Emma Stone, star of The Help, tells Stylist about meeting Michelle Obama and getting her tattoo designed by Sir Paul McCartney. Welcome to her world…
Emma Stone is sitting on a plush sofa in Claridge’s, staring intently at a copy of Stylist. She greets me with a wry smile and a mock-gasp, “You mean this week you’ve got the Mona Lisa on your cover, and in a few weeks it’s going to be me?”
Bright-eyed and totally unafraid to pull funny faces, Stone has – amongst other things – already been heralded as one of the great comic actresses of her generation. She was nominated for a 2011 Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for a Comedy Motion Picture for Easy A, has hosted Saturday Night Live and actor Jim Carrey paid a mock tribute to her in an online video that suggested he’d marry her – if only he were a bit younger…
So far, 22-year-old Stone has held not-just-a-pretty-face roles in 2007’s Superbad, Zombieland (2009) and this year’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. This month she’s in cinemas again in her most high-profile (and non-comic) role yet – as the independently minded yet hopelessly green protagonist, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, in the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller, The Help. We met fleetingly the previous night at a drinks reception before the London premiere of the movie. While Octavia Spencer (who plays one of the maids, Minny) rubbed her feet and moaned about her “stupid” high heels, Stone poured us both a glass of champagne and teased me about London’s heatwave: “Seriously, I was told that in October it would be cold. Are you guys wimps, or what?” We only have time for half a glass before her and Spencer are whisked away for a photo call on the red carpet, but I’m already looking forward to speaking to her the next day. Although when I do catch up with her, she’s still worked up about a question a previous journalist just asked…
So, what did he say to you?
That old question about whether, as a woman, you can be funny and attractive at the same time. Argh! I hate that question. Of course you can. But this idea that you have to choose between the two does persist, and I think a lot of female actors have a real fear of not looking their best. They learn to prize their vanity over a role in which they have to look like a moron. They’re worried they’ll damage their sex appeal. Thankfully, I have no problem looking like a moron! In The Help, my character Skeeter, comes up against a similar convention; she’s not considered attractive so she’d darned better find something that she’s good at. Which she does: writing. But her mother is always trying to make her “pretty herself up”, and she’s constantly being told that the most important thing in life is to snag a man. Things have obviously changed a bit, but not enough, in my opinion. In Hollywood – and indeed, the world – a lot of women only think about themselves in the context of men. It’s truly sad.
Was the number of heavyweight female roles in The Help what attracted you to it?
It was the role, the script, the other cast members – everything. While Skeeter was learning about the lives of black domestics in the movie, I was learning about civil rights in the Sixties, so it felt like we were learning in tandem. I also learned so much from the other cast members [Viola Davis is spectacular as Aibileen Clark, as is Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote]. I’ve only been acting for five years, so when I’m around other more experienced actors, I feel like a sponge, just soaking up whatever I can from them. With The Help I think one of the reasons we had such fun filming was because we were surrounded by women and didn’t have to worry about how we looked to men.
Growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona, were you able to draw on any personal experiences for this role?
I had a nanny when I was small – my mom has always been a stay-at-home mom, so she was always there – but I’ve never had a domestic in the sense of the movie. I wasn’t raised by someone else; I never felt like someone else was my mother. But I grew up with a lot of people who were raised by the nanny and have seen how people can treat ‘the help’. That’s still wildly prevalent to this day. When you read the book, you do think about all the people in your life who have been there for you, who you haven’t thought about or bothered to get to know. It can be the janitor at your school – whoever. We’re all surrounded by people who do these jobs and we don’t appreciate them.
Do you have a maid now? And has making this film made you a more thoughtful person?
I have a housekeeper who comes into my place once a week, which I am so grateful for because god knows where I’ll be or what I’m doing. I don’t know if making this movie has turned me into a better person, but it’s certainly made me listen more, pay more attention to the people around me and make sure that I’m equal with everyone, at all times. My favourite bit of wisdom is that if you knew everyone’s story, you would love them. You can’t really hate anyone if you know everything that happened to them between their birth and now; why they became the way they became; why they have walls up or down. If you truly know someone, you’d get it.
Was it nerve-wracking, playing a character in a book that’s so popular?
Of course. There’s an extra weight of responsibility. To make matters worse, it’s my mom’s favourite book. That’s the definition of pressure, right there. But you have to put all this aside, and forget about the millions of people out there waiting to say, “Huh! I didn’t see Skeeter like that! Why didn’t they get X to play the role?” If you obsess about what these people might think, you’d never get out of bed.
“In Hollywood a lot of women only think about themselves in the context of men. It’s truly sad”
We heard that Michelle Obama invited you to a screening at the White House? Is that true?
Yes! It was amazing, there’s simply no other word. Octavia and I were told just two days beforehand, that “Mrs Obama would like to invite you both to the White House to watch a screening of The Help.” I hate watching myself on screen, because I only see flaws I wish I could change, but when the First Lady asks you to do something, you’ve got to make an exception.
Tell us more…
OK, so I brought along my mom, and Octavia took her sister. We had to go through metal detectors and had our stuff scanned, then we got a private tour of the White House. We didn’t get into the Oval Office or anything crazy, but I was still ridiculously excited. And then we got to meet Mrs Obama. She was so nice to my mom, who had her photo taken with her and everything. And I’ll tell you the best thing about Mrs Obama. She walks into the room and she’s 100% herself. There’s no artifice; no barrier; no formality. She walked in and came up to us with the words, “What’s up, you guys? She hugged me four times! It was like talking to a friend, and I think that this is what makes Michelle and Barack Obama an inspiration. The Obamas are real people. Just awesome ones.
