One of the youngest thespians to win a Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy Globe, Emma Stone was only 28, when she earned the coveted award for Damien Chazelle’s romantic musical, La La Land, for which she also won the Academy Award.
In The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ smart, vastly entertaining period piece, Stone plays Abigail, the penniless cousin of Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who begins as a chambermaid but soon climbs to the upper echelons at the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). She is at the center of a satirical whirlpool of manipulations and emotions that may come to define the concept of “royal intrigue.”
Stone fully inhabits Abigail, latching onto the role full bore, without restraint. She is the lightning rod who sets the story in motion, transforming from stranger to dangerous political and romantic operative. That’s a high-wire challenge for any actor, and to do that with a British accent adds another important dimension.
Stone was intrigued by Lanthimos’ bold conception of a tale that’s endlessly shifting tones. She singles out his refusal to adhere to strict labels: “The idea of who is a villain or a victim is one that changes and moves from one character to another. This way you feel for what they each do, and you aren't able to make absolute judgments on their characters even if they do horrible things to each other.”
Stone is as fearless an actor as her character. Her entrance is particularly memorable: Abigail tumbles from her carriage into the stinking mud outside the Palace, arriving comically disheveled. However, intelligent and manipulative, she begins to skew the balance of power within. Throwing herself upon Sarah’s mercy, she takes a job as a scullery maid but soon ingratiates her way into the Queen’s heart – and bedroom. It should be noted that the love scenes and frontal nudity are subtle, non-graphic, and in line with the storyline.
Stone, in her first movie with Lanthimos, says that her characterization is based on a series of contrasts: “Abigail is defined by shrewd pragmatism and yet endless capacity for charm, a result of a hard-knock life.” Unlike Lady Sarah (Weisz), who has always dominated the fragile Queen, Abigail soothes her, and in the process, proves how a servant could quickly become a student that overtakes the master in the balance of power.
For her part Stone discovers new layers of her richly drawn character – and new sides to her evolving screen persona, that neither she nor the director knew existed in her. Says Lanthimos: “I’ve always respected Emma a lot, and as soon as I met her I saw that she was very smart, that she likes to dive into unexpected things. It was just amazing to see her work. I knew she could do this, but I don’t think she has had the opportunity to ever do something like this before.
Stone added that “It was the way Abigail uses and then breaks all the rules of social mobility that most intrigued me. “I love how Abigail unfolds. She has a great amount of confidence and she is a real survivor. She is always listening and paying attention and using what she learns.”
Stone was strongly drawn to the other women: “There are three really beautifully crafted females at the center of this story, which is rare in film scripts. The way they are each so flawed, so hilarious and so very complicated, I love that. It’s just reflective of real life.” For Stone, the reason Abigail is able to win the wary Queen’s trust is that she senses her need to be loved for who she is, rather than for her royal stature. “Anne’s a pretty tragic character, but I don’t see her as pathetic because she clearly has power in her that comes out when she’s pushed up against a wall,” says Stone. “She is permanently heartbroken and she’s so physically debilitated that it breaks your heart, and it breaks Abigail’s heart.”
The role was also physically challenging for Stone. “I had to learn to curtsy, to shoot an 18th Century gun and ride a horse,” she says, “then there was the royal protocol, in the Palace, everything is so formal and presentational. That was fascinating to learn. Abigail has to back out of the room because you don’t turn your back on the Queen.”
Stone found the collaboration with Lanthimos rewarding on a daily basis: “Yorgos is not a brooding, unapproachable auteur. He’s an incredibly kind man. He’s not scary, he just has unique ideas and you just want to be able to submit to them without getting into your head too much. I felt in very safe hands with him.” Stone joined with Colman and Weisz for a three-week period before production, during which they developed rapport and openness, much needed before the cameras started rolling. Stone recalls: “We got to know each other so well and trust each other, and it created a strong dynamic between us and also with Yorgos. We were ready for whatever might happen, which was so important on a film like this.”