Cailee Spaeny is deft at inhabiting worlds on the outer edges of reality.
In the sci-fi action thriller “Pacific Rim Uprising,” she portrays a robot-fighter wunderkind with rock ‘em-sock ‘em gusto. In the supernatural horror film “The Craft: Legacy,” she’s a good girl gone grunge singing Alanis Morissette’s 1990s alterna-anthem “Hand in My Pocket” years before Olivia Rodrigo booked the band The Breeders as a tour opener. In Cailee’s new film “Priscilla”, truth is often more otherworldly than any fictional script. The biopic, directed by Sofia Coppola, is adapted from Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me” which traces the puppy love of Priscilla (played by Spaeny) and Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi).
Spaeny, who is 25, captures the rock-and-roll romance through Priscilla’s evolving perspective, from the unseen (the film opens with Priscilla as a 16-year-old army brat hobnobbing with Elvis at grown- up cocktail parties in Germany) to the uncomfortable (in Graceland, she is dosed with 500 milligrams of Placidyl by the singer that knocks her out for 48 hours) to the unexpected (for the couple’s first kiss, Coppola and her husband Thomas Mars of the band Phoenix chose a Joan Jett cover of “Crimson and Clover” as the soundtrack.) “Priscilla took on so much and she really understood from a very young age how Elvis’s fame worked,” Spaeny said, during a recent interview over tea in London. “She always saw him as this young vulnerable man who didn’t know how to navigate a world that terrified him. Not to get into any sort of pop psychology, but it’s fascinating to think about what it all means.” Here, Spaeny discusses the pleasures of Coppola’s cinematic universe, being turned into a decades-spanning “living doll” by costume designer Stacey Battat, and the life lessons picked up from phone chats with Priscilla herself.
Alex Hawgood: Hi! So, I just caught a screening of “Priscilla” yesterday. It’s always fun to see someone’s art and then directly be able to have a chat with them about it.
Cailee Spaeny: I’m curious: Has it set in yet, do you think?
AH: I mean, in many ways, the project feels both like a matter-of-fact documentary and a hazy daydream, if that makes sense. But that seems to be how Coppola intended to capture the arch of the Presley’s bad romance — from fourteen-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu meeting twenty four-year old Elvis Presley in 1959 up to the couple’s Las Vegas wedding in 1967, the birth of their only child, Lisa Marie, one year later, and eventual Graceland separation in 1972.
CS: Well, I think you’re right to say that it is very much dreamlike and impressionistic. Sofia did such a great job in capturing their emotions in this film. I can’t take any credit for that — that’s all Sofia. I was sort of running around, like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to figure out how to keep track of the arc of the story we were telling: the long band of her life with Elvis. We shot it completely out of order in 30 days. So, one morning I’d be 14 years old. And then after lunch, I might be 24 and pregnant. It was sort of tricky to keep it all in line. Thankfully, I got to really lean on Sofia. She’s got such a distinct vision for these things. You can tell she’s mapped out in her head exactly what she needs. I could imagine her cutting scenes in her head as we were filming. You just let her do her thing and be guided by her. Having Jacob there, who was playing Elvis, was also great to lean on. We really had each other’s backs.
AH: I know the movie is based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir. Did you get to speak with Priscilla? I might be tempted to opt-out of involving myself in a movie about my life.
CS: I had a few sit downs and phone calls with Priscilla herself. I leaned heavily on the book and those conversations with her. It meant so much for me to get it right for her, since her narrative has been really eclipsed by him for so long. It was really major to get that right, for her. And, you know, thankfully, we had a really great time out at the Venice Film Festival, too. Priscilla was there. She seemed really moved by the film, which is all I could really ask for.
AH: Another thing I noticed is how the complications, contradictions and craziness of their courtship is captured without any 2023-style judgment.
CS: We really wanted to let go of any judgment of Priscilla’s story. Let’s hear her side and just tell everything like it was. It’s a look at the human story behind who these people were, behind the curtains. One thing that Priscilla tried to make very clear to me was that the love was there. It was real. I really just tried to hold on to that as we moved throughout their relationship, which, at times, was very complicated and tumultuous. I tried to really look at everything through her lens: What their relationship meant when they met. What were the things he found in her, and what were the things that she found in him. Their companionship, and why they felt safe with each other. Sofia told their story in a way that is very unflinching. Some of the facts, which I wasn’t aware of when I first got this script, are startling at times. But it’s important to tell stories exactly as they are and not turn away. Overall, I just tried to be open and hope the world can hear from her side.
AH: The film does a masterful job at showing how, despite the fact that he’s a rock-and-roll icon grappling with unheard of levels of fame, she grounded him.
