‘The intimacy co-ordinators are kind of unshockable’: Emma Stone on her new film with Yorgos Lanthimos

If you thought Oscar-winning collaboration Poor Things unconventional, wait for full-throttle madness of Kinds of Kindness

Emma Stone on Kinds of Kindness: 'We thought we should make this movie because everyone was going to think Poor Things was insane. But this one ... ' Photograph: Thea Traff/New York Times

Is Emma Stone already inviting us back to Lanthimos Land? Barely two months after Poor Things won four Academy Awards, including best actress for the American star, much of the same team is in Cannes for the premiere of Yorgos Lanthimos’s even spikier Kinds of Kindness. Margaret Qualley and Willem Defoe join Stone on the move from Poor duties to the Kindness shift. The Greek director is again behind the camera. Element Pictures, the busy Dublin-based company, is back as coproducer.

It’s good that everyone involved gets (literally) a spell in the sun this time. When Poor Things debuted at Venice, last autumn, the Hollywood actors’ strike prohibited the cast from any red-carpet jiggery-pokery. Stone is here to talk to us at the legendary Carlton hotel. So are Qualley and a new signing, Jesse Plemons. Palm trees obscure colossal hoardings through the slabs of window behind them. The circling press already have those bleary bags beneath eyes that result from too many 8.30am screenings.

“There is no other place like Cannes,” says Plemons, who will go on to win best actor here. “It’s a lot. Exciting, intense, stressful, overwhelming, amazing. Incredibly special ... And incredibly surreal.”

Following up Poor Things is going to be a challenge. Not only was the adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s novel a critical success, but, if we may be so vulgar, it also made a ton of money: $118 million, or almost €110 million, is not chump change for an art-house release that asks challenging questions of audiences.


One wonders what fans of that film will make of Kinds of Kindness. Lanthimos, for the first time since The Killing of a Sacred Deer, in 2017, returns to work with his writing collaborator Efthymis Filippou. A full 15 years ago the two men, then unknown Greek experimentalists, won the Un Certain Regard prize here for Dogtooth.

The new film is almost as forbidding as that shocker. Comprising three largely discrete segments, each employing the same core cast, Kinds of Kindness is twisty, savage, profane and brittle as glass. There are few easy ways into the absurdist stories. The mainstream audience that flocked to Poor Things may be in for a shock.

“I understand your question,” says Stone. “But you have to understand we thought we should go and make this movie because everyone was going to think Poor Things was insane. But this one – ha ha! Poor Things was a great example that there’s no way to gauge. Making that film, every single day after work, Yorgos and I would be talking. I’d be, like, ‘How do you think it’s going?’ And he was, like, ‘It’s a disaster. Oh, it’s a colossal disaster.’ I was, like, ‘I thought so. Okay, just making sure!’”

Stone was also a producer of Poor Things. Alongside Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe, the Irish founders of Element, and Lanthimos, she became one of those nominated for best picture at the Oscars. Lest anyone think Kinds of Kindness was knocked together over the past few weeks, it is worth noting that Poor Things began shooting in the summer of 2021. This successor went before the cameras more than a year later. (These things take time.) I wonder if Stone found it hard to relinquish production duties when moving from one project to the next. Was she, while making Kinds of Kindness, on the point of raising a finger to assert control she no longer had?

“Not with Yorgos, because I’ll just tell him what I think,” she says good-naturedly. “It doesn’t matter whether I have the name of producer or not on it. It feels totally, totally comfortable and lovely. I do think it would make it maybe a little harder after you’ve tasted the idea of being able to see every facet of the process and have an opinion on it. It’s been a very special kind of shift.”

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Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone. Photograph: Thea Traff/The New York Times

It does feel a little as if we are living on Stone’s planet. Now 35, she was acting in her home state of Arizona at the age of 12. (Incredibly, she got her second Oscar, for Poor Things, at a later age than Elizabeth Taylor got hers, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) A few years later, after a spell of reality TV, she secured breakthrough roles in Superbad and Easy A. Her first Oscar came for La La Land, in 2016, and she has spent the interim reinforcing the bridgehead. Another nomination for Lanthimos’s The Favourite, in 2018. She comes across as unstoppable joker – the famous throaty cackle is as frequent in real life – but we can safely assume she has a knot of steel in her spine.

Anyway, back to the original question. Poor Things did have something like a conventional character arc. Kinds of Kindness is closer to the perplexing weirdness of Lanthimos’s early Greek work. Mind you, as she joked earlier, they worried that Poor Things would go over audience’s heads.

“And then the response was just mind-blowing,” she says. “I’ve learned enough in my time to know that you can feel, like, ‘Doesn’t everybody get this? Doesn’t everybody find this funny?’ And people don’t. ‘God, everyone’s going to think this is ... ’ And then, all of a sudden, they respond in a different way. So I don’t know that I really have expectations. I feel so proud to be part of the movie. I love this film. I have had to learn to let that part go. There’s no way to gauge.”

