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Always Loving Sofia Coppola, Then Leading 'Priscilla': Cailee Spaeny Chats Making a Presley Biopic with Her Dream Director

Born in Tennessee, the 'Devs' and 'The Craft: Legacy' star grew up surrounded by all things Elvis — and now she has a Venice International Film Festival Best Actress prize for playing Priscilla.
By Sarah Ward
January 22, 2024
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By Sarah Ward
January 22, 2024
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"Most people say don't meet your heroes, but she exceeded all my expectations," Cailee Spaeny tells Concrete Playground. The Priscilla star's idol? Sofia Coppola. In the Devs, Mare of Easttown and The Craft: Legacy actor's biggest role yet, and the Lost in Translation, Somewhere and On the Rocks' filmmaker's latest moving, mesmerising and meticulously made picture, Spaeny plays the movie's namesake for the director that she's loved since she was a teenager. Winning her Venice International Film Festival's Volpi Cup for Best Actress, she's teamed up with her dream helmer to explore the teen experience and beyond of one of the most-famous women in the world, who was also in one of the best-known romances, marrying and divorcing a music superstar whose celebrity is virtually peerless: Priscilla Presley.

Coppola knows how to bring tales about teenage girls to the screen, and to do so with the emotion, care and lived-in specificity that makes audiences feel like they're being seen — as Spaeny once did. Priscilla joins a directing resume that initially moved into features with 1998's The Virgin Suicides, and has spanned The Bling Ring and The Beguiled as well. In Marie Antoinette, the filmmaker's only other biopic to-date, she also took a name that everyone knows, jumped into her story when she was just 14 years old, then charted her complicated time by the side of a man with influence and power. Spaeny co-stars with Marie Antoinette's lead Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog) in the upcoming Civil War, in fact, and suspects that she put in a good word to help her get her Presley part.

A performer who made her film debut in 2018's Australian-shot Pacific Rim Uprising, which was one of four movies that she had in cinemas that year (the others: Bad Times at the El Royale, On the Basis of Sex and Vice), Spaeny also believes that the right work finds you at the right period. That's especially the case with leading Priscilla, where Jacob Elordi (Saltburn) co-stars as Elvis, and which sees the two portray the blue suede shoes-wearing singer and the woman who fell for him when they were in West Germany — she was a schoolgirl residing there because her dad was in the army, while Elvis had been drafted — so swiftly after Baz Luhrmann's Elvis had Austin Butler (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Olivia DeJonge (The Staircase) do the same. 

"I always think roles come to you in your life at certain times to sort of help you in your own personal life, in your own journey," Spaeny shares. "I was just getting out of a really intense relationship that went on for about five years. I was in it very young. And I was trying to process those emotions and where I gave a piece of myself up, and how I grew from that. I processed all that and put it into the movie and her story, and the decisions that she made, and the mistakes she made, and where she got it right, where she got it wrong. It's always cathartic playing roles, but this one especially hit me in a real way that I'll always take with me."

What was it like to physically transform into Priscilla? "It was something. I didn't look like myself. I think I just looked at myself in the mirror and I went 'okay girl, get it together, you've got to pull this off," Spaeny advises. "Everyone had put so much hard work into it. You see the hours and the sleepless nights. All the blood, sweat and tears that goes into every department: costumes, hair, makeup, production design. All the work Sofia put in, that Jacob put in. So when I saw myself in those costumes, I think it's just like 'okay, it's game time'."

"It was fun. It was stressful. It was life-changing. There were lots of tears. There were lots of laughs. It was an experience that I will take with me for the rest of my life, and it's given me so much — much more than I ever thought it would. And I feel really lucky and I hope that everyone enjoys it when they go and see it, and they see all the heart that we put into our film," continues Spaeny.

The movie opened in Australia on Thursday, January 18, then does the same in New Zealand on Thursday, February 1. Also covered in our round-table chat with Spaeny: preparing to play Priscilla, including meeting the woman herself; getting the part, and her past experiences auditioning for the filmmaker; why Coppola is her dream director; being born to love Elvis by being born in Tennessee; and seeing Priscilla for the first time while sitting next to Presley.

