The leading lady has never bought into the idea that a movie star can’t speak her mind. By Hunter Harris Sep 16, 2020
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The monkey was part of the pitch. At first Sharon Stone protested: a monkey, sitting on her shoulder, climbing on top of her head? Why not a leopard, something big and sort of dangerous, sinewy, sexy? Leopards were good scene partners; they could hold their own. Monkeys caused trouble. But Ryan Murphy insisted. He was writing a role for her, a strange, fabulously wealthy villain, in his new Netflix series Ratched, and the character needed a monkey. Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
“I was like, ‘No, Ryan, no, I can’t have a monkey,’” Stone tells me one August afternoon, recalling their initial meeting. “I’m like, ‘I worked with leopards in Africa. I’m comfortable with leopards.’” She pauses here, impersonating her director’s sternness: “‘No. Has to be a monkey for Christ’s sake.’” They were at an impasse. Okay, fine, Stone told him. She’d do the show, but she had to cast the primate herself. “‘There was a monkey that had worked on Pirates of the Caribbean that was great. A real pro monkey,’ ” she recalls him saying. “I’m like, ‘Let’s get the monkey in. Can I please meet this monkey at my house?’”
Maybe you need some kind of gonzo gimmick when you’re hiring Stone, some element to compete with her megawatt everythingness. Or maybe she works best with a little bit of mischief, a side serving of strangeness. Almost 30 years after Basic Instinct turned her into one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood, Stone is still herself: beautiful and cunning, with that mysterious movie star alchemy. We’re talking over Zoom; she’s sitting in her home office, relaxed but stunning. (One thing she can always do, she has often said, is find her best light.) When her Ratched co-star Jon Jon Briones described how surreal it felt to share scenes with her, all he could say was: “I mean, she’s Sharon—Basic Instinct—Stone.” Or as the director Steven Soderbergh puts it: “In my phone I have her as ‘Sharon fucking Stone.’”
Sharon Stone as Lenore Osgood in Ratched. COURTESY OF NETFLIX Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
Now, at 62, Stone can be an interesting actor, not just a sexy one, and she says she’s in a more creatively rewarding place. Acting on the small screen, she no longer has to be self-conscious about the lines on her face. (“They were the size of a highway on a screen in a movie theater,” she says. “You don’t really see it on TV.”) She’s long past fretting about turning 40, the cutoff for leading ladies in Hollywood’s warped ecosystem. “You don’t really get work between 40 and 60. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the height of your career, whether you just made Casino. That’s it: no work,” she says with a shrug.
Now, on the other side of 60 and working with directors who know how to work with her, Stone can propel herself toward new challenges. She isn’t disappearing into characters as much as harnessing her own natural effervescence (her undeniable Sharon-fucking-Stone-ness) and deploying it as she sees fit. “I think you have to choose how you want to age. People look at me as a certain thing, and it gets in the way of them casting me as things I could play,” she says. “But I’m sure that I have my own destiny, and I’m now trying to meet it with as much integrity as I can, and be as open to growth as I can be.”
“You don’t get work between 40 and 60. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the height of your career. That’s it: no work.”
She had never worked with Murphy before Ratched, but she was intrigued by his pitch for her character: She would play Lenore Osgood, a doting mother to a vindictive son. Everything in the show is heightened and pristine. As an origin story Ratched, which explores the backstory of the twisted nurse from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is imperfect, but as its own bonkers conception—a suspenseful melodrama that draws more from Douglas Sirk than from Ken Kesey—it’s a freaky delight. There’s a technicolor mental hospital, illicit hookups in creaky motel rooms, and Dawnridge, the famous Beverly Hills estate of Hollywood set and jewelry designer Tony Duquette. That’s where Stone and her onscreen son, played by Brandon Flynn, glide around in a hyperglam stupor. (It’s also where T&C photographed her for this story.) Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
Stone was friendly with Duquette, who died in 1999. Two years after Basic Instinct, when the local police had grown tired of responding to trespassers at her home, they requested that she move to a gated street. Duquette became her neighbor, and he lent her furniture. “I came home one day and Tony had put everything from the King and I set in my living room,” she says. “I had that aqua satin curved sofa from the big dance scene.”
