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How 'Poor Things' actor Emma Stone turns her anxiety into a 'superpower'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. The Academy Awards are Sunday, and today we conclude our series of interviews with Oscar nominees. The film "Poor Things" has been nominated for 11 Oscars, including best picture, director, adapted screenplay, production design and actress and supporting actor. Today, we start with an interview with Emma Stone, who stars in the film. Terry spoke with her in January. Here's Terry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: My guest, Emma Stone, is nominated for an Oscar for her starring role in "Poor Things." She won an Oscar for her performance in the movie musical "La La Land," starring opposite Ryan Gosling, and was nominated for Oscars for her performances in "Birdman" and "The Favourite." She co-stars in the new streaming series "The Curse." She's been acting since she was 11 and was so determined to make acting a central part of her life, she convinced her parents to let her be homeschooled so she could devote more time to acting and then convinced them at the age of 15 to go to LA so she could go to auditions. Although she did not have a conventional high school experience, she first became known for two movies about high school kids, "Superbad" and "Easy A."

In addition to her nomination for "Poor Things," the film is also nominated for best picture, which means she is nominated for a second Oscar because she's a producer of the film. She plays Bella, a woman who has died by suicide, jumping off a bridge. She's brought back to life by a weird surgeon played by Willem Dafoe. Dafoe's experiment is reanimating Bella and giving her the brain of an infant. She's trained and taught over time by the surgeon's assistant, but she never quite grasps the rules of society. When she discovers her genitals and pleasures herself, she demonstrates this discovery to her trainer, and when her brain develops into a young adult brain, she leaves the surgeon and her mentor to go on an adventure while traveling with a man who has become obsessed with her, played by Mark Ruffalo. He claims to be a prosperous sophisticate who can't be tied down, but in Paris, when his money is gone, Bella decides to earn money by working in a brothel, where she can learn what other men are like sexually. In this scene, she's just left the brothel with some money after her first sexual encounter there. She meets up with Ruffalo, and he's in despair because he's now broke, and he's appalled when he learns what she's just done.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POOR THINGS")

EMMA STONE: (As Bella Baxter) I took his money, I thanked him, I laughed all the way to buy us these eclairs, and I thought so fondly, remembering the fierce, sweaty nights of ours.

MARK RUFFALO: (As Duncan Wedderburn) You [expletive] for money.

STONE: (As Bella Baxter) And as an experiment, which is good for our relationship, as it gladdens my heart toward you. My heart has been a bit dim on your weak and sweary person lately.

RUFFALO: (As Duncan Wedderburn) You are a monster, a whore and a monster, a demon sent from hell to rip my spirit to shreds to punish my tiny sins with a tsunami of destruction, to take my heart and pull it like toffee, to ruin me. I look at you, and I see nothing but ugliness.

STONE: (As Bella Baxter) That last bit was uncalled for and makes no sense, as your odes to my beauty have been boring but constant. And this simple act erased all that.

RUFFALO: (As Duncan Wedderburn) You whored yourself.

STONE: (As Bella Baxter) Which you are now going to explain to me is bad. Can I never win with you?

RUFFALO: (As Duncan Wedderburn) It is the worst thing a woman can do.

STONE: (As Bella Baxter) We should definitely never marry. I'm a flawed, experimenting person, and I will need a husband with a more forgiving disposition.

GROSS: Emma Stone, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love this movie and your performance in it. And the film - it's, like, really interesting and also really funny, which I hope people got a sense of from that clip. So, you know, the movie is in part what women's lives would be like if they weren't socialized to have shame about sexuality and if people weren't taught that it was impolite to talk about sex in public. And I'm wondering what it got you thinking about in terms of your life and how you were brought up about your body and sexuality and independence.

STONE: That's - well, thank you for having me, first of all.

GROSS: My pleasure. Yes.

