Cailee Spaeny has had a promising young career starring in films such as “Pacific Rim Uprising,” “Bad Times at the El Royale,” “On the Basis of Sex,” “Vice,” “The Craft: Legacy,” and “How It Ends.” But her work on Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” has brought her the most enormous acclaim of her career so far. She won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the 80th Venice International Film Festival where the film had its world premiere and has recently been nominated for a Gotham Award for Outstanding Lead Performance. Cailee was kind enough to spend a few minutes speaking with us about her work in the film which can be read below.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Cailee, thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you for having me.
I’m very excited to talk to you. The film is beautiful. And in “Priscilla,” you have to play the title character from the age of fourteen to her early thirties at the end of the film, from this innocent who’s trapped at an army base to the wife of the most famous singer on the planet. Was there something that you figured out with how you were holding your face and body to make that happen? Or was it more makeup and costuming?
It’s a combination of all those things because we only had 30 days to film this movie, and we shot it out of order. You try your best to map out how you will play this arc because the movie is about her journey and her life through the years with him. So you do as much research as you can, and you sort of make decisions on how you’re going to differentiate yourself between the ages and what that means in terms of how you hold yourself and your body language and the sort of attitude that you have and the confidence that grows.
But then, you know, I felt like more than any other film that I’ve done, I was so aware of how I held myself and what different things, subtle changes in my body language and my voice and, you know, a flick of an eye would say when making this particular film. Especially because the way it’s shot is so picturesque and really holds onto these silent moments.
Then, of course, hair, makeup, and the costumes were a huge part of trying to put this puzzle together and were really the final piece in understanding how I was actually going to execute those moments. They really do sort of inform how you’re going to move, how you act, and how you feel. You know, when you have a beehive that’s another head on top of your head, and you’re wearing little dresses and high heels, you sort of move like a doll. Or when you’re in the fifties, and wearing these petticoats with some kind of light pinks, you tend to hold yourself differently then.
And then when she goes into the seventies, she’s wearing her denim bell bottom jeans, and she’s got her seventies blowout, and she’s taken the eyeliner off, and she’s a woman now. She’s a mother. She’s found herself more. You can come into your own. So those were real anchors, especially because I would be pregnant in the morning and fourteen after lunch. You really sort of held on to anything you could. Those are the moments when you really have to lean on your fellow creatives, trust them, and collaborate.
You mentioned how in each different outfit or look with the hair and makeup, you sort of felt differently, and that brought a different feeling to the character. We love a Sofia Coppola makeover sequence here. And I love that this one feels almost like, you know, a knight putting on armor or like a superhero suiting up. Did it feel like that for you on set, becoming this character in that way every day?
It was fun. It really was like a makeover for me. You did feel like you were playing dress up with her in a Sofia Coppola world with, you know, getting the playground of this time period and the colors she used. She really understands that the devil’s in the details. It says so much in those moments that we hold on to
And I love the moment of her applying false eyelashes right before she’s about to give birth. She’s sort of a master at telling stories through shots like that. Still, there’s also such an emotional side in Priscilla’s journey in terms of how she used makeup, hair, and fashion to tell her own story, as well as the different characters that she put on throughout the years with Elvis.
Absolutely. To that end, there’s an extended scene in the film of Priscilla and Elvis taking pictures of each other in their bedroom. And the thought running through my mind was, are those the actual pictures that Cailee and Jacob took of each other that they used in the film?
Some of them are, I believe!
Yeah? What was the direction that Sofia gave you for how to shoot each other?
It wasn’t much direction, haha. It was “look cute, have fun, and take good photos,” you know? So, you know, she gave us a lot of freedom, which was fun, but scenes like that could also be terrifying. Those were awkward moments for me to feel confident in those scenes, but it was fun. And Jacob was such a great actor to work with. I felt like I could trust him and bounce off of him. And we tried our best just to have fun and play in those scenes.
It comes across. You said earlier that you did a lot of research for this role. Was there any one piece of information that was the key to unlocking how you gave this performance?
I don’t know if anything was as simple as that. I never had an “aha moment.” But sitting down with Priscilla Presley herself was definitely huge. Just to be sitting across from this woman, watching her relive these moments in her life, you know, these highs and lows, and you could really feel she would go back to those days with him as she was telling the story and whether they were the sort of darker moments or they were inside jokes that they shared and fond memories. She’d sort of giggle like she was back in that day. Again, you saw her eyes light up. So that’s a memory I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.
And this film is now a memory we can all take with us. And that’s really beautiful. Thank you so much, Cailee, for joining us.
And good luck with your next film.
Oh, thanks so much. Thanks.
“Priscilla” is up for your consideration for this year’s Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor. Please make sure to check out the film which is releasing this weekend from A24 in theaters.