By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Emma Stone reunites with her “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “Gangster Squad” co-star Ryan Gosling as they appear as star-crossed struggling artists in “La La Land,” filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s musical love letter to the City of Angels.
The 28-year-old “It” girl plays an aspiring actress named Mia who can’t seem to catch a break. Every audition is fruitless and she appears destined to forever remain a café barista on a studio backlot. Then Mia’s meandering life changes course when she meets Sebastian (Gosling), an ill-mannered pianist on a gridlocked L.A. freeway, in a memorable music number. Turns out he too is a dreamer who aspires to share his passion for classic 20th century jazz to indifferent audiences. To make ends meet, Sebastian tickles the ivories at a supper club where patrons regularly ignore his performances and his cranky boss (Oscar winner J.K. Simmons) insists he stick to an uninspiring set list. The two dreamers encourage and support each other the best they can, dancing and singing along the way.
The titian-haired Stone didn’t have to research the “struggling actress” role too much as she recalled the challenges of her own career. (Stone’s big break arrived when she landed a small part in the 2007 comedy “Superbad.” She subsequently gained positive notices in “Zombieland,” and finally landed her first starring role in the critically acclaimed “Easy A” in 2010.) It’s been full steam ahead ever since. The ubiquitous Stone’s high-profile film credits include “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel, “The Help,” “Gangster Squad” and 2014’s Oscar-winning “Birdman,” in which she received an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role as a recovering drug addict.
Having grown up in sleepy Scottsdale, Ariz., Stone took Broadway by storm in late 2014, starring in the Rob Marshall’s revival of “Cabaret,” in which she played the iconic role of Sally Bowles. The months of live musical performances prepared Stone for the extensive singing and dancing she was called upon to do in “La La Land.” Justin Hurwitz, who previously composed the music for Chazelle’s three previous films, including his Oscar-nominated “Whiplash” that starred Simmons and Miles Teller, composed the all-original score. He along with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Tony nominated songwriting team who wrote the Broadway musical “A Christmas Story, The Musical,” penned the songs, including the haunting “City of Stars” and Stone’s crowd-pleasing solo “Audition.”
Coming into the project, Stone had considerably more experience with musical theater than her co-star, yet she spent months preparing, especially for the dance numbers. Emmy nominated choreographer Mandy Moore, whose credits include TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance” and David O. Russell’s hit movie “Silver Linings Playbook,” instructed Stone and Gosling in tap, jazz and ballroom dancing.
Stone spoke about her making her big screen musical debut, working again with Gosling and what’s ahead.
Q: Did your work on “Cabaret” prepare you for “La La Land?”
Stone: Yeah. I definitely had a different amount of stamina for singing and dancing than I probably would have had in any other time period.
Q: How was doing a classic-style Hollywood musical and did you have time to rehearse the dancing?
Stone: We had almost three months, which is an unheard of amount of rehearsal time for a film or even for theater. It’s a long time, which was great. We did a lot of tap dance, ballroom dance, which was choreographed and re-choreographed based on what was emerging as our strengths or weaknesses. That was a lovely opportunity that we had that kind of time to devote to it and important. It wouldn’t have worked out otherwise.
Q: What was it like co-starring again on yet another film with Ryan Gosling?
Stone: It was great. It was really fun to do something like this because it had been a little while. It had been like four years since we’d last worked together so it was really cool to do all this kind of ambitious stuff with someone that you trust and know.
Q: Your choreographer Mandy Moore did an amazing job. What was that dance rehearsal process like for you? Was it collaborative among the three of you?
Stone: She was so supportive and open and just knew how to work with us and Jillian (Meyers) and Mike Riccio, her co-choreographers were just so helpful every single day. We were separate for most of it, Ryan and I, learning. Then we came together at the end when we were learning to do the choreography and ballroom dance at the same time but we basically had to learn alone because they didn’t want us holding each other back. They wanted us to spread our wings individually. We would go each day for just a few hours and we’d do tap warm-ups and some ballroom stuff and a little soft shoe. It was just fun. Dancing is such a community feeling. Everybody says, “Love you” to each other all the time. It’s this lovely little safe world. Mandy made it a really special experience. The dance, honestly, was my favorite part. It was really, really fun.
