In explaining the rationale behind making the Disney origin story Cruella, Australian director Craig Gillespie offers the clearest explanation.
“Villains are always so fun to portray,” says the I, Tonya director in a Zoom press conference for the film. “You just have more licence to do things that aren’t quite appropriate or push the boundaries, and create these larger-than-life characters.”
Notwithstanding the bifurcated look of Cruella De Vil’s hair, “it was really important to me that it was not black and white,” he says.
“I wanted there to be this grey area and be able to empathize with the choices that she was making, and the situations that she was responding to,” Gillespie says of the character, who originally appeared onscreen in animated form as the puppy-coveting villain of 1961’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians. “And I wanted to do it in a way that was really fun.”
On that mission, he had a willing confederate in Emma Stone, an actress whose body of work generally suggests a good-hearted young woman (Easy A, La La Land) with only occasional detours onto the sketchy side of the street (Zombieland).
Yet, as played by Stone, there is a Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect to the character, whom we first encounter as Estella, a tough but benign would-be fashion designer in 1970s London who is forced by circumstance to assume the more fiendish persona of Cruella, an alter ego.
“Estella is sweet, but she’s not fully embodied,” says Stone, 32. “There is something about Cruella that’s pretty enticing, because she just kind of is who she is. She’s in full acceptance and autonomy there.
“So I am kind of interested in that Cruella world,” she says. “That said, she does some things and (crosses) some lines that I don’t think I would necessarily cross.”
Stone admits that it’s far more fun for her to play the broadly villainous Cruella.
“For a lot of roles, if you’re someone like me that kind of has a face that’s made of full rubber and is always trying to contain a little bit — teaspoons instead of buckets — when you get to throw buckets, it’s a joy.”
As for Cruella, there is an aspect to the character that may even be instructive to young girls: the short-fused nature of young Estella, tamped down by her mother, is also a sign of her strength.
“What her mother would deem a weakness early on with her ability to really hit the ceiling quickly, her volatility, her reactiveness, becomes sort of her strength through her creativity and through her genius,” Stone says, adding that the film has a message about how it’s possible to turn weakness into strengths.
“Although, again, this isn’t necessarily an aspirational character, except for in the fact that she’s really harnessing her creativity and who she is in a very strong way, and she’s learning to accept that who she is in her nature.
“The original character of Cruella De Vil does get to some pretty dark places, and I wouldn’t necessarily call those a positive,” she says. “But that’s not weak. That is strong still.”
See Saturday’s Weekend Review for Randall King’s review of Cruella.