Sebastian Stan and Karyn Kusama on 'Destroyer' and the Method in Nicole Kidman's Madness (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Photo by Vito Amati
"At some point, I've got to ask you about some of your guilty pleasures out there," Sebastian Stan says off-hand to his Destroyer director, Karyn Kusama. "Because in my head, I feel like you're watching, like, super f--king amazing horror projects..."
Though Kusama may be best known for her own horror films, including the "really disturbing in a great way" (as Stan put it) The Invitation and the campy Megan Fox cult classic Jennifer's Body, her tastes are hardly confined to the genre; one of her early films was the Charlize Theron sci-fi spy action flick Æon Flux. "I don't have guilty pleasures," she shrugs. "I think Point Break is a masterpiece. I legitimately think it's a masterpiece." In fact, her latest film is most like the latter, a pulpy detective drama about LAPD officer Erin Bell (a bewigged Nicole Kidman), who goes undercover to investigate a gang of bank robbers with her partner, Chris (Stan).
(For his part, on the topic of guilty pleasures, Stan shared, "I was working out today and because of this thing with a Boston accent that I've been looking up, I ended up watching the Housewives of Boston and I was like, Oh, my God, this is so insane!") (I pointed out there is no Real Housewives of Boston.)
With Destroyer opening in select theaters on Christmas Day, Kusama and Stan sat down with ET to discuss leaving their comfort zones, what it took to make Kidman look like a meth addict and how hot Stan looks covered in tattoos.
ET: Karyn, you've worked in so many different genres -- you did sci-fi early on and then moved into horror and television. This feels like something new. What was it about this story that called out to you?
Karyn Kusama: A couple of things. Practically, I was excited to make a movie in L.A., which is my home and I have a family here and I collaborate with my husband, who was one of the writers of the script. I have a dog! [Laughs.] I felt like it was a nice way to be committing to working in my hometown -- which a lot of that TV that you mentioned doesn't allow me to do. I was [also] really drawn to this labyrinthine journey that this very compelling character makes, where we discover her capacity for love, her capacity to make huge mistakes that haunt her for the rest of her life and her capacity to take some responsibility for those mistakes. In today's times, that's an interesting thing to watch a person decide to do.
What put this guy [Stan] on your radar?
Sebastian Stan:Our agents.
KK: Our agents, but also, you have a lot of nice friends.
SS: Oh, good!
KK: No, but you do. You have a lot of nice friends that I think are nice people and good actors, so when your name came up, I'd be like, "Oh, that's cool." And then I watched I, Tonya, and I felt like, that's so interesting to see a guy who in real life, frankly, has a leading man vibe and leading man looks -- in a great way, not holding it against you. You're a very handsome dude -- but to see you play a character who was capable of so much smallness and shame and ugliness, I just thought, "My God, that takes bravery." After our first Skype session, I was like, let's just figure out how we're going to work together.
Had you read the script by then?
SS: I had read the script and then we had a Skype session about it. I just love that it felt like you were never really figuring out entirely what was happening or who these people were. It didn't explain anything, it just kind of--
KK: Put you in their lives.
SS: Yeah, and you're there as a witness and it's as if you're walking by and you're turning and you're seeing that scene happen. That felt very real to me. I always feel like, as an actor, you're always looking in the writing for rhythms, and those scenes were written a certain way. It's a very direct, frank nature that they have with each other, at least in the scenes that I was involved with Nicole. And I was like, here's an opportunity to play a completely different character by not doing anything. By almost just letting--
KK: By not indicating anything about the character. By just being, they told so much story.
SS: Exactly. And I just knew it was going to be a very special movie. The idea of protagonist and antagonist was always flipped around here, and I think that in life, good people do bad things and bad people sometimes end up doing a good thing for that moment, or whatever. This movie was so straightforward about that. And to have a female character that had no excuse for anything in a way that didn't apologize but also, you understood where she was coming from, because all the flaws were so... Nobody shied away from any of that. And then you get Nicole to do it and then you're like, "All right, well, now it's going to be a whole other thing!" [Laughs.]
I do love that you took the guy you said has such a leading man look and shaved off half of his hair and threw him in a denim vest.
SS: But that was a blessing! It was a blessing!
KK: You looked so hot. I truly mean it. But literally, my whole editing crew would just be like, "Oh, my God, this scene again? Bring it on!"
SS: I continued to shave my head for a good six months after that. But it was one of those things where it takes you out of your comfort zone, from what you're used to seeing yourself do. I don't know how it is with directing, but with actors, I honestly feel like you have, like, a program that's always trying to go back the way that it's always been and you're always having to turn a sharp left and keep making those lefts away from the road that you're always going down.
KK: I think [that's true] for directors too, though. I personally like the idea of doing things or going into territory that's a little bit frightening or unfamiliar. It's exciting.
There are those memes that say, "You have the same amount of hours in the day as Beyoncé," but I think it needs to be switched to Nicole Kidman, because the number of projects she fronts is incredible. What were those early conversations you had with her about this?
KK: It was May of last year, because it was Memorial Day weekend, that I had heard that she wanted to talk to me about it. She was in Cannes and had four things in Cannes and still managed to have time to read this script and get in touch with me and say, "Can we talk about this?" Because, to be honest, her name had not come up yet. So, we talked on the phone the first time and one of the first things she had talked about as a driving force for the character in her mind was shame and what does shame do to your mind and body and how does that affect your entire countenance?
I appreciated that so much, because to me, shame is not a judgmental quality. She wasn't talking about being an antiheroine or being a character that is typically male. She wasn't really applying any of those assumptions to the role, she was just seeing this person as a person and she said, you know, "When you live your life in shame the way Erin Bell has, it starts to destroy you." And I just thought, God, that's so interesting. You're looking at it with this total compassion. I know that's how actors -- the great ones -- always look at their characters, but there was just no hint of judgment.
