When Cailee Spaeny and Priscilla Presley were 14 years old, both their lives changed.
In 1959, Presley met her husband-to-be, Elvis—who was 10 years her senior—while living with her mother and stepfather in West Germany. In 2012, Spaeny was growing up in Missouri, struggling in school, and pursuing any artistic outlet she could find. That was when she convinced her parents to drive her to Los Angeles so she could begin her acting career.
“I think if you meet an ambitious 14-year-old girl, there’s sort of nothing you can tell someone [at] that age,” Spaeny says. “They’ve got their eyes on the prize, and that was definitely me.” In “Priscilla,” Sofia Coppola’s latest biopic, Presley (née Wagner) tells her parents that she would have found a way to be with Elvis even if they had refused to let her see him. Spaeny, who plays her in the film, understands that impulse. “I probably would have jumped into some random person’s car to get to Los Angeles,” she says of her own motivation. “I would have hustled my way there.”
That effort paid off. “Priscilla” is the pinnacle of the 25-year-old actor’s still-nascent career. She plays Presley over the span of more than a decade, as she meets, falls in love with, marries, and then divorces Elvis (“Euphoria” star Jacob Elordi). Along the way, she evolves from a nervous girl in a ponytail and poodle skirt into the black-haired, cat-eyed woman we recognize from photographs.
Spaeny’s performance is defined less by her dialogue than by subtle expressions and gestures. She perfectly captures both Presley’s longing for Elvis and her frustration at the ways he comes to control and shape her life. She took home the Volpi Cup for best actress at this year’s Venice International Film Festival; but perhaps even more meaningful than the trophy was the praise she received from Presley herself. “At the afterparty, she took me aside and said, ‘I watched my life through you, and I’m so impressed by you,’ ” Spaeny recalls. Dressed in an oversized sweatshirt, she’s speaking over video chat from London, fresh from a photo shoot. (The actor is able to promote the film thanks to an Interim Strike Agreement with SAG-AFTRA.)
Her rise from ambitious teen to internationally recognized performer didn’t happen right away. After that first fateful road trip with her parents, she auditioned for about four years without booking any roles. “I sort of had this unwavering faith,” she says in her soft Southern accent. “I did not think I was going to be leading things or being in big-budget films. I was happy to do anything in terms of filmmaking.”
“The clothes that I’m wearing, the way that I’m sitting, my register of voice, everything about me—I couldn’t be more different from [Priscilla]. For such a long time, she had to be the wife of not only this person, but also this brand—this product that was being sold that was Elvis Presley.”
Then, at age 18, she landed a lead role opposite John Boyega in 2018’s “Pacific Rim: Uprising.” She appeared in three other high-profile movies that same year: Drew Goddard’s neo-noir “Bad Times at the El Royale,” Mimi Leder’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic “On the Basis of Sex,” and Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney drama “Vice.” She went on to play a budding witch in Zoe Lister-Jones’ “The Craft: Legacy” and a young male tech genius on Alex Garland’s surreal television series “Devs.” But nothing on her résumé is as high-profile as “Priscilla.”
Spaeny was a fan of Coppola years before she entered her world; the actor discovered the filmmaker’s 1999 feature directorial debut “The Virgin Suicides” when she was around 15 years old. “It was like something unlocked in me,” she says. “Especially living in a conservative Bible Belt area of America, ideas get projected onto you. It was the first time I ever felt seen…. Like, I do have sadness and wants and crushes and longings and dreams. I think that’s something [Coppola] takes in and takes very seriously.”
Spaeny isn’t sure if the director remembers, but she auditioned for Coppola’s never-produced version of the live-action “The Little Mermaid” way back in her teens. From there, she stayed in the Coppola family orbit, at one point reading for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Megalopolis.”
When Coppola asked to meet Spaeny over coffees in New York, the actor had no idea she was about to get the opportunity of a lifetime. “The whole time, I’m thinking, What is going on?” she recalls. “And then she pulls out her iPad and starts showing me photos of Priscilla Presley.” Spaeny was shocked.
In the end, she didn’t even have to audition—especially after their mutual friend Kirsten Dunst, a frequent Coppola collaborator, put in a good word. (Dunst and Spaeny are costarring in Garland’s upcoming action film “Civil War.”)