CS: You know, I think hearing Priscilla talk about a level of loneliness in her childhood — being this Air Force brat moving around the world, not really being able to connect with anyone in a proper way — helped me understand Elvis as this man who was completely isolated and unable to deal with this never-before-seen fame. I was really taken with the way Priscilla told that side of the story. She, for whatever reason, was an open ear for him. And, you know, she was always described as an old soul. I think she was there to listen when he didn’t ever have that. She knew from a very young age how important it was for him to have that. I think she took great pride in that.
AH: You portray Priscilla at so many different pivotal stages in their life, from a teenage girl learning the ins and outs of Memphis to the mother of a young girl looking for a way out of Graceland.
CS: Honestly, I was intimidated by it. I didn’t want it to come across — well, it would have been really, sort of, awkward and strange to see this 24 year-old-actress playing someone 10 years younger than her, you know? It could end up, like, weird — just ‘off’ and creepy. Everything I did was because I really wanted it to feel genuine. And I do have a young face. So, it’s interesting: I get perceived as much younger than I am. I’ve had different numbers thrown at me throughout my career, depending on how I present myself or how I look or dress or how I’m acting. I’m sort of hyper aware of that now because of just the way that I look. And I’m short, and I’ve got a younger-looking face. So I take in how people perceive me all the time — and why they perceive me like that. I think maybe that was unconsciously there in me while we were filming. And then physicality was a big thing, in the way that I held myself. Though I thought about all those things, I really didn’t know how it was going to play out until I got there. The costumes, hair and makeup also really this grounding anchor, especially because we were filming so out of order. They sort of clocked me into, ‘Ok, this is where I am on the timescale.’ The second I put on my 1950s poodle skirt, you know, I just moved differently. And then once I was in that massive beehive with the jet-black hair, I almost had no other option but to sort of hold myself in a doll-like, stiffer way. And then once Priscilla moves into the ’70s — and she gets her bell bottom jeans and her blown out blonde hair and her tan and her glow — that influenced my movement and how I held myself in those scenes. So, it was all really important.
AH: Beyond Priscilla’s amazing hair, body and face, the film is a visual Elvis feast. I was particularly obsessed with the tufted black leather walls of his boudoir and the life-size wooden sculpture of an Afghan Hound by his desk.
CS: It was unreal, right? Sofia works with the same people over and over again, which is a testament to her and says a lot about how important getting details right is for her. Sometimes I would be a bit confused, like, ‘Why are we spending so much time having this shot of me putting on my shoes? I don’t get it.’ But watching the film, it’s so moving — you know, this young girl wandering through Graceland surrounded by stillness and quietness. You see that in films from the ’70s, which is my Golden Age of filmmaking. I feel like these days, we’re obsessed with the pacing and keeping people entertained. There’s just something about Sofia, as a person and as a director, where she exudes stillness as confidence. And you can feel that pride in her filmmaking. I do feel like I became a pro at insert shots by the end of the film. You know, I had to lay dresses out exactly in the right place or, I would take out a Chanel perfume that had to land perfectly in the light. Like, I got pretty good at it. By the end, I understood what Sofia was doing.
AH: Costume designer Stacey Battat nailed the film’s decades-spanning wardrobe.
CS: I got really good at walking in heels, which, anyone who knows me knows is so far from who I am. I mean, if I’m comfy, I’m good. Like, I love sweatpants. I don’t ever wear dresses unless I have to. But it was so much fun to play in that world. And Stacy, who Sofia has worked with multiple times, had such a mountain to climb with this movie. There were more costume changes for me than page count, which was sort of astonishing. I did the math one day. I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ I mean, the hours of costume fittings Stacy put in — the use of colors and what they mean throughout the story alone — it’s just... And I think it was really satisfying taking those iconic looks that we all know — one of them, in particular, I just think sort of says so much. I love the moment where Priscilla is putting on false eyelashes, right before she goes to give birth. That’s something straight out of the book. That shot just gives you so much context. I remember the sun was going down, so we had no time to shoot it. We did it in two or three takes. Or, the huge beehive and this beautiful hot pink thigh length dress she wears after she gave birth to Lisa Marie. I mean, to be able to wear a look on set and then compare it, side by side, with the actual real-life moment is just so incredible. Our makeup and hair trailer was covered in photos tracking Priscilla’s actual life. I felt like a real life doll. Sofia and her team just sort of swirl around me and do their magic. And I just sort of got to, you know, then live in it. It was a great time — a great, great time.
Hair James Rowe
Nails Robbie Tomkins
Set Design Hella Keck
Casting Greg Krelenstein
Production CEBE Studio