Those eyes. That voice. That bruise.
“Yeah, I gave myself a black eye last night,” Emma Stone says with a laugh. “During the ‘Mein Herr’ number, I whipped off my leather jacket and hit myself with the belt buckle. Nice, huh?”
Nice indeed. At 26, the husky-voiced actor is thriving in a way that the two wounded women who’ve brought her to a career peak are not: the gin-soaked and divinely decadent Sally Bowles of the Broadway revival of “Cabaret” and Sam, the tightly wound, embittered daughter in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s film “Birdman.” The latter role has surrounded Stone with Oscar buzz after her recent Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations.
Sitting in a noisy Midtown Manhattan diner, Stone points to a swelling near her left eye that in no way detracts from the saucer-eyed beauty of the would-be wanton of “Easy A” and girlfriend Gwen Stacy in the “Spider-Man” franchise.
Her irrational, self-endangering exuberance as Sally in “Cabaret” has earned her nearly across-the-board raves and boosted the box office to SRO, hot-ticket status. Stepping into the role vacated by Michelle Williams at Studio 54’s Kit Kat Club, Stone brings a mix of bravado, seductive charm and vulnerability to the Rob Marshall-Sam Mendes revival of the musical classic that takes place in 1930s Berlin.
“Ms. Stone’s version has the avid eyes and angularity of early vintage Joan Crawford and a dance-till-you-drop energy that’s all drive and no gears,” Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times in a review that called Stone’s Broadway debut “scintillating” and her Sally “wild, fierce and heartbreaking.”
Coming on the heels of the hoopla attending her performance in “Birdman,” Stone finds herself on this winter afternoon balancing giddiness with a grounded appreciation for what she calls the “ups and downs” of the business. It is not lost on her that those extremes are astringently placed in relief in both “Cabaret” and “Birdman.”
In the former, Sally’s lover Cliff tries to pierce her delusions that she is anything other than a second-rate chanteuse doomed to sleep her way into gigs; in the latter, Stone’s Sam rips into her neglectful father, Riggan, a onetime film superhero trying to regain the admiration and respect of the public through a Broadway comeback.
“You’re scared to death like the rest of us that you don’t matter,” Sam says with a serpent’s tooth. “You don’t. You’re not important. It’s not important. Get used to it.”
“I think ‘Birdman’ and ‘Cabaret’ are cautionary tales for an actor as much as they are for anybody in getting caught up in the perception of yourself,” says Stone. “What people think of you becoming the god you serve, wanting that validation.”
The actress pauses thoughtfully before adding: “This year has been mind-boggling. Exciting and then … ‘Omigod!’ And yet, a year ago or two years ago, I remember sitting on the couch crying about something — not surprising, I cry all the time ... projects that weren’t going to happen or projects someone else was chosen for. That perspective never goes away. This will be just another period in my life that will ebb and flow, and the ups and downs are so clear to me.”
Stone’s attitude is reinforced by, as she says, having little control over the public’s perception of her. Through the particular filter of this encounter, she is as poised, funny and self-deprecating as she is on talk shows and “Saturday Night Live,” a totem of her youth she has hosted several times. She is dressed demurely in a soft gray sweater over a white-and-gray blouse with a Peter Pan collar — worlds away from her scantily dressed alter-ego of “Cabaret,” with the punishing leather belt buckle.
Yet there is a great deal bubbling underneath in Stone. It is not hard to imagine the little girl with crippling anxiety she admits having once been, well put to use in her Sally, or to the reserves of anger she so ably tapped for Sam.
“Emma’s work is suffused with an ability to contain competing emotions or sets of circumstances in performance … in the way that people often do in life,” director Cameron Crowe wrote in Interview. Crowe directed Stone in an untitled film in which she plays a fighter pilot opposite Bradley Cooper.
Indeed, that emotional polarity is what film critic Betsy Sharkey, writing in the Los Angeles Times, described as the “maelstrom” of Stone’s performance in “Birdman”: “As Riggan’s barely post-rehab daughter Sam, the actress walks that knife’s edge between imploding and exploding with demanding saucer-sized eyes that dwarf Gollum’s.”
Joe Masteroff, who wrote “Cabaret” with songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb, notes that Stone’s Sally is a standout among the dozens of actresses who’ve played her, from Judi Dench to Liza Minnelli to Natasha Richardson.
“Sometimes, actresses play Sally as too much of a lady, but the truth is, she knows what she wants and she goes after it,” says the writer, “whether it’s yelling at her boss, moving in on Cliff or having her abortion. Sally may be crazy, but she knows her mind.”
Stone too has always known her own mind. How else to explain the teenager who lobbied her parents with a PowerPoint presentation so she could move to Los Angeles from her hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz., to pursue an acting career? By that time, she was already being home-schooled so she could devote herself to acting onstage in productions at the local Valley Youth Theatre, an ambition inspired years earlier when her mother, Krista, took the then-9-year-old to see Richardson in “Cabaret” on Broadway. It was a life-changing experience.
“I can only recall how Natasha made me feel,” Stone says of her “untarnished, nonjudgmental” encounter with the character she’d later play. “I could feel Natasha’s heart. I’m not sure I could even comprehend the specifics of the story, only that she didn’t feel like a victim to me. I didn’t pity her. I admired her bravery.”
That experience held Stone in good stead as she plunged, at age 16, into making the rounds in Hollywood, accompanied by her mother, whom she describes as her best friend. One advantage she had in landing guest appearances on television — under the name of “Riley Stone” — was that she’d spent years performing with Valley Youth’s improv comedy troupe. “I think improv was one way of dealing with some pretty intense anxiety,” she recalls, “but it also helped me to be in the present, to loosen up.”
Since making her feature film debut in 2007 in “Superbad,” Stone has worked virtually nonstop in nearly 20 movies, earning plaudits in such films as “Easy A,” “The House Bunny” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” and as the sympathetic society girl-turned-journalist in “The Help.” She has also enjoyed the actor’s rite of passage of working with Woody Allen; in “Magic in the Moonlight,” she plays a young woman of paranormal powers, something Stone does not dismiss as part of her own personality. “I can be very woo-woo, very interested in cosmic things,” she says with a laugh.
What she’s not “woo-woo” about is the encroachment on privacy in the age of invasive social media. It has become more acute since 2011, when she started dating Andrew Garfield, her costar in “The Amazing Spider-Man” series. And gained even more purchase with the recent hacking of emails of Sony Pictures Entertainment, for which she made “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel as well as the Crowe movie. She chose not to directly address those hackings, but she did speak to the topic in general.
“It’s pretty horrendous out there; it’s a scary, disconcerting place,” she says of the rampant hacking and the damage it is inflicting. “It’s horrifying, but if someone is going to go to that illegal extent to do something so awful to other human beings, there is not much you can do about it except to keep private those things you consider most sacred. There’s a value to that.”
However, Stone did let her guard down to speak openly about family matters when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer; she joined in the fight by becoming one of the faces of Revlon and its “Stand Up to Cancer” campaign. She’s happy to report that her mother is doing well. To celebrate Krista Stone’s fourth year as a survivor, the members of her family all got tattoos in a show of solidarity.
Stone rolls up her blouse to show a pair of blackbird feet tattooed on her left wrist. The tattoo was designed by Paul McCartney at her request, since his “Blackbird” is her mother’s favorite song. “My mom has hers on her right arm, my brother Spencer has his on his right arm, and my dad on his left.”
A lyric of the song, adds Stone, seems so appropriate. Not only for what her family has had to endure but also for Sally Bowles and Sam, whose wounds and bewilderments she has explored — and forgiven.
“Take these broken wings and learn to fly.”