Priscilla star Cailee Spaeny: "She wanted to make sure we showed the love between them"
Cailee Spaeny talks exclusively to RadioTimes.com about Priscilla, her dream of working with Sofia Coppola and the complicated love story at the film's centre.
In early 2022, rising star Cailee Spaeny was shocked to hear that Sofia Coppola wanted to meet her in New York for a coffee. The actress wasn’t told anything about why the iconic filmmaker wanted to meet her, but admitted that she would have taken anything she was offered to get the chance to work with her “dream” director.
“I found her movies when I was 15 and they cracked me open on a personal level,” said Spaeny. “I had never seen stories told in that way. It felt so bold and so vastly different from all the commercial films I'd grown up on.”
During the meeting, Coppola stunned Spaeny as she revealed that she wanted her to play Priscilla Presley in her upcoming biopic. The movie will tell the story of one of the most iconic relationships in pop culture history, from the often-overlooked perspective of Priscilla.
This was a dream role for Spaeny, as she grew up in an Elvis-obsessed household. Her family took trips to Graceland together and her mother even collected Elvis memorabilia and had a shrine in her house for the King of Rock and Roll. However, despite all of this, she knew little about Priscilla Presley herself.
“When I finally got the role, it was fascinating to dive into her world because her story got overshadowed by Elvis’s. She has such a unique and interesting point of view of this life that she had with him,” said Spaeny.
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Priscilla Presley is a huge figure in American Pop Culture in the 20th Century, and there would have been countless source materials that Spaeny could have used to get a real grasp of her character.
However, the actress believed that the most effective way to truly understand her character would be to spend time with Priscilla and interview her about this period in her life.
“So much gets answered when you're just sitting right in front of the woman herself. The way she presents herself, the way she talks, how she goes about spending this time with me. It answered 1000 questions just to be able to look her in the eye.”
She added: “I felt really grateful that she was open to doing that with me and watching her eyes light up, like she was right in that moment with him or telling these inside jokes that they had together the specific memories that they shared. It was such a gift to have.”
Understanding Priscilla’s character was one thing, but there was pressure on Spaeny’s shoulders, as this would be the first major movie that depicts the relationship between Elvis and Priscilla from her point of view.
“It becomes such a weight on your shoulders to get it right because I put her on this pedestal. She’s American royalty and she’s very mystic,” said the actress. “This goes out the window when you have the woman sitting right in front of you. I wanted to get the story right for her and represent her life, you carry that with you.”
The movie is adapted from Priscilla’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me and recollects her life with Elvis, from when they met when she was just 14 years old up until their divorce in 1973.
Priscilla captures the highs and lows of their relationship, but Presley was adamant that Spaeny captured the most important thing – the real love the couple shared.
“She wanted to make sure that we showed the love between them because it was there. As well as the pain she went through, the love was real and it was strong. I think overall she looks back fondly at those times in her life and the memories she made. But then she had to make a choice to lead a life of her own,” Spaeny said.
The movie has divided opinion, as the King of Rock and Roll is re-examined in a new light. One of the most prominent dissenting voices was the late Lisa-Marie Presley, who sent Sofia Coppola emails after she read the script, describing it as “shockingly vengeful and contemptuous", as reported by Variety.
She added: “My father only comes across as a predator and manipulative. As his daughter, I don’t read this and see any of my father in this character. I don’t read this and see my mother’s perspective of my father.”
Despite the concerns, Cailee Spaeny believes that Priscilla’s story is necessary and captivating because it is complicated and exists in a “grey area".
“We tried to put that truth on screen and let people decide themselves how they felt about it,” she said. “The movies that I find most interesting are the ones that leave you asking questions, whether it’s within yourself or the people you saw it with. That’s the most interesting thing about movies, it joins you in a conversation with people.”
Elvis is one of the most iconic figures in American history and is still loved and idolised by many to this day. Nevertheless, it was important to remove this mythology of Elvis to get a more balanced story in a way that doesn’t overshadow Priscilla.
Jacob Elordi, who shines as Elvis Presley, told Spaeny to pretend that they were just in a drama playing a regular couple that were going through a rough patch in their marriage.
“It was really exciting and interesting to watch Jacob dive into the version of Elvis that was behind closed doors and where his troubles come from,” she said. “You see this lost boy who’s trying to navigate fame and then you see the side effects of fame and how it affects him and their relationship.
The movie starts in the late '50s and runs through to the early '70s. In typical Sofia Coppola fashion, the audience is transported to this period through beautiful decor, set designs and clothing.
Spaeny said that it was a “dream” to work in this environment because it became immersive and helped keep her grounded. The movie was filmed out of order in 30 days, so the actress sometimes relied on the hair and makeup and costume to remind her what era they were in.
Another key feature of creating an immersive experience was redesigning the iconic Graceland. The Graceland which is shown in the movie is not what it looks like in the present day, as it underwent a huge renovation and redesign and was almost unrecognisable from the '60s and '70s.
The design team only had a couple of photos for reference as they recreated Graceland in Toronto. They wanted the interiors to be as realistic as possible but allowed for creative freedom to have hidden symbolism behind the designs.
“They wanted the colours to tell a story,” said Spaeny. “It was a dreamy Alice in Wonderland-type world, they wanted to feel like you're walking into a wedding cake when you went in there.
“All the staples of Graceland, the rooms that are ingrained in your memory when thinking of Elvis were all there, but then we have the creative freedom to change the tone of her in Germany, which is dark and cold.”