In Venice, Oscar-winning director Sofia Coppola sat down with Pete Carroll to discuss the inspiration behind her upcoming film Priscilla, and why she was drawn to Priscilla Presley’s life story.
Sofia Coppola has always made powerful films that evolve around strong but often isolated and lonely characters whose true personalities and lives are revealed as the movie unfolds. Priscilla Presley, the ex-wife and widow of Elvis Presley – one of the most significant cultural figures of the 20th century and the king of rock ’n’ roll – absolutely fit that description and, understandably, piqued Coppola’s interest.
“I was just surprised by her story and connected to the fact that it was such an unusual setting,” Coppola says, perhaps alluding to her own atypical upbringing. “I didn’t know she was going to high school when she lived at Graceland. I can’t imagine what that was like. I’m talking about universal things that all women can all relate to, such as going into womanhood or becoming a mother and especially, at her time, being expected to stay at home while men went off, did their own thing and had fun. Just the stress of meeting all those expectations.”
“I’ve always been interested in how people become who they are, and how their identity emerges through the choices they make.”
– Sofia Coppola
From the beginning it was clear to Coppola that she wanted to tell the story from Priscilla’s point of view and connect with her humanity, not just her celebrity. And the film does exactly that, depicting Priscilla’s loneliness at Graceland – which was not unlike Marie Antoinette’s at Versailles. “I’ve always been interested in how people become who they are, and how their identity emerges through the choices they make,” Coppola says. “So when I was starting to think about this story, I considered whether it would be too similar to Marie Antoinette’s – but I realised that it was a completely different world, and I was curious to find out how Priscilla became herself living in that rarefied context.”
Like most women in the 1970s, Priscilla didn’t have a career or her own money; she was entirely dependent on her husband. “She is from my mother’s generation,” Coppola says. “And I know [she] struggled with trying to have her own creative life.” After pausing for a moment, she adds, “I look at my daughters and think of the difference in the roles of women from the time of my mom to now… but on the other hand, I still see women that totally defer to their husband and what their husband wants.”
Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla and Jacob Elordi as Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla.
Casting for Priscilla was a challenge, Coppola says: Priscilla, because she had to carry the entire film; and Elvis, because he’s an icon. “I wanted just one actress to play Priscilla from the ages of 14 to 29, and that’s not easy.” Her team had brought Cailee Spaeny to her attention; and Kirsten Dunst, who had just worked with Spaeny, also recommended her.
Going for an unknown actor can be an advantage in that they don’t have baggage; they come to the audience purely as the character. “Also,” Coppola adds, “it gets tiring to have the same few actors in everything. That often happens because to get financing you need the same five people. Therefore, it was a blessing to be allowed to cast someone like Cailee.”
Choosing the right actor to play Elvis was even more daunting. Since Coppola couldn’t find anyone who looked like him, she went for “the essence of Elvis,” she says. The decision to cast Jacob Elordi was sealed when she met him in a restaurant and all the women turned around to look at him. “I thought he had as much charm and charisma as I imagine Elvis had,” Coppola says. “But I also felt that he had the sensitivity to show the vulnerable Elvis, the person he was in his private life.”
YOU CAN READ THIS INTERVIEW IN FULL IN OUR WINTER ISSUE. GET YOUR COPY HERE.
Priscilla will be released in UK cinemas on 1st January. Her book Archive is available now through Mack Books.
Interview: Pete Carroll / The Interview People
Post-production: Edwin Ingram