Cailee Spaeny is a force to be reckoned with. After supporting turns in Devs, Mare of Easttown, and Bad Times at the El Royale, Spaeny finds her “a star is born” moment in Sofia Coppola’s exquisite new film, Priscilla. Based on Priscilla Presley’s intimate memoir, “Elvis and Me,” the film provides space for Priscilla’s story to finally emerge from Elvis’ towering, sparkling shadow. As Priscilla, Spaeny is marvelous, capturing a delicate yet extreme transformation with ease, embodying the film’s subject and her relationship with Elvis (and herself) in beautifully surprising ways. Spaeny’s extraordinary performance earned her the prestigious Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival and, most recently, a Gotham Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Performance.
As I sat down to speak with Spaeny, she commented on the mix of movie posters behind me (Barry Lyndon, Network) but took particular interest in the vintage print of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. “Whoa. I’ve never seen Rebecca before,” she shared, “I’m writing it down now, thank you.” It’s ironic that Spaeny selected Rebecca, the story of a young woman trapped in a mysterious, gilded house, in love with a sometimes cruel and very particular man obsessed with ghosts of the past. I never would have thought to view Rebecca and Priscilla in tandem if it weren’t for Spaeny’s insights into Priscilla’s life at Graceland. I was delighted to speak to Spaeny about the universality of Priscilla’s story, the joy and difficulty of a 30-day shoot, and why Sofia Coppola was the only filmmaker for the job.
Sophia Ciminello: Thank you so much for joining me today, Cailee, to talk about your work in Priscilla. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year so far.
Cailee Spaeny: Oh, wow! Thank you.
SC: Of course! I saw it at the New York Film Festival and then again last week when I was out in LA.
SC: Yeah, I really felt like I needed to take it in twice. It’s such a beautiful film, but it has the qualities of a dark fantasy underneath.
CS: Oh, that’s great. I like to hear that. So, the second watch was different?
SC: Yeah, I just picked up on additional layers and some details that I missed the first time. So, I’ve been telling everyone, “You need to go see Priscilla.”
CS: Two times! Twice.
SC: (Laughs) Exactly! And congratulations on your Best Actress win at Venice…
CS: Thank you. It’s nuts. Yeah, so strange and surreal. I was not expecting that, but it’s very exciting.
SC: And so well deserved. I really love that the movie is a study of loneliness. That’s something that Sofia Coppola has been so good at tackling throughout her filmography, and I would love to hear about your early conversations with her and what led you to take the role.
CS: Well, I feel like I have to just say that I would have done anything that she would’ve asked me to do. First, it was just, “Sofia wants to grab coffee with you in New York.” That was all the information I had, and that was enough. I got there as soon as possible. We had coffee and croissants, and we were just sort of talking about whatever, and then I was wondering what the whole meeting was. Then she pulled out her iPad and started showing me photos of Priscilla Presley while, by the way, I had an Elvis pin on my bag.
SC: Oh my God. That’s serendipitous.
CS: Yeah, it really was. I grew up with Elvis playing. My whole family were huge Elvis fans. I grew up going to Graceland. So, I think the combination of those worlds–Sofia Coppola taking on a story like this, and then also it being so surprising that I didn’t know her side of the story and got to tackle this sort of strange journey that she went on. And, like you said, she’s so good at putting together that feeling of loneliness in her movies. She’s sort of a master at these silent shots that just convey so much. So, I think it was her understanding of that, wherever that comes from within her, and taking on this story. I couldn’t think of a better filmmaker to tell it, you know?
SC: Completely. And when I first heard that she was doing this project, I felt similarly. I didn’t know as much about Priscilla, but from the visuals of her hair, makeup, and the world she inhabited, I just thought, “Oh, Sofia Coppola is the perfect person to make this.”
The film is also based on this incredible memoir, “Elvis and Me,” which is just so vivid. I’d love to hear more about meeting with Priscilla and how special that was. Were there any particular details from conversations with her or from the book that you felt really intrigued by that you felt you needed to bring into the film?
CS: She goes into such detail in the book and is really candid about her time with him. And, I think, again, going back to someone like Sofia, she leaned into those details in a way that I don’t know if other filmmakers would have, but I think they were important pieces. You know, the insert shots of her trying to find which dress goes with what handgun, or in one of my favorite moments in the movie when she’s putting on those false eyelashes before giving birth.
SC: An incredible moment.
