Cruella: Emma Stone reframes the narrative of an iconic villain

Back to the Cinema celebrates Cruella
(Image credit: Disney)

GamesRadar+ and Total Film are celebrating the biggest new releases as we head back to the cinema! This week: Cruella, in which Emma Stone plays the infamous 101 Dalmatians villain. This article first appeared in print – buy the magazine here.

"At first you think Cruella is the devil, but after time has worn away the shock – you come to realize you’ve seen her kind of eyes, watching you from underneath a rock..." So sings sweet spotty dog owner, Roger Radcliffe, about his wife’s wicked, fur-obsessed school friend in Disney’s 1961 animated feature, 101 Dalmatians. 

Introduced as a careless chain-smoking driver with an unhealthy interest in the Radcliffes’ imminent puppies and social niceties as chaotic as her two-tone hair, Cruella is set up from the get-go as an archetypal baddie. Her dog-napping and plans to skin numerous pups for coats has ensured she’s made umpteen villain lists over the years and inspired numerous iterations, but though we knew from Dodie Smith’s 1956 book that Cruella was expelled from school for drinking ink, she has always previously arrived on screen as a fully formed adult. So if at first, as Roger trills, we think she is the devil – what will we think once we’ve been educated about her past? Especially in an era of 'reclaiming the narrative', when a president dismisses a female opponent as a ‘nasty woman’ and at a time when gender politics and the liminality of 'good/bad' behavior is headline news?

"It’s hard to call someone a bad ’un completely when you see them from the very beginning," says Emma Stone, her voice unmistakable over Zoom from LA. As exec producer and lead in a new origin story for De Vil, she’s been instrumental in the construction of a new way to look at Cruella, shepherding the project through various versions and directors over a four-year development. "You know, once you’ve seen the origin story, things start to piece together and make a bit more sense, even though her behavior as an adult is not necessarily excusable in any way. I think by the time you get to the end of [this film], you start to understand how this narrative around Cruella developed."


(Image credit: Disney)

"The audience is getting to make a choice of how funny they think this scene is... or how diabolical"

Director Craig Gillespie

It’s hard to discuss origin stories of iconic villains without thinking of a recent award-winning, male-led project – and Disney’s first trailer for Cruella certainly leaned into a vibe that had social media making comparisons to last year’s Joker. "It’s very different from Joker in many ways," Stone laughs, though she can see why thematic lines could be drawn between the two. "I would never even remotely compare myself to Joaquin Phoenix – I wish I was more like him."

Her director, Craig Gillespie, understands an audience needs to have a cultural point of reference. "There are some really deep, emotional things that Cruella’s dealing with that send her to the villainous darker side. So in that sense, it is [similar]," he says, peering over chunky black glasses. "But it’s definitely its own thing. Just to sort of reframe Cruella, I thought it was important to show this darker side of her. But there’s going to be a lot of fun, a lot of humor in it. There’s a lot of absolutely delightful banter and rhythm to the style of it, which is different from Joker."

Gillespie would certainly understand the tonal juggling act of balancing humor with darkness having helmed Lars And The Real Girl, The United States Of Tara and I, Tonya. He arrived on the film in 2018 after incumbent director Alex Timber left due to scheduling conflicts. Stone, who had been cast since 2016, had seen the original script re-written by Jez Butterworth before Gillespie brought in her The Favourite scriptwriter, Tony McNamara, to revamp. "I’m still sort of amazed that it did all come together," Stone recalls of the process. "Because there were so many different versions of it and possibilities. And then everything fell into place once Craig was hired to direct it. And Tony came on to shape the whole story."

"It was really important to me and Emma Stone to get Tony on to write this, because we get to do this brilliant thing with the dialogue where scenes are simultaneously very loaded and emotional, but also funny," says Gillespie. "The audience is getting to make a choice of how funny they think this scene is... or how diabolical. And then whenever I approach any character, I try to understand where they’re coming from, which I think inherently gives you empathy. It was important to go on this journey with Cruella. And so the audience, while they may not necessarily agree with what she’s doing, they can understand it, and the choices that she’s had to make, given the situation that she’s in. It might not be what you would do, but it just makes it a more fully formed character, to really strip it back, and understand what her pain and journey is."

