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Cailee Spaeny’s star-making turn as Priscilla Presley in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla comes as no surprise to anyone who’s followed her young career so far. The Springfield, Missouri native has consistently stolen scenes since her feature film debut in 2018’s Pacific Rim Uprising, and she’s only followed suit through a wide variety of roles in Bad Times at the El Royale, How It Ends and Mare of Easttown. Spaeny’s quick climb is all the more impressive when you consider that she originally moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a teenage pop star.
Prior to Priscilla, perhaps her most acclaimed role was as Lyndon on Devs, Alex Garland’s sci-fi gem of a miniseries that FX on Hulu aired in March 2020. Garland was enamored with Spaeny and the rest of his cast to such a degree that he voiced his desire to reunite someday soon, and quickly started writing more material with them in mind. True to his word, he then cast Spaeny and several other Devs alums in his upcoming A24 actioner, Civil War, but it was the additional casting of one Kirsten Dunst that would change Spaeny’s life. Dunst was so taken with Spaeny’s work on the Civil War set that she recommended her to her most frequent collaborator, Coppola, at a time when she knew the filmmaker was looking to cast Priscilla’s eponymous role.
“Kirsten believed in me and liked what I did (on Alex Garland’s Civil War), and she is obviously Sofia Coppola‘s muse. So, to enter into this film with that as a start was pretty special,” Spaeny tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Spaeny was somewhat caught off guard by how quick and informal the audition process was. She never even had to do a chemistry read with her co-star Jacob Elordi, who plays Elvis Presley. Fittingly, Spaeny received the good news about her casting while still filming Civil War, so she was able to celebrate with Dunst and express her gratitude to her for putting her on Coppola’s radar.
“There was no audition process, really. I just met Sofia for the role,” Spaeny says. “I then saw Kirsten the day that I got it, and it was just really overwhelming and surreal to see her and have it all confirmed. I gave her a hug, and then I started to take on this massive challenge with, genuinely, my dream director.”
Oddly enough, Presley is the fourth biographical role that Spaeny has played in the last five years, but she’s never had access to her real-life subject quite like this. Spaeny and Presley talked at length by phone, and Priscilla welcomed her questions about anything and everything. During one particular phone conversation, Spaeny heard Presley gasp, as Elvis himself came on her radio in the background. Despite what one might assume, this is not a common occurrence for Presley.
“She and I were on the phone and she (gasped), ‘Do you hear that? … He’s on the radio,’” Spaeny says. “And then she put the phone up to the speaker … And I said, ‘Does he come up on your radio a lot?’ And she said, ‘No, he doesn’t … That’s a bit strange.’ So I got that firsthand experience with her, and I definitely felt like she thought that was a bit spooky.”
Below, during a conversation with THR, Spaeny, who’s also leading Fede Álvarez’s buzzy new Alien movie in 2024, discusses her tendency to not watch her own work and how Coppola ultimately convinced her to stick around for Priscilla’s Venice Film Festival premiere screening that would later land her the fest’s prestigious Volpi Cup for best actress.
So we have Kirsten Dunst to thank for getting the ball rolling on your casting?
It definitely didn’t hurt the process, that’s for sure. I guess Kirsten believed in me and liked what I did (on Alex Garland’s Civil War), and she is obviously Sofia Coppola’s muse. So, to enter into this film with that as a start was pretty special. It was also surreal in the sense that Kirsten played Marie Antoinette (in Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006)) when she was around 23, and then I did this at 24. So it was funny that our paths crossed in that way. It felt very kismet. So Kirsten having that faith in me and Sofia trusting her was a great way to start this film. And very strange.
And Alex Garland, to his credit, said that he’d rehire a lot of his Devs actors, and because he stayed true to his word, you met Kirsten on the set of his A24 movie, Civil War. So that’s yet another domino in all this.
Yeah, I guess that’s how it works, right? You do the work, and if you’re a good employee and a good actor, and you try to be kind and study up and put your best foot forward, then you hope that it comes back to you. So I’m seeing that now, which is reassuring. It’s nice to know that it really does mean something.