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There’s a simmering resentment between mother and son in Ratched, as though each character is trying to outperform the other’s bored, whiny privilege. Stone is mystifying as the gorgeously dressed, maniacal mother. “She’s completely insane,” she deadpans. “And at the same time she thinks she’s really a loving mother who has her shit together.”
Secretly, Stone charted a personal history for her character, one in which the veneer of gentility was all an act: “I thought she was probably Doris Duke’s best friend—she was a showgirl who married some rich guy and knocked him off.” She imagined the character trading a thick Brooklyn accent for an oddball mid-Atlantic inflection that would come and go. “She would try to be fancy, because the more fabulous she was the less people would know that she came from nowhere and was a complete criminal.” Stone throws back her head and laughs.
The image of Lenore is gilded with the jewels, the mania, and the labyrinthine house, but also with the knowledge that you’re watching Sharon Stone, the woman who basically created the modern version of star charisma. In the three decades since she became famous, Hollywood has shrunk. No one makes erotic thrillers anymore, and the market is crowded with blockbusters based on decades-old IP.
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Stone, meanwhile, is as magnetic and dynamic as ever; she also has the ability to talk about the currency of her beauty and how it could be bought and sold. “It’s called show business,” she says. “I believe that it’s a business really strongly. A lot of people don’t behave like that. They act like babies and think everybody’s supposed to take care of them, that you’re supposed to do whatever everybody tells you, that you can’t make any decisions.” But Stone’s clients have always been the fans and the people—the press, the theater owners—who project images to those fans. Her being a sex symbol obscured some of her accomplishments, but it made other opportunities possible. It was good for business.
“It’s difficult, because everybody expects you to be that all the time,” she says. “It was very difficult for Marilyn Monroe. She did movies that really mattered, like Bus Stop, The Misfits, but she still couldn’t get completely out of being that thing. It’s very hard to shake.” In the early aughts Stone had an uneven comeback (the well-received Alpha Dog, but also Catwoman), and she retreated to independent movies in the 2010s. “No one even noticed those movies, but it was good for me. Even now people say to me, ‘You’d have to really disappear into a character,’” she says, as if they doubt she could do it. “And I’m like, ‘Did you see Lovelace? That was me.’” Stone acknowledges her reality as a sexagenarian icon: “People still want to see my boobs. I’m 62! It’s like, ‘Really? Grow up!’ But also” —she throws her hands up theatrically—“‘Here’s some boobs!’”
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The performance of being a movie star, of being a sex symbol, or just of being a glamorous single mother of three, mostly happens off camera. It comes naturally to her; it’s hard not to let her hold your attention. “Sharon, by the grace of god or whoever, is blessed with this incredible physical gift,” says Rufus Wainwright, her friend of 15 years. “She can doll herself up and just step into a room and be the prominent point. And she can go out with no makeup and be quite assuming.” That gift is more than any single attribute, he says. It’s just the way Stone is. “She’s one of those people who really looks at you when she’s speaking, and is also really prepared to listen. I think she’s also a little dirty. She’s hung with the boys and she can play that game.”
She’s totally in control of her powers now. “People, I guess, really needed a sex symbol,” she says when I ask her to pin down her ineffable appeal. “I mean, I never thought I was that sexy.” She did, however, think she was in touch with something most people weren’t. “When I did Basic Instinct, I explored my dark side and made friends with my dark side. I got to not be afraid of my own self. I think people find that sexy.”
When Stone left home, at 19, she wanted to be an actress. Her parents said she couldn’t move without a job, and modeling was the immediate opportunity. “Having a kid who started college at 15, they thought, What the hell are you thinking? I was not a good model. I am a really good model now, though,” says Stone, who has appeared in campaigns for Dior and Damiani. She worked her way up to acting, eventually to Basic Instinct, for which she made less than $500,000. She says she had read for nearly every Martin Scorsese movie before Casino came around; she scored an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win for the role. She dressed so plainly for the Globes that her shock at winning (over Meryl Streep, over Emma Thompson) seemed genuine. She remembers Tom Hanks saying, when he handed her the trophy, “You deserve this, and they want a good show.” She translates: “Meaning don’t get up there and just be a crybaby.”