Cruel Summer

Disney's Cruella movie

(Image credit: Disney)

So what is that pain and journey then? Rather than meet De Vil as the queen of a fashion house, married and plotting puppy-cide, Cruella begins at birth with Estella, the daughter of an impoverished laundrywoman who grows up with an eye for fashion and two partners-in-crime, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) – her fully-fledged henchmen in previous narratives. Ambitious and smart, Estella dreams of becoming as successful as the Baroness (Emma Thompson), the chic figurehead of clothing label House Of Baroness – but an incident between the two women sets off Estella’s transformation to a vengeful, vampish villain with a new moniker.

Set in ’70s London and tapping into the punk aesthetic, the film sees Cruella form a relationship with another young careerist woman, journalist Anita Darling (the Anita of the later versions? No-one’s saying), played by Killing Eve’s Kirby Howell-Baptiste. A long-time Cruella fan, she dressed as the villainess at the age of 15 for Halloween and chooses her as her preferred 'Disney princess'.

"What’s really amazing about the film is that it shows people making the most of their situation," enthuses Brit Howell-Baptise, calling in from LA where she’s filming. "The thing about Cruella is she’s toyed with the idea of being bad, right? She’s not, by any means, this sort of horrible, unrelatable character. It’s this tongue-in-cheek idea of: ‘If you think I’m bad, then why not lean into it? Why don’t I make the most of people’s perceptions?’ Because you can either fight what people think about you, or you can be cheeky about it, and use it in a way that furthers you."

So is Cruella ‘bad’ purely because of media representation and perception? "There is an element of the press, and how press can shape the career of someone," says Stone – pertinently in the week that the Duchess of Sussex is being judged by the media. "Because they both work in fashion, how press and the way they’re spoken about publicly, and how they can control their own sort of press – it affects them, and it affects their careers. So there definitely is an element to the quote-unquote 'narrative' around these women, and how powerful they’re becoming, and what they’re saying in their fashion, and what it means to each other in the sort of rivalry that they form."

Disney's Cruella movie

(Image credit: Disney)

"Oh, man. They’re adorable, but they’re a handful, you know?"

Emma Stone

"The Baroness is the reason for Cruella, unfortunately," admits Thompson. "And that’s very sad, but it’s a wonderful idea." It also promises to provide wonderful cinematic fireworks as Thompson and Stone go stilettoed toe-to-toe. "There are some amazing Emma-on-Emma moments – when the Emmas collide," teases Howell-Baptise, describing watching the two of them work together as a highlight of her career so far. Mark Strong, playing the Baroness’ valet, John (who may not be quite what he seems), agrees: "I feel like I had such good fortune to be working with two of the great Emmas. It’s two incredibly gifted actresses having a lot of fun, snarling at each other! There’s a very clever, subtle interplay between the two of them that is mutually dependent but also, at the same time, slightly jealous. They play that beautifully."

And, says Stone, that’s going to be refreshing to watch – especially in a year that women, both in front of and behind the camera, have made great strides in being recognized for their art and in presenting stories about the female experience. "This is about two very powerful women that express themselves very differently, but are ultimately completely in charge of their destinies. One of the things I like most about them – and there is this in The Favourite – is that they’re not necessarily these aspirational people, they’re very flawed and complicated people. That is an incredible thing to explore as an actor, and as a woman in general. There’s a lot of complication, and a lot of humanity in both of them. But obviously it is a Disney movie. So when I say ‘humanity’, there’s a cartoonish kind of camp element to it, too, that’s so much fun. But long story short – I’d consider this a feminist film."

And as Howell-Baptiste points out, Cruella passes the Bechdel test, which is no bad thing for a generation of little girls watching a Disney movie. "Cruella, Anita, the Baroness – you’re seeing all these women whose priority and goal is growing in their career, with that being the marker of who they are, not  necessarily who they’ve chosen to be with romantically."

"I love that there’s no love interest, there’s no subplot," says Gillespie. "It’s those two going head-to-head – with all that baggage, and all the things that they’re working through. It really allows us to dig into both of those characters, and enjoy them."

Emma Stone in Cruella

(Image credit: Disney)

Of course, the blokes do get a look in on this clash of the titans. I, Tonya star Hauser and Yesterday picture-stealer Fry provide double-act comedy as Cruella’s long-time cohorts. "It starts with them all being very young, and being in a tricky spot and they’ll kind of make the best of their tricky spot..." explains Fry. "Their relationship is equal part family, and a low-key criminal enterprise," nods Hauser from Georgia, where he’s filming a TV show.