Has the Obama administration succeeded in getting young people inspired about politics again?
I think so, yes. They’re a family we can all look up to. The people I look up to the most – politicians, actors, artists – are the people who manage to do a high-powered job while staying themselves. They aren’t afraid to be nice. People like Michelle and Barack Obama know that they don’t have to “act” powerful. Mrs Obama was funny, warm… just human, that’s the greatest compliment I can pay her.
Were you nervous before your trip to the White House [Emma used to suffer from panic attacks]? Or have you mastered the art of being zen?
I zen myself up these days, and I’ve got pretty good at it. The only time I flip out is when I’m not prepared. If I’m caught off guard, I can’t help it; I start gasping for air. I’ve actually cried in front of three people because I was so blown away to be in their presence: Cameron Crowe, Lorne Michaels [veteran comedian and creator of Saturday Night Live] and Tom Hanks.
How did Tom Hanks take this?
He didn’t see, thank goodness. I turned and rushed away, and he’ll only know about it if he reads this interview. However, with Cameron Crowe, I cried right in front of him whilst shaking his hand. How embarrassing. But when I’m able to psyche myself up for it, like when I met Mrs Obama, I’m able to have a little more composure.
On The David Letterman Show recently, you mentioned having to do a “chemistry test” with Ryan Gosling. Please explain...
OK! Chemistry tests are now a routine part of the audition process, so I’ve done one for every single movie I’ve been in. Essentially, it’s a final check about your screen chemistry with a co-star. So for Easy A, I read with all the girls who were up for the part of Marianne, Amanda Bynes’ character. I know it’s a slightly strange concept, but it makes sense; we can all think of movies where producers just stuck two well-known actors together and they don’t gel. With Ryan [her co-star in Crazy, Stupid, Love] it was mostly sitting and chatting. Although we did have to do the Dirty Dancing lift…
Have you ever experienced a ‘failed’ chemistry test?
Yes. I can’t name names, but I’ve felt it, and thought, ‘Woah, we just don’t have it.’ It’s just like in real life when you meet a friend of a friend and you simply don’t click; you know you would never hang out just the two of you. The wrong chemistry can ruin a movie.
It’s clear from talking to you that you’re passionate about cinema as an art form?
Yep, I am. Even as a little kid, when I went to the cinema, I came out of the theatre convinced that I was one of the characters. I’d go to the bathroom, see my reflection in the mirror and be genuinely surprised and disappointed that I wasn’t that character. Even today, I can’t help moving my face – reacting, really – when I watch a movie, because I’m really inhabiting a character. I know this is weird, but it demonstrates what I love about cinema: it allows you to live a different life, to have a different experience, to disappear for two hours. I think it’s wonderful.
Do you think that good movies have a responsibility to push boundaries and teach us about ourselves?
Yes, and it concerns me that movies seem to be getting more and more conservative and watered down. I see movies made in the Seventies such as Network that I really don’t think would get made today. A movie that calls the audience to task for sitting glued to their screens, believing everything that they’re told by the media? That would be considered too challenging today. Nobody wants to risk offending the viewers.
Why do you think the industry is getting more conservative?
Movies need broad appeal to succeed and bosses don’t want to alienate anyone. I know in Britain the situation isn’t quite as bad; the BBC isn’t censored as severely as US channels. In Canada, you can still watch things that in the US would be bleeped, blurred or cut. Censorship makes me really angry – don’t get me started. I even hate it when people censor themselves. You can always tell when an actor has grown a ‘rhino skin’ to protect themselves. It comes across on screen, and they aren’t believable. They’re dead in the eyes because they’ve been told a million times that they’re the greatest actor that ever lived. If you don’t realise what’s happening, and get your feet back on the ground, it can be the worst thing that ever happens to you.
Have you ever been censored, or told what you can and can’t say?
Only by myself! The things that make you most mad about the world tend to be the things that you hate in yourself. Sometimes I definitely shut people out. I can be that sort of girlfriend who crosses her arms, shakes her head and says, “Nope, I’m not telling you what’s wrong. I’m fine.”
You’re generally very private but made an exception recently to speak about your mother’s recovery from breast cancer. How did you come to this decision?
A few months ago, my mom and I got matching tattoos to celebrate the fact that she was out of the woods. My mum’s favourite song is Blackbird by Paul McCartney, and since I’d met him before, I asked him if he’d draw two little bird feet for us, as a tattoo design. And, amazingly enough, he did! Then, when I was going on Letterman, I asked my mum whether I should tell the whole story about my tattoo. She told me that she’d be honoured. My mom suffered from a very rare form of breast cancer called triple-negative breast cancer, which only 8% of breast cancer patients have. It’s very aggressive, and generally less responsive to standard treatment. We need to see more research, because all we know about triple-negative breast cancer is that it’s caused by environmental factors, not hormonal. If we can raise awareness by talking about it, I’m proud to be able to help. Hey, I suppose that I’m always preaching about how people shouldn’t censor themselves, so I might as well live by it!
Words: Anna Hart
Picture credits: Rex Features
The Help is out 26 October. Watch the official trailer here.