‘Priscilla’ Star Cailee Spaeny Talks the ‘Tough Shoot’ That Led to Her Award-Winning Performance

“It’s an instant yes, if Sofia Coppola’s name is on it,” said actress Cailee Spaeny of accepting the lead role in “Priscilla,” regardless of the challenges it may bring, and the films it could be compared to. “You just don’t ask any questions, even if it’s something like this, which is so intimidating to take on. Within her hands, it’s a no-brainer.”

Long before she was tapped to star in the Oscar winner’s film adaptation of Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me,” Spaeny considered Coppola a personal hero who helped shape her cultural tastes. “I found Sofia’s work when I was around 15 years old, through ‘The Virgin Suicides,’” she said to IndieWire over Zoom. “I never thought about who was behind the camera until I watched her movies.” Within a year the young Missouri native got her first callback from the director for a film that did not end up happening,

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However, it was getting on the radar of Fred Roos, a former casting director and current producer who works closely with the filmmaking family, years later that put Spaeny in the running for “Priscilla.” All of the sudden, there is a call asking if she is free to grab coffee with Coppola in New York. “OK, my bags are packed. I’m ready to go. What does she want?,” said Spaeny in the moment. Entering the meeting with the director, still having no clue what was going on, “Twenty minutes in, [she’s] pulling out her iPad and saying, ‘I’m really interested in this story,’ showing me photos of Priscilla Presley,” said the actress. “I think maybe you could do it,” said Coppola.

Having the filmmaker’s muse Kirsten Dunst (Spaeny’s co-star in an upcoming Alex Garland film) as a personal reference sealed the deal. “Obviously, I grew up watching them collaborating, and so to enter into this movie with that approval was nice,” said the 25-year-old.

Coppola quickly exceeded any expectations Spaeny had of working with her, making it clear early on she had faith in the actress and Jacob Elordi, who plays Elvis opposite her Priscilla, “which is something that you don’t always have,” said Spaeny. “She’s really great at setting a tone where everyone feels like they can collaborate, and she has a perfect balance of knowing when to hone in and also knowing when to relax and have fun, and just celebrate the fact that we get to make movies. So it’s a really gentle set to be on, which is almost never the case.”

Jacob Elordi, Cailee Spaeny, Sofia Coppola
Jacob Elordi, Cailee Spaeny, and director Sofia Coppola on the set of “Priscilla”Sabrina Lantos

Especially given how the A24 film only had 30 days to complete production. “The amount of scenes we had to try to film in a day, and the age ranges within a day were almost a joke,” said the star. Determining how to navigate playing Priscilla as a bashful Catholic school girl, a high-glam ’60s rocker wife, and a more sleek, independent woman of the ’70s, in what could be all in one day, “all came down to money. ‘What’s going to save us the most money? How can we be the most resourceful,” said Spaeny. “And then the second conversation is, ‘Is this practical? How are we going to get the jet black eyeliner off her face in time to make her look 14 again?’ and ‘Are we going to have enough time to bronze her skin for the ’70s?’”

“It’s always a dream world that you’re not going to take any of that on, but when you’re in the trenches, and it is such a collaborative project you do,” she added. “You’re there like, ‘How do I help you? How do you help me? How can I get this wig off in time? I need to hold still, so you get this wig on my head. You make me look good, I make you look good.’ In a fantasy world, you’re like, ‘I’m just going to be in my bubble and I’m going to be in my moment the whole time.’ But it doesn’t work out that way, especially when you’re flying by the seat of your pants and you’ve got all creatives and heads of departments going, ‘How are we going to make this work?’ And scrambling till the last second.”

In her estimation, it was Coppola’s kindness through the struggle to execute her specific vision in such a short time that kept collaborators at their A-game. “This was a tough shoot for all departments, but they got creative and they just made it work,” said Spaeny. “Everyone had to be in tune with each other. There was no room for whatever bullshit sometimes happens behind the scenes. We all are trying to do the same thing, we’re heading for the same goal. We’re doing this for Sofia, we’re doing this for Priscilla as well, and we don’t have time to mess around. We all had to be team players.”

VENICE, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 04: (L-R) Sofia Coppola, Priscilla Presley, Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi attend a red carpet for the movie "Priscilla" at the 80th Venice International Film Festival on September 04, 2023 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
Sofia Coppola, Priscilla Presley, Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi attend a red carpet for the movie “Priscilla” at the 80th Venice International Film FestivalVittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Despite the age gap between Elvis and Priscilla Presley being a major factor in the film, Spaeny is only one year younger than her co-star Elordi, making their familiarity with the material more comparable. “We approach movies in similar ways, and we’re really just nerds about the whole thing. We would call each other and swap notes or, ‘Oh, I found this bit of footage. Have you seen this before,’” said the actress. Being in the trenches on a hurried, independent production, “We really had to trust each other, and I knew that anytime I came to set, he was going to be prepared. He was going to come in with ideas and thoughts, and I was always excited, every day, to see what he brought to the table,” said Spaeny.

Priscilla Presley herself was also a supportive presence, having an hours-long meeting with her before production to tell her “I have all the faith in you. You’re going to do a great job. I’m right here, if you need to talk about anything, whether it’s the movie or if you’re just feeling stressed and you need to give me a call,” said Spaeny.

“Priscilla” finally premiered at the Venice Film Festival in early September to much acclaim, including a seven-minute standing ovation, which was such a whirlwind experience for Spaeny that she is still processing it all. “I didn’t even know that was a thing,” said the star of being awarded the festival’s Volpi Cup for Best Actress. “I actually haven’t even looked up who the past winners are. … Hopefully it’s good for the film. It’s such a relief taking on this, the most complicated character I’ve ever played, and to have that appreciated is so nice. And maybe it’ll be good for me. I don’t know. I don’t know what those things mean. I just know they’re good, so I’m trying to just enjoy it.” It is especially meaningful to hear positive feedback from Presley after working so hard to do right by her story. “It’s amazing that we’re getting a great response and critics like it, but that is the ultimate review,” said Spaeny.

The breakout approaches her first award season in a similar fashion to how she took on the lead role, doing her best to stay grounded through all the noise. “I want to really take each one of these moments in and appreciate it, and just not take it for granted,” said Spaeny. “A lot of these things can be overwhelming, and I can black out because it’s a lot, but the thing that I try to remind myself is to just be present.”

It is hard for her to determine what to do next, especially with the SAG strike still ongoing (though theater is a challenge that interests her), but Spaeny already has wrapped multiple projects with directors like Garland and Zoe Lister-Jones. She wouldn’t dare ask Coppola when their next collaboration will be, but Spaeny does say, “I want to be working with creatives who have a strong vision and I’ve gotten lucky to work with many, and Sofia is right at the top of that list. So I hope that my career continues, and I keep working with people who just have a distinct clear view and have original ideas.”

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