Emma Stone cracks a joke pretty much immediately as our phone interview starts for her new musical “La La Land.” Typically, these chats begin with some awkward banter before you find a groove (or not), but even saying “hello” is something Stone does like a goofball. And she gets to talk about something she loves: musicals.
As a kid, the actress was a regular at her local youth theaters. It’s a muscle she’s only worked now and then since becoming a Hollywood star. But it wasn’t until Stone’s 2014-15 Broadway stint as Sally Bowles on “Cabaret” that she really got to show the whole world her stuff. Now she’s in “La La Land,” an old-fashioned musical movie that reunites her for the third time with Ryan Gosling. The two play struggling Los Angelinos who fall in love while hoofing and crooning up a storm.
Stone, 28, spoke to us only a week after the election. Despite this, she still managed to talk about her other big dream role and doing “Cabaret” while monstrously, apocalyptically sick.
How are you? I’ve been terrible since You Know What.
Oh, I’m terrible, too. I guess, whatever, I’m surviving. But what the f— is going on? [Laughs]
What are we surviving for? I feel like the living will envy the dead.
We’re gonna find a way to group together and make change. We just have to hit rock bottom first.
I feel like we’re already there. In fact, things are so bad that we should talk about nice things: puppies, kittens, clouds.
Yeah, clouds — clouds that are made of chemicals that are destroying our environment. But let’s just not believe that, you know? [Laughs]
Nah. Let’s ignore that Miami isn’t flooding because of climate change. But we should just nerd out about musical theater, since, like you, I did a lot of it as a kid.
Yes! Oh my god, that sounds like a dream.
My favorite and most embarrassing role was the Rum Tum Tugger in a junior high production of “Cats.” What’s yours?
OK. So, I was in a lot of stuff. A truly beloved musical for me that not a lot of people know is “Titanic: The Musical.” It was on Broadway for less than a year [ed. back in 1997]. The only person I know who is equally obsessed with it is Jesse Eisenberg. He and I will always sing [croons a song from the show] to each other. I was in that at my local youth theater. I was Stewardess Robinson, who survived at the end. I was a stepsister in “Cinderella,” which was one of my favorites, with crazy hair and make-up. I got to scream a lot. But I’ve never gotten to play my dream role — well, that was Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.” But I haven’t gotten to play my deep, deep down dream role, which is Lucy in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” [Laughs]
You should use your clout to bring that back to Broadway.
You think that would rock it right now?
I think we all need Charlie Brown.
OK, good. Let’s make it happen.
You did “La La Land” shortly after your “Cabaret” stint. Did that make it easier or harder?
It was kind of both. When [director Damien Chazelle] was first talking to me about it, I was sick as a dog in “Cabaret.” He had come to see me and I was on all this cold medicine. I was so hopped up I didn’t even know where I was, but I was on stage. I was like, “You realize I’m dying here, right? I’m so sick and I have no voice. How are we even talking about a musical?” Even though I was having the time of my life during “Cabaret.” It was my favorite experience I’ve had as an actor, hands down. But the idea of doing it again, for months and months, and onscreen and it will last forever — that was really overwhelming.
Still, at least musicals were still fresh in your system.
Weirdly, I had more stamina for the rehearsal process of “La La Land” than I had ever had. Because the the singing and dancing were all in long takes. It was like the technical exercises of “Birdman” and “Cabaret” had a baby and made “La La Land.” Combining those things I didn’t ever know I’d be using again was really interesting and kind of great.
I didn’t know you were sick on “Cabaret.”
Oh my god, I got sick so many times. Oh my lord.
How does one power through a Broadway run while on death’s door?
Alan Cumming [her “Cabaret” costar] is a vegan and a true extrovert. He can stay up for days. He was shooting “The Good Wife” at 6 a.m. every day, then doing the show at night, then having a party in his dressing room afterwards. And I was barely hanging on. He was like, [does an Alan Cumming voice] “Darling, I’m very worried about you. You need to become a vegan.” I was like, "I need to become a vegan right now? What is going on?!" I was always sick and he was eating flour or whatever. But it also taught me to go easier on myself as an actor. I’m incredibly hard on myself. And there’s not really much you can do when you are completely sick and the show must go on. So it was actually in some ways maybe a life lesson.
You get to feel like a superhero. You didn’t know your body was this strong.
Honestly, it was like running on a broken ankle. It was crazy to not have a voice and to be singing. But it was really my favorite acting experience. [Laughs]
You didn’t get sick on this, did you? Do musicals just make people sick?
[Laughs] Broadway makes people sick, at Christmas time, in those old, dusty theaters. That’s what made me sick. But no, on this one there was no sickness.
That just makes me respect Broadway actors even more.
There’s nothing harder than theater. Dude, the people who can do a show for one or two years, I cannot even express how amazed I am by them. It’s insane! You have to live like a monk. It is no joke. [Laughs] They should be paid a jillion dollars, everyone. We’ve got to change that.
There was a girl in our cast in the Kit Kat Club who had the flu for over a month, because people were filling in for the understudies. If one person gets sick, everyone gets sick, because you’re in the same dressing room and the same theater, touching all the same stuff. Once a couple people are out and the understudies have taken over, then there’s no understudies left. It’s bananas! It’s so incredible, the dedication. I love theater so much.
Was there something on “La La Land” that was particularly difficult — a number, possibly?
Rehearsing the duet [between her and Gosling, near Griffith Observatory] was fun and took a long time. It was one take, on the hill, dancing together. We would go to Griffith on the weekend to rehearse on that hill. It felt really good when we got it.
How many takes did you wind up doing?
We did 10 total, and we had two days to do it. We had one hour of the day at magic hour. They reasoned we could have five takes per day. I think take two of the second day is the one they used.
Was there a take that was perfect and then someone screwed one little thing up?
There was one that was really good and then I fell off the bench. I went up and came back down, and they just kept rolling. I was like, “F—! We have to do it again?”
I hope you didn’t hurt yourself.
No, I was fine, thank you for being so concerned.
I guess you can survive anything after “Cabaret.”
Yes, exactly. I was sick on stage, I can make it through anything.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge