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Interview: Cailee Spaeny on 'Priscilla'.

Interview: Cailee Spaeny on 'Priscilla'.

At the beginning of her memoir 'Elvis and Me' and after learning of his death, Priscilla Presley lists the things Elvis taught her: how to dress, how to walk, how to apply makeup and wear her hair, how to behave, and how to return love — his way. Much of Priscilla’s coming-of-age story was at the hands of Elvis — the man she met shortly after turning 14. While coming to terms with his passing, she states that she “sat and waited, remembering our life together — the joy, the pain, the sadness, and the triumphs — from the very first time I heard his name.” It's there — the grey area between love and loss — where Sofia Coppola’s biographical film 'Priscilla' exists.

Much has already been said about the relationship between Elvis and Priscilla — it was unhealthy at best and toxic at worst. For years Priscilla has been outspoken about her love for Elvis and that, regardless of how the public feels about their relationship, their feelings for one another needed to be the foundation of the Coppola film. As might be expected, the film is both a snapshot of their messy relationship and a dynamic portrait of a shy girl becoming a woman with agency. Rising actress Cailee Spaeny brings a moving and commanding performance in the titular role. 

“What’s universal about this story, specifically for women, is being in love and wanting this life and feeling like you’re so close to having everything you could possibly dream of, but knowing there’s no real way to that,” explains Spaeny when asked about what attracted her to the project. “I was nervous at first when I was thinking about how I would relate to this story, but there are so many milestones that she goes through — that all women go through — when she’s young. I could relate to them all.” Shortly before filming, Spaeny’s relationship ended and she realized just how much she, like Priscilla, had to give up in order to pursue her dream. “I was surprised by that,” she admits. “When you fall in love for the first time, I think you will do anything to hold on to that feeling because it's the greatest feeling in the world, and you don't even know you're doing it. And then you look around to pick up the pieces and put your life back together and figure out what the next chapter is going to be. I think that’s what you see in this film, but much harder because she was with Elvis Presley and there is no one like him and there never will be.” 

'Priscilla' is a masterclass in demystifying one of music’s legends. Spaeny had to remove herself as the fan and “put it to the side” in order to approach the relationship, strip it down, and figure out who these two people were behind closed doors. It’s as much a cautionary tale on fame and the ripple effect it has, but also a story of a woman coming into her own despite what is happening around her. 

It was important to Spaeny that Priscilla felt protected and identified within the film. Throughout filming, Spaeny was able to spend some time with real-life Priscilla, which, yes, made the pressure that much more intense, but was invaluable for her preparation. Her eyes would light up when retelling certain stories almost as if “she was back in that moment” all these years later. “I didn’t know anything about her story,” she says. “It was really interesting because I grew up in a family who loves Elvis — we went to Graceland for family vacations. I’m from the southern Midwest, which is close to the south, so Elvis holds such a weight. He's American royalty. I knew Priscilla was Elvis's wife and I was aware of the iconic photos from their wedding, but I didn’t know anything of her story. That is what was so exciting about this journey. Getting to have Priscilla be part of making the movie was incredible, but it’s also what made it so nerve-wracking. It was so much pressure to get it right not just for the film, but for her.”

What was most important to Priscilla was that the love between her and Elvis was there. Speaking with Priscilla meant that Spaeny had a firsthand account of their relationship, noting on how kind and gracious she was, but also “fiercely protective of her story and her family.” When reading the script and the book, there are points of their story that are “uncomfortable” according to Spaeny, who uses the words “pain” and “heartbreaking” to describe their tumultuous relationship. The thing that makes it complicated, she says, is the actual love that existed between them. Jacob Elordi, who plays Elvis, and Spaeny show the nuances and intricacies of the highs and lows of their relationship in a way that is equal parts respectful and authentic.

