Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe on Yorgos Lanthimos’s New Film

Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe on Yorgos Lanthimos’s New Film

In the new Yorgos Lanthimos film “Kinds of Kindness,” a character played by Emma Stone recounts a dream in which she was the denizen of a bizarre world. “There, dogs were in charge,” she murmurs. “People were animals, animals were people.” But being brought to heel by their canine masters wasn’t as bad as it sounds, she says: “I must admit, they treated us pretty well.”

Compared with how the human beings treat each other in “Kinds of Kindness,” a dark new comedy that just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is in theaters June 21, the dogs would surely be an improvement.

Comprised of three separate stories with the cast members recurring in different roles, “Kinds of Kindness” begins with the tale of Robert (Jesse Plemons), a corporate underling whose every interaction in life — including what to eat, how to speak or even who to marry — is controlled by a boss (Willem Dafoe) whose decisions send poor Robert into a tailspin. The second story follows Daniel (Plemons again), who becomes convinced that his wife (Stone) is not who she claims to be and coaxes her into insane tasks to prove herself.

And in the third sequence, cult members played by Stone and Plemons search for a woman able to wake the dead, though the whims of their guru (Dafoe) dictate that this mysterious woman also be a certain height and weight and have an identical twin. (Even when it comes to awesome supernatural powers, there are dealbreakers.)

On Saturday afternoon in a hotel here in Cannes, I met with Stone, Plemons and Dafoe to try to make sense of this triptych. According to the actors, Lanthimos isn’t keen to give too much away. “Yorgos says he likes it when people have different takes on the movie,” Dafoe said. “I think that’s the strength of it.”

And as we discussed the film and other Lanthimos projects like “Poor Things” and “The Favourite,” it became clear that to enter the director’s unusual worlds, cast members ought to leave their preconceived notions of meaning behind, too.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

A Cannes premiere can be pretty crazy. How did it feel to debut “Kinds of Kindness” here?

EMMA STONE Intense. It’s beautiful and incredible and larger than life, but I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience the whole time.

JESSE PLEMONS People are screaming your name like it’s a horror movie.

STONE Rrrrahhh! And when you’re in a dissociative state, it really is a horror movie. But it was incredible.

Emma and Willem, you’ve worked with Yorgos before. What was it like to welcome Jesse to the troupe?

PLEMONS [to Dafoe] I think you mounted me once. That was a pretty good welcome.

WILLEM DAFOE These two are at the center of it, and it’s about me coming to them, really. So there’s no sense of welcoming. I’m the guest!

PLEMONS You said something very helpful early on as I was trying not to spiral: “Just focus on the dynamics between the characters.”

Jesse, you’ve said that Yorgos wasn’t willing to discuss much about the script or these characters. So how do you find your place in the world?

PLEMONS It’s not a comfortable place to be in, especially in the early stages. Everything is telling you, “No, I have to find a category, a box, I have to make some sense of this.” And then you spend time with people who have done this with Yorgos before, and slowly some atmosphere starts to take over and you loosen your grip on it a little bit and give into it. It becomes a fun exploration.

DAFOE Characters are revealed through actions. You don’t decide who the character is and then have the experience, because then you’re blocking all kinds of impulses. But having said that, we’ve got a beautiful text. Particularly in the first and second sequences, the writing is just beautiful.

STONE What’s wrong with the third?

DAFOE There’s more story there! No, the third’s cool.

STONE “The third’s cute.” I’m goofing on you.

But maybe there’s something appealing about not knowing all the answers. Part of the fun of “Kinds of Kindness” is coming up with your own thematic throughline for these stories.

DAFOE It’s a living thing that isn’t nailed down, and people are going to come to it with their own experiences. When the audience has to make their meaning, they have a stake in it. They make the movie with you, and that’s the power of cinema. You’re enriched by the experience and it’s not a passive thing.

One thing Yorgos said today is that his interest in the first story was sparked by “Caligula.” I thought, “That’s so interesting. Why didn’t you tell me that before?” But then I thought if he would have, it wouldn’t have told me anything, really. It’s only now, after the fact …

STONE … that you’re mad.