STONE: This is lovely to get the chance to be here. I'm from Phoenix, Ariz., and I was born in 1988, so the majority of my childhood took place in the '90s. And I definitely didn't think the way that Bella does. I didn't have that sort of freedom and acceptance in the same way around sexuality. But as time has gone on, I think that it's been very illuminating to me. I mean, one of the conversations that I've talked a lot about, having worked with quite a few European people or people that were raised in cultures where nudity and sexuality is not as shame-filled, I guess, it's been very interesting, you know, and also talking to Yorgos, who's Greek, our director, it always kind of startles him how much violence is acceptable in sort of American media, but sexuality is, you know, really looked down upon, like, as if watching someone die on screen is less challenging than watching someone experience pleasure. Yeah, it's definitely expanded my mind more as I've gotten older too, and sort of broken out of, you know, religion and things like that that I was exposed to at a younger age.

GROSS: So it sounds like making "Poor Things" was a great antidote to the kind of religious constrictions and guilt that you felt growing up 'cause your character is so uninhibited, 'cause no one has ever told her what she's supposed to be inhibited about, which leads me to the sexual scenes. I mean, because your character is sexually uninhibited, you had to be uninhibited portraying her, and you were offered an intimacy coordinator. And at first you rejected the idea and didn't think you needed it 'cause you knew the director so well. But then you reconsidered and had an intimacy coordinator. How was it helpful?

STONE: Beyond useful. Well, first of all, I don't think having an intimacy coordinator is even a choice anymore. I think in the past five years, the industry has changed a lot for the better. And, you know, I did think, OK, well, Yorgos and I have made three films together. I feel very comfortable with him. The DP, Robbie Ryan, and I, we did "The Favourite" together, feel comfortable with him. Our first AD is a woman, Hayley, who's incredible. Our focus puller is a woman. You know, I felt like I'll be fine in this circumstance. And these are my friends, and I know everybody well. But when Elle McAlpine came in, our intimacy coordinator, I could not - I felt so stupid that I thought that that wouldn't be a necessary situation because she was so - having her there felt like having both a safety net and a choreographer and a hand to hold. And, you know, she and I would, would text after a day of doing some of these scenes and just sort of say how we were feeling and what was going on. And it was just this really beautiful relationship that I found extremely, extremely meaningful.

GROSS: What do you think she protected you from?

STONE: I don't think it was protection from any of the experiences that I was having on set. I think it was almost like an emotional protection. It was like a - you know, a safe place and someone who really has not only done this as a job for a long time, but who has studied what psychologically happens to your body when you're in these circumstances. Like, I remember reading something once, that an actor on stage doing a very, you know, dramatic scene and having meltdowns and doing monologues for 90 minutes a night just in theater - your body feels like the - it's the equivalent of going through something like a car crash because your heart is racing. You're having these, like, big physical reactions to these emotions that you're kind of asking yourself to go through. And I think even when you know you're acting, when you know none of this is real - there's no real sex happening; this is all choreographed; everyone here is a very safe place - you sometimes underestimate what your body is going through separately. And so I didn't even really give credence to that before I had been through this experience, and Elle and I being able to kind of talk about that, washing the day away, taking a shower at the end of the day and sort of releasing that for my own body was extremely helpful.

GROSS: My guest is Emma Stone. She's nominated for two Oscars for producing and starring in the new film "Poor Things." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERSKIN FENDRIX'S "LONDON")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Emma Stone. She's nominated for two Oscars for the film "Poor Things" - one for her starring role in the film and one for producing the film. She plays Bella, an adult woman who died by suicide and is brought back to life but with the implanted brain of a child.

So Bella, your character doesn't understand emotions like jealousy and anxiety. You suffered from anxiety and panic attacks as a child, starting, I think, at age 7. Can you describe what a panic attack feels like physically and emotionally when you're 7 years old?

STONE: Yeah. For me - I mean, people have different experiences of panic attacks. I know a lot of people feel like they're dying or that the walls are closing in on them. And I certainly have had those types of panic attacks. I've had probably hundreds throughout my life. So my very first one, when I was 7 - I was at a friend's house, and all of a sudden I was just sitting in her room, and I had this deep knowing that the house was on fire. I believed the house was on fire, despite all evidence to the contrary. And I - my chest just started tightening, and I was like, we have to get out of the house. The house is burning down. The house is burning down.

