of a musical opened the Denver Film Festival, the 27-year-old actress — who left Scottsdale, Ariz., at a tender age to pursue acting — shared a different sort of audition tale.
“I had a casting director, Allison Jones, she called me in for a bunch of things in those three years between 15 and 18 when I was auditioning all the time. I’d go in to network for a series and not get it,” she recounted. Jones would call her in for something else she wouldn’t get.
“Then she called me on a Friday and asked me to come in on a Saturday when no one else was coming in. But she had a feeling about something. She put me on tape for ‘Superbad,’ which ended up being my first movie.” That was 2007. The ensuing highschool comedy “Easy A” (2010) became a breakthrough. Who can forget the hilarious “Pocketful of Sunshine” birthday card montage? Clearly a number of people couldn’t, because for a spell Stone got a lot of “Hey, aren’t you the Easy A girl?” comments, as Vanity Fair once noted.
In 2015, she was nominated for a best supporting Oscar for her role as Michael Keaton’s daughter in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” Last spring, she appeared on Broadway as the ex-pat singer Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” on Broadway. “Ms. Stone, in a scintillating Broadway debut, brings a heady whiff of the gin-soaked desperation of that decade to her portrayal of an ambitious, hard-partying and not very talented singer in Weimar Berlin,” wrote Ben Brantley in The New York Times.
The character Mia remains a special case. An early scene in “La La Land” finds her vivaciously tormenting a self-serious keyboardist at a summertime party. Stone is funny, to be sure. But in this tale, she’s also capable of delivering (with Golden Age luminosity) the wrecked expression of a woman whose beloved has just doubled-down on an unkind comment. Ryan Gosling stars opposite Stone as Sebastian, a young man with an old jazz man’s soul. His ambition: to open a jazz club. Although Mia and Sebastian make a couple for the ages, they meet anything but cute in the movie’s bravura opening. Mia’s sitting in her Prius, rehearsing lines for an audition. He’s popped a cassette of piano riffs into his vintage clunker’s tape deck. He honks. She flips him off. The land of the title is Los Angeles, of course, and a trademark traffic jam leads to an opening dance number, choreographed by Mandy Moore, that is vivid and surreal, yet your heart insists it could happen. You know, possible the way Gene Kelly slipped into song and dance in a downpour, possible the way a bunch of teenage toughs living on Manhattan’s west side began snapping their fingers and sliding across the summer pavement. The movie’s final minutes are just as extraordinary. This is the third time Stone and Gosling have played romantic counterparts. In “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” her character throws Gosling’s smooth Lothario for an emotional loop. In “Gangster Squad,” she plays the red-tressed moll of kingpin Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) to Gosling’s cynical and smitten copper. But the “La La Land” pairing is something out of a bygone era, yet thoroughly modern — which is what Chazelle hoped for. “She has this incredible Carole Lombard-, Katharine Hepburn-kind of comic, old-Hollywood quality to her acting that feels so fleet-footed and sparkling and charming. All of which you need to carry a musical,” said Chazelle. “But this was the kind of role that wound up being, I think, very personal for her, and was also a role that needed to — at a certain part of the movie — get darker.”
“La La Land” is Chazelle’s third feature. The leap in ambition and execution in each new film has been a little staggering. “He’s incredibly passionate and clear on what he wants but also very open to collaboration,” said Stone of her director, whose first film, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” had its start as his Harvard thesis film. His second feature was 2014’s indie hit “Whiplash.” The tale of an aspiring jazz drummer was nominated for five Oscars and won three, including one for actor J.K. Simmons. “He always knew what he was making,” Stone said. “He opened up to Ryan and me so much, allowing us to speak to him daily about shaping the characters. But it remained the same vision that he started with while still adapting to his actors and the people he’s working with. It’s so rare that that happens. You’re usually adapting to one person’s vision — you suck it up or the wheels can come off and it can turn into a bunch of voices. He’s a great captain of the ship.” “La La Land” has started to amass year-end critics group nods. It’s sure to vie for the best picture Oscar. (Nominations will be announced Jan. 24.)
Stone and Gosling’s casting has proven to be a kind of kismet. After all, in 2008, when Chazelle first began dreaming up his homage to Dream Factory musicals (as well as Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort”), he had a different pair in mind: Emma Watson and Miles Teller. The latter pounded the drums in “Whiplash” and can currently be seen battling back from a career-ending car wreck in the boxing drama “Bleed for This.” Yet Stone and Gosling are so de-lovely that it’s hard to imagine “La La Land” working with any other duo. “It’s sort of like ‘Jaws,’ ” I suggested to Chazelle. The oceanside thriller became famously suspenseful because the mechanical shark that Steven Spielberg was counting on never quite worked they way he hoped. “I love that analogy,” Chazelle replied, then turned to Stone. “Now I’ll always think of you and Ryan as the broken shark,” he said, and explained the reference. “Aww,, we’re the broken shark,” she said with a dawning, rather sly smile, followed by a big laugh. “How sweet. You’re my broken shark.”
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in “La La Land,” a musical that is seemingly out of a bygone Hollywood era.