Cailee Spaeny on playing Priscilla Presley: ‘Their marriage was strange and shocking’

Cailee Spaeny doesn’t want to talk about “the lineage”. Since 1999, a handful of young, female actors have been turned into stars by the filmmaker Sofia Coppola – she of cinema’s pink hues, aimless heroes and fractured girlhoods. Kirsten Dunst graduated from kiddie movies with The Virgin Suicides. Scarlett Johansson became Scarlett Johansson with Lost in Translation. Elle Fanning unlocked new depths to her work with Somewhere. But ask Spaeny if she’s thought about what it means to be a Coppola muse and she shudders.

“Honestly, I just needed to make sure the film turned out OK,” the 25-year-old laughs. A month before we meet, Spaeny could be found sitting anxiously at the Venice Film Festival and about to see her starring role in Coppola’s Priscilla for the first time. She busied herself by comparing nerves with Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi. In the film, the pair play Priscilla and Elvis Presley, two halves of a famed, dysfunctional and – if we’re being frank – uniquely bananas marriage. “We kept saying to each other, ‘What if we’re in the first bad Sofia Coppola movie? What if we’ve ruined her?’” And now that she’s seen it? She hesitates. “I mean, I think we can relax a little now.”

In Priscilla, Spaeny – who last week was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance – ages from 14 to 27, a transformation aided by a series of outrageous beehive hairdos and eyelashes you could probably see from space. Today, sat in a London hotel suite, she’s been thoroughly rinsed of her Fifties greasepaint – her hair is cropped into a tight bob, her outfit a crisp white suit, her accessories minimal apart from two tiny gold studs in her ears. In conversation she veers between poise and neuroses, beaming with pride over Priscilla as a movie, but shrinking into her seat whenever it’s pointed out that she’s actually in it.

She tells me, for instance, that she’s only felt truly comfortable around Coppola in recent weeks. “I did my research, I had all my notes and my books and photos, but then I’d sit down and it would be… her! She is so lovely and kind, but I did feel so nervous every time I would have to talk to her.”

Priscilla had an accelerated, month-long production and a tiny budget. In October, Coppola said that it was so stretched that she at one point nearly raffled off a game of pickleball with Elordi just to try and get another day of shooting financed. “We had very minimal prep, and 30 days of flying by the seat of our pants,” Spaeny remembers. “Then we blinked and it was all over.” Not once did Coppola seem nervous about any of it – which merely hastened Spaeny’s own nerves. “Sofia never wears her stress. Her friends call her ‘an iron fist in a silk glove’.” Once the first screening happened in Venice, Spaeny felt she could breathe. “The movie was well received, Priscilla [herself] said to me that she felt good about the film and my performance. I said to both her and Sofia, like, OK… should we grab a drink now?”

It’s important to note the Priscilla Presley of it all. Priscilla is an odd beast when it comes to biographical films – it’s endorsed by its subject, and adapted from a memoir written by its subject, but is also unafraid of depicting Elvis as a very bad or at least vaguely dicey man. The 24-year-old Elvis met Priscilla when she was 14 – he was based in Germany as part of his military service, while she was a military brat stationed in the country with her family. The pair struck up a connection at a party in his home – she’d been invited by one of his friends – and carried on a romantic if, according to Priscilla, strictly chaste correspondence over the following seven years. Priscilla has long insisted that Elvis wasn’t predatory due to, she claims, the fact that they only had sex once they were married and Priscilla had turned 21. Eyebrows will be raised all the same.

Elvis was sexualised very early on. He had his youth taken away from him, and no one had experienced that level of fame before either

Their relationship was fraught. In Priscilla, Elvis is depicted as a magnetic, insecure pop idol – and a cruel, drug-abusing narcissist who effectively locks Priscilla away in his fortress-like home. (As an aside, weeks after I meet Spaeny, a report emerges claiming that before her death in January this year, Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis and Priscilla’s only child, urged Coppola not to make the film, citing its “vengeful and contemptuous perspective” on her parents’ marriage. In a statement, Coppola said that she took “great care in honouring [Priscilla], while also presenting [Elvis] with sensitivity and complexity”.)