Spaeny says that going into “Priscilla” without auditioning was “slightly terrifying, because I’m like, ‘You haven’t seen me try to do it.’ But [Coppola] had faith in me from beginning to end, which obviously made a huge difference.”
The actor wasn’t a newcomer to the story of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll: Born in Tennessee and raised in southern Missouri, Spaeny was surrounded by Elvis fans. “We grew up going to Graceland for vacations,” she says. “I really have this vivid memory of walking around Graceland: ‘If I Can Dream’ is playing on the speakers, and [I’m] looking up [at] my dad, and he’s just crying.”
She knew less, however, about Priscilla. In researching the role, she leaned heavily on Presley’s 1985 autobiography “Elvis and Me,” co-written by Sandra Harmon, which was Coppola’s source material for the film. But Spaeny also benefited from meetings with Presley herself.
“I didn’t want her to feel like she was being quizzed on her life, since she’s had such a wild journey and has gone through so many ups and downs,” the actor says. “I really wanted to see what she felt like she was comfortable telling me.” Presley opened up to her, sharing anecdotes about her emotional state that went beyond the book’s contents. For example, she recalled being hungry the first time she met Elvis, but she refused food because she couldn’t imagine eating in front of the King. “Those details were really precious,” Spaeny says.
But she adds that, in many ways, she’s very unlike Priscilla. “The clothes that I’m wearing, the way that I’m sitting, my register of voice, everything about me—I couldn’t be more different from her. For such a long time, she had to be the wife of not only this person, but also this brand—this product that was being sold that was Elvis Presley.”
Coppola shot “Priscilla” out of order over the course of 30 days, which meant that sometimes, Spaeny would have to be pregnant adult Priscilla in the morning and 14-year-old Priscilla after lunch. Makeup and hair changes helped her keep track of all of those shifts. “I really leaned into whatever costume I was wearing,” she says. “It would inform how I would hold my body and my movements.” When she put on jeans and had her hair styled into Presley’s 1970s post-divorce blowout, Spaeny felt like she could loosen up; it was a stark difference from the controlled “doll” she had to embody when standing beside Elvis.
Spaeny was deeply involved in the hair and makeup process. “I [can] do a winged eyeliner in my sleep now,” she says. The movie opens with a close-up of Priscilla executing that very look. “Everyone was in the room, staring,” she recalls. “I was sort of doing it blindly, and just the muscle memory of that, which was really scary; but I think everyone clapped for me after they got the shot.” She adds, self-deprecatingly, “That was, like, the most impressive thing I did [in] the film.”
Because of the intensity of the shoot, Coppola knew the actors would need to blow off steam; she even went so far as adding an on-set pickleball court. The filmmaker would also play music to help her actors capture the desired mood of a scene. Spaeny remembers that halfway through the shoot, Coppola decided that Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” was Priscilla’s sound. Spaeny says that she played the song out loud “so it’s not just you, the actor, who’s feeling it. It’s the whole crew—so they sort of lock [into]: Oh, I know what we’re trying to tell in this scene; and everyone’s more engaged.”
Though the whirlwind production process has already paid off with that Volpi Cup, the actor says she’s trying to take the accolades with a “grain of salt…. It’s hard for me to accept compliments.”
As for what comes next, Spaeny’s future is wide open. She doesn’t even have a home base at the moment; she’s been living out of a suitcase for about two years. But her love of London means that she’s finding herself returning to the city again and again.
One thing the actor does know is that she wants to keep pushing herself. And it’s a sure bet that her next big project—Fede Alvarez’s “Alien: Romulus,” which is in postproduction—will be very different from “Priscilla.”
“I’d love to do anything that’s the exact opposite of what I’ve just done, whether it’s the tone or the character or the medium,” she says. “Acting’s always like solving a puzzle to me. The second I feel like I’ve got the hang of it, something shifts. And that’s the chase that’s always living in me. That’s where the hunger comes from.”
Though she’s older now, Spaeny still sounds a lot like that 14-year-old girl who couldn’t be stopped.
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of Backstage Magazine.