As a child of the South, actor Cailee Spaeny grew up steeped in Graceland mythology, memorabilia and Elvis Presley tunes.
Her mother loved Elvis and it wasn’t unusual for a trip to that famous house in Memphis, Tennessee, to count as a family vacation. Priscilla Presley was of course part of that. But Spaeny would find there was much more than she’d ever known when she got the opportunity to play her in Sofia Coppola ’s new film, “Priscilla,” now in theaters nationwide.
“I had no idea about her side of the story and what her experience was growing up in Graceland,” Spaeny said in a recent interview.
The film is based on Presley’s 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me,” a diary-like account of her years with the King. She recounts meeting him at 14 in Wiesbaden, Germany, and moving to Graceland not too long after, where she finished high school. She talks about her unconventional hours, staying up all night with Elvis and trying to stay awake in school the next day.
She details how he dictated her look including her hair (black and big!), eye makeup (more!) and clothing choices (no prints!), their passion for one another, his volatility and her isolation. And perhaps most importantly how she, and everyone around him, just wanted to make him happy— even after she chose to leave.
Spaeny got to spend some time with Presley before filming began, though she wasn’t entirely prepared to be as star-struck as she was.
“I remember when I first met her, I had all these questions ready to go. I was so prepared. And then I just see her sort of walking my way and they all just leave you because she has such a presence about her,” Spaeny said. “The way she carries herself is really like no one else. I mean, she really is American royalty.”
She was equally grateful that Presley did not hang around set during the shoot where she and Jacob Elordi, the rising Australian actor cast as Elvis, had only 30 days to tell this expansive but intimate story with hundreds of costume changes and quite a few wigs too.
“You just don’t know what you’re getting into when someone is cast as your co-star,” Spaeny said. “And when you have that little time, you’re shooting massive scenes every single day. You don’t get a light day. So to be able to go into this project with someone who took it as seriously as he did and really took the time to find those nuances and to do the prep beforehand was such a relief.”
Elordi said they quickly developed an “unspoken language” that helped carry them through. As an actor, he loved going deep into why Elvis behaved the way he did.
“You have to establish a base where you can just fall into this immediate love,” he said. “We would sort of look each other in the eyes and it would just say, ‘You’re going to do this? I’m going to do this.’”
The beehive hairdo, Spaeny laughed, took more getting used to. She found herself having to walk “like a doll” and sometimes she’d forget its height when getting into a car. But the wigs would be a grounding factor in a shoot that often had her playing very different ages in the same day.
“You just got to do what you got to do,” Spaeny said. “It was just one of the many fun little challenges along the way. The hair, makeup and costumes were really essential in knowing what age she is and where she is emotionally. That was the thing that I held on to.”
And it wasn’t just a dress up extravaganza for Spaeny either. Elordi got to wear custom looks throughout.
“It was kind of as cool as it sounds,” he said. “You know, for me personally, it was like, ‘Do you want to be Elvis Presley for 30 days and wear Valentino clothes that are tailored to your body?’ Yes. That’s awesome.”
Though Spaeny might have less dialogue than Elordi, her performance has been making waves since its debut — a breakout that has already been recognized by the Venice Film Festival and is sure to garner more nominations as awards season picks up.
“She can convey so much emotion with just her face,” Coppola said. “It’s mysterious but the camera can pick up on it. She’s so photogenic and some people just jump off the screen, but you can connect to them in an emotional way.”
In one scene, where Elvis tells a very pregnant Priscilla that he wants her to move out and she calls his bluff, Coppola debated using narration. She’d loved what Presley had written about that moment and wanted to capture that, but she also wanted to have the film stay in the present. And Spaeny was up to the challenge.
“I talked to Cailee and we did another take and she did some little shift,” Coppola said. “You see halfway down the hall, her face changes with resolution. It was so subtle. I don’t know how she did it. It’s a talent that some actresses can really just convey so much without saying anything.”
And though things went quickly and sometimes it felt like Spaeny couldn’t feel her feet on the ground, she was grateful that her director kept a calm, focused set. It was, she said, the opposite of chaos.
“I’ve never really worked with someone quite like her, and the way she handles herself on the set,” Spaeny said. “She knows when to take things seriously and when to have fun. Everyone just brings their A-game because of her. She just leads with kindness. She wants to be collaborative and she has a clear vision.”
Though both Spaeny and Elordi have trouble watching themselves on screen, they are proud of “Priscilla.” Elordi said he felt honored to be “part of the way that she wants her story to be told.”
And both walked away with something tangible from whirlwind too. Elordi said he has a few “secret things.” Spaeny got something too, but it might be a bit much even for someone who grew up surrounded by Elvis stuff.
“I have this really strange mural of myself as Priscilla. It was a beautiful painting, but it’s me as Priscilla that was hanging on the walls of Graceland. I just am like, what do I do with this? I can’t put it anywhere,” she laughed. “I think I’ve got to, like, ship it to my grandma. I think she’d love it.”