From writer/director Damien Chazelle, the musical La La Land is a beautiful love letter to Los Angeles about a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) who falls in love with a hopeful actress (Emma Stone). Over the course of their life-changing love affair, the two go on a song-and-dance journey that is both an ode to the glamour of classic cinema and a modern desire to fulfill one’s dreams.
During a roundtable at the film’s Los Angeles press day, actress Emma Stone talked about the fact that the singing and dancing wasn’t the most daunting aspect of the film for her, getting the tone right, the lengthy rehearsal period, the films she watched for research, her worst audition experiences, how she feels about where she’s at in her own career, and the film’s Oscar buzz.
Question: When you found out that you’d be dancing and singing in this, how hesitant were you?
EMMA STONE: I was doing Cabaret on Broadway, when I met (writer/director) Damien [Chazelle]. I was singing and dancing eight times a week, so that wasn’t the most daunting part to me. I think what was most daunting was the tone of the film and understanding how it was all going to come together. It’s one thing to hear about it or see it on the page, but it was such an ambitious endeavor, which I obviously don’t mind. I was doing Cabaret, and I had just finished Birdman. I’m not afraid of a big, ambitious endeavor, but I didn’t know how to play Mia, just because I didn’t know how to calibrate sitting at a dinner table, flying into space, and bursting into song. So, what we discussed was the tone and how to develop the character in a way that aged her up a bit because she was originally written a bit younger than I am, and same with Ryan [Gosling] and his character. We developed those a lot with Damien. So, it was less the singing and dancing because I knew the singing and dancing would be fun. I also knew, from the beginning, that Damien didn’t need us to be technically perfect. That left leeway to not have the greatest singing voice in the world, or to not be the greatest dancer that ever danced.
How tough was the choreography, especially for the Griffith Park dance?
STONE: We rehearsed that one the longest of anything else because that was near the end of shooting. Our rehearsal period was two and a half months, and then we had six weeks of shooting, so it was a really long rehearsal for that one dance number. But, it was fun. It was great to work with someone that I’ve worked with before. It’s much easier to learn to dance with someone that you know than a stranger that you’re ballroom dancing with.
Which dance scene took the longest and had the most takes?
STONE: The dream ballet, where I’m in the white dress, with the stars. That was like 43 takes, or something. That took a really long time.
Were you strapped into something for the Planetarium sequence?
STONE: Yeah, we had harnesses on. I believe that was the only scene in the movie that was blue screen, just because we flew up.
Did you watch anything for research?
STONE: I think we all watched a lot of Fred [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers] movies, but only to a point. I’m never going to be Ginger Rogers, in three months, so I tried not to put the pressure on myself too much to be that much like the great tap dancers, or just dancers, throughout history. But it was really inspiring and fun to watch movies like Singin’ in the Rain, Top Hat, or The Band Wagon.
Your character has some awful audition experiences. What’s your own worst?
STONE: My worst auditions are probably along the lines of what you see in the movie. I think it’s lucky, when you’re an auditioning actor, to be getting auditions and being rejected. As awful as that feels, and any actor who read that would probably be like, “Go fuck yourself!,” but really, it’s the points where you’re not getting auditions, or you’re feeling really ignored or left out, when it’s most brutal. That was the part in Mia that really got to me. After the one-woman show and that feeling of, “I need to pack it in because everyone things I’m a joke,” that’s always a part of you. Even between jobs for me, or when there’s a period of time where there’s something I really like to do, but no one else seems to think I should be doing that kind of thing, that’s something that just follows you, as a creative person, wondering what you’re doing. So, my “bad” audition stories don’t stand out, as much as that feeling.
Mia has one person who believed in her when she doubted herself. Is that something you can relate to? Has someone believed in your talent more than you?
STONE: At certain periods of my life, absolutely. The story of that casting director in the film is amazing because I had a casting director like that. Allison Jones is the casting director that gave me the chance to audition for Superbad. She had seen me for three years, for all different stuff, and kept calling me in. On a Saturday, she remembered me and said, “Just come in. I have a feeling. I’m just going to put you on tape for this thing.” And I was like, “Okay,” so I went in. And then, they ended up calling me back to read with Jonah [Hill], and that ended up being my first movie. I believe that’s what started the opportunities to do all of the things I’ve gotten to do since. So, it was really cool that, in the movie, there’s this casting director that does that for Mia. You go on these auditions thinking, “Oh, I’m being rejected,” but you meet these people, along the way, that do remember you and do give you another chance. You never know what even the bad situations will lead to, which I guess is true with anything in life. So, I did have someone like that.
Did you have any movies that really inspired you, growing up, to want to go to Hollywood and be an actor?
STONE: Not in the L.A. tribute way, other than L.A. Story, which is a great L.A. movie. City Lights is my favorite movie, and The Jerk, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Beetlejuice. I was mostly into comedies, growing up. That still will always be my favorite thing. I was talking to Molly Shannon the other day, and she’s been one of my heroes forever, and I was reading a lot about her because we had to interview each other, and she was talking about comedy and how rhythmic it is. Drama is this incredibly vulnerable thing, but with comedy, you have to have a sense of rhythm and be very sensitive to the pace of things, which she was saying is very musical. In some ways, comedy and something like a musical do go hand-in-hand. I also loved musicals growing up, but stage musicals, like Les Mis, Rent and Cabaret. Those were my two lanes, but weirdly they fit together.