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Cruella Star John McCrea Reveals Just How Perfect It Was Working With Emma Stone - Exclusive Interview

One of the freshest faces in the new Cruella de Vil origin story "Cruella" is actor John McCrea, who plays Artie, an independent fashion store owner who helps kick off Estella's (Emma Stone) transformation into the legendary villain fans first met in Disney's "101 Dalmatians" films.

Now in theaters and streaming on Disney+ with Premier Access, "Cruella" first finds Estella as a young girl who dreams of a career in fashion, but her aspirations are sidelined when she becomes a street orphan. It's on the street, though, where she meets and learns the art of the grift from a pair of boys, Jasper and Horace (played as adults by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser, respectively), who help her land a job in a prestigious department store.

Estella begins working at the store at the bottom, and she appears to be going nowhere until a happy accident leads Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) to offer her a job as a fashion designer. It's under the wings of the '70s fashion icon that Estella learns of the Baroness' cold and calculating ways — and worse yet, how she's involved in a dark secret involving her new boss. Intent on dismantling the Baroness' empire, Estella embarks down a dark path that leads to her villainous metamorphosis into Cruella de Vil.

In this exclusive interview with Looper to discuss "Cruella," McCrea shares his thoughts about Stone, co-star Mark Strong and director Craig Gillespie, reflects on his "rock god" moment in the film, and reveals how he'd like to parlay his appearance in a recent vampire miniseries into a role in a dream remake of an '80s horror movie classic.

Introducing Artie or Art, as in work of

Let's start at the beginning. I think that everybody involved in this project will tell you that they probably wouldn't be interested in the production if not for that original "101 Dalmatians" animated film and the live-action reimagining. What part do those films play in your personal history? I mean, certainly you must have been inspired by them to want to be involved in "Cruella."

Yeah. I remember the cartoon, but I remember the live-action movie a bit more. I've got to be honest, I was a '90s Disney kid, so for me it was sort of more about "The Lion King" and the like. But I do remember Glenn Close in the live-action "101 Dalmatians" and just being absolutely terrified of her.

I love your introduction when Emma Stone's Cruella — Estella, actually, at that point— when she comes into your shop and you say to her, "My name is Artie or Art, as in work of." I mean, what a great line. What a great way to introduce your character, especially with the sense of style that Artie has. I bet you wish you could introduce yourself so well in every project you're in.

Yeah. I need to think of a tag line, don't I? So when I go to auditions I'll really stand out. But it's such a wonderful introduction to him because it sounds sort of funny and sassy, but it really is the way he lives his life. He tries to walk around London like a walking art piece, and I think he succeeds.

About that David Bowie look

I think you look a lot like David Bowie when Estella first meets Artie. Not only do you look like Bowie, but Bowie prepping to transform into Ziggy Stardust, because I noticed those lightning bolts by your eyes. Was that by happenstance or design? After all, David Bowie was so influential in the 1970s, so you have to believe that there's some sort of connection there.

Yeah. I think Nadia Stacey, the makeup designer, was obviously influenced. I think in a lot of her reference images, I'm sure Bowie popped up quite a bit. In terms of the world we're in, obviously we never mentioned him, but I like to believe that maybe, on some level, if he didn't exist, Artie was on the same sort of spiritual journey. Maybe he went on to become one of the biggest rock stars of all time. We'll never know.

Yeah, exactly. Well, maybe we can explore a little bit of more of that storyline in a sequel. Let's hope we get that. At one point, you're rocking out on stage at a Cruella fashion show. You have Joel Fry jamming on the guitar, too, so that had to have been a thrill.

Oh, that was my favorite thing to do by far. I loved that. I think it's the closest I'll ever come to feeling like a rock god.

Is that actually your voice that we're hearing doing that?

That is my voice. Yes, that is me, but I am still doing my best Iggy Pop impression. It's not how I usually sing, and it was really great to sort of explore a different part of my voice.

Sharing the screen with Stone

In the scenes with Estella in Artie's shop, how was it sharing space with Emma Stone? I would image that was probably a surreal moment for you.

Yeah, I was so lucky. It was incredible. It is one of those [moments that] when you're in it, you're not thinking about the fact that it's Emma Stone, because she really is so transformative as an actress. But then, a couple of weeks after, you'll just be walking down the street or making a cup of tea and you'll be like, "Wait a minute. Was that real life? Did I do that?" It's totally surreal.

I'm glad you mentioned the word transformative because you get to witness her perform both Estella and Cruella, and you get to see that range. Plus, reacting to that range, you have to make adjustments yourself as an actor. It broadens your ability to show more of your range, too, doesn't it?

Yeah, yeah, totally. And it was sort of fun to see how different those characters were, in terms of how she played them. It just reminds you of how talented she is. There was a certain sort of underlying sort of evil, a menacing sassiness that I felt coming along every time I was around her in the Cruella wig. It's an infectious energy, for sure.

Walking down that street, making tea a couple of weeks later, is there something that made you sit back and say, "Boy, that really surprised me about Emma and the way she performed in that scene?"

