Emma Stone on the Art of Unlearning Everything

The “Poor Things” star had to forget what she knew about acting—and being human—to master her latest role.

Emma Stone is already an Oscar and BAFTA winner, and in 2017, she earned a spot on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. Now, she’s an awards contender once more for her star turn in Yorgos Lanthimos’ fantastical “Poor Things.” To unpack the life that led her here, it’s essential to start at the beginning.

We must start with “No Turkey for Perky.”

Stone was 7 years old when she landed the only role reserved for a first grader in her school’s fifth grade production of Carol B. Kaplan’s play, which follows Hazelbelle Hanks and her dog, Perky, who (spoiler alert) receives no turkey on Thanksgiving. 

“My teacher, I think, suggested me because I was so loud,” Stone says with a laugh. Even now, she vividly remembers stepping onstage for the first time. “For a performer at heart, to hear that audience reaction—them laughing? The laughing was like heaven to me.” 

She also recalls the time, years later, when she was in therapy to discuss the panic attacks she’d started experiencing as a teen. While working through her anxiety, the actor found herself returning to “Perky” and the way performing in front of an audience made her feel most like herself. 

“I do remember saying to my mom, in the most dramatic sense possible…‘If I don’t get to act, I will die,’ ” Stone remembers. “Which is how I think you do know you’re an actor: when it feels so dramatic, the idea that you wouldn’t get to do it. It really solidifies the pain that you’re in—[which,] as an actor, is worth it.” 

Emma Stone

She not only survived, but thrived, in her post-“Perky” career, which offered one surreal development after another. In high school, she returned to the stage to perform in 16 productions with Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona. That run included an “enormous” moment for a childrens’ theater organization: putting on Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s 1997 musical “Titanic” at the 800-seat Herberger Theater Center, staged on a tilting set purchased from the official touring production for $1. 

Fast-forward a few years to when Stone was living in Los Angeles. She suffered the typical early career woes—failed auditions, an unsold pilot—before landing her 2007 breakout role in Greg Mottola’s “Superbad.” Suddenly, she was a working actor. Two years later, she bonded with her “Zombieland” costar Jesse Eisenberg after “we realized we were maybe the only two people that either of us would ever meet that actually saw ‘Titanic: The Musical’ on Broadway,” Stone remembers. 

“[Experience] doesn’t stop you from, every single time, thinking, I have no idea how the fuck to do this anymore. You can be like, I haven’t done this for a year, or, I haven’t done this for a day, and I forgot how to act in the meantime.”

A few years later, the actor followed up her turn in Marc Webb’s 2012 blockbuster “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel with Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” for which she earned an Oscar nomination. When she finally won an Academy Award in 2017 for best actress in Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” it was Leonardo DiCaprio who handed her the statuette. 

“I don’t know if he knows this, but in my house, I have a framed, signed headshot of him as Jack in ‘Titanic’ that I won at a little charity auction when I was, like, 9 years old,” she says. “I mean, I don’t really know him, so why would he know or care about this?” 

Through all the twists and turns—“Titanic”-related or not—Stone’s passion for performing never waned. “Acting was and continues to be a form of meditation for me,” she explains. “It requires you to be present. You have no option [but] to think about exactly what’s in front of you and what it is you’re doing from moment to moment. It’s always [about] the past and the future, with anxiety; it’s very little [about the present]. So I find acting very soothing, even when it’s challenging.”

Emma Stone in “Poor Things”

She pauses before correcting herself: “Even more so, now, when it’s challenging.”

This perfectly pivots us to “Poor Things,” which sees Stone taking on one of the most challenging roles of her career, as well as producing. The film marks her third collaboration with Lanthimos—she previously starred in his 2018 feature “The Favourite” and his 2022 short “Bleat.” She stars as Bella Baxter, the reanimated corpse of a woman who died by suicide. At the start of the film, mad scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe, beneath heavy prosthetics) has brought her back to life using the brain of her unborn child. 

With the rakish Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) at her side, Bella embarks on a trip through Lanthimos’ fantastical, retro-futuristic vision of the Victorian world. Along the way, she works to make sense of who she is—sexually, intellectually, and as a human being. Think “Bride of Frankenstein” via surreal painter Hieronymus Bosch, captured through a disorienting fisheye lens by cinematographer Robbie Ryan. 

If that’s hard to wrap your head around, well, welcome to the world of “Poor Things.” Bella’s journey from bundle of pure impulses to cultured woman is tough to describe—even for the actor who brought her to life. 

“As a creative person, the most important thing you can do is keep your skin thin and allow these feelings and these experiences to penetrate you and be able to utilize those for your work.”

Stone recalls an interview, conducted in the middle of production, in which she called Bella the “most difficult character” she’d ever played. “I realized that’s just not true,” she says now. “Or, it is true, but only in the respect that it was difficult because she is the simplest character I’ve ever played.”

Given that Bella is a woman without a backstory who’s guided by curiosity alone, Stone says that her prep work began with “stripping away as much as possible—taking away shame, taking away self-judgment and judgment of the outer world, and just remaining completely open. To actually live in that…means you really can’t have this self-criticism that’s just normal for anyone to have.” 