SS: Because shame is different from guilt, right? Because guilt is "I've done something wrong." Shame is "I am wrong." Like, "Something is really bad with me."
KK: Exactly! So, even the past [Erin] couldn't control made her feel she was wrong, and then the past she could control, she was like, "I am wrong." You're so right.
Part of her transformation for this role -- the part that's gotten a lot of attention already -- is that Nicole looks completely unlike herself in this. What went into constructing the look, with the wig and the prosthetics and makeup?
KK: She was first to say, "I can't look like I do as Nicole Kidman." It's funny, because I'd met her in the past a couple of times before, but just sitting with her casually and she's on her way to a flight and she's, like, dressed super casually and doesn't have makeup on, it's very clear that she could not look like herself as Erin Bell, simply because she does actually take care of herself and drink water and get enough sleep and love her family and do all of the things that a person who is looking for not just survival but a rich, full life does. So, she was the first to say, "We need to think about something that I can disappear into."
And that was a process with our brilliant makeup designer, Bill Corso. We really tried to hone in on that process. I think, too, once those things started coming together, Nicole could really know more quickly about wardrobe, what worked, what didn't, what felt right, and that all informed her walk, her posture. She really works ultimately from the inside out, and these other things were just tools that helped augment that process.
Did it all come together fairly quickly? Or did you go through different options before you decided this is Erin Bell?
KK: One of the things both Bill and I had talked about -- and I actually had this same process on Jennifer's Body, funnily enough -- where there was just a database of what happens with particularly meth addiction and how quickly the physical deterioration shows up. In some cases, it can be, like, six months and you see a person going from looking pretty together to looking like a ghost. So, we thought, let's scale that back and think about what time and the sun and alcoholism and stress and lack of sleep and not eating well, what does that do over almost 20 years? And it's not pretty.
SS: My God...
KK: It's really not pretty, if you think about it. Because we were using as our baseline: Here is what meth addiction can do to you in a year. What does 17 or 18 years look like of more benign but long-term habits that can wreck you?
Karyn, was there a moment from filming with Nicole, or Nicole and Sebastian, that really surprised you? And Sebastian, was there a moment filming with Nicole when she surprised you?
KK: Something happened between the two of you in a scene that is the emotional crux of the movie, where we see the genesis of her explanation for this plan. We get some emotional access into why she needs to convince Chris to go through with it with her. There is a moment that I always just understood to be true, but what Sebastian did, he said, "Do you love me?" And you realize he doesn't know the answer. Like, I just assumed, Oh, they're crazy in love and everybody knows it, including each other in the scene.
But then I saw, this was the first time you asked it and needed to hear the truth of it. Even in screening it, friends and family screenings and the moments where we shared it with a wider audience, that moment is the moment where they're just like, "Oh, my God, she does love him! Why are they doing this?" And it's precisely because they're in this crazy, crazy love affair. That was really interesting to me while we were shooting to realize, Oh, I don't know the answer.
SS: It makes it all the more confusing and crazy, because then it's like we're [undercover] and you're going, like, "Are you asking me? Or are we pretending?" Because you just get glimpses of it here and there, in a way it made every one of those scenes all the more intense to experience.
KK: More potent.
SS: But the surprising thing was probably day one, for me, when we shot this first scene [where] we meet and sort of suss each other out. My first day was that, and it was the first time I'd ever met Nicole. You just never know what to expect, especially when it's somebody of that caliber. You have no idea whether you should back away, engage, what's the deal. And she was so generous [in] whatever was happening in the scene and also, like, in life, in the sense of us getting to know each other. That's when I was like, "Wow. This is going to be very easy for me." [Laughs.]
KK: Because also she had to kiss you in that scene! And you were just like, "Hello. Nice to meet you. Let's kiss!" But that was what the scene was, too, so it kind of created this frissonof, like, what's going to happen?
SS: You wait to get to set and you're like, "Well, I know that they have to have this thing and how are we going to find it?" And when it happened, I was like, "Oh, OK. It's going be very easy."
One of my favorite things about the film is that Nicole's final line of the movie is telling you that you have a nice butt.
SS: Oh, yeah! But that was a great thing, also. We had a little improv here and there, but that was in the script. All these little moments were always there on paper.
KK: Yeah, even meant to be thrown away, pretty much every single one of them are on the page.
SS: And they all made it, so it's great. You don't always get that.
KK: No, I know. Some of the other characters in the movie don't always get [that]. We were like, "How are we gonna get more Chris?"
Sebastian, we talked about how much Nicole does, but especially considering how many Marvel movies you've been in the past few years, you've done your fair share of other projects, too.
SS: I've been trying! I've been very lucky the last couple years, especially. Like, before 2015, I'm hesitant to look back at what was happening. [Laughs.] But I was very lucky. In the last couple years, I feel like I've really gotten much more clear about what makes me operate at my best, and then it's just about really great directors and being opposite other people that are going to force you into showing up. Because it's so easy to fall into that line of comfort and go back to it, and the business is almost structured that way. You do one thing well, you can continue to keep doing that thing. Why break the habit, you know? But I feel more specific now, with wanting to be part of interesting experiences that I'm learning from rather than... Sure, it would be great to be a lead. But you get so much more out of the whole experience, if it works. It has to be a team thing.
There are reports that you could get one of those leading roles in a Bucky and Falcon series. Are you worried Chris [Evans] will feel left out?
SS: I don't know if he will. As far as I know, the only conversation I've had with Anthony Mackie has been about Miami Vice and how we should redo that. [Laughs.]