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ON HOW SPAENY PREPARED TO PLAY PRISCILLA PRESLEY

"I tried to do as much as I could do preparing for this role. Taking on playing a real person, especially one who's still around, there is enormous responsibility. And also working with my dream director Sofia Coppola — she's been my dream director since I was 14 years old — I felt a lot of pressure.

I mean, I always I hope that I always work hard on every project that I do, but this was another level. So you just do everything you can. You have as many conversations as you can with the director. The script is based off of her [Priscilla Presley's] book that she wrote in 1985, and I had that on me the entire time.

Then I got the honour to sit down with Priscilla Presley herself, so I got to take in the woman herself and look into her eyes, and hear her tell these stories about this chapter in her life. That gave me more than I could have ever imagined. Taking that with me, and also having her support and having several conversations down the line during prep, and asking her all different kinds of questions and just getting to be around her in general, gave me so much.

And then, taking time to have conversations with Jacob Elordi, who plays Elvis, and making sure we were on the same page and just making sure we felt comfortable around each other — that was a big part of the process, too.

You just try to get everything you could possibly get into your brain in the amount of time you have, and you've got to cross your fingers and jump out of the plane and hope for the best, hope that you'll land on your feet. But also to have the level of collaborators and artists that we had on this set in terms of cast and crew was extraordinary.

I think anyone who works with Sofia, because of the environment she creates, everyone brings their A-game and wants to work really hard for her and do their best. I think you really see that in this film."

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ON WHAT MAKES COPPOLA SPAENY'S DREAM DIRECTOR — AND THE PROCESS OF WORKING WITH HER ON PRISCILLA

"I think the thing that really struck me, especially living in the Bible Belt in America being a young girl, a church girl, trying to navigate myself and my emotions — you've got so much going on inside you when you're a 14-year-old girl, and I think I'd never seen teen girls depicted in the way that Sofia represents them.

The way that she doesn't underestimate young women, and how she gives them a voice to have wants and needs, and dark sides and be sexual — I just felt like everything that was in my brain just got unlocked, and that I had permission to be complicated. I think that was something that really stuck with me and cracked me open.

I think that working with her was just a lot of pressure to get it right. I'm thinking in my head 'am I going to be the reason this is going to be the first bad Sofia Coppola film?'. I mean, it's just very overwhelming, but she's kind and had my back every step of the way."

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ON GETTING THE PRISCILLA ROLE AFTER AUDITIONING FOR PAST SOFIA COPPOLA FILMS

"I know that Sofia wanted to find one actress who was going to be able to play from 14 to 27 — and I was 24 when I filmed the movie, but I look really young. I think that it was really important. You see it sometimes where you see films push the age, like they don't really look that young, but it's fine. Or they really don't look that old, but it's fine. But I think it was really important, especially in the beginning, for her to feel 14. I think she had to genuinely feel that age.

So I think from a casting standpoint for Sofia, that was something that she was looking for. It's not really something I think about too much, but I'm glad it worked in my favour.

I've been auditioning for her — she gave me my one of my first callbacks ever when I was 16 years old. So I think her casting director knew of me for a long time, and Sofia knew of me for a bit. I don't know if she even remembers that. I don't know. But I knew her casting directors remembered me and one of her producing partners remembered me. And then I auditioned for two other things for Sofia.

Then this project came up and I got a call [saying] 'hey, can you meet Sofia in New York for coffee?'. Didn't know what it was, met her there, was really nervous. We started talking and I had no idea — I was just like 'what is this about?'. Then she pulled out her iPad and started showing me photos of Priscilla Presley, and asked me if I knew the story. I didn't, which was surprising because I was such a huge Elvis fan growing up.