And I ended up calling my mom, who didn't understand what was going on and confirmed there wasn't a fire but came to pick me up. And then it just - it kept going. I just kept having panic attacks relatively frequently. And I started in therapy, I think, around age 8 because it was getting really hard for me to leave the house to go to school. I sort of lived in fear of these panic attacks.

GROSS: What were you afraid of about going to school?

STONE: I think just - I had massive separation anxiety from my mom. That was a large part, I think, of what was setting off my anxiety. I, for some reason, had convinced myself that if I wasn't watching out for her, that something terrible could happen to her. So anxiety as the interesting beast that it is, it's - it feels like intuition, even though it's irrational. And it's a hard age to be able to sort of reason with yourself at 7 or 8 and tell yourself these things aren't true. So it was very hard to convince myself otherwise. So going to school meant that I would have to be away from her for hours in the day. And if I couldn't keep an eye on her, what could happen? - as if I was the parent and she was the child.

GROSS: No. Exactly. Like, what were you going to do, exactly, to help her when you were 7?

STONE: No idea. No idea. But that's that, you know, strange thing that happens with kids when, you know, you sort of - it's irrational. These things are irrational. It's just this - you're convinced of certain things with anxiety. And it's a tough one to unpack until you have sort of the tools to do it or the understanding of it through therapy, which - I was so grateful that, you know - I didn't want to go to therapy. But I found it really, really life changing.

GROSS: Therapy is a very private experience, so I don't want you to share things - I'm not asking you to share things that are too private to be shared, but if there are any, like, tools or approaches that you were taught in therapy that you felt like sharing, I'd love to hear it. And they might be helpful to others to hear.

STONE: Yeah. So as a kid, I mean, one of the things that my - the child psychologist had me do was - you know, there's a lot of drawing pictures and playing games and things like that when you're that age in therapy. And one of the things that I did, which is really fun because my mom still has it - when I was 9, I wrote a little book in therapy called "I Am Bigger Than My Anxiety." And it was, you know, a bunch of drawings that - I've never been an artist in that respect. So they're very, like, crude drawings. But the idea was externalizing the anxiety as this little green monster that lives on your shoulder. And the more you listen to this, the bigger this monster grows, the more power it has. But as you feel the fear and kind of do it anyway and continue to push through, the monster kind of shrinks and shrinks and shrinks. And I think that externalization, that making it that it's not you - it's a part of you, but it's not you - was very helpful.

GROSS: Where does acting fit into this? Like, when you are acting - when you started acting as a kid - you were 11, I think, when you started performing - do you feel like you were escaping yourself and therefore out of your anxiety and escaping your body 'cause your body became controlled by the character?

STONE: No. If anything, the opposite. I felt like I - and I've understood it more over the years because I think - I've heard a lot of actors talk about - and maybe that's because they're doing these big, dramatic, kind of cathartic roles. And I'm drawn much more to comedy, or now, dark comedy. I felt like every reaction in my body is permitted. All of my big feelings are productive. And presence is required, so it's like a meditation because anxiety lives solely in the past or the future - you know, either future tripping or past tripping - you know, things you can't control on either side. And acting requires you to be so present, to listen, to be looking at the other person, to be living in the experience and living in your body. And that was the huge gift of it to me and remains the huge gift of it to me to this day.

GROSS: But that's the thing. Because it's, like, your job...

STONE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...It gives you permission. It makes it obligatory to be in the moment.

STONE: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: It's like, you can't say, well, I can't control it 'cause I'm worried about the past. It's like, your job is to focus on now.

STONE: Exactly.

GROSS: So you've got a pass.

STONE: What a gift. Exactly. It's a productive use of it. And I - you know, I've told a lot of younger people that struggle with anxiety that in many ways I see it as kind of a superpower because I think that you - you know, you have a lot of big feelings if you're anxious. You have a certain level - and I say this to kids. I don't mean this about myself 'cause I'm a dodo with anxiety, but I do think that it requires a certain level of intelligence about the world, you know, 'cause who looks at the state of the world and really is taking it in and really feels a lot of empathy and no anxiety comes with that?