“When I was a global phenomenon and I wanted to make $2 million, it was like I wanted them to give me the moon.”
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The afterglow of her success was tricky. “When I was a global phenomenon and I wanted to make $2 million [for a movie], it was like I wanted them to give me the moon, like I’d lost all reason,” she says. “When I wanted four, they were like, ‘We’re not going to pay you $4 million for this movie.’ ”
A brain hemorrhage in 2001 shifted her priorities. The lines, the wrinkles, and the butt she was never happy with stopped mattering. “I just was so blessed that I got to live. And then I was equally if not more blessed that I got to learn to work around my brain damage,” she says. After a protracted negotiation, she got Basic Instinct 2 made in 2006 with a salary that matched what Michael Douglas had made on the first movie. But even at the height of her earning power, she still dealt with her share of sexism. She recalls working with a director who she says harassed her. “He’d tell me that I should sit on his lap to get direction for the scene. And when I told him that I was not going to sit on his lap, he would send me back to the trailer,” she says. “And that is just the way it was.” (The director denies the claim.)
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In the hands of Murphy—and Soderbergh, who directed her in the HBO series Mosaic—she has entered a compelling new chapter in her career, in which she can play big, mouthy characters in meaty dramas. Ratched lets her get surreal (that monkey, she realized at one point, might have been her character’s deranged fantasy); Mosaic let her be commanding and seductive. “Clearly, I’m the last person in town to discover Sharon Stone,” Soderbergh says. “There is always a danger in the business that anyone who is successful will become frozen in the moment of their initial success. Certainly, they’ll be encouraged by everyone around them to just keep doing that thing. That’s not my impression of Sharon. She wants to push herself.”
Stone is ruminative the day we talk. Her adoptive grandmother and her godmother both died of Covid-19. Her sister and her brother-in-law are both in the hospital with the virus. A few days ago Stone was walking with a friend’s young daughter when she called out a passerby for not wearing a mask. The man slammed into her shoulder in response. “Simmer the fuck down and put on a mask! I’m sorry, I’ve been trying to be nice about this, but it’s starting to chap my ass,” she says. “It’s hard not to take it personally.”
Meanwhile, watching the country’s reckoning with racism reminds her of time she spent in South Africa, working to end apartheid. She tears up talking about it. But a few days later she’s ecstatic that Kamala Harris is the Democratic vice presidential nominee. She tells me, via FaceTime, “You know I love a revolution!”
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Some other things she’s still working on. In December she complained that she had been kicked off the dating app Bumble because people didn’t think she was really herself. “Oh god, I wish I’d stayed kicked off it. It’s like a comedy,” she says. Some people thought she should turn it into a show, but she demurred. She won’t use the more exclusive dating app Raya. “People kept pretending they were things they weren’t on Raya. Like straight.”
There are more movies on the horizon, but her memoir, The Beauty of Living Twice, due next March, is what’s currently exciting her. She has managed to synthesize her life, acting career, and humanitarian work with her ideas about how achieving more equal status for women starts in the home. She’s happy to “be the old person, not the young person” and reap the benefits of her wisdom. Before Ratched started shooting, Stone invited Flynn, who plays her son, over for dinner, a swim, and a long talk about life, love, and navigating Hollywood. “At this point I have a little bit more of an elder sense of perspective, an elder sense of reality,” she says, “so people younger than me don’t have to go through as much shit as I went through.” When she says this, she grins.
Photographs by Michael Muller Styled by Paris Libby
In this story: Hair by Rena Calhoun for Virtuelabs.com at A-Frame Agency. Makeup by Kara Yoshimoto Bua for Chanel at A-Frame Agency.
On Our Cover: Sharon Stone, photographed by Michael Muller. Styled by Paris Libby. Hermes Sweater ($3,450), skirt ($16,100), and belt, Hermes.com; Gladys Tamez hat ($475), gladystamez.com; Dior fine jewelry Earrings ($4,650) and bracelets ($2,300 Each), 800-929-dior. Try Hermes satin lipstick in rose dakar ($67), hermes.Com. Hair by Rena Calhoun for virtuelabs.com At a-frame agency. Makeup by kara Yoshimoto Bua for Chanel At a-frame agency. Michael Muller