“So much of it was [when] I put on the costume, I moved differently,” explains Spaeny. “I have to give a lot of credit to the hair, makeup, and costume department. They did such an amazon job at zoning in on what was going to help me make those transformations. It all sort of clicks into place once I have the big black bouffant — you walk like you’re royalty in it. In the 70s, she [Priscilla] comes into her own and the clothes reflect that. It was interesting to get to play in all of these different eras, especially for someone who was such a fashion icon. The hair, makeup and costumes played into her emotional journey as well.”

Understanding that the clothes Priscilla wore and the make-up she applied weren’t exactly her — they were what Elvis wanted — helped Spaeny get further into where Priscilla’s mindset would be during a specific moment in the timeline. “They were clothes that he wanted her to wear, and her hair was dyed black because that matched him and the ‘brand’ of Elvis,” she says. “Breaking out of that was so helpful in terms of figuring out the transition. We shot this in 30 days and we shot it wildly out of order — I was pregnant in the morning and I was 14 after lunch, so it was tricky to keep my head on straight to figure out where I was on this journey. The clothes and make-up helped with that.”

In typical Sofia Coppola fashion, the depiction of girlhood is woven throughout the film — specifically, Priscilla’s childhood bedroom in the early scenes in the film. After meeting Elvis and waiting for him to return, she flicks through magazines and memorabilia, pinning whatever she can on her walls. The crush she has — and the time spent waiting for him — makes her infatuation blossom and sees her create a seemingly makeshift shrine for him in her room. 

Tamara Deverell, the film’s production designer, created a world where Spaeny could really embody Priscilla in every sense of the word. “I grew up going to Graceland, so when we walked into this dark, gloomy movie studio in Toronto, I was questioning how that was going to turn into Graceland,” she states. “It has completely transformed. The bedroom had so much detail due to all of the pieces and love and care they put into the project. It’s such a dream for an actor to get to walk into those spaces and so much of the work that you usually have to do is just off your plate because you're in this tangible world and you've got these props. I could open drawers and see things inside that wouldn’t even be seen on camera but helped me get into character.”

For much of the movie, Priscilla is hushed, a catalyst from Priscilla making herself small to make room for Elvis. It would be easy for her to make her a two-dimensional, passive victim in 'Priscilla' because of it, but instead the subtle mannerisms helped give the character depth. “It comes through in the book and when you meet her that she has a lot inside of her,” Spaeny explains. “She’s very soft spoken and sweet. In the movie, she doesn’t have a lot of lines and that’s a deliberate choice. She does have a lot inside of her and needs to break out, which is exactly what happens at the end.” 

The support of Elordi, whose compelling larger-than-life take on Elvis, didn’t overpower Spaeny’s Priscilla at all. Instead, she says he gave “100%” regardless of whether he was on camera or in the scene or not. “It was important for me to reach out to Jacob [before filming] because so much of the time you meet them right before your first take. Priscilla and Elvis had such a deep bond and I wanted time to get to know him [Elordi] so I could feel like I trusted him. He was very open, we spent time together, and he was always there if I needed to call him and ask questions about the script. The film spans such a large amount of years in such a short amount of time, so that care [creating a friendship before filming] was such a big part of the prep.”

As the conversation wraps up, a question is posed to Spaeny: every actor can find something to connect themselves to their character, so what was that thread for her? “At 14, we both saw what we wanted and made a decision very young to get that thing. We were going to do anything to get that life, and that’s what she did. She met Elvis and she would have given up anything to be with this person who she loved. I dropped out of school when I was 13 to pursue acting and, when you do that at that age, you grow up really quickly. She was always getting told that she was an old soul and I always get that, too. What did people see in us that made them think that? What were the things in our past that brought us to those moments? We’ve lived very different lives, but I get where her mind was as a young girl. That's what Sofia does so beautifully — she never underestimates the young women in her films. They have wants and needs and longings, and they have dark, complicated sides. It was so freeing and interesting to see a female director tackle what it's like being a teenage girl, and that’s what I felt when I watched her films for the first time as a young girl. Hopefully, when people watch this film, that resonates with them as well.”

Sofia Coppola's 'Priscilla' is in cinemas now - watch the trailer below:


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