When you got the call that Sofia was interested in talking about Priscilla, did you have a reaction that was similar to Priscilla’s reaction when she received her first direct invitation from Elvis? Of course, they’re wildly different circumstances.
Yeah, it was something like that. I was also pretty shocked that it happened so fast. There was no audition process, really. I just met Sofia for the role. I then saw Kirsten the day that I got it, and it was just really overwhelming and surreal to see her and have it all confirmed. I gave her a hug, and then I started to take on this massive challenge with, genuinely, my dream director. As a teenage girl, she got me into indie films, and one of her films was the first time I ever asked the question of who’s behind the camera. So that was an incredible call to get, but also terrifying. The fear kicked in almost immediately.
In your viral junket videos with Dakota Johnson, Lost in Translation actually came up, so there is a trail to this point.
Those videos are so funny. They’re actually funny.
Did you and Jacob Elordi read together before things officially got going, or did Sofia just roll the dice on the two of you?
There was a conversation about maybe having some sort of chemistry read, but then I think she just felt good about her choices and said, “Let’s just do it. Let’s go.” I don’t know what the behind-closed-doors conversations were like and why she decided not to, but that’s the thing about Sofia. She has a very distinct vision and a real confidence in what she’s doing, although she goes about it in a very humble way. She’s very soft-spoken and incredibly kind, and she knows what she wants. When you put on a Sofia Coppola movie, you know it’s a Sofia Copolla movie, and it’s hard to find those confident, distinct visions with filmmakers. So I feel very lucky that I got to be a part of this, and it makes life a lot easier when your director knows what they want.
As far as prep, you relied on Priscilla’s book, Elvis and Me, the script and some literary works of the era, but then you had some time with Priscilla as well. What kind of follow-up questions did you ask?
I wanted her to feel safe and not feel like I was digging into this. I wanted her to feel like she could go at her own pace in retelling this story, because I knew that it was probably an emotional thing to relive. So I tried to be careful about that. I wanted her to feel like she was in the right hands and that she felt protected. So our first meeting actually went around four hours, which I was shocked about, but she was very gracious with her time. I just let things go where they naturally went, and really, the biggest thing for me was just being able to sit in front of her and take her in as a person and the way that she holds herself. But I got little golden nuggets along the way, such as how she felt on the first night they met or their inside jokes. She’d talk about something he did or said, and she’d do a little giggle while going right back to that day.
So those were really special moments to experience and go back to with her. I got really lucky, just having her support and her saying things like, “You can call whenever you want. I’m around to talk through anything you need, whether it’s about the movie or anything else. I just want you to know that I’m here.” It’s obviously very intimidating to play a real person and also know that this person was going to watch the movie at some point, but she couldn’t have been more supportive. I wanted to make this movie for her. We rarely get to look at her side of the story, and she deserved to feel protected and safe throughout this process.
Sofia screened the movie for Priscilla prior to the Venice Film Festival premiere, but during Venice’s screening, did you ever look over at her to see her reactions? Or did you have tunnel vision the whole time?
I wasn’t going to watch the movie; I just don’t like watching myself. I was so nervous at Venice, and there was this whole plan that I would leave and then come back for the end of the film. But I turned to Sofia right before I went in and said, “What do you think I should do? Should I watch it or should I not?” And she said, “I just don’t want you to regret not seeing it at the Venice Film Festival. This is a really special moment.” So I did it, but it was just weird. It was surreal to be watching this movie for the first time with Priscilla sitting right next to me. Jacob was in between us, so there was a point that I turned to Jacob and went, “What does she look like? Does she seem okay?” (Laughs.) So he would look over and tell me, “Yeah, yeah, she seems like she’s liking it.” But Venice was the first time that she turned to me and said, “Great performance. I watched my life through you and you did an incredible job.” So that’s all I needed to hear, and it doesn’t matter what anyone says now. I mean, I’m very grateful that it seems like the reception is mostly positive, but genuinely, just to hear that from her is everything to me.
