Disney films don’t get much more iconic than Beauty and the Beast, and so bringing the beloved characters to life in live action – while being an incredible opportunity – is also more than a little bit daunting. Thankfully both Emma Watson and Dan Stevens prove themselves up to the task as Belle and Beast respectively, and when we sat down with the pair ahead of the film’s theatrical release the topics of discussion included gender balance, working with CGI, and more. Have a read below…
Emma – Were you ever mocked for being a bookworm?
Emma Watson: I wasn’t very cool in school but I don’t know if I was mocked for reading. My real love of books actually came a little later in life. There’s something about being forced to read something that actually takes a bit of joy out of it. Once I got through school and university, I read more than I’ve ever read before. I was teased for being earnest, but not teased for reading.
The film is a bit old-fashioned in that its lead character is fascinated with books and libraries and we live in such a modern age…
Emma Watson: When I saw Beauty and the Beast as a little girl my immediate thought was “I don’t want to get married at 21, I don’t want an engagement ring – I want someone to build me a library that’s got two floors and has a ladder that I can move around on”. We live in an age that’s full of iPhones and technology and has moved on… what does that mean for the future of publishing and books and media? But I think that if we have any sense we will safeguard and understand that while iPhones are great writing is sacred and sacrosanct.
What is it about this film and Belle in particular that’s good for girls to be seeing at a young age?
Emma Watson: I can only answer from my own perspective and experience, which is that when I saw Belle I’d already started to sense that being a girl was in some way perceived to be a handicap to me, and already this sense of injustice was bubbling up a little bit under the surface. I was very into sport when I was at school and I was getting really sick of the “throw like a girl” talk that was going on. So to watch Belle on-screen sing this angry song saying “I want more than this” and “I don’t want to marry this guy, I want more for myself” felt like “oh my God, she’s speaking for me!” It was this angry, defiant, cool girl that’s just doing her own thing and that bolstered me somehow and it gave me a sense of my place in the world and it made me feel emboldened. If I’ve done my job well, hopefully other young women will see it and feel emboldened too and feel more able to take on the “oh you’re a girl” stuff.
An Israeli distributor of the film told me that he really liked it but that he thinks it’s more for girls. Does it annoy when people make that kind of distinction and what can we do to change it?
Dan Stevens: Make more films like this that have more of a gender balance in them. A great friend of mine who is now in his mid-30’s told me Belle was his favourite character growing up living in rural Somerset in England. He lived in a small-minded community and he used to sing “I want adventure in the great white somewhere” all the time [laughs]. The idea of intellectual curiosity is a timeless and universal theme for boys and girls, and that’s something that’s worth remembering. The gender spectrum in this and the kinds of masculinity and femininity on display in this tale is very important.
Emma Watson: Dan makes a good and important point. I often found growing up that there were lots of male characters in children’s films and YA novels that I looked up to, but I very rarely heard my brothers say that they looked up to female characters, or ever wanted to impersonate or have anything to do with female ones. That’s very troublesome.
Dan Stevens: There is something quite tomboy-ish about Belle…
Emma Watson: Yeah. The Belle that I portray is very human…
Dan Stevens: We sort of throw the gender thing out the window a bit. The idea that there’s a certain kind of book that boys should read and a certain kind of book that a girl should read – to me, that’s absurd. In changing each other’s reading habits, Beast and Belle change the perception of gender stereotypes as well.
Amon Warmann: The production on this film is amazing, not only in the set design but also the CGI. Emma, you’re more familiar with this type of filmmaking than Dan is – What do you think was Dan’s biggest advantage in being new to this type of filmmaking? And Dan – what’s Emma’s biggest disadvantage to having already done it before?
Dan Stevens: That’s a really great question.
Emma Watson: I know what’s coming, and I know it’s not easy and there’s sort of a baggage there. Whereas Dan had a lot more patience and was sort of wide-eyed and bushy-tailed about the whole thing. I was like “Oh my God, that candlestick is going to take 4 hours to come to life” and Dan’s going “Ooh, candlestick!” and I’m like “You just don’t know how long it’s going to take, it’s gonna be a nightmare” [laughs].
Dan Stevens: I was blessed to work with Emma because she was not fazed at all by the weirdness of the technology we would be using. I have to say that nobody has used this kind of technology to this extent for this kind of intimate, romantic role before, and certainly not when it comes to singing. So even for the guys behind the desk at the computers we were all undertaking a very brave new world in terms of how were we going to create this character and hopefully bring the subtleties of the human face to a character like this. I was so grateful that Emma wasn’t fazed by it because I think it would have taken twice as long had she been going “What is this?” [laughs]
Emma – Is there a sense of trepidation throwing yourself into a film like this again?
Emma Watson: Of course it did. In a sense I’m thrilled that the film is out in the world now because it feels like a tidal wave that you can see on the horizon coming in. But I think that I’m much better prepared now than I ever was and I have much better systems and mechanisms in place that help me deal and cope with that sort of change in my life and help make the transitions a bit more seamless. I’m starting to get a lot more high-profile than I have been and I definitely really value and appreciate the freedom that I have.
Do you think people will call you Belle now, or do you prefer Hermione [laughs]
Emma Watson: I have to see. I love them both. Some people think of me as Sam from The Perks of Being a Wallflower. For whatever reason that’s a story that’s really resonated for people. I think it really depends…
Dan Stevens: Another option is that girl from the UN speech…
Emma Watson: One of my favourites was a little girl whose Mum told me that she had decided that people had asked her what she wanted for a career and she had said a UN ambassador, and I thought that was brilliant.
A wonderful moment in the film is when Belle says “I’m not a Princess”, and she isn’t Princessy but there is the Princess moment when she puts on THAT yellow dress. How did you approach that scene?
Emma Watson: It’s funny – at the UK premiere last night I wore a dress that I wouldn’t normally wear and I did feel a bit out of my comfort zone. But on the other hand, when do you get to be so unapologetically romantic? When do you get to wear something that is so unimaginably larger than life? You want to make sure in that moment that you let people escape into the fantasy of what that is and the pure joy of what all that is. Was it practical? Absolutely not. Was it comfortable? Definitely not [laughs]. But it was joyful, and that’s really important too.
The film is joyful and romantic but it also speaks about freedom and fear of the other which are very relevant issues today…
Emma Watson: You’re absolutely right. That’s what I love so much about Belle – she doesn’t get caught up in the normal prejudices and quick judgements that others do. She is genuinely curious and inquisitive and is able to step back from things in a way that allows her to make her own opinion. She’s not easily led by the crowd.
Amon Warmann: There’s some really interesting changes and additions made to both Belle and Beast in this film that expand the characters’ backstories. Is there any other character you’ve played previously that you’d like to go back and expand on?
Emma Watson: That’s a good question…
Dan Stevens: I think David from The Guest.
Emma Watson: I’d probably go and reprise Nicki [Moore] from The Bling Ring, post-prison sentence.