Paul Feig and Blake Lively on 'A Simple Favor,' Female Characters, and Looking Sexy in Suits

Kendrick, left, and the alluringly dapper Lively in Paul Feig’s 'A Simple Favor.' “I’ve always wanted to direct a Hitchcockian thriller,” says the director. Lionsgate / Peter Iovino

"My favorite thing in the world is surprising an audience by changing it up with an actor who they think they know," says director Paul Feig, who has a résumé to back that claim up.

Since making the switch from TV to film, Feig, the creator the 1999 cult show Freaks and Geeks (executive produced by Judd Apatow), has turned a mainstream sitcom lead, Melissa McCarthy, into a crass, badass superstar (beginning with 2011's Bridesmaids); revealed the funny bone in deadly serious action star Jason Statham (2015's Spy); and transformed Chris Hemsworth, famous for playing Thor, into a hilariously vapid bimbo in 2016's Ghostbusters.

Now it's Blake Lively's turn. Still best known for starring as Serena van der Woodsen, the moral compass on the CW soap Gossip Girl, Lively gets to play a foul-mouthed sociopath in Feig's A Simple Favor. The film is a switch for the director as well; it's his first drama since 2003's I Am David. "Originally, I was sent the script to produce," says Feig, "but I've always wanted to do a Hitchcockian thriller."

The film, adapted from Darcey Bell's 2017 novel of the same name, pits wide-eyed mommy blogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) against secretive fashion executive Emily (Lively). When the latter suddenly disappears after asking Stephanie to get her son from school, Emily's violent past begins to emerge.

"Gone Girl gone nuclear" is how one reviewer from the Richmond Times-Dispatch described the book. "I love that movie," Lively says, "but I wanted Emily to stand out." And that began with an iconic look. The actress, a favorite of Condé Nast guru Anna Wintour (as well as an occasional designer herself), found inspiration in Feig, a famously dapper man, rarely without a three-piece double-breasted suit, pocket square and walking stick. "I said, 'Paul, this is going to sound weird, but I want to dress like you.'"

Emily's opening scene had to immediately distinguish her from "a school full of parents wearing Lululemon tights," says Feig. His first instinct: "a men's jacket and no top." Lively pushed back. "We've seen that version of female sexuality so many times," she says.

Kendrick, right, with director Paul Feig, whose signature dapper look inspired Lively's character in 'A Simple Favor.' Peter Iovino / Lionsgate

Lively wasn't kidding when she said she wanted to dress just like Feig. Emily enters the film in a three-piece suit paired with stilettos, which the director instantly saw was "funny, unexpected, smart." And, as Lively promised, "still the sexiest thing in the world, with just a flash of ankle."

Eventually, several of those suit pieces come off, when Emily brings Stephanie home and unceremoniously strips. Another Lively idea, says Feig. "Anna's reaction is priceless."

The film makes the most of the sexual tension between its stars, but Feig finds the current trend for promoting LGBT hookups distasteful (as in the "exclusive gay moment" in Disney's live-action Beauty and the Beast). He doesn't consider it a selling point. "I went through the same thing with Ghostbusters," says Feig. "I wanted a movie with four really funny women, and suddenly people on the internet attached all this other stuff to it, claiming we had a [liberal] agenda. I don't have a fucking agenda!"

Lively makes her dramatic, suited up entrance in 'A Simple Favor.' Peter Iovino / Lionsgate

He's "thrilled," though, with his reputation as a male director who consistently delivers female-driven films. "I love telling women's stories because I grew up around so many women," says Feig, "and I've seen them portrayed so poorly on the screen."

His self-imposed guidelines include "Respect your characters, and don't be mean-spirited. Also, have women vet everything! There's been plenty of times where the women in my cast, or my producing partner Jessie Henderson, will say, 'Look, women wouldn't do that.' I say, 'Awesome! Tell me how you would do this?'"

"A film like [A Simple Favor]," Feig goes on, "could easily devolve into woman-on-woman catfighting—a stereotype perpetuated for decades—but Emily and Stephanie maintain respect for each other throughout."

When Feig does return to making funny movies, he says he'll approach them differently. "I've been noticing hostility from audiences toward straight comedies," he says—specifically ones that sacrifice character integrity for jokes. "From now on," says Feig, "I'd like to do comedies that people don't know are comedies."

A Simple Favor opens nationwide September 14.