At Cannes, Emma Stone and Jesse Plemons Talk Dominance and Control in the Kinky ‘Kinds of Kindness’

Emma Stone and Jesse Plemons are hungry, wolfing down sandwiches at the start of our “Kinds of Kindness” (June 21, Searchlight) interview. They’re in Cannes to promote the singular three-part anthology film, which has been well-received. They laugh a lot. She’s a Yorgos Lanthimos veteran, and just won her second Oscar embodying the free-spirited Bella Baxter in “Poor Things.” After that, it seems, nothing will faze her and she’ll do anything for her soulmate director. Announced at Cannes: Their next movie to be shot this summer, “Bugonia” (Focus Features), a remake of a Korean thriller, co-starring Plemons.

The 36-year-old one-time child actor is the new kid in town, joining such familiar faces as Stone, Margaret Qualley, and Willem Dafoe in the Lanthimos ensemble. When the “Fargo” and “Killers of the Flower Moon” star got the call from his agent, even before he read the “Kinds of Kindness” script, he said, “I’m doing it. I read it and ‘Whoa. This is going to be quite a rollercoaster.'”

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The cast prepped for the movie via the usual Lanthimos rehearsals, which avoid intellectual discussion in favor of physicality and playtime. “It’s like, oh, God, what am I doing?,” said Stone. But they also steeped themselves in his old movies, the ones co-written with Efthymis Filippou, “The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” and “Dogtooth.”

Lanthimos and Filippou have been writing the script off and on between other projects over five years. Lanthimos took advantage of the long VFX process on “Poor Things” to push “Kinds of Kindness” forward.

“It was meaningful to him after we made ‘Poor Things,’ five years after we made “The Favourite,'” said Stone. “And he had taken a break that whole time. He hadn’t made a film in between. So this was nine months after we shot ‘Poor Things.’ To be back in this world with Efthymis and a world of his own, there was a sense of joy in that for him and consequently, for all of us. But it’s heavy themes and situations going on. So it’s definitely not a cakewalk. Except for the dance part, which I thought was great. That was just fun.”

Stone came up with the idea of dancing by a car. “Then we just improvised and spent a while picking the song and that was really it.” They picked “Brand New Bitch” by Cobrah, which Searchlight used for an early trailer.

The movie started out with the first story, then expanded to three standalone shorts that share a world (an anonymous-looking New Orleans) and themes of dominance and submission.

“This was not a throwback, but it felt like re-entering those worlds that they create,” said Stone, who left behind the period flavors of the Tony McNamara scripts. “‘The Favorite’ and ‘Poor Things’ are both technically period films. They also were shot in Europe. And this was America modern day, it just felt different in every way. After this many projects together, I enjoyed to do something that Yorgos and Efthymis had written.”

“This felt like a return to the form of his earlier films,” said Plemons. “But then in a way, it also felt like a step in a new direction. With such simple themes too, but explored in such wild ways.”

After doing a “Yorgos Film Festival for myself,” said Stone, “Willem and I were talking about this recurrent theme of control that’s in every single one of them, including ‘Poor Things.’ There’s an element of control in all of it. [Yorgos is] clearly drawn to this, the nature of how we submit ourselves to it, or how we try to overpower it or why we need it and what it means and freedom of choice. And I saw that so much in all three of these stories.”

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 18: Jesse Plemons, Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone attend the 'Kinds Of Kindness' Photocall at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 18, 2024 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
Jesse Plemons, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Emma Stone attend the ‘Kinds of Kindness’ photocall at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des FestivalsGetty Images

In each installment, you see characters desperate to fit in and belong and find comfort. It’s heartbreaking to watch, because they have no free agency. They can’t function on their own.

“These things that we need in the world, or we need to feel comfortable, are the choices that we make to put ourselves in these positions,” said Stone, who carries the third episode. “There’s so much that she’s not in control of, and that she tried to be in control of, and she wants to find the Messiah. Out of context, it sounds insane! But you delude yourself into feeling like someone else is going to fix it for you, or that you need like a figure to tell you what to do.”

“They’re choosing to live this way,” said Plemons, who feels strongly that audiences should be able to interpret these strange stories themselves. We debate whether his character in the second episode is crazy. I had no doubt of it. “You think? Did you see the ending?” said Stone.

Lanthimos wants us to question authority, said Plemons: “All these things that we are taught as a human to just accept, there’s no thought, not much questioning that that goes into these institutions and these constructs that we build as people to make us feel safe and secure. And Yorgos seems to be taking these simple things that we’ve been conditioned to put all our faith in and not question, he’s examining all of these things in a way that no one else seems to be doing like him.”

KINDS OF KINDNESS, from left: Emma Stone, Joe Alwyn, 2024. ph: Atsushi Nishijima / © Searchlight Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
Emma Stone and Joe Alwyn in ‘Kinds of Kindness’©Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

While making a movie with Lanthimos is “never fun,” said Stone, this quieter film put her under less pressure than carrying “Poor Things” herself. “Jesse definitely is the true lead of this film,” said Stone. “But the ensemble of this film is also so amazing. All of the actors that are here [in Cannes], we’re all together again, seven or eight of us. And the movie is rotating around these changing characters and we’re getting to be together the whole time.”

Plemons felt the pressure. “It was crazy exciting, and a little scary,” he said. It didn’t help when his director screened a rough cut of “Poor Things” three or four days before the start of shooting. “OMG, this movie’s brilliant.”

“He was sitting in the back of the theater group having a fully sweaty shake attack,” said Stone, laughing.

KINDS OF KINDNESS, from left: Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, 2024. © Searchlight Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection
‘Kinds of Kindness’©Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

One way that the universe is off-kilter is the sexual mores the characters follow. And following the control theme, “in terms of the dynamic, there’s a sub-dom thing,” said Plemons. Dafoe is often the dominant player.

For Stone, “Poor Things” obviously sparked many discussions about sex. “The most resounding question was with the sexuality of the film,” she said. “What it means to Bella, what is everything else she’s learning, all of these things that she’s living with gusto in life. I understand the sexual component of course, because that’s a theme that’s usually taboo and a little off limits and that’s Yorgos’ bread and butter. But I would argue violence features more prominently as a theme in this than sex. There’s a lot of violence, whether inflicted upon people or upon ourselves in the commentary on violence in this, and other different kinds of kindness.”

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