Not really. All I'd heard was how personable and lovely, down-to-earth and normal she is. And the fact that we ever expect any of these massive movie stars to be anything but that, I think it says more about us than it does about them. She was just such a joy to work with. I do remember once, we were filming a scene beside sewing machines, she was deliberating lines in her accent, which is flawless, and there was a dog next to her. She was working a sewing machine and then she was feeding treats to the dogs to make sure the dog was well-behaved. And I just thought, "I could barely say lines and just do that." And she is just multitasking away like nobody's business. That's a memory that sticks out for me.

Craig Gillespie hired McCrea to play Artie after one audition

I talked with Craig Gillespie about the film, and I'm wondering, how did you get on his radar for this role?

I think it was a usual audition thing. I went in and I auditioned like everybody else. It's a pretty boring story, but that's how it went.

Wow. Well, it worked out, though, didn't it?

Yeah. And I was so lucky. It's so often nowadays, you do auditions and it's just you and the casting director, or you do self-tapes. I was just so lucky to walk into an audition and have the director in the room, and that was it. It was just that one audition. I don't believe I went back again.

One audition?

Yeah. I think that's a testament to him really knowing what he wants. He's a wonderful director.

Any good actor will tell you that doing the work is a learning experience. It's not like you're sitting down and taking notes during the production, nothing like that, but certainly you absorb things. But what about Craig Gillespie? Did he teach you anything about yourself as a performer? Did he make you more confident? Did you pick up anything from him?

I think I was just amazed at how he interacts with the actors, which is wonderful. He is so collaborative, as I've said before, but I think I was always just really impressed by his vision. He almost comes at things from sort of like ... he shot it like it was an indie movie. It had this massive scale, but I don't think he's afraid to sort of push boundaries a bit more. And I think that's what makes this film so wonderful. His taste in music and his knowledge of music is palpable throughout the film. I think he's the bee's knees.

Now, of course, there's Tony McNamara's script too. There's a lot of pressure on Tony, and a lot of pressure on Craig to get it right, because this story isn't a one and done. It's going to lead somewhere. It is a brilliant script, isn't it? I was thinking people have to, first of all, disassociate themselves in a sort of way from "101 Dalmatians," but there are certainly elements of it in "Cruella." You have Cruella's black-and-white hair, you have the dalmatians, and you have the fashion, but at the same time, you're responsible for defining your characters.

Yeah, totally. I mean, I was very lucky because my character doesn't exist in any of the previous iterations [of "101 Dalmatians"]. I had a lot of freedom, but I think everyone will be pleasantly surprised with how this is done. More so, like you said, it's such a tough thing to take on, but it really has a unique style and a unique voice, and it would be really exciting to see what happens next, for sure.

McCrea observed and learned from his fellow actors

Apart from picking up something from Craig, you not only have Emma Stone, but Emma Thompson and Mark Strong who you can glean something from, too. What a wonderful cast across the board.

Mark Strong was wonderful. He had some great stories in between takes. He's a fountain of knowledge and he's got a lot of experience doing this. He's one of Britain's finest actors, for sure. I didn't get to spend any time with Emma Thompson, which bums me out every day, but hopefully one day.

Artie is very much a part of Cruella's life now. You've got to be hoping that Artie is going to come back with a sequel.

Yeah, yeah, he really joins that gang at the end, doesn't he? He really joins that group of misfits. And that's a subtle theme throughout the ... it's not even subtle. A theme throughout the movie is family and she really goes on to create her own family. Who knows what might happen next?

Exactly. You definitely feel that. It's between Jasper, Horace, and Estella, but Artie joins that family, too. You must have felt a sense of family being on set as well.

Yeah, totally, and not just from that core group of people, but from everybody. Like I said, one of my favorite things to do is go to the makeup truck in the morning and see Artie bare bones every day before we put some fabulous clothes on. It really was a happy set, which was surprising ... I'd never been on a movie that big before, and I imagined there'd be a lot of pressure, a lot of time constraints, a lot of frantic energy, but it was one of the happiest jobs I've had, for sure.

McCrea dreams of remaking a fangtastic '80s horror thriller

The 2020 "Dracula" BBC miniseries that you did with Claes Bang really breathed new life into the character. Are you a fan of the horror genre? Obviously you were part of that project, but if you had the opportunity, is there any other horror character, like a Frankenstein, Mummy or whomever, that you would like to explore?

Yeah. I'd love them to make a remake of "The Lost Boys," for sure. It's not one of the scariest things in the world, but I'd like to give that a go. But as an audience member, no, I'm terrified of everything. I tend to stay away from the horror genre. I'm a bit of a coward.

Well, it seems like you can handle the vampire stuff, though. I mean, if you want to do "The Lost Boys."

I'll give that a go, for sure.

Okay. Well, I'm going to put the word out there that John McCrea wants to work on "The Lost Boys." How's that?

Thank you. I appreciate it. And you get 15% of it if it comes through.

Also starring Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Paul Walter Hauser, "Cruella" is now playing in theaters and streaming on Disney+ with Premier Access.