That was a tall order for someone with, in her words, an “anxious disposition,” as well as a tendency to tailor her process to each new role. Having years of experience “doesn’t stop you from, every single time, thinking, I have no idea how the fuck to do this anymore,” Stone explains. “You can be like, I haven’t done this for a year, or, I haven’t done this for a day, and I forgot how to act in the meantime.” 

Three weeks of rehearsing turned out to be a lifesaver, during which the actor made no attempt to learn blocking or formally memorize her lines. Instead, Lanthimos orchestrated a series of theater games—“things he just [made] up, honestly”—designed to coax the cast out of their shells. Picture Stone diving to place a chair underneath a costar whose eyes are closed in time for them to sit down; Ruffalo rolling across the ground like a log as he recites his lines; and the entire cast forming “a human noodle, holding hands and twisting all around each other.” 

Emma Stone and Yorgos Lanthimos

“The purpose that [rehearsing] serves—and it really does this well—is to make us all feel very, very close,” Stone explains. “Like, there is no embarrassment around each other, and we can almost be like a theater company.” Those log rolls and human noodles reminded her not of prepping for a prestige film, but taking the stage at Valley Youth Theatre all those years ago. “By the end, you’re, like, best friends with everybody,” she says. “You’re sharing dressing rooms; and it really becomes a pivotal part of your life to be around these other actors and to feel safe with them.” 

Toward the conclusion of rehearsals, Stone says that Lanthimos conducted two “fake camera test” days. “We were going to [film] the scenes, but just for fun. And then if they were OK, well, maybe they’d be in the movie.” 

Getting into the headspace of a newborn was one thing; doing it for the first time was another. While filming a test shot of Bella fiddling, childlike, with a piano—a scene that did make it into the film—Stone felt herself freezing up. 

“Especially in the beginning of a shoot, it’s really hard not to judge what it is I’m doing and eventually let go and feel better in the experience and trust my impulses a little more,” she says. “So the scenes in the beginning are always hard—but this was [supposed to be] all impulses. My job was to let go of all self-judgment and all shame; and I was like, Oh, fuck, oh, no—I’m just locking up.” 

In that moment, Stone’s history with Lanthimos paid off. “He is a person I can cry to and say, ‘I’m really locking up.’ We have such a shorthand, where he’s just like, ‘Stop it; it’s fine. Let go; it’s OK,’ ” she says, doing a pitch-perfect impression of the director’s blunt delivery. “That doesn’t sound like it would be calming, but it actually is.”

This became a running theme throughout production: When things got tough, what Stone calls “that theater-company mentality” would take over. “I honestly don’t know how anyone in a vacuum can just free themselves enough. The community…the filmmaker that you’re working with and the other actors—that support system is so crucial. 

“Poor Things”

“We’d gotten really close with each other, so by the time we [were] on set…you [could] just experiment, have fun, and live in that space in a different way than if you were just showing up for the first time. Like, ‘Hi, nice to meet you, Willem. You’re a mad scientist, and I’m your quasi-daughter. I guess let’s fake it.’ ” 

That safety net proved vital, particularly when Stone was filming a shot that she wryly dubs “a pretty depressing one.” The actor’s last task before production wrapped was to lie facedown in a river, dead—the unnamed woman’s final moment onscreen before Godwin resurrects her as Bella. 

“I was really, really heartbroken because she is my favorite character ever, and we had spent so much time putting this film together,” the actor says. “It was really life-changing in so many respects. I was devastated. I was crying all day.”

But then came a simple reframing from first assistant director Hayley Williams—a role not typically associated with a gentle disposition. “That job is so hard, so usually a first AD is pretty gruff; and she is the opposite of gruff,” Stone says. “I told her, ‘I’m dead; what a sad thing to do at the end.’ And she said, ‘This isn’t the end; this is the birth of Bella. This, having happened, is the birth of Bella.’ ” 

Stone left “Poor Things” with a reminder of what fuels her creativity: Like Bella, a performer must stay open to the world and allow themselves to be shaped by experiences both good and bad. 

Emma Stone cover photo“At the end of the day, what you’re doing as an actor is playing a person. There’s so much empathy involved in the experience,” she says. “You don’t have to form a thick skin. As a creative person, the most important thing you can do is keep your skin thin and allow these feelings and these experiences to penetrate you and be able to utilize those for your work." 

Her process for accomplishing this feat has remained the same from “No Turkey for Perky” to “Poor Things” and everything in between: overcoming anxiety by finding her theatrical community, bonding with costars over little-loved Broadway musicals, accepting Oscars from her childhood heroes, and doing log rolls across a rehearsal room with her peers.   

“It’s about finding those people and finding those avenues where you feel safe and you feel like you can break down and cry and celebrate—and there are people that can celebrate with you,” Stone explains.

Even while lying facedown in the proverbial (or literal) river, the actor finds a way to breathe—with a bit of help. “It’s the people around you, the people that you’re able to
use as a touchstone, the people that you can call,” she says. “Your people are going to save your life.”

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of Backstage Magazine. To hear our full conversation with Stone, listen and subscribe to In the Envelope: The Actor's Podcast.


Photographed by Thea Traff. “Poor Things” Credit: Atsushi Nishijima