Yorgos Lanthimos on how to be an actor in his movies: ‘You might feel ridiculous’

In the new anthology film Kinds of Kindness, surrealist Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos tells three stories with the same group of actors — Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, and more. He recasts each of them in every segment: Plemons is a put-upon office worker, a paranoid cop, and a cultist investigator; Stone is a glamorous optometrist, a marine biologist who vanished, and a cultist having a crisis of faith (or some kind of crisis, anyway), and so on. Lanthimos moves these famous actors around roles that contrast with or complement each other, exploring different facets of their personalities.

It’s an extension of the way Lanthimos likes to work. Much of the cast, apart from Plemons, have been in his films before. It’s Stone’s third film in a row with him; the previous one, Poor Things, won her a Best Actress Oscar. And they’re about to make it four in a row. Lanthimos’ next film, Bugonia, set for release in 2025 and based on the Korean sci-fi comedy Save the Green Planet!, will star Stone again. Plemons is set to appear in that one, too.

Actors clearly like working for Lanthimos. So says English actor Joe Alwyn (Conversations with Friends), who appeared with Stone in Lanthimos’ The Favourite and has funny bit parts in the first two Kinds of Kindness stories before taking a larger role in the third as the estranged husband of Stone’s character.

Emma Stone and Joe Alwyn stand close together in a motel car park at nighttime in Kinds of Kindness
Emma Stone and Joe Alwyn in Kinds of Kindness.
Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Yorgos Lanthimos

“It’s like a theater troupe, and it felt very playful,” Alwyn told Polygon in an interview alongside Lanthimos. “Being on the set for The Favourite and Kinds of Kindness didn’t feel like going to work in the way that it sometimes does, or can sometimes slip into. It felt like you were gonna go and play. And that’s such a nice feeling, as an actor, to hold on to as much as you can. That comes from the material, of course, and also the way that Yorgos is on set, and his rehearsal, and every component, and every department. It’s rare to feel that as much as I have with those two films. It’s really just a joy.”

That sounds like fun, but there’s some bravery involved in being in a Lanthimos movie, too. He likes to film his characters doing bizarre, humiliating, intimate, or disturbing things in frank, unblinking ways. In Kinds of Kindness, Dafoe cries into a pool while wearing a Speedo, Stone gives a long speech about a society of sentient dogs, and Qualley sings a Bee Gees song while accompanying herself on a toy piano — all completely straight-faced.

What marks an actor who’ll fit into Lanthimos’ peculiar world? “I think just having an open mind,” the director said. “And being generous with the other actors, and be trusting when they see that trust is due. Being up for, you know, not taking things too seriously. And trying things that might make you uncomfortable, and you might feel ridiculous in front of the others!”

Watching Kinds of Kindness is kind of like speeding through a decade of a director’s work in one sitting: You notice the same themes being considered from different angles, and watch the familiar, starry cast inhabit characters who contrast with each other, or echo each other in poignant ways. Beyond that, there’s nothing tying the stories together other than their alienated, doomy, blackly comic mood — and the figure of R.M.F., a bearded man (played by Lanthimos’ friend Yorgos Stefanakos) who pops up in each story. “We just decided that it would be more interesting if it wasn’t major characters that reappeared in the three stories, but someone who appears only for a brief moment, but his presence is kind of pivotal to the stories,” Lanthimos said about the character.

Emma Stone sits in a chair, lit starkly, looking troubled, with shortish red hair and scarlet lipstick, in Kinds of Kindness Photo: Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures

Joe Alwyn, barefoot and shot in black and white, stands in the doorway of a home in Kinds of Kindness Photo: Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures

Margaret Qualley, shot in black and white, reclines on a bed in a silk dressing gown in Kinds of Kindness Photo: Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures

Jesse Plemons, with a buzz cut and wearing a teal windcheater, stands in a garden by the sea at sunset in Kinds of Kindness Photo: Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures

Lanthimos took these portrait photos of Stone, Alwyn, Qualley, and Plemons himself on the set of Kinds of Kindness.

Lanthimos is offhand about the way he deployed the cast and selected their roles for each story. “You figure out what makes sense for each one to play — kind of rationally sometimes, sometimes against type, whatever that may be.” But he suggests that it’s the recurring cast that creates an alchemy between the three storylines, and makes Kinds of Kindness more than the sum of its parts.

“You do kind of bring something with you from one story to the next, just because there’s a familiarity from having seen that actor playing a character before — I think you just can’t help but carry over certain things to the next story. Although the characters themselves practically don’t have such a long arc as they would in a full feature, you kind of make up for that, because you’ve seen the actor before, and you kind of bring a sense from that person to the next story and then to the next story,” he said.

“So, somehow, the characters are enriched without it being very literal. But mostly with that sense of familiarity, the sense of acknowledging that this is a film and it’s not real life, you are able to let go and kind of get into the next story in a more open way.”

What does it all mean, though? Lanthimos won’t be drawn on that — but Alwyn is extremely clear. Reflecting on his character from the third story, who reaches out tenderly to his ex-wife at first before a shocking twist, Alwyn offers a perceptive summary of the unifying theme of Kinds of Kindness.

“Throughout, you have people reaching out with perceived kindness and benevolence, whether it’s a boss offering structure and reward to an employee looking for purpose, or cult leaders offering a home to a woman whose life has recently changed — offering, you know, what she thinks is love. But actually, whilst that’s kindness on paper, if you write it down, it’s far more about control or coercive control, manipulation, power imbalance.” As gnomic a director as Lanthimos is, his actors clearly know exactly what he’s up to.

Kinds of Kindness is in theaters now.