The three-time Academy Award–winning filmmaker, whose polarizing movies include Platoon, JFK, and Natural Born Killers, cast Lively in his new big-screen bloodbath, Savages, after Jennifer Lawrence backed out to shoot The Hunger Games. “Blake wasn’t quite perfect for the role, but she was certainly in that ballpark,” says Stone of Ophelia, a privileged Laguna Beach hippie who gets kidnapped and tortured by Benicio del Toro’s Lado when her two marijuana-growing boyfriends (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch) refuse to partner with a Mexican drug cartel led by the ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek). “It touches on many things that I like: family, power, greed, murder, death, the border of Mexico and the U.S., and cartels,” Stone says of Savages. “A lot of it—the sex, violence, and drugs—was probably scary and challenging for Blake, who seems like she comes from a nice family. It ain’t a Disney World ride and it certainly ain’t the Upper East Side.”
Due to the packed schedules of the actors in Stone’s ensemble film (John Travolta and Demián Bichir round out the cast as a dirty DEA agent and Elena’s lawyer, respectively), Lively wasn’t able to meet with her costars before getting to set. “I can’t say it was an easy project, where we all went to the same island and stayed there until we got to know each other,” Stone says dryly. “But at the end of the day, Blake got to know everyone when she was doing the sex scenes, which required her full attention.”
Lively, who surprised everyone in Ben Affleck’s 2010 heist film, The Town, with her transformative portrayal of Krista, a hardened single mother from the Charlestown section of Boston, acknowledges that Savages won’t sit well with some audiences. “I think it’s really hard for people to digest that these privileged kids are in a three-way relationship,” she says. “Your heroes are all sleeping with each other, but they’re also in love. It’s very easy to dislike them, so when my character gets kidnapped, it’s like, ‘Well, good riddance!’ My greatest challenge was to make her life worthy of saving, to find the heart in this story.” To do so, she carefully examined the world into which Ophelia, whom Lively describes as a “Penny Lane–type free spirit,” was born. “I started thinking about the state of young people these days,” she says. “In my character’s situation, her mom is off with nine different husbands and her dad left her when she was a kid. She has nobody to learn from, so she’s making her own mistakes. Dad takes a hike and now she’s hiking up her dress for two guys. You don’t think there’s a parallel there? These kids are very much the product of this cynical generation.”
It’s the same generation that spawned Gossip Girl, the Wharton-indebted, tech-drenched saga of wealth and whitewashing on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Whereas the travails of Lively’s character on that show, the affluent, aspirational Serena van der Woodsen, typically involve walkoffs at Kiki de Montparnasse or Vera Wang–clad vitriol, her film roles often require a much deeper descent into humankind’s heart of darkness. “She certainly picks dark material compared to Gossip Girl,” Stone says. In The Town, Lively escaped into a world of hoop earrings and “Pahk the cah at Hahvad Yahd.” Similarly, she adopted a Southern drawl to play a cokehead drifter named Glenda, Chloë Moretz’s surrogate big sister in Derick Martini’s new road drama, Hick. But Ophelia had no speech tics or socioeconomic otherness through which Lively could find the means to recreationally slum. “To play a blond California girl who gets with two men was scary. If it looks like me and talks like me, how do I turn it into something different? It would have been easier if I’d been thrown into the movie with a Scottish accent and purple hair,” Lively says.
In one particularly grueling scene, del Toro’s Lado rapes Ophelia, the filming of which Lively describes as “really awful and traumatic. I can’t imagine having to do that scene with somebody who I didn’t feel comfortable and safe with.” For his part, del Toro says, “Without Blake, it would have been impossible to survive Oliver Stone. Even though the scenes between us are mean and violent, we were the first ones to laugh about what we were doing.” Another scene called for del Toro to blow smoke in Lively’s face, and for her to retaliate by spitting on his. Stone shot multiple takes to make sure he perfectly captured her rage in the moment. “I think she really enjoyed it,” del Toro says. When she hears this, Lively laughs. “I think he liked it, too.”