Spaeny is still unpacking their marriage. “It’s strange and shocking, obviously,” she says. “Priscilla had such a complicated relationship with him, and she’s also fiercely protective over her family and Elvis’s legacy. So it’s nuanced. But that’s what makes this story so fascinating – you want to hit the pause button and lean in.”

I tell Spaeny that I came away most fascinated by Elvis’s relationship to sex – he seems to avoid having sex with Priscilla even after they marry, and almost because they’re married, all the while carrying on affairs with numerous other women. “If I were to do a sort of ‘pop psychology’ thing”, Spaeny laughs, “he was a Christian, and had this idea of purity when it came to marriage and women. He was also being pushed into this very secular world and was sexualised very early on. He had his youth taken away from him, and no one had experienced that level of fame before either, so he didn’t have anyone to help him navigate this life that he’d been thrust into.”

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Complex dynamic: Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in ‘Priscilla’

(Sabrina Lantos)

Spaeny says her own journey was less drama-plagued – she always had a warm cocoon of family around her, as well as a preternatural determination to become an actor. Hailing from Springfield, Missouri, she dropped out of school at the age of 13 to chase her dreams – she acted in local theatre, and even worked as a performer at an 1800s-themed amusement park. “I got dropped into a very adult world, but I also understood that I needed to find a way to make acting my living,” she says. “I had to get out of the town I grew up in and start a new life on my own.”

She was 14 when she discovered Coppola’s work, bingeing on DVDs of The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette and Somewhere. “They totally changed how I looked at myself,” she says. “In her films I saw girls my age who weren’t being played by 30-year-olds, who weren’t dumbed down or naive. She doesn’t underestimate young women. Teenage girls are complicated – they have dark sides, passions, longings and fantasies, which Sofia understands. Her films gave me permission to explore all of those parts of myself. They made me unafraid of those parts of myself.”

As movies, they were also unlike anything she’d ever seen before. “I grew up on very commercial, blockbuster films – my mom and dad weren’t putting on offbeat indie movies, you know? So I’d watch Sofia’s movies and I’d just think: oh my god, this is so punk!”

Accompanied by her mother and a handful of siblings (she is one of a total of nine), Spaeny would travel back and forth from Missouri to Los Angeles a few times a year, finding real film work once she turned 18. She was the teenage mother whose murder kickstarted the Kate Winslet mini-series Mare of Easttown, played Dakota Johnson’s kid sister in the cult thriller Bad Times at the El Royale, and was – in a canny bit of experimental casting – a male scientist studying soundwaves in Alex Garland’s inventive sci-fi show Devs.

Behind the scenes: Sofia Coppola, costume designer Stacey Battat and Spaeny on the set of ‘Priscilla’

(Sabrina Lantos)

Next year she reunites with Garland for the apocalyptic action movie Civil War alongside Kirsten Dunst – and in a testament to Priscilla’s fast production and release turnaround, it was working with Dunst on Civil War, which was filmed in early 2022, that got her recommended for Priscilla.

“She put in a good word for me,” she gushes. “I mean, she and Sofia are like sisters so it obviously meant a lot to have her blessing. She’s her muse!” Dunst has been Coppola’s most consistent collaborator, starring in The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette and The Beguiled, and cameoing in The Bling Ring. Once she was hired for Priscilla, Spaeny rang up Dunst to ask what she ought to expect from working with Coppola. The answers were very specific: Sofia will become her favourite director, she’ll “look gorgeous” at all times, and she’ll film at least one shot in a bathtub.

“And it all ended up happening!” she says. “I remember laughing once I got the script and I was, like, well – there’s my bathtub shot! And she did make me look really good.”

So when it comes to Coppola-centric predictions, Spaeny is three for three. Chances are – just like Dunst, Johansson and Fanning before her – she’ll become a megastar soon, too.

‘Priscilla’ is in selected cinemas from 26 December, followed by a wide release on 1 January