CS: Yeah, it’s so moving. It gives us so much insight into the pressure she feels, but also this funny sort of confidence she has playing this role of the Queen of Rock and Roll, you know? And then moments with Priscilla herself, just being in front of this person who lived this life, but also just taking her in. She’s got such a striking presence about her. She’s very sweet and soft-spoken, but she is also fiercely protective of her privacy, and also him, and her life with him. It’s like I came up with all of these questions, wrote so many lists, and went over how I was going to go about it in my head so many times before I sat down with her, and then, of course, when she walks into the restaurant when we’re first meeting, it’s like they all go out of my head.
Once I was with her, I didn’t ever want it to feel like I was interviewing her. I wanted it to all come up naturally and for her to only tell me things that she felt comfortable with. I never wanted to push her. I wanted her to feel like it was in safe hands. So, it would just sort of naturally happen. I’d ask bigger questions, and then we’d go into more detail. She’d share a funny story, and she would laugh like she was back in that moment all over again, or you’d see her eyes sparkle, or you’d talk about the lonelier times, and it’s like she relived it all over again with me. So, it was important just to have that time with her, sit in front of her, and take her in as a person.
And sometimes, we’d talk about things that weren’t even involved with Elvis. We’d talk about what she’s doing currently with her animal activism or her dogs or what she does with her days. I think just the fact that I had time with her was so special, so unique, you know? Doing a biopic and the pressure of getting it right in general, but then knowing at the end of this that she was going to be watching the film, was very intimidating to take on. She’s been very supportive every step of the way.
SC: I love hearing that her eyes would sparkle or that she would relive moments with you because the film really does feel like you’re reading her diary in that it’s made up of these memories of her life that are shown in quick flashes throughout. It’s one of the best details in the construction of the movie.
CS: Yeah, I agree. And the way Sofia tells it, I think, in this sort of impressionistic memory type of way where we never stay on a moment too long, makes you feel like you sort of enter this Alice in Wonderland type of whirlwind and watch this young girl grow up right before your eyes. Then you come out on the other side, seeing things more clearly and asking those bigger questions of, “I think I have more to give, and how do I go about finding that?” I think what was so striking is that even though the backdrop of this film is so heightened, there are so many universal moments that I think a lot of young women can relate to, and I found when I was prepping for the movie, I was struck by how many things felt like I could apply to my life and in my world.
SC: Yeah, it really is a universal story in that way and strikes you in such specific, surprising ways. And the film encompasses several years of Priscilla’s life. Like I mentioned earlier, when I think of Priscilla, I always think of her clothing, her makeup, her hairstyles, and how those things brought her to life. I would love to hear from you about the costumes and the looks of the film and how that helped ground you in the role or in a particular time in her life.
CS: Absolutely. I mean, I think those elements of filmmaking are always so crucial in putting the character together because with this film, more than any other film I’ve worked on, it was my anchor because we only had 30 days to shoot the movie, and we filmed it so out of order. I’m playing such a wide age range, from 14 to late 20s, so I tried to figure out ways to differentiate those ages and her emotional journey. I really found that once I started having those fittings and conversations with hair and makeup, I was relieved that once I got into certain costumes, it would inform my movement in a different way, and I felt like I held on to that to try to separate those moments in her life.
Aside from it being so crucial for me as an actor, I found it fascinating how she used it for herself on her journey as well because it’s such a big part of her life. And really, when you are in the makeup trailer, putting on the winged eyeliner or putting on the beehive, you really think about how she had to do all of this herself. I mean, she was incredibly talented when it came to beauty, but also, I don’t think she was ever seen with him without her hair and makeup done, you know? She was always done up. So that was really interesting.
And then also, she’s coming into her own, and she’s a mother when she breaks the rules that Elvis set for her in terms of fashion and beauty, and it’s never really talked about when she does that, but when we’re watching her come to her own, she’s in denim, which he never liked. So there are moments like that that were fun to play with. It’s such a rich world to work within in terms of hair, makeup, and costume, and the emotional element was also fascinating to lean into.
SC: Oh, I’m sure. And so much of the film, too, is just like you mentioned earlier. It’s not heavy in dialogue. A lot of it is captured in a look, so the way that you would feel in a particular costume or makeup look–that had to come through, and you did such a wonderful job with that.
CS: Oh, thank you for saying that. I’m so glad it worked. Because you do the best you can prep-wise, and then you get up on day one, and you’re just sort of flying by the seat of your pants trying to figure it out as you go, so I’m glad it came across.
SC: Of course. I really admired how you and your costar Jacob Elordi made these larger-than-life, mythologized people feel like real human beings. I would love to know more about your collaborative process with him.
