How Emma Stone went from dropping out of high school to Oscar favorite

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As Emma Stone stood onstage at the Dolby Theatre accepting her Best Actress award at the Oscars on Sunday, she might think back to where it all started: A ninth grade history class in Scottsdale, Arizona.

That’s where Stone, 14 at the time, decided she was dropping out of school and moving to L.A. to become a star. “I had this Howard Beale-like moment,” she told The Hollywood Reporter about her realization, citing Peter Finch’s character’s iconic meltdown in Network. “It’s the last period of the day, and I have a revelation that I needed to move to Los Angeles as soon as possible because that’s where I needed to go. I know, it was crazy.”

After her epiphany, she raced home and made a PowerPoint presentation in hopes of convincing her parents. She titled the slideshow: “Project Hollywood.” According to her plan, she and her mom would leave for L.A. as soon as possible, while her dad stayed behind to run his business. As for her education, she would have to be homeschooled between auditions.

Amazingly, they agreed.

“It’s nuts that they agreed to it,” Stone told THR. “I don’t condone it. Everybody should go through high school and graduate.”

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Besides their belief in her talent, there was another reason her parents were keen to encourage her acting: From an early age, Stone suffered from anxiety and panic attacks.

“I was just kind of immobilized by it,” she told Vogue. “I didn’t want to go to my friends’ houses or hang out with anybody, and nobody really understood.”

Acting, and especially improv comedy, proved useful in alleviating her anxiety.

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“[Being on stage] gave me a sense of purpose. I wanted to make people laugh,” she told the magazine. “Comedy was my sport. It taught me how to roll with the punches. Failure is the exact same as success when it comes to comedy because it just keeps coming. It never stops.”

So, not long after her 15th birthday, Stone and her mom commenced “Project Hollywood.”

After an initial lucky break booking a role as Laurie Partridge in a pilot for VH1’s never-to-be-aired series The New Partridge Family, Stone’s early career began to resemble her character’s from La La Land. She landed a small part in an episode of Malcolm in the Middle, amongst other minor roles, but it wasn’t enough to make acting a full-time gig. Like her barista alter-ego in the musical, Stone supplemented her income by working side jobs — in her case, at a gourmet dog-biscuit bakery.

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Then came Superbad.

In 2007, Stone caught her big break starring opposite Jonah Hill in the classic high school comedy. She made the most out of limited screen time, and, at the suggestion of producer Judd Apatow, dyed her naturally blonde hair red for the first time.

After Superbad, the offers began pouring in. She did Ghost of Girlfriend’s Past and House Bunny — both opposite Anna Faris — and then Zombieland with Jessie Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson. Finally, she got a lead role with 2010’s Easy A — and big-time stardom followed.

At the top of her game, Stone made a potentially fatal decision for her movie career and left Hollywood.

“I started to feel overwhelmed by the energy of Hollywood,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “I would go places, and all anybody could talk about was the entertainment industry. I just felt too surrounded by that.”

She decided to move to New York City, but even three thousand miles away from L.A. she still felt overwhelmed by her celebrity.

Kevin Winter/Getty
Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty

“Losing my anonymity after Easy A, it was like being 7 years old all over again,” she told THR. “It terrified me.”

Her battle against anxiety continues to this day — her last minor attack occurred while filming Birdman in 2o14 — but from her relative safe haven on the East Coast she made a slew of movies, from the big budget, superhero franchise The Amazing Spider-Man to Woody Allen flicks like Magic in the Moonlight and Irrational Man.

At 26, Stone made her broadway debut in Cabaret to rave reviews. Her performance in the musical got the attention of a young director, Damien Chazelle, who after wowing critics with 2014’s Whiplash, was looking for an actress with the right song and dance chops for his next feature.

But she didn’t get the part right away. Chazelle came to her with an offer after his first choices for the film’s leads, Emma Watson and Whiplash’s Miles Teller, dropped out. But even then, Stone wasn’t sure she wanted the part.

Remembering the night Chazelle offered her the role, Stone told THR, “I was very sick. My voice was gone, and I was struggling to get through the shows — I was still doing Cabaret — and the idea of doing another musical was like, ‘You’ve got to be out of your mind.’ After Cabaret, I wasn’t sure I would ever sing or dance again.”

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But somewhere between Chazelle’s insistence, listening to the score and the promise of costarring again with her friend and frequent collaborator Ryan Gosling, she changed her mind. After a grueling 40-day shoot and another year of waiting, Stone took home the Venice Film Festival’s best actress prize, beginning what would be become a historic award season run, culminating in 14 Oscar nominations.

“That kind of stuff is amazing and an honor and very crazy, but it’s something that I can get into too much of a tizzy about,” she told THR of all the recognition. “Although I did have a day in October when I got myself really freaked out.”

The Academy Awards kicks off live on ABC on Sunday, Feb. 26, with a 7 p.m. ET pre-show and 8:30 p.m. ceremony. See all the Oscar nominees and get your own ballot here!