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

Emma Stone has been nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Bella in <em>Poor Things.</em>
Atsushi Nishijima
Searchlight Pictures
Emma Stone has been nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Bella in Poor Things.

Poor Things actor Emma Stone was 7 years old when she experienced her first panic attack: "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 ... despite all evidence to the contrary," she says.

Stone remembers her chest start to tighten. She phoned her mother, who didn't understand what was happening, but came to pick her up anyway. Stone says her fear eventually subsided that day, but the anxiety persisted.

"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," she says. "I sort of lived in fear of these panic attacks."

Despite her anxiety — or maybe because of it — she began acting when she was 11; by age 15, she had convinced her parents to move to from Arizona to Los Angeles so she could go on auditions. Stone found that acting was a way to remain in the present moment, without worrying about the past or the future. Plus, she adds, as an actor, "all of my big feelings are productive, and presence is required."

In Poor Things, which Stone both stars in and produced, she plays Bella, a woman who has died by suicide and then is brought back to life by a strange surgeon. The newly configured Bella has the brain of an infant and the body of a grown woman. When her brain develops into a young adult brain, Bella leaves the surgeon and her mentor to go on an adventure with a man who has become obsessed with her.

Stone won the Academy Award in 2017 for her performance in the movie musical La La Land, and was nominated for Oscars for her performances in Birdmanand The Favourite. She has been nominated again this year for her starring role in Poor Things. Stone also costars in the new streaming series The Curse.

Interview highlights

On working with intimacy coordinator Elle McAlpine for Poor Things, which has many sex scenes

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. ... Having her there felt like having both a safety net and a choreographer and a handhold. She and I 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. ...

Director Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone on the set of <em>Poor Things.</em>
Atsush Nishijima / Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Director Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone on the set of Poor Things.

I remember reading something once, that an actor on stage doing a very dramatic scene, and having meltdowns and doing monologues for 90 minutes a night just in theater, your body feels like it's the equivalent of going through something like a car crash, because your heart is racing, you're having these 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 ... you sometimes underestimate what your body is going through separately.

On the source of her anxiety as a kid

I had massive separation anxiety from my mom. That was a large part, I think, of what was setting off my anxiety. For some reason, I convinced myself that if I wasn't watching out for her, that something terrible could happen to her. So anxiety, the interesting beast that it is, it feels like intuition, even though it's irrational. And it's a hard age to be able to reason with yourself, at 7 or 8, and tell yourself these things aren't true. ... 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. 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.

On seeing anxiety as a creative superpower

Just because we might have a funny thing going on in our amygdala, and our fight-or-flight response is maybe a little bit out of whack in comparison to many people's brain chemistry, it doesn't make it wrong. It doesn't make it bad.

I've told a lot of younger people that struggle with anxiety, that in many ways I see it as kind of a superpower. ... Just because we might have a funny thing going on in our amygdala, and our fight-or-flight response is maybe a little bit out of whack in comparison to many people's 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, if you can use all of those feelings in those synapses that are firing for something creative, or something that you're passionate about, or something interesting, anxiety is like rocket fuel because you can't help but get out of bed and do things, do things, do things because you've got all of this energy within you. And that's really a gift.

On her parents supporting her when she wanted to pursue acting

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. My dad started his own company in his 20s and was very much an entrepreneur and a guy that takes the bull by the horns. And my mom's father, my grandfather, died when she was 22, very suddenly of a heart attack. And so her mentality had kind of always been, "Life is very short. We don't know what happens tomorrow. So when we have this deep knowing about something, let's do it." So I think the combination of those personalities and ... the fact that we were financially able to do something like that, because that's nothing to glaze over. I think that's obviously hugely important that they were able to do that — and, I know, an uncommon thing. So I was extremely, extremely lucky to have the opportunity to do that.

On getting her big break in Superbad

I give [casting director] Allison Jones pretty much credit for all of this. I got to audition for her multiple times ... when I first moved to LA. ... And I'd gone in for her quite a few times, and she ended up calling me and asking me if I could come in on a Saturday to put myself on tape for this movie, Superbad, because she just had this feeling that I might be right for this role, having seen me do these other auditions for things that didn't work out. And so I did. ...

It can feel like such a sort of meaningless venture to put all your self into these auditions and then not get it, and not get it again, and not get it again. But then something like that happens and you're reminded, "Oh, that all amounted to something."

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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