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Rolling Stone

FOR a girl who trades on easy-going charm, Emma Stone's rapid rise over the past year seems to be the result of precision plotting.

This is the actress who, aged 15, gave her parents a PowerPoint presentation entitled Project Hollywood, to convince them to let her drop out of school and move to Los Angeles.

When casting directors kept sending the naturally blonde Stone for entirely inappropriate cheerleader-type roles, she dyed her hair brown -- and then, when she was cast in her first film, Superbad, turned herself into a redhead: anything to stand out from the crowd.

You have to say it's worked. Still only 22, Stone has had a remarkable summer. First, there have been two bona fide hits -- the Steve Carell comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love (global box office ¤98m and counting) and The Help, the adaptation of the best-selling novel that's the sleeper hit of the season (taking ¤118m in the US).

Then there was that watershed in any actor's career, a cover shoot for Vanity Fair -- in a particularly fetching striped bikini. "It still boggles my mind," she reflects. "It feels like it didn't really happen."



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She even laid the groundwork for what will surely be the biggest hit of her career to date with a visit to San Diego's Comic-Con ahead of the release of next year's blockbuster reboot The Amazing Spider-Man, co-starring Britain's Andrew Garfield as the web-spinning superhero.

A veteran of the famed fanboy convention -- "it wasn't my first rodeo," she laughs, explaining she went for 2009's horror-comedy Zombieland -- she enthuses about the fans who welcomed her casting as love interest Gwen Stacy. "That kind of passion is one of the most fun reasons to be involved with something like Spider-Man."

Then again, since Stone became the object of geek affection in Superbad, she has been a poster-child for the nerd crowd, flogging her goofy charms in films like The House Bunny, The Rocker and Easy A. Her skills as a comedienne have certainly got the respect and attention of her co-stars.

"I remember being with Bill Murray on Zombieland," says Woody Harrelson. "He was like: 'That girl is just gold -- everything that comes out of her mouth. An incredible improviser.' It's really rare that you see a really funny, beautiful woman, who really just has the whole package. She's got it all."

In person, Stone is affable and genuine, the sort you can't imagine going off the rails on the Hollywood party scene. But underneath it all, there's a determination to be taken seriously. Right now, she's filming The Gangster Squad, which purports to tell the story of the LAPD running up against notorious gangster Mickey Cohen.

Featuring as a "sharp-tongued siren" caught in a love triangle, it means going head-to-head with Sean Penn, who plays Cohen, as well as reuniting with Ryan Gosling, her Crazy, Stupid, Love co-star.

Still, it's The Help that has proved Stone as more than just a comic star. Featuring a predominantly female ensemble cast, Stone takes the de facto lead as Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan, a would-be journalist living in Jackson, Mississippi, during the Civil Rights era in the 1960s.

Deciding to pen a book about "the help" -- the black maids who cook and clean for their white employers -- Skeeter's book causes a storm in their segregated community, where women such as the awful Hilly Holbrook campaign for their maids to use separate toilets.

Much like Skeeter's book, which becomes a word-of-mouth hit, the film itself has gradually grown in popularity -- though Stone is unsure why it touched a nerve. "I think it might be because our culture has become so wild about escapism. So many movies are about the location it's taking place in, or the stunts and the explosions. But I think people also like a good old-fashioned story."

Part of her preparation was watch the documentary Eyes On The Prize.

"It was so enlightening and horrifying reading about the Jim Crow [racial segregation] laws, which I had no idea existed, and realising just how separate everything was," she said. Interestingly, Stone was shooting The Help when she found out that she won her role in The Amazing Spider-Man; not easy when her co-star, Bryce Dallas Howard, played the same character in Spider-Man 3.

In some ways, you might say winning the female lead in a blockbuster like this is the ultimate vindication of the Project Hollywood presentation.

Born in Arizona, and a regular of a regional youth theatre group in Phoenix from the age of 11 (The Wind In The Willows was her first play), it didn't take long before Stone had her sights set on Tinseltown.

With her parents' backing, Stone moved to Los Angeles when she was 15, living in an apartment with her mother, while her father and younger brother stayed in Arizona. Stone joined the legions of other young hopefuls attending brutal cattle-calls.

Her "rock bottom" moment, she says, came when she tried out for the NBC sci-fi show Heroes, only to overhear the casting directors tell the girl before her "on a scale of one to 10, you're an 11". Out came Hayden Panettiere -- who ended up with the role of cheerleader Claire Bennet -- and Stone went home, mortified.

Fortunately, she got Superbad and it changed her life.

Since then, she has gradually watched her anonymity disappear -- a process she's still getting used to.



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"When people say something, it's really nice. But when people whisper or point, and you feel like you're a zoo animal, then it's scary and odd, because it's alienating."

Together with her girl-next-door looks, Stone still seems like one of us, a starry-eyed fan who still loves to read celebrity interviews in newspapers and magazines.

But she has taken herself off Facebook. "I have a Twitter account but I don't tweet. I'd be terrified that I'd say something and never be able to live it down." That's hard to imagine; Stone is far too in control for anything as careless as that.

hnews@herald.ie