PLEMONS I asked him early on what’s the seed for this idea, because I’m always fascinated to know. So he told me that about “Caligula,” and then I read it, and it did zero for me. [Laughs.] But it’s interesting!

STONE “Cool story!”

Emma, Yorgos has said that your continued collaboration allows you to go further every time. What do you think it is that you’re going further toward?

STONE Hopefully, a deepening sense of honesty. Having that level of trust in not just him as a director and a person but also in his storytelling and the way he approaches these things, it lets us go further and further into a deeper exploration of what it means to be human.

In the first story, Willem’s character is not unlike a director in the way he tells people what to do. As actors, do you want a director who takes such a strong hand in molding your performance, or one who leaves you to your own devices?

STONE The dream is the combination of both. You want a strong hand in knowing what they’re trying to execute and whether it’s right or wrong, not “I don’t know.” But then you want the free will to create the performance and make it your own.

DAFOE All great artists have discipline and a strong hand, usually. You find freedom in that structure. I like a director who says, “I see this,” and then you inhabit it. Yorgos understands the beauty of committing yourself. He believes in the wisdom and expressiveness of the body, and I do, too. When he throws that your way, it may feel dictatorial or like a restriction, but it’s great freedom because it’s the doing that’s the liberation.

Emma and Willem, did you expect “Poor Things” would connect to the extent that it did?

STONE No, no.

Emma, you seemed shocked when you won the best actress Oscar for it.

STONE I still don’t know what that was. That was cuckoo bananas.

So what reason have you come up with that the film struck such a chord with people?

DAFOE [points at Stone]


DAFOE Nothing, dear.

STONE When you’re living in that experience and making the thing, it’s really hard to think about the ultimate response. My least favorite question of all time — and I understand why people ask it — is, “What do you want the audience to take away from this?” I’m always like, “I don’t know, whatever they feel!” So that’s the way I approach the films that I’ve been lucky enough to get to do: “What do I take from this? If it seems interesting to me, maybe it’ll be interesting to other people.”

I had no idea what people were going to think of “Poor Things,” God’s honest. At the end of every day, we’d be in the film lab and Yorgos would be watching dailies and I’d say, “What did you think about today?” And he’d say, “It’s a disaster.” So it was surreal, and similarly, I don’t know how they’ll respond to this one. I remember seeing “The Favourite” early on at a screening room and thinking, “It’s great, but I wonder if anybody will go see this movie. There’s so much fisheye!”

Maybe that’s why Yorgos’s films catch on: Every person who watches thinks it’s just for them.

STONE Because it’s just for him. With all the best storytellers, whether it’s authors or directors or painters, you can feel when they’re doing it for them because it’s something they need to express, or when they’re doing it for commercial success and for other people to respond to. He makes films because he’s interested in them and maybe that’ll resonate. I think the more personal something is, the more universal it actually becomes.

PLEMONS I totally agree with that. To me, it always feels like a shock when a movie is finally coming out, even though that’s the way this works. Obviously, some movie you’re in eventually has to do well or they won’t ask you back, but what I get out of it is the doing of it.

STONE You know that phrase “Interested people are interesting”? It’s like that: The more interested you are personally as an actor, I think it makes it more interesting. That idea of “one for me, one for them,” I don’t believe in that model at all.

PLEMONS I don’t, either.

STONE I don’t think it becomes resonant in the same way. I mean, I get it if you need to do it, but if you have the luck to not have to, hopefully you do what’s interesting to you, and that makes it interesting to other people.

DAFOE One of the beautiful things about making something and playacting is you can really let stuff go and have these moments of liberation. It’s all pretend, it’s not connected to real-life consequence. If you’re very preoccupied with the result of what you’re doing, that’s a huge consequence and that takes away the joy, the inventiveness and the soul of something.

STONE Even scene by scene! If it’s “I want to achieve this in the scene today,” that’s a recipe for disaster.

DAFOE Look, you want people to like it. You want it to be a big success and for everyone to be happy, but it’s really important to not even think about where stuff is going. That’s probably why I can’t be a director. I look at the director and say, “It’s his problem!” [Laughs]

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