For Fry, playing Jasper required little prep ("I’m quite gangly, so that kind of works, you know?" he jokes), but for Hauser it meant nailing a Cockney accent with the specter of Dick Van Dyke hanging over him. Dialect coach Neil Swain (who worked with Stone on The Favourite) was his drill sergeant. "I’m absolutely doing some form of a cockney accent," he laughs. "Neil really worked with me daily to really get it to where it needed to be. I had fun studying people like Bob Hoskins, and trying to sort of emulate that same vocal quality." (Swain also worked with Stone, getting her The Favourite RP dialect to something that she describes as "over the top – an 'on steroids' version of an English accent. You lay it on a little thicker as Cruella".)

And then there’s John, the Baroness’ right-hand man, played by Mark Strong, a man no stranger to playing a baddie. "You think he’s in cahoots with her. And as we begin to learn that the Baroness is perhaps not all that she appears to be, John gets tainted with the same brush, as being part of her crew," he explains. "But he’s part of a tipping point in the movie, a real twist, and a revelation, that is kind of fundamental to who young Cruella is..."

Going to the dogs...

New Disney movie Cruella

(Image credit: Disney)

Of course, there would be no Cruella without her quarry, and although Stone promises that she "isn’t harming any dogs in this one", pooches are prolific in the film, including some obligatory Dalmatians. "Oh, man. They’re adorable, but they’re a handful, you know?" Hauser chuckles. Luckily, CGI stepped in if the furry friends were divas. "Every now and again, if they without the dogs," recalls Strong. "We had to act with these stiff leads and pretend the dogs were at the end of them." For Fry, the experience was a real leveler on a big-budget movie. "Dogs don’t care, and they bring everything back to level one. It doesn’t matter how much money has been pumped into anything, the dog doesn’t really care about that!"

Cruella is as synonymous with fashion as she is with mutts, and award-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan [see boxout, right] was brought in to capture ’70s London and the differing personal styles of the Baroness and De Vil. Glenn Close, who also executive produces here, legendarily had an agreement where she kept all the clothes from her De Vil outings in 1996 and 2000. So did this film's big C take her fabulous costumes home? "Oh, Glenn's so smart!" gasps Stone. "I did not have that in my contract. I should have done. I know people do do that, but I've never kept a single costume from a film. Man, I wish I had done that."

Worry not, Emma – according to her director and co-stars, Miss Stone may be keeping other remembrances of the film when critics and votings members see her in this role. Gillespie, who describes her as "the Lucille Ball of this generation", says this performance is another of her greatest. "She can do the drama, the humor, the physical humor – she's such a chameleon. Going from where she starts to where she ends up as Cruella, there’s such a range of tonality, it’s amazing.”

Back to the cinema!

GamesRadar+ and Total Film present Back to the Cinema

(Image credit: Disney/Warner Bros./Universal/Lionsgate)

Read all our special back to the cinema features, celebrating the best movies coming up

And she may share more with Joaquin Phoenix than she thinks in Hauser’s opinion – this is award-winning. "In this movie, she’s just being one of the greatest living movie stars. Tune in and be dazzled. She absolutely should be competing for award season, because Emma doesn’t just show up and do the job. She takes comedy and drama seriously in equanimity. I think what she did in the film is nothing short of just wildly entertaining and engaging."

Wildly entertaining and engaging has us hooked, but the team also promise heft and meat with that fun. This is not just a movie for kids. "I think some of the darkness will be a surprise to audiences," Gillespie suggests, while Strong admits, "there are scenes and moments in there where I was surprised that that would feature in what I thought of as a ‘Disney movie’, but it makes it all the better because of it." 

And if there’s one thing Disney know how to do, it’s how to expand their brands. So is there potential, if we love Stone’s Cruella, to see more of her dark/fun adventures? "If there’s an appetite for it then... You know, I loved the team of people so much," says Stone bashfully, "but I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself by going, 'Oh, absolutely! Hell, yeah!'"

Come release, we’ll find out just how much of an appetite for Cruella’s particular brand of destruction returning audiences have...

Cruella is in cinemas and on Disney Plus via Premiere Access from May 28. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading to cinemas.

Editor-in-Chief, Total Film

Jane Crowther is the Editor of Total Film magazine and the Editor-in-Chief of the Film Group here at Future Plc, which covers Total Film, SFX, and numerous TV and women's interest brands. Jane is also the vice-chair of The Critics' Circle and a BAFTA member. You'll find Jane on GamesRadar+ exploring the biggest movies in the world and living up to her reputation as one of the most authoritative voices on film in the industry.