Q: Do you think there’s a balance between love of your career versus love in real life? Can you achieve true happiness in life without having one or the other?
Stone: The importance of balance is huge but I think it is for everybody. It’s a big issue for at least anyone that I talk to in any career. Between work and your kids and your spouse or whatever situation you have in your life. I think balancing all of that seems to be a huge situation. It’s interesting in a creative life because you have to be so in love with your work, like it truly is an “in love” feeling with your job. That balance of love for your work and love in your life is an interesting thing. I don’t know. That is person to person. For me, it would be very hard to find meaning in my life without an element of both.
Q: Mia’s series of disastrous auditions were funny. Do you have an audition horror story? Can you relate to Mia’s experiences?
Stone: Definitely, although nothing too horrific. It’s kind of what you saw. I see that as a bit humiliating but also our job (as actors) on a daily basis. You are risking humiliation so it’s not particularly something that sticks deeply in my mind, each audition that went that way with someone not looking up from their paper or answering a phone call. I remember the periods of time when I wasn’t getting any auditions. That’s more what I find painful in memory—that feeling of not even getting the chance to be rejected.
Q: Did you ever want to throw in the towel and go home?
Stone: Totally. Multiple times. I didn’t do that but I got to that point and would cry on the floor then go “Okay, all right, let’s go to one more or go one more day.” I’ve had that feeling and still know elements of that feeling.
Q: How do you deal with the waiting to see if you’ve gotten a good part?
Stone: I think now it’s creating things in times of waiting. I don’t do my job a lot of the time. I haven’t acted since May 20th because that’s when I wrapped the last thing so I don’t do what I love to do a lot of the time. It’s been six months since I’ve acted. So it’s nice to find creative outlets on a daily basis so that helps I think.
Q: What do you do? Do you garden. Do you go yoga?
Stone: I wish I gardened. I don’t have a space for a garden. I’m in an apartment in New York but I do lots of stuff. I read and write and hang out with people. I go see movies. I love to see movies and just other embarrassing stuff.
Q: The solo song you have in front of the casting directors was such a vulnerable number, especially with how the camera was so close on your face and just you carrying the song. What was it like shooting that?
Stone: It was like in “Birdman” when they were asking about the pressure of doing one shot. I remember that the pressure of one shot is much greater when there are other people in the scene that you could let down. Coming to the end of a long shot is brutal so when it’s just me, if I mess up I can be like “Sorry. I’m an idiot. Let’s go again.” And not like “Sorry Ryan. I literally ruined a beautiful take of you.” Weirdly that takes the pressure off when you’re the only one. But it’s pretty intense to have someone (the camera) looming there when you are singing a song but it’s sort of invigorating too. Ari Robbins is the unsung hero of our film. He was our Steadicam operator and essentially shot the entire film on his back literally so it was him and I in that scene. I felt really great with Ari. He’s so artistic and wonderful and Linus Sandgren our cinematographer is a genius. That makes it easier.
Q: What was it like working with writer/director Damien Chazelle?
Q: I loved working with Damien. I thought he was so open and clear in his vision and collaborate and those are things that are often difficult to co-exist especially when this is such an ambitious idea. You would think that someone who struggled for so long to get the movie made, would be holding it closer to his chest and saying “No, don’t change these things about the character.” He was so open in the process of creating these people with Ryan and me. The movie essentially stayed the same as what he had envisioned. We just got to go deeper with him and explore who these people were going to be. I really loved working with him. I think people are going to be talking about working with him for the next 50 years and deservedly so.
Q: What are you doing next?
Stone: I’m doing a film in the spring that I’m really looking forward to in London that’s right now called “The Favourite” but I’m not sure of the title, with Yorgos Lanthimos who directed “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster.”
Q: You also play tennis great Billie Jean King opposite Steve Carell (as Bobby Riggs) in “The Battle of the Sexes.” What was that experience like?
Stone: That was such an incredible experience to play Billie Jean King. It was really a life-changing thing to get to play her. She’s the first real person I’ve ever played to have it be her was just like “Whoa!” She’s amazing and also so supportive and positive. She’s a coach now so she deals with kids and amping them up. To play a living person that’s that iconic is pretty daunting and she is like “You can never disappoint me because I know how hard you’re trying.” I was like “Thanks Billie!”