But then I went away and I was filming a movie with Kirsten Dunst, and Kirsten is such a longtime friend and collaborator and muse for Sofia. And I think Kirsten put in a good word for me. So there were talks about maybe doing a chemistry read with whoever was going to be playing Elvis, but that didn't end up happening. She just locked this in. She locked me and Jacob in, and said 'we're going for it'. We didn't have any read. We didn't do any sort of chemistry test. We just hit the ground running.

I think that's the one thing about Sofia: she's really soft-spoken and kind, but when she knows what she wants, she knows what she wants. And when she sees it, she has it in her head. Everything is in her head. That's what makes her so brilliant and also exciting to work with."

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ON THE CHALLENGES OF STEPPING INTO PRISCILLA'S SHOES — AND WHAT MAKES HER STORY SO RELATABLE

"The biggest challenge for me, obviously, is having to play a real person who at the end of this is going to watch the film. I had that time with Priscilla, and something funny happens — it's like at first, the movie's first, [and] how you're going to play this, [and] making this movie for Sofia. Then you sit down in front of the woman herself, you're right across from Priscilla, and almost all of that goes to the back burner. 

You just are like 'I want to protect this person. I want them to feel safe. I want them to feel like they identify with this story. I just want to protect them'. She's been through so much in her life, and you just want this to be done right by her. So that was the biggest challenge.

In terms of the things that I related to, I think that what's so interesting about this story, and what I found so surprising, is that you think 'well, I'm not going to relate to Priscilla Presley, she's lived this one-of-a-kind life that no one could ever really compare with' — but she goes through such an emotional journey. 

Falling in love and doing everything she can, giving everything up to try to make that work, and [being] desperate to find a path and a way out to be with the love of her life, and then realising that that's not going to happen, and all the pain that he's going through and the confusion he's dealing with, and how that then transfers to her, and then she realises she wants something more for her life — I think those moments are universal. 

And there's some milestones that she goes through that I think a lot of young women can relate to. I think that's why it's gotten the response that it has, is because of that — because I think young women or women in general, or anybody, can see this story and find themselves somewhere."

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ON FIRST DISCOVERING ELVIS

"I think the second I was born, Elvis was just playing. My mum had a shrine of Elvis in her home. She named one of her kids' middle names after Elvis. We went to Graceland growing up. We had his number-one hits on the CD in the car. It was just always around.

In America, Elvis really is such a symbol — especially, especially in the South. And I was born in Tennessee. You just know Elvis. You're born, you know Elvis. 

I think especially where I came from, you just didn't have a choice: it was Jesus and Elvis."

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ON SITTING NEXT TO PRISCILLA AT THE FILM'S WORLD PREMIERE AT THE VENICE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

"I had a couple opportunities to watch the movie before Venice, but I was just too nervous to watch myself in this movie. There's too much pressure and I just knew that if I would see the film, I knew I was going to spiral, so I didn't want to. I kept putting it off.

Then I got to Venice and I asked them 'hey, can you pull me out when the movie starts? I don't want to see it'. And then I just had a voice in my head and I'm going 'Cailee, what are you doing? You're at the Venice Film Festival. You're with your dream director. Priscilla's here. You're celebrating this movie with these people that you care about. This is such a dream come true'.

I brought my sister with me. I'd never been to Venice before. I'd just rode a gondola earlier in the day. It was such a dream moment. And I was like 'what am I doing? I'm going to not watch the film cause I'm scared? That's so lame'.

So I told them 'okay, yes, I'll watch it'. But then they sat me right next to Priscilla Presley. Then I'm watching the movie going 'oh my god, what have I done? How am I going to watch this film while I'm sitting right next to the person who I'm playing?'.

It was so bizarre and so surreal, and I was white-knuckling it the entire time I was watching the film. Sometimes I'd close my eyes during some scenes.

But then the movie ended. We got the reception that we did. Then it was the first time that Priscilla turned to me and said 'you did it, that was my life and that was a great performance'. So to get that feedback from her was everything."

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Priscilla opened in Australian cinemas on Thursday, January 18, then does the same in New Zealand on Thursday, February 1. Read our review.

Published on January 22, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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