Call it a case of nature versus nurture: How did a British street-smart fashion designer become the cinematic proxy for greed, evil, and a craven desire to harvest dog fur? Hence, Cruella, a sort of prequel to the Disney classic 101 Dalmatians; it tells the backstory of a crafty grifter named Estella, played punk-rockishly by Emma Stone. Set in ‘70s London, the movie centers around the stylish young woman whose fraught relationship with dog-owning couturier Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) leads Estella to embrace her venal side and transforms her into the eponymous and gloriously vengeful Cruella. The film is both in theaters and streams on Disney+on May 28.
Deeply private at the best of times, Stone reportedly gave birth to a daughter with her husband, David McCary, a comedian, writer, and director, just weeks before having to promote the film. Motherhood is something she doesn’t discuss and won’t even confirm. She looks fresh and upbeat, but reality intrudes mid-answer when she tackles the issue of Cruella’s weaknesses.
“This isn’t necessarily an aspirational character, so to speak, except for in the fact that she’s really harnessing her creativity and who she is in a very strong way, and she’s learning to accept that who she is in her nature does win in the end. Her biggest weakness in the end — the original character of Cruella de Vil does get to some pretty dark places, and I wouldn’t necessarily call those positive,” says Stone. “Sorry, I haven’t slept.”
Interjects Thompson: “Those of us who have been there in early motherhood, we’re with you.”
For anyone wondering if Stone was channeling herself to play Cruella, here’s a little fact about the Oscar winner: She’s warm, delightful, and remembers small details mentioned in passing, and asks about this writer’s son, unprompted, during every interview. Here’s what she had to say about her new movie.
Can you talk about getting the call to play Cruella?
I loved the cartoon of 101 Dalmatians. I especially loved that the dogs looked like their owners. I always thought that was so funny. And I remember as a kid trying to see if dogs did in fact look like their owners, and a lot of times, they do. I thought Cruella was such a fun character.
It wasn’t as straightforward as getting a call to play Cruella. It was six years ago. There was sort of an idea. You know, Disney has all this IP, all these characters that they have, and there are some brainstorms. It was a process of about four years and different writers and different things were brought to the table, and it really felt like we might not ever really make the movie of Cruella, because even though she’s such a fun and interesting character, what world would we want to explore her in that would really make sense and make a good film, that didn’t feel shoehorned into this character.
I think taking her and putting her in the ’70s and she’s sort of-as much as she is Cruella from 101 Dalmatians — you’ve taken this character and you’ve created this whole new story for her with fun nods to 101 Dalmatians, obviously, and all that.
Between Estella and Cruella, which character did you prefer to play?
There is something about Cruella that’s pretty enticing because she just kind of is who she is. She’s in full acceptance and autonomy there. So I am kind of interested in that Cruella world. She does some things that I — some lines that I don’t think I would necessarily cross. But to be honest, I sort of prefer Cruella. It’s so much fun to do. For a lot of roles, if you’re someone like me that kind of has a face that’s made of full rubber and, is always trying to sort of contain a little bit, teaspoons a little bit instead of buckets when you get to throw buckets, it’s a joy.
To really play a villain convincingly, you need to understand their motivation, what makes them tick. I don’t think I would ever be able to play a character if I truly thought, they’re just bad, they’re just a villain. Do you think anybody evil walks through the world thinking they’re evil? I don’t think so. I think they think they’re right.
How do you get rid of nerves when you’re in a production this massive?
They go as you’re doing it. The more present you can be, the more the nerves go. That’s why I wanted to be an actor in general because I’m naturally very anxious. And the time I found I was most present was improvising or doing comedy or doing theater because you don’t have time to think about all the other things that you’re worried about. You have to just be in the moment. So the more present you can be, the more the nerves are kind of gone. That’s the great gift of acting, to me, is not getting rid of the nerves, but using presence to move through it, I guess.
Does Cruella have weaknesses?
She’s human, she of course has weaknesses. I would say that her weakness is that she — this is sort of a movie about that, about her strengths combating her weaknesses, It’s very nature versus nurture, this story. So what she would find a weakness early on or what her mother would deem a weakness early on with just her ability to really hit the ceiling quickly, her kind of volatility, her reactiveness, becomes her strength through her creativity and through her genius. It’s interesting. I think it really is a movie about how your weaknesses do sort of becoming your strengths, in a way.