‘Cruella’: Hollywood actresses Emma Stone and Emma Thompson lean into the villainy

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Emma Stone in Disney’s live-action ‘Cruella’. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

It’s a dog-eat-dog world in 1970s London — the setting for Disney’s lavish villain origin tale ‘Cruella’. Directed by Craig Gillespie, ‘Cruella’ stars Emma Stone as the younger version of the fur-crazy vamp from ‘101 Dalmations’, portrayed in this film as a young con-artist-turned-fashion-designer called Estella who goes head-to-head with the older and more sophisticated designer Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson).

Opulent sets, extravagant gowns, over-the-top wigs and cute puppies set the background for the war between these two dominating women, and there’s as much heartbreak as there is laughter in this decidedly ‘made for adults’ film.

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Emma Stone. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

“It’s definitely dark for a Disney movie. Maybe not for like a really intense kind of R-rated film. But was darker than I’ve seen a Disney movie for a good long time,” said lead star and Academy Award-winning actress Stone in a press conference ahead of the release of ‘Cruella’, coming to UAE cinemas on May 27.

Director Gillespie spoke at some length about the drive for making a story about wicked people. “Villains are always so fun to portray, because you just have more license to do things that aren’t quite appropriate or push the boundaries and create these larger-than-life characters. And it was really important to me that this was not black and white. Obviously no pun intended there with Cruella. But I wanted there to be this grey area and be able to empathise with the choices that she was making. And the situations that she was responding to. And I wanted to do it in a way that was really fun,” he said.

Dame Emma Thompson, a legend herself in every conceivable way, sounded the most excited to take on the role of Cruella’s arch nemesis. “I had such fun doing her, because I think I’ve been asking for quite a number of years if I could be a villain, a proper villain. And 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! I mean, they wore me, actually, really is what happened. Uh, I had just the best, best time. And every time [Stone] 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 or something, which we were. In a way, everyone created the Baroness, and then I sort of stepped in and just said the words,” she said.

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Emma Thompson. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

And while the larger story revolves around the very personal fight between Stone’s Estella aka Cruella and Thompson’s Baroness, at its heart ‘Cruella’ reveals the story of how a young, nonconforming woman is pushed to the dark side under extraneous circumstances. “It’s a very nature versus nurture story,” explained Stone. “So what she would find as a weakness early on or what her mother would deem a weakness early on with just her ability to really hit the ceiling quickly, her kind of volatility, her reactiveness, becomes her strength through her creativity and through her genius. It’s interesting. I think it really is a movie about how your weaknesses do sort of become your strengths, in a way.”

But how did Stone personally feel about stepping into the shoes of the fashionable future villainess? “Well, you know, it’s interesting, because there is a sort of rejection of Estella that comes at a point. And Estella is sweet, but she’s not fully embodied. So I would say there is something about Cruella that’s pretty enticing, because she just kind of is who she is. She’s in full acceptance and autonomy there. So I am kind of interested in that Cruella world. But that said, she does [cross] some lines that I don’t think I would necessarily cross. But to be honest, I kind of prefer Cruella,” said Stone.

“I don’t think I would ever be able to play a character if I truly thought, like, ‘oh, they’re just bad, they’re just a villain’,” Stone added. “Do you think anybody evil walks through the world thinking they’re evil? I don’t think so. I think they think they’re right. [No one] walks in thinking, like, I’m the bad guy. It doesn’t really make sense for playing a human being. But maybe for playing some type of a robot.”

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Paul Walter Hauser as Horace, Emma Stone as Cruella and Joel Fry as Jasper. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

Dame Thompson, also, is all about exploring the darker parts of the human psyche. “Like [Stone], 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 nice and good, aren’t we? But the Baroness is just so single-minded, and she says this wonderful thing. 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. And actually, it is a very good point. So whilst, as [Stone] says, I wouldn’t necessarily walk that path, her commitment to her own creativity is rather admirable, I think, and difficult, probably.”

The history

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The character of Cruella de Vil has always been a point of fascination among fans. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

First seen on the pages of Dodie Smith’s book in the 1950s — and brought to life on the big screen in Disney’s 1961 animated film ‘101 Dalmatians’, as well as Disney’s 1996 live-action remake and its 2000 sequel — the character of Cruella de Vil has always been a point of fascination among fans.

“I loved the cartoon of ‘101 Dalmatians’,” said Stone. “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. But yes, I loved the cartoon. I thought Cruella was such a fun character.”

Having enjoyed success with its ‘Sleeping Beauty’ live-action prequels that focused on the fairy tale’s antagonist, ‘Maleficent’, Disney was of course eager to explore origin stories of other villainous characters from its vast library. And ripe for the picking is Cruella de Vil, first voiced by Betty Lou Gerson in the animated original and then brought to larger-than-life, live-action magnificence by Glenn Close.

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Emma Stone. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

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Emma Stone. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

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Joel Fry as Jasper, Paul Walter Hauser as Horace and Emma Stone as Cruella. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

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Emma Stone. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

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Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Anita Darling. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

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Paul Walter Hauser as Horace, Emma Stone as Estella and Joel Fry as Jasper. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

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John McCrae as Artie. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

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Mark Strong as Boris. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

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Tipper Seifert-Cleveland as young Estella. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

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Emma Stone as Estella. Image Credit: Courtesy of Disney

Speaking about how she was picked to play Cruella, Stone said, “It wasn’t as straightforward as getting a call to play Cruella. It was six years ago. I mean, it was long before we shot the movie. There was sort of an idea. You know, Disney has all this IP, all these characters that they have, and there are sort of some brainstorms. And it was a process of about four years and different writers and different things were brought to the table, and 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 want to explore her in that would really make sense and make a good film that didn’t feel shoehorned into this character?

“And taking her and putting her in the 70s and as much as she is Cruella from ‘101 Dalmatians’, she’s not also, because you’ve taken this character and you’ve created this whole new story for her, with fun nods to ‘101 Dalmatians’, and all that. So, uh, I think once [director] Craig [Gillespie] and [screenwriter] Tony [McNamara] came on board, it really started to kind of fly and get very exciting, and it was like, oh my God, we’re making ‘Cruella’.”

Quote/Unquote

Emma Thompson on what she hates about her Baroness character: “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.”

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Producer Kristin Burr on ‘Cruella’: “‘Cruella’ has all of my favourite things in life: fashion, dogs and revenge,” says producer Kristin Burr. “Early on, we decided to set the movie in ’70s London. It was so exciting, because it was our first live-action character based on animation that we were setting in the real world. (As opposed to fairy-tale land. It was such an opportunity to push the envelope. London was the centre of fashion and anarchy at the time. What a nice parallel to Cruella!”

Don’t miss it!

‘Cruella’ hits UAE cinemas on May 27.