From director Craig Gillespie, the live-action flick Cruella explores the early days of one of cinema’s most notorious villains, from her rebellious school years as Estella (Emma Stone) to that of the punk rock-inspired fashionista Cruella. Her flair for fashion catches the eye of the terrifying Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), who puts a series of events in motion in to preserve her own legendary fashion empire, which leads to surprising revelations and some wicked revenge.
During a virtual conference to promote the film, co-stars Stone and Thompson talked about getting to make a dark Disney movie, the process of creating the fabulous and nightmarish Baroness, the challenges of wearing the wardrobe, the 1970s setting, Estella versus Cruella, and whether the Baroness or Cruella would win in a fist fight.
Question: Were you surprised at how deliciously dark Disney allowed this movie to get?
EMMA STONE: I was. They really let Craig [Gillespie] and Tony [McNamara] write and make what they wanted to make. It’s definitely dark for a Disney movie. Maybe not for a really intense R-rated film, but it’s darker than I’ve seen a Disney movie be for a good long time.
The Baroness is new to this universe, and she is both fabulous and also a living nightmare. What was the process of creating her?
EMMA THOMPSON: Oh, well, I drew on life, obviously. I think if my husband were in the room, he’d say, “And no acting required, really.” I had such fun doing her. I’ve been asking for quite a number of years, if I could be a proper villain. I spent decades playing what my mother used to call, “Good women in frocks,” and now I got to play a really evil woman in frocks, but oh boy, the frocks. They actually wore me, is really what happened. I just had the best time. Every time Em and I would come on set, we’d just look at each other and walk around each other, like we were sculptures or works of art, which we were. In a way, everyone created the Baroness, and then I stepped in and just said the words.
What are the nuts and bolts of wearing these unbelievable creations? Were you able to sit at all during the production? Are you allowed to eat?
THOMPSON: No. My underwear was like a ship’s rigging. There were people hauling on ropes. It was a lot. Peeing was hard and involved a team of people. Also, the shoes were a real challenge. I don’t wear anything higher than a flip flop, in real life. And I had wigs as well. I was a great deal taller than I’m used to being. I had to move in and out of spaces sideways and generally had three Dalmatians at my feet. The underwear was a big ordeal, not for Emma Stone, obviously, because she’s slender as a lily and didn’t need to wear a corset.
STONE: They had such structure, like her Marie Antoinette look and that silver dress at the end. She had some very intense costuming.
THOMPSON: She’s little and slight. If you have flesh, then what they used to do in the olden days is you take the flesh and squeeze it in the middle. It moves up and down, like toothpaste in a tube. You can really make quite extreme shapes, and that’s really good fun. It’s not fantastically comfortable at the center of the toothpaste tube. Jenny Beavan and our wonderful tailors and designers had such a good time just pulling in the corset, tightly enough so that bits of me would squish out of the top of the costume. And then they’d push a bit back again, squish it back down, and then pull in again. You know that she’s not allowed to eat at the picnic because ladies aren’t allowed to have appetites. The Baroness only eats a little bit of cucumber here and there, and throws her rubbish out the window because she’s monstrous. That was one of the things I really enjoyed hating about her, was the fact that she didn’t eat. I don’t trust people who don’t eat. There, I’ve said it.
What was the craziest outfit that you wore as Cruella that totally put you into Cruella de Vil?
STONE: My very, very favorite outfit that was absolutely ludicrous was the dress that I wear on the garbage truck because there was a 40-foot train. That wasn’t attached to the dress because obviously I wouldn’t be able to move anywhere, so they added that onto the dress at the last minute, when I get onto the garbage truck to shoot that part. It was nothing you would ever be able to even remotely wear in real life. There was also that insane skirt, when I cover the car. That was epic too. Trying to walk up onto a car, and then cover an entire car with a switch of the skirt, was just fantastic. That’s the moment where you’re like, “I am in a movie right now.”
THOMPSON: Those moments were real. None of it is CGI. It was all real. She actually walked onto the car and pulled the material around, and she did it about a million times because it was hard. And then, the garbage truck, when it drove off, the material doing that amazing snakelike thing actually happened. I love that it wasn’t the CGI movie.
