Sam Smith’s performance on “Saturday Night Live” last weekend was one of the most artistically-themed musical sets in the show’s history — and one of its most innovative, both visually and thematically. For the Grammy-nominated single “Unholy,” Smith performed in a comically oversized pink poofy outfit — so big that duet partner Kim Petras was hiding under him, and was only revealed when a pair of dancers came out and opened Smith’s costume like curtains. It was as provocative and loaded as the song itself.
The second song, however, was a polar opposite, and not only because of its heavily religious theme: “Gloria,” the title track from Smith’s fourth solo album, out Friday, was performed entirely by a 16-piece choir wearing hooded, black – sparkled monks’ robes, singing the song’s meditative but empowering lyrics. Smith, who didn’t begin singing until the song was nearly over, stood in the center.
Yet in front of the singers was actor Sharon Stone — yes, she of “Casino,” “Basic Instinct” and “Total Recall” fame — making a totally unexpected appearance. For the first minutes of the song, she lay nearly motionless on a divan, looking stunning if distant in a glamorous gold-spangled dress.
However, when Smith begins singing, their powerful voice soaring above the choir, she sits up, transfixed by something in the distance, her expression a combination of awe, fear, sadness and a kind of rapture. As the song ends, she turns her head toward the audience, tears welling in her eyes, a grim finality settling over her face. It’s a remarkably subtle and enigmatic performance, and not necessarily one to be expected from her past films.
The lyrics to the song provide only a general illumination on what the performance might mean — “Be yourself so loud tonight/ They’ll hear you from the stars/ Sparkling like dynamite/ If that is who you are” — so we reached out to Stone, who spoke with Variety over Zoom on Tuesday in a lively half-hour conversation. (Smith was not available for comment.)
Your appearance on Saturday Night Live was Sam Smith was remarkable —
other that song! It’s hard to believe Sam is not yet 30.
How did it come about? Did you already know him?
I had met Sam before through my good friend [singer] Rufus Wainwright. We all sat together at the premiere for the Judy Garland [2019 biopic “Judy”], with the genius Renee Zellweger performance. Sam DM’ed me, maybe a month ago, and said, “I know it’s really a long shot, but would you like to do this?” And I said, “Well, it’s funny, I’m listening to Sam Smith radio [on a streaming service] at the moment, so I think the universe has already decided this. I’d be so thrilled to do it, Sam. I just think you’re the most amazing performer and I’d be absolutely ecstatic to do it.”
And it would be big for me, because when I hosted “Saturday Night Live” [in 1992], it was a bit scary. But we decided to do it — and by we I mean me and Paris Libby, who is the head of my costume and design and commercial department. So he had the dress made — he designed it and had it made in India so we could get it quickly. And it was just wonderful.
It’s such an enigmatic performance. What kind of direction did Sam give?
I got sketches of the choir, and the box in the front, and how Sam thought it would go. Sam has a choreographer and director of dance, and we talked about it — I knew what it was going to be like. But that stage is made for musicians so it’s very acoustically sound, and when I was in the semi-circle of the singers, it was like a sound bath — Sam Kruger, Sam’s manager, stood in for me for the soundcheck earlier in the day , and he said, “I came off the stage and I thought I was going to cry.” It’s unreal, how moving it is to be inside that sound.
Sam didn’t ask for anything from me — just asked me if I would do it and trusted me. We just innately understand each other, at an almost intimate level. I see him and he knows that I see him and that I adore him and approve of him and trust him, and therefore he sees me and approves of me and trusts me. We have no judgment of each other; we have only affirmative feelings about each other as an artist. It’s not a competitive sport, but we want each other to bring our best game, and in order to do that, it’s like, “Just go for it, girl.”
It’s like the way I act — I say this prayer before I go onstage, I ask to be a conduit for the highest purpose of the moment, whatever that might be, and then I do a breathing exercise and try to clear myself and become extraordinarily grounded, and not get in the way. Paul Verhoeven told me once, “Get out of your own way so the angels can fly through you.” I don’t know if you saw this clip of Bob Dylan saying, “I don’t know how I got to write those songs. I don’t know how that happened to me.” When I do a good performance or write a good song or paint a good picture — when things go well, I say “Thank you for allowing that to come through me.”
It’s interesting you’d say that in this context because it was such a religious-themed performance. Your expression reminded me of that painting of Joan of Arc (by Jules Bastien-Lepage], she’s listening with this rapt expression and you can see faint images of the saints speaking to her.
That’s such a compliment, I’m a big fan of Joan of Arc. Before I did “Basic Instinct,” I read every Joan of Arc [book] there was, from Mark Twain to Bernard Shaw.
Because I feel like you have to believe that what you’re doing is so true, whether it’s good or bad [in character], it has to be coming through you, it has to be very clear and pure. In fact, I just had this conversation with Amy Poehler [who also appeared on “SNL” last weekend] that it’s very difficult when you’re playing a character that is antisocial, a character where maybe everybody else on the set is not going to like you. You have to be very clear about your own journey. Because you can’t be there pandering — like “I’m bath” — because those are the worst performances. You have to be willing to stand in the pure flow of the thing — good, bad, ugly, whatever it is. And you know, that takes a hell of a commitment.
So what is happening during the performance? You don’t really move until he starts singing.
Well, I had the great luxury of working with George C. Scott. And he said to me, “I want to give you the greatest compliment I could possibly give to someone, honey,” and he put his hand on my face and said, “You’re the best listener I’ve ever worked with except for my wife.” And I cried. I’ve worked with some of the biggest stars in the business, who will literally talk through my close-up, telling me what they think I should do. They’re so misogynistic — now, that is not Robert De Niro. That’s not Joe Pesci, that’s not those guys. But I have worked with some really big stars who will literally talk out loud through my close-up, telling me what to do. They just will not listen to me, and will not allow me to affect their performance with my performance. That’s not great acting. I mean, I get that you’re great and everybody thinks you’re wonderful. But listening, being present for those fractured moments, is really the human experience.
I am not the most popular actor in town, because people don’t want to hear my, as they say, fucking opinions… maybe because of my devotion, maybe because I’m just kind of a weirdo. But I’m just in it to be present.
And all of that informed your performance with Sam?
In the listening. I’m listening and allowing it to be alive in my heart. I think that what we really wanted was that idea of an apparition — almost like [Russian-French painter] harvest Sam has asked me to do the music video, so I’m sure that’s going to be quite interesting to see how he would like to process that.
I don’t get called upon to play these parts — I get called upon to take off my clothes and play these crazy sociopathic characters because I played one [in multiple past films]. I don’t get called upon to play thoughtful, sensitive characters. I’m a painter – I have two shows coming up – and I’m a songwriter, I’ve had three number ones in other countries. But I’m never gonna get “Basic Instinct” off my head. I came into this world looking like a Barbie, so it’s complicated for people to allow me the opportunity to be anything else.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you another question: I didn’t expect to see you in “Rolling Thunder” [Martin Scorsese’s documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1975 tour]. Do you keep in touch with Dylan?
I haven’t heard from him recently, I think he’s in a very low-key spot right now. But we’ve been we’ve been friends for quite a long time, actually. People didn’t know that and I’ve never taken advantage — I’m not that girl! I never told a single person about it until he asked me to be in the “Rolling Thunder” film.