CS: Yeah, well, I was so curious how Jacob was going to do this because he had such a massive task to take on, but he’s naturally very charismatic, and he wears his heart on his sleeve. So, I think it was really impressive to see him balance those highs and lows of their time together and really see that a lot of the darkness that comes from within Elvis is born out of insecurity, and I think that what Jacob did was really nuanced and powerful.
In terms of working with him, I felt so relieved that it was him that I did this with because he’s always someone I could lean on and who I knew was always going to do his prep. I was so impressed by his knowledge of not only, obviously, Elvis. I mean, I think he listened to literally every recording that Evlis had. But I could always call him and swap notes and check dates. It was just nice. We worked similarly. We met before we started filming and hung out a few times, and we knew that we had to feel comfortable around each other because this would be such a quick shoot. We had to really trust each other, and we did. He was a great friend to have and someone who I could lean on along the way.
SC: It’s great to hear that you worked so well together. One of the coolest aspects of the movie is that we don’t hear Elvis’ music, and we see so much of that world from Priscilla’s perspective. In your research and prep for the film, did you feel like you mostly focused on Priscilla’s experience, or did you zoom out and look at historical details and materials related to Elvis too?
CS: I sort of did it all. It was a wide range of research. It was from watching a film that came out prepping for his return to Vegas. It was so interesting because you see how charismatic and sort of loving, funny, and charming he was. And then to me watching Priscilla in The Naked Gun films, which are way past the time that we focus on. I would just try to grasp onto anything I could.
There isn’t a ton of footage of Priscilla from that time. There are some amazing home videos that I would really lean on, and then, obviously, my time with her. I think there’s one really obscure interview that I found from the ‘70s when they separated that I would listen to on repeat that I memorized and would say as a monologue before I got into scenes. So, I tried to take in anything and everything I could get my hands on.
SC: I think that shows, too, in the complex rendering of the character. I also love how Coppola creates these beautiful worlds, often homes or girls’ bedrooms, that feel so a part of the character. I’m curious to hear your take on the sets and the construction of that world for this film and how it made you feel at home in the role.
CS: Yeah, I mean, I think that anyone who works with Sofia brings their A-game. She works with a lot of the same people over and over again, which says a lot about her, the environment she creates, and how collaborative she is. It was the first time our production designer, Tamara Deverell, worked with Sofia. She’s from Toronto. She did such an incredible job and makes life so much easier for the actors when you get to work in those spaces that are so immersive. I could walk around that first level of Graceland like it was real. It was all there. And the detail the props department put in was amazing. I know that Tamara’s reference was to have it feel like walking into a wedding cake.
SC: That’s perfect.
CS: Yeah, and I know obviously the Graceland we know today is very documented, but during that time, I think we were only working with like two or three photos that they had, so they got to get creative with the world that we stepped into. So, it was really impressive. I think on a shoot like this, with such little time, we all have to lean on each other. So, I definitely felt like I could go to those other HODs. We would sort of exchange ideas and photos, and Sofia’s got such a wealth of knowledge, not just with cinema, but also, she’s a very visual person. There were lots of photos of William Eggleston shots; he did a photo shoot of Graceland. Actually, she referenced Barry Lyndon when we were doing a shot in the movie when Elvis and Priscilla were in the back of the car.
SC: Oh, wow, yeah!
CS: So those moments were just inspirational pieces. We’re always floating around; we’re always sharing them with each other. So it was just really like a dream. You don’t get this every day. I had a really great time.
I mean, it was tricky. We were all very stressed. I don’t want to sort of romanticize it too much because it was really difficult, but at the same time, despite that, she never projected that onto us and kept us in our bubble. She’s got such an easygoing, chill way she goes about things. We played pickleball when we had some downtime, and she also played her curated playlist. There’s only one Sofia Coppola, and she films in a very special way.
SC: I love to hear that. We’re right at the end of time, so I just have one more question for you. What’s one thing you hope people will learn about Priscilla and her story from watching this film?
CS: I hope it gives people what it gave me, which is to ask yourself those big questions and ask, “What do you have to give?” and “Do you feel fulfilled in your life?” When I go and see a film, I want there to be conversation afterward, for it to spark conversation, and to be something you can talk to with your friends when you’re going home, and I think this does that. Like you were saying at the beginning, you want to go and see it a second time. That’s so great to hear because it makes you think. So that’s always my hope when I make a movie, and I think that this does that.
SC: Definitely. Well, thank you so much, Cailee. It’s been a joy to talk to you more about Priscilla and the role. Best of luck with the rest of the season!
CS: Thank you so much. It was so nice talking to you. I’m so glad you liked it.
Priscilla is now in theaters nationwide from A24.