to snap.” Then I went back up the roof, I was spitting off the roof, and then it was honest and he was like “Yes! There we go!” But that’s what I’m talking about – those are the experiences you hope for. If you’re going to live any type of creative life – as an actor, as a writer, as a director – you’ve chosen a job where you want to push yourself to some place where you break though and you can tell the truth. When you break through it’s a catharsis. A lot of it happens in rehearsal but there’s this story about Laurence Olivier that a friend of mine told me. He went on stage as, I think, Hamlet and he was just transcendent. Everyone in the audience was completely captivated because he was Hamlet. He went backstage and everyone was going “You were incredible”. And he was in a rage and he went “I know but I don’t know how the f**k I did it”. He never got to that point again. You can find it once and never find it again. It’s that incredible lightning in a bottle thing. There are some people like Meryl who doesn’t need lightning in a bottle and who is able to access it on a moment-to-moment basis, which you can only dream of. I’m gonna keep working on it myself [laughs] to get to that Meryl level.
You mentioned great performances you’ve seen on screen. Do you have some examples of those?
I think Michael gives one in this movie. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman give them in The Master. Ruth Gordon gives one in Harold And Maude. Charlie Chaplin gives one in everything. Honesty in any capacity just stays with you.
Birdman is sure to be among the big Oscar contenders. How much do you care about that side of the business?
[Laughs] I care so much. All the time. It’s all I think about. No, I don’t think it’s anything I’ve considered in my personal life but it’s really fun to watch. It’s fun to watch people dressed up holding statues.
Alejandro always makes incredible films. Do you have a favourite?
21 Grams is pretty damn incredible. I’ve never seen someone who gets so deeply to the root of the human condition in such a crazily unflinching way. He is addicted to the really brutal truth. Actually I think this movie is my favorite of his and that’s completely impersonal. This one hit me the hardest. I’ve seen it twice and the combination of Alejandro and [cinematographer] Chivo [aka Emmanuel Lubezki] and Michael really killed me.
This is a film that people are going to want to add to their collections and watch over and over again. Do you re-watch and revisit films yourself?
I watch films too much. I probably lack expansion because I watch the same things over and over, but that’s fine and good. I have movies that I definitely obsessively love and that I’ve seen many times.
Interview supplied by Sam Thompson. Birdman is out now on Blu-Ray and DVD.