The imagery in the film that probably struck me the most is when Priscilla is alone in Graceland. She just looks around with wide eyes and is truly unable to get comfortable. Vernon Presley even tells her at a certain point that strangers aren’t allowed in Graceland, but she was really a stranger for quite a while. In the context of the movie, do you think she ever truly felt at home in Graceland?
I definitely felt that it always seemed like she was a guest of the house, and that’s told in so many beautiful ways. Sofia does such a great job at saying so much with so little and hanging on these shots of this young girl trying to find her way in this lonely, dreamlike but suffocating home. In terms of Priscilla herself, it is a good question if she ever felt at home there. I’m sure there were times that she eventually got there, but in terms of making this film and what’s told through the visuals, we definitely leaned into her feeling isolated and lonely.
She was always living in a boy’s world, and it was definitely an important part of the story to watch her navigate how to be the perfect wife, but also figure out how to hang with the guys. That was something that Priscilla and I discussed. I asked her, “Did you ever make jokes with them?” It was such a weird balance of being this princess-like woman when she only really hung out with these men, and she never felt like she could get close to the wives of these men, either. She ended up telling me that she knew information about (Elvis’) friends having affairs, so she never felt like she could get close to the women. So those details were golden nuggets in trying to put the puzzle pieces together of how she never felt like she found her place in this world.
You once told me about a haunted set that resulted in an orb appearing in your camera roll …
(Laughs.) Oh God.
And while I don’t expect another story on that level, did anything out of the ordinary happen on the Priscilla set?
Not on set, but I actually haven’t told anyone this yet. When I was on the phone with Priscilla one time, we were speaking, and then Elvis came on her radio in the background. It’s so funny that I’ve never had the opportunity to say that yet, but she and I were on the phone and she (gasped), “Do you hear that?” And I said, “What?” And she said, “He’s on the radio.” And then she put the phone up to the speaker, and I think it might’ve been “Love Me Tender” or something like that. It was one of his slower songs. And then I said, “Does that happen a lot? Does he come up on your radio a lot?” And she said, “No, he doesn’t.” And then she went, “Hmm, that’s a bit strange.” So that was a very interesting moment and interaction to have with her, as she took that in and reacted to him on the radio. I’m sure that’s something we’ve all thought about: How does she feel when she hears him come up again on the radio or TV? So I got that firsthand experience with her, and I definitely felt like she thought that was a bit spooky.
Is it pretty bizarre to recreate someone’s wedding, especially when it’s one of pop culture’s most famous nuptials?
Yeah, it was. There’s very little footage of her from that (overall) time, but that wedding was very well documented. She talks about it now and how she wishes that if she could do it over again, she would have less press involved in their wedding. There’s tons of video footage and tons of photographs, so that was one of the moments where we leaned heavily on the actual footage and pictures, and had fun recreating that moment. It was definitely interesting to watch. It feels slightly performative when they’re in front of the cameras, and they look really nervous. She talks about how she wishes she could’ve had more time with her husband that day. So, yes, it was interesting. Also, it was so much fun to have Chanel come in and recreate her wedding dress. The environment on set was really intense, and it almost felt like a real wedding day. Everyone’s expectations were really high, and we all brought our A game to try to make it look right. It’s a beautiful moment in the movie.
You’ve now played four real-life people (Presley, Lynne Cheney, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Ginsburg). When you got started seven years ago, did you ever imagine you’d make a name for yourself in these biographical roles?
No, absolutely not. I grew up in the South as a massive Elvis fan, and my mom collected Elvis memorabilia and went to Graceland as a kid on vacation. So the combination of that and being in my room as a 14-year-old girl — watching Sofia Coppola’s whole filmography of work and having that shake up how I viewed cinema, to receiving Kirsten Dunst’s blessing — it all came together in this very magical way that I never could have dreamed of. But that’s how this funny little industry works. It’s that domino effect, like you said. I feel very lucky to have gotten this opportunity, and I’m glad that this film has been well received. So we’ll see what happens, but I am excited to see where this takes me.
Priscilla‘s theatrical release expands Nov. 3rd. This interview was edited for length and clarity.