Kinds of Kindness: Emma Stone and Yorgos Lanthimos. Photograph: Thea Traff/New York Times

It seems the project has been floating around the cinematic ether for aeons. One might reasonably assume that this was a case of getting the band back together for a reunion gig. But that’s not quite how it was. Lanthimos, a burly fellow with (as you might expect from his films) a dry wit, is happy to take me back through the process with Filippou.

“I didn’t get back with him,” he says. “We’re always working on things. Killing of a Sacred Deer was 2017. We immediately started writing something else. I started developing a lot of projects. Deciding which one goes next is always ... which script comes together first and other conditions: who’s available? Where can you shoot? Weather? Whatever. We’re always working together. Whenever we finish, we start something new.”

The first of the three stories – all were filmed in a New Orleans unrecognisable to the tourist – finds Plemons trying to break away from Willem Dafoe’s tyrannical libertine. The second recasts Plemons as a police officer disturbed by the changes in his wife – Stone at full stretch – when she reappears after a period in the wilderness. The third has Stone in the thrall of Dafoe’s weird cult leader. There is a sense of those British horror anthology films from the 1960s and 1970s that packed three or four icky yarns in one nifty package. But Kinds of Kindness is not quite so economic. This is a long film packed with disturbing incident.

“We started writing the one story after reading about Caligula,” says Lanthimos. “It was supposed to be this one story. But soon after, we felt the need to experiment a little bit with form – to do something we hadn’t done before. So we came up with the idea of making a triptych film. And we sat down and collected our ideas, and we made a list. We just instinctively chose two more that would go with this one thing we had started working on.”

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Kinds of Kindness: Emma Stone and Jesse Plemons in Yorgos Lanthimos’s film. Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima

One inevitably wonders about connections between different characters played by the same actor. Are they variations on each other? Are they in conversation? Plemons does more protagonist work. Dafoe does more than one sinister magus. The actors at the Carlton today are still reeling from a first glance of the film. Who knows how such a thing would turn out? Lanthimos is unconventional at the best of times. But we are dealing in full-throttle madness here. Qualley, who is also launching the buzzy horror The Substance at Cannes, seems to buy that line.

“When I first read the script, I knew the parts I was playing,” she says. “‘I’m going do this, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this.’ I couldn’t really appreciate the movie as a whole until I watched it. Maybe not even for the first time but for the second time ... I guess that’s kind of natural. But the process of making it felt like a free-falling experience, kind of like swinging at something and hoping and trusting that it will work out.”

There are, indeed, risks there. There was, in the puritanical United States, a good deal of hand-wringing at the explicit rumpy-pumpy in Poor Things. Sometimes it’s as if the 1960s never happened. Kinds of Kindness, as a less easily accessible movie, will not trigger so much chatter, but Lanthimos is certainly not dialling down the sexual content. The middle section features an eye-popping menage a quatre that must have caused headaches for the professionals now tasked with ensuring such sequences compromise no participants.

“We had an amazing intimacy co-ordinator, who was really wonderful,” says Stone. “We all had conversations with her before we went in. We talked about every single aspect of how they’re going to be switching up or whatever. She was there the whole time. It was a closed, very safe set. At that point we knew each other pretty well and felt trust with each other. The secret to any scene like that, which I learned in a major way on Poor Things, is intimacy co-ordinators. When there is someone there – and that is their sole job – to make sure that everybody’s comfortable, then you can work it all out and choreograph it. It changes everything.”

Kinds of Kindess: Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe and Emma Stone in Cannes. Photograph: Sam Hellmann/New York Times

Plemons, an agreeable fellow with laconic delivery, felt similarly comfortable.

“Yeah, and they’re guiding you through the uncomfortable conversations that must happen,” he says. “It just helps so much to have someone that this is what they do. It helped also that she was an actor for a long time herself, this intimacy co-ordinator. Because it’s always inherently really weird.”

Stone says, “Yeah, but the intimacy co-ordinators are kind of unshockable. You can talk about all of these things. And they’re, like, ‘Yeah, no, that doesn’t make sense. And that doesn’t look real here. So you’re going to move like this.’ It’s so helpful. It makes it more like dancing than what it looks like.”

After playing Bella Baxter in Poor Things and now a trio of characters in Kinds of Kindness, it feels as if Stone is testing every weapon in her theatrical arsenal. Next she moves on to Eddington, the new Ari Aster film, with Austin Butler and Pedro Pescal, which is sure to be a hot ticket in 2025.

“I did a project between Poor Things things and this – I did a TV show called The Curse. And I think that may be helped,” she says. In that extraordinary series for Apple she played one half of an appalling, pseudo-progressive couple patronising everyone as they make a reality series.

“Bella and the character I played on the TV show could not be more opposite, in terms of who they are and what drives them,” she says. “So moving into this was just really liberating – and fun and freeing. I do have the benefit of having worked with Yorgos many times. I knew I would get my sea legs soon and things would start to develop and unfold.”

Planet Stone is in orbit.

Kinds of Kindness is in cinemas from Friday, June 28th