STONE: There’s quite a bit of the dogs that are CGI, but those dogs were always on set. They were in as many scenes as we could possibly have those dogs be comfortable in, which was amazing.
THOMPSON: They were great and they were very sweet. They have CGI-ed them to be a bit nasty because they were such sweet dogs. They were so nice and they worked so hard. They had little crosses. They were sent back to their marks, like little canine actors, and they would just go back and stand on their marks and wait, and then get a little treat.
STONE: Estella’s dog, Buddy, whose real name is Bobby, was the cutest and sweetest dog I’ve ever known in my life, and I’ve got a lot of dogs, so that’s saying something. I’ve been jealous of Wink since day one, and I’ll say it right here.
THOMPSON: I tried to get Wink fired. I told stories. I said he’d widdled on one of my costumes and nobody believed me. They just knew I was lying and that it was just a vicious attempt to get rid of this dog that was, frankly, upstaging me and getting in my light. The dog was an obstacle.
Which character do you prefer, between Estella and Cruella, and which was more of a challenge for you?
STONE: There is a rejection of Estella. Estella is sweet, but she’s not fully embodied. There is something about Cruella that’s pretty enticing, because she just is who she is. She’s in full acceptance and autonomy there, so I am interested in that Cruella world. She does some things that cross some lines I don’t think I would necessarily cross. To be honest, I prefer Cruella. It was so much fun to do.
How did you approach the Baroness’ relationship with Estella?
THOMPSON: She is hardened completely and believes in hardness. She thinks that’s the only way. I am very interested in the dark side of a female character because they’re so rarely allowed to be dark. We’re all supposed to be nice and good. But the Baroness is just so single-minded. She says, “If I hadn’t been single-minded, I might have had to put my genius at the back of the drawer,” like so many other women of genius who died without producing anything and without using their genius. I wouldn’t necessarily walk that path, but her commitment to her own creativity is rather admirable.
STONE: I don’t think I would ever be able to play a character, if I truly thought, “Oh, they’re just bad. They’re just a villain.” Do you think anybody evil walks through the world thinking they’re evil? I don’t think so. They think they’re right.
Was it harder to portray the accent and dialogue in the film, the emotional scenes, or the fashion with the attitude? What did you find the most challenging in creating Cruella?
STONE: The accent is always a little bit of a learning curve. Any time a character has a very important emotional scene that is incredibly poignant and moves the story along in a way that is necessary, I think that’s always a bit of pressure because you only have that one day and that one time to do it, which is the difference between theater and film. It doesn’t matter how tired you are or how you feel that day. If you are doing that scene, that’s what the scene will be. I think that always is a sleepless night, the night before, when I know there is a very pivotal moment that we’re shooting the next day. That’s probably the most challenging for me, but that’s also why I love it.
How do you get rid of any nerves?
STONE: They go as you’re doing it. The more present you can be, the more the nerves go. That’s why I wanted to be an actor, in general, because I’m naturally very anxious. I’ve found that I’m most present when I’m improvising or doing comedy or doing theater because you don’t have time to think about all the other things that you’re worried about. You have to just be in the moment. The more present you can be, the more the nerves are gone. That’s the great gift of acting, to me.
You’ve played difficult characters before, but the Baroness is especially mean. Did you get inspiration from anyone in particular? How hard was it to be mean to Emma Stone?
