“Sorry I look like a hooker,” deadpans Emma Stone, her lips a shade of candy apple red, as she rushes into the bar at the Sunset Tower hotel.
She’s wearing the bright lipstick, she explains, because she has just come from taping an interview with Jay Leno, the umpteenth late-night appearance the 22-year-old actress had booked in recent weeks to promote the three films she is in this summer: “Friends With Benefits,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “The Help,” which arrives in theaters Wednesday.
“My brain feels like liquid mush,” she sighs, collapsing into a corner booth and promptly ordering a glass of white wine. She has barely taken a sip before the hotel’s famous Eastern European maitre d’, Dimitri Dimitrov, notices a starlet in his midst and rushes over to greet her.
“You are eh-vuh-ree-where,” he gushes.
Indeed. In addition to working the talk show circuit, Stone’s freckled face has been virtually inescapable lately — on glossy magazine covers, billboards, and, of course, the big screen. Her three summer films have opened within a span of three weeks, and she’s already promoting “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the upcoming reboot of the big-budget comic book franchise (in which she’ll play Gwen Stacy, the first love of Peter Parker), even though that film isn’t being released until next July.
It’s been a swift rise for Stone from anonymous Arizona teen to Hollywood “It” girl, propelled by her easygoing style, somewhat tomboyish beauty and comedic chops. Amid a wave of celebrity, she is attempting to transition from the funny girl-next-door in lower-budget movies to an actress of greater range and substance in higher-profile films, and she seems determined to hold her fame at arm’s length.
“I haven’t really given myself time or space to examine all of this because I don’t think it’s a good idea to,” she says. “You have to hold it lightly. You have to be like, ‘This is gonna go away.’ Because it will. After these movies come out, these questions will stop, and I’ll be like, ‘What happened?’”
Stone’s almost-too-good-to-be-true Hollywood story begins with the oft-repeated tale of how she put together a PowerPoint presentation for her parents to persuade them to let her move to Los Angeles to pursue acting. She and her mother moved into the Park La Brea apartments; Stone began auditioning and working a day job at the dog bakery in the Farmer’s Market at the Grove.
Her first film role came as Jonah Hill’s hook-up buddy in 2007’s “Superbad”; the following summer she was one of a slew of geeky sorority girls in “The House Bunny.” She had a memorable turn opposite Jeff Daniels in “Paper Man,” a quirky independent film selected to open the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival — but the movie barely got a theatrical release, grossing a paltry $13,514 at the box office.
But her true breakout came last year with “Easy A,” a high school comedy in which she played a brassy teenager who mistakenly gains a reputation for sleeping around. The role earned her a Golden Globe nomination, put her on the public’s radar, and attracted the notice of big-name directors like “Spider-Man’s” Marc Webb.
When Webb screen-tested Stone for the superhero film, “she had been known for a lot more whimsical comedic stuff,” he acknowledges.
“And there’s certainly a lot of that at play in ‘Spider-Man,’ but there’s also a lot of real in-depth emotional material to handle. But early on, when we were doing hair and makeup tests, there was just a gut feeling I got about her. It was easy to tell that things were going to work out because she’s fearless.”
Stone shows off her gusto in “The Help,” an adaptation of the bestselling novel about race relations and civil rights in 1960s Jackson, Miss. In the film, Stone plays a young college graduate who befriends a group of African American maids and writes a page-turner about the injustices they face. It’s the first major dramatic role the actress has taken on and the one she says affected her most personally.
“I’m from Arizona — there was no in-depth conversation in my life about the civil rights movement,” says the actress, who completed the majority of her high school courses via online correspondence after moving to L.A. “Now I feel more open to those kinds of discussions. Friends I have will say closed-minded stuff about things having to do with race that they haven’t really examined. And I’m like, ‘Maybe I would have thought that way before I actually knew the history.’ It really changes your perspective.”
The movie also shifted her approach to her career.
“It made me feel like I don’t need to be afraid anymore — afraid of relying on a joke,” she admits. “My whole life, that’s been the way I relate to people. ‘Oh, let’s hope I can make them laugh at some point, otherwise — I don’t know.’ I was always the ham. There’s been an element of playing to my strengths. This was exciting, because it made me feel like I could be part of something that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable doing before.”
Daniels, her “Paper Man” costar, said he recognized Stone’s potential to do more than comedy on the set of that film.
She’s “letting it fly in front of the camera and trusting that she’ll end up somewhere good,” says the actor via email. “I think the fact that she’s able to be so moment-to-moment this early in her career bodes well for her being around a long time.”
Stone recognizes, though, that it takes more than talent to guarantee longevity in this town. So at the recent premiere of “Crazy, Stupid, Love” last month, she spent an hour talking to her 50-year-old costar Julianne Moore, a four-time Oscar nominee, about how she should navigate her career.
“I was asking her about how to make choices. Like, ‘What do you do when people tell you that you should be thinking one way, but you’re inherently thinking another way?’” she says. “Those are the kind of people that I like talking to. And if you have the opportunity to — why not? What are they gonna say, ‘You’re such an idiot, asking me how I turned out so great?’”
Meanwhile, Chris Columbus, who produced “The Help” and has worked with a number of young actors, including Macaulay Culkin and the stars of the “Harry Potter” franchise, has been busy offering Stone some advice of his own.
“The thing is, she’s not just the ‘It'-girl. She’s a great actress who just happens to be in a slew of movies that are all coming out around the same time,” the filmmaker says. “And while she’s an amazing actress who I think will work for the next 40 years, I’ve been telling her over the last few months that I think she’d make a great director. Because she’s so bright that it’s a little scary, and she has a great ability to read people. Every time I talk to her, it seems like she’s twice as old as she is.”
Stone’s first real grown-up move came two years ago, when she bought a place in New York and moved out of L.A. for a change of pace. Lately, though, she’s been trying to spend more time in Hollywood because she has been missing her closest friends, most of whom live here.
“I’ve realized that home is where the people you love are. My dad has been pounding that into my head — his biggest thing is, ‘I’m 51, and I miss my friends.’ … So he is obsessed with me staying in touch with my friends and keeping perspective,” says the actress, who will soon be spending a few months in town while shooting “The Gangster Squad,” a period crime drama that will re-team her with “Crazy, Stupid, Love” costar Ryan Gosling and a slew of other A-listers.
Still, it’s unclear how much Stone has allowed herself to bask in her recent successes, since she seems so convinced that her fame is ephemeral.
“This is so wonderful, but if this goes away — and it will, I really believe that. It’s not fatalistic,” she says, beginning to realize she’s returning again to the theme. “I guess there is that fleeting element that I have. I think I’m the kind of person that would get pregnant and wouldn’t decorate the room for the sex of the baby until the baby was born. I’m that kind of person. Until it happens — unless it’s true — I’m not going to commit to it.”