Basic Instinct premiered on March 20, 1992. Thirty years later, its star shares the many lessons she learned from her life-changing role.
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Sharon Stone
Stone, filming the famous interrogation room scene in 1992's Basic Instinct.
| Credit: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo

I was 32 when I got the part of Catherine Tramell in [the 1992 thriller] Basic Instinct. It was probably as late as you could be in your career without a big break. But from the moment I read the script, I knew I was the right person for the role. It was an intellectually complex part, and I felt like I had a real grasp on it. Catherine reminded me of some of the characters that Orson Welles had played in the past. And complicated, layered leading roles like that just don't come around all that often for women.

For the longest time, I was certain they were going to recast me with someone else, because how could I possibly star opposite Michael Douglas? I thought maybe I was just a placeholder. But during those first few wardrobe fittings, it really started to sink in. I couldn't believe how exciting it was and all of the incredible costumes that were being made just for me. I put in my contract that I could keep the clothes. People thought I was crazy, but the truth is I wasn't getting paid much compared to my male co-star. I made $500,000; Michael made $14 million. So keeping my costumes was a really smart thing to do.

The costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick, took me to Rodeo Drive and said, "You can pick out any one thing that you want for your character." At this point in my life, the idea that I could go into one of those high-end stores where a purse costs $20,000 and not feel like an impostor was beyond my comprehension. So to actually get to go into Hermès and buy a cream cashmere throw was a wow moment. I have it wrapped around me the first time you meet Catherine in the film. And it immediately helped me feel the power and the wealth that this character had.

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All of the costumes in the film had that effect. Of course, the most memorable one is the white dress and coat I wore in the interrogation room scene. I remember asking the director, Paul Verhoeven, what he wanted me to wear for it. He jokingly said, "I don't care if you wear a turtleneck and your hair in a bun." So I said, "Good, because that's what I was thinking." We decided to go for all white because my character had a very Hitchcockian vibe. But Ellen designed the dress so that I could sit like a man if he was being interrogated. It gave me the ability to move my arms and legs, take up space, and exercise control over a room full of men.

The scene was many pages long, and I worked hard to perfect it. We were shooting in 35-millimeter film, so I knew that if there was a single second that wasn't spellbinding, it could end up on the cutting room floor. After all, the movie was a thriller and we were stopping the action to watch me sit still in a chair, so I thought the possibility of anybody giving two shits about it was zero.

It turned out to be a pretty big deal. [laughs] When we were filming the part [where Catherine uncrosses her legs, flashing the detectives], the director asked me to remove my underwear because he said the white was reflecting the light. So I did. And the cinematographer told me that they couldn't see anything. In those days, the monitors were much less sophisticated than they are now, so even when they played it back for me, I didn't see any issues.

Of course, when I saw the completed movie for the first time with a bunch of other people, you could see right up my skirt. It would've been a much fairer and more reasonable thing for them to have shown it to me alone first, but it was a part of the movie, and I'm sure they didn't want some new actress overreacting and telling them what to do. So I talked to my lawyer, weighed my options, and then made the decision to allow the scene to stay. Looking back on it, I still think it was the right choice for the film, even if it took me a while to come to that conclusion.

When the movie premiered, I went with Faye Dunaway. I'll never forget the moment when it ended. It was completely silent in the theater, and Faye grabbed my arm and said, "Don't move." Finally the crowd began to cheer, and Faye said, "Now you are a big star and they can all kiss your ass." [laughs] I really did feel my life change in that moment.

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Now, 30 years later, the fact that so many people still love the film is amazing to me. I get a kick out of it whenever I see someone dressed up in a white dress like Catherine for Halloween. It really has taken on a life of its own.

I still have almost all of the wardrobe too. I've given some pieces away to charity, but so far, I've kept the white dress and coat. It was zipped up in a garment bag on the set, and it has never been opened since. I broke the zipper, so it's hermetically sealed like a piece of art or a very cool time capsule.

Over the years, I've gone through many phases of how I feel about what happened when I was wearing that dress, but it's all very resolved for me at this point. When I look at it now, I can't help but think about how much I learned in the process of making the film. I learned that I could withstand the pressure. Because it was a lot of pressure to be that person in that movie at that time. People thought I was just like Catherine and that there should be a shaming process for playing a character like that. I learned how frightening it can be not just for men but for society as a whole to see a woman access and own her power. I learned how to have a spine. I learned how to speak up for myself. And yes, I learned that I look pretty damn good in white.

Stone got her first Golden Globe nomination for her role in Basic Instinct. She can be seen next in the upcoming second season of The Flight Attendant on HBO Max.

For more stories like this, pick up the March 2022 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb. 11.