THOMPSON: We’re acting, so we’re not really being mean. There is nothing more fun than pretending. I found pretending to be mean came horribly easily. I was very well brought up by a very kind and wonderful woman, my mom, and my dad, a wonderful man. I was surrounded by lovely, kind people. My experience of people who are truly mean and that are truly hard and narcissistic is quite rare, but there are quite a number of them in show business – mentioning no names. We know [who they are], and some of those people have come to light recently. Awfulness in any profession or walk of life is always possible. And I suppose the Baroness is a mixture of all kinds of people. She’s quite venal, but her greed is really just for herself. It’s like she can’t bear anyone else who succeeds, in any way. She has to destroy all the competition, instead of thinking that the competition might bring her game up or might make her better. In fact, she appears and presents as this very strong personality, but of course, she’s very weak and contains the inevitable seeds of her own destruction because she can’t acknowledge talent in any other person. When she finally sees someone who’s not only talented, but actually more talented than her, and younger and more beautiful, she finds it very difficult indeed. And of course, I found it very difficult being with Stone, who’s more beautiful, young, talented, etc. [than me]. I swallowed my bitterness and dealt with it, mostly through drinking Negronis, one after the other, late into the night.
Growing up, were you a fan of 101 Dalmatians?
STONE: Yeah, I loved the cartoon of 101 Dalmatians. I especially loved that the dogs looked like their owners. I always thought that was so funny. And I remember, as a kid, trying to see if dogs did in fact look like their owners, and a lot of times, they do. I loved the cartoon. I thought Cruella was such a fun character. It wasn’t as straightforward as getting a call to play Cruella. It was six years ago. It was long before we shot the movie, when there was an idea. Disney has all this IP and all of these characters, and there are some brainstorms. It was a process of about four years and different writers and different things were brought to the table. It really felt like we might not ever really make the movie of Cruella because, even though she’s such a fun and interesting character, what world would we all want to explore with her that would really make sense and make a good film, that didn’t feel shoe-horned into this character. And I think taking her and putting her in the ‘70s, you’ve taken this character and created this whole new story for her with fun nods to 101 Dalmatians. Once Craig and Tony came on board, it really started to fly and get very exciting, and it was like, “Oh, my God, we’re making Cruella. It’s unbelievable.”
With the sets, what did you find most impressive and what most helped transport you back to 1970s England?
THOMPSON: It was like being a teenager again because I was born in 1959, for crying out loud. It was quite a long time ago. In the 1970s, I was in my early teens. For me, especially in the London streets, it was surreal because I had actually worn some of those clothes. I think some of the supporting artists were in my old gear. We were all in afghan coats, clogs, smocks, cheesecloth, maxi skirts, wet look boots, and all of that stuff. It was very touching, actually, because the red London buses look very different now. When I was a little girl, they were like that, and they looked exactly the same. It was the same bus number that brought me into town from where I lived, which is where I still live because I’m weird. It was the 159, which was a little hop on, hop off bus. So, when I saw the bus that Emma gets on when she jumps on from the store where she’s just been, it just was like being a teenager again and going into London to maybe buy myself a top, which would have cost maybe 50 P or something, because we’d only just gone decimal. Everything was quite brown. Brown was very popular.
STONE: Brown and avocado.
THOMPSON: Yeah, they loved a lot of different kinds of beige. So, yeah, it was an extraordinary experience and the designer, Fiona Crombie, is so brilliant.
In your opinion, what are Cruella’s weaknesses?
STONE: Oh, wow. Geez. Well, she’s human, so of course she has weaknesses. This is a movie about her strengths combating her weaknesses. It’s very nature versus nurture, this story. What she would find a weakness, early on, and her mother would find a weakness, is her ability to really hit the ceiling quickly with her volatility and her reactiveness, but that becomes her strength through her creativity and through her genius. It’s interesting. It really is a movie about how your weaknesses do become your strengths, in a way. Although this isn’t necessarily an aspirational character, so to speak, except for the fact that she’s really harnessing her creativity and who she is, in a very strong way. She’s learning to accept that who she is, in her nature, does win in the end. The original character of Cruella de Vil does get to some pretty dark places, and I wouldn’t necessarily call those a positive thing.
In a fist fight, who wins, the Baroness or Cruella?
THOMPSON: The Baroness, just because she’s heavier. If she just lies on top of Cruella, she’d manage to suffocate her. But she wouldn’t ever get the chance because Cruella is far too nippy on her feet. She’s like Luke Skywalker under the legs of that big walker in Empire Strikes Back, which is one of my favorite movies.
Cruella is in theaters and available to stream at Disney+ Premier Access on May 28th.