And so just because we might have a funny thing going on in our amygdala, you know, and our fight-or-flight response is maybe a little bit out of whack in comparison to many people's, you know, brain chemistry, it doesn't make it wrong. It doesn't make it bad. It just means we have these tools to manage. And if you can use it for productive things, you know, if you can use all of those feelings and those synapses that are firing for something creative or something that you're passionate about or something interesting, anxiety is like rocket fuel 'cause you can't help but get out of bed and do things, do things, do things because...

GROSS: Right.

STONE: ...You've got all of this energy within you. And that's really a gift.

GROSS: So you lobbied your parents when you were - what? - 11 or 12, to pressure them to homeschool you so you could focus on acting, and you prepared a presentation for - can you tell us what was in the presentation?

STONE: So the first one was just about how homeschooling can be really beneficial and could be really helpful. And, you know, this was year 2000. And so there was kind of a - you know, a beginning of internet being available for schooling. And I was doing play after play after play at this place called Valley Youth Theatre, which - I was just obsessed. And it was something I wanted to focus kind of all my time and energy on. And then the second presentation, when I was 15, was a PowerPoint to move to LA for pilot season, to try to be an actor professionally.

GROSS: They bought the idea.

STONE: They did, which is also crazy, crazy stuff.

GROSS: Your parents sound like really cool people.

STONE: They are. I mean, I - yeah, I know that none of this, obviously, would be possible without their support, especially at that age. I mean, it wasn't like I had graduated high school, and I said, OK, bye, I'm taking a plane or taking a bus or driving myself out to LA to try to do this. It was impossible without their support. So I was extremely, extremely lucky to have the opportunity to do that.

GROSS: I'm thinking your gut gave you really true and really false information.

STONE: Terry, the story of my life. I mean, you got to - this is what I talk about in therapy on a weekly basis.

GROSS: Well, 'cause it gave you really false information about the house burning down and all...

STONE: Right.

GROSS: ...The panic attacks about things that weren't really happening. And it gave you true information that your calling was to act and you should go audition.

STONE: I know. It's a really - it's interesting because over the years, it's - I've been trying to understand that if it feels like my heart is racing and there's a fire inside of me, that might be false information. If it feels calm and like a knowing and like a warmth, that might be true information. But they both come out of the same place - That feeling right in the middle, you know, just below your breastbone, right in the top of your stomach, like, the same place that when you go down a roller coaster, your stomach drops.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, yeah.

STONE: You know, it feels like intuition and anxiety both come from that same spot, so it's a tough one to work out.

GROSS: What do you feel right before a shoot or right before walking on stage? And I'm thinking of "Cabaret." You were in the Broadway revival of "Cabaret"...

STONE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In the role that Liza Minnelli made famous in the movie. So, like, right before you step on stage, are you feeling anxious or like I'm about to go to my safe place?

STONE: A combination, but that's actually my sort of sweet spot because I'm not trying to kill off the fears, and I'm not trying to just feel all confidence all the time or like I'm in a safe place. I think my favorite feeling is a combination of both high stakes and low stakes, and that's what acting does for me. The high stakes is that you're either in front of an audience or you're - you know, this is being committed to film and will eventually last forever. But the low stakes is that you're acting, you're storytelling. Nobody's going to die, and you're not saving any lives. You know, they're not on the operating table. So that feeling of, you know, fear mixed with joy is - that's my favorite combination.

GROSS: Emma Stone, it's been so great to talk with you. Thank you so much, and good luck at the Oscars.

STONE: Thank you so much for having me.

BIANCULLI: Emma Stone is nominated for an Oscar for her starring role in the film "Poor Things." She spoke with Terry Gross in January. After a break, we hear from actor Mark Ruffalo, who's been nominated for best supporting actor in the same movie. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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