Given the tireless work Emma Watson commits to fighting for feminism, and equality – it was only natural it would come up as a topic of discussion when we had the pleasure of meeting the British actress for her latest role, in Disney’s live-action reimagining of Beauty and the Beast, as she speaks passionately about the parallels between her life off-screen and the character in the movie.
It also seemed only natural that she should be paired with Dan Stevens, who plays the Beast to her Belle, who also got involved in the conversation about his co-star’s activism, and how it enriched the project in his eyes. The pair proceed to discuss their relationship with the original animation, and what it’s like shooting a musical.
Emma, do you think this role corresponds with your activism in real life?
Emma Watson: I actually think there’s a lot of cross-over in many ways, she cares about literacy and about books and educating yourself and empowering yourself, and also she just really goes against the grain of where she lives and the viewpoints of the people around her. Everyone is bemused and confused as to why she doesn’t want to marry Gaston and live happily ever after. She doesn’t want to marry Prince Charming, and she seems unfazed by that which is pretty remarkable really.
Dan Stevens: She has that ability to see beyond the surface, even before she meets the Beast, she can beyond Gaston’s surface and can see this is not a man who will work out. She sees him very differently to the way most of the other girl’s see him, and that sets her apart and makes her odd, branded as an oddball in her community which is a difficult place to be sometimes.
Given your ages I assume you both have quite a personal connection to the original animation, so in regards to your interpretation of this role – was it a challenge to treat it as the character from this screenplay, and not the character you already have this pre-established idea of your own mind?
DS: I think we both felt a huge responsibility to our own childhood selves, and how much we love this film and also how much friends from our generation love this animated cartoon. But Emma and I are interested in fairytale and story and the chance to recreate this fairytale, to tell it again and carry forward some of the great messages from it. It is a classic fairytale because it has a few very big themes that are always relevant and always pertinent, and that was the challenge really, what torch should we carry forward here?
But yeah, there are definitely elements of the original character that I wanted to bring in, the humour that you find in the animated feature, how does that translate when it becomes a real thing, a real creature where you can’t rely on cartoony tactics? In the original film he can move around the room and the castle in a way that is comedic but is superhuman, there’s no way we could actually make that happen, so how do we bring the humour into this version? I guess we gave him more of a dry, educated wit and we really looked at the obstacles that Belle would have run up against. What obstacles can I place in her way, what chauvinism and sexism and prejudice can the Beast exhibit that Belle has to batter through? But also what are his lovely, silly, sweet loveable qualities that she sees inside with her super perception?
EW: There are a lot of icons in our cultural consciousness which are very damaging actually for femininity, but this was supposed to be Disney’s first feminist woman that they placed in that role – she was loosely based on Katharine Hepburn, she was written by a woman, and she was meant to be a departure, she was supposed to be a Disney princess gone rogue. I was able to pad that out and build on that which was great. It’s lovely to have something to build on as opposed to be trying to pull something back in the other direction. I think there were certain things I had to safeguard along the way, film studios always seem to want you to have enormous breasts. But I had a wonderful character to begin with that I was able to build on.
Is it quite to know how Emma that there will be a new generation now who will have this image of Belle being you?
EW: I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve had a career and a life, where quite honestly I’d have been satisfied just with Hermione because for me it’s difficult to get much better than that, she’s the ultimate. But to have people come up to me now to talk about the work I do with young women, or to talk about Beauty and the Beast or whatever, I feel so blessed by my career. I’m doing things that are speaking on that level which is miraculous.
DS: That was my fan moment, was talking to you about the UN speech, you delivered only a few months before we started shooting, and I was full of so many questions, it was the most incredible thing to see anybody do, let alone a young, British actress, to stand up on that platform and give that kind of speech with that level of thought, and then to see that actress bringing all of those ideas into her work on this scale was, for me, the most exciting start to any job I’ve ever had. This is operating on so many brilliant levels here, so I was a big fan of that.
So what is the message you want young girls and women to take away from this movie?
EW: Gosh, I mean it’s so hard to pick one, it speaks on so many levels. But you are a force to be reckoned with. You are powerful, and even if everything and everyone around you is making certain assumptions of you and have certain expectations of you, you do not have to fulfil them, there is a choice involved here. You are perfect as you are, you’re destiny is your own, so stay true to yourself and be curious, be inquisitive, and learn and empower yourself as much as you possibly can.
Also, for me the scene in the film about literacy is really important, when she teaches a little girl to read. There are approximately 18 million girls in the world who don’t get to go to school because they’re girls, for that reason. The film touches a little bit on that issue, which is what marrying Gaston at her age would do – it would rob her of her education and her ability to empower herself and to improve herself and her own community, and that’s incredibly damaging and detrimental. People ask me a lot, now I’m doing my UN work does my film work seem silly? But absolutely not, actually getting a law passed or written is all very well and good, but what takes the longest is to change the way people think culturally, and cultural tradition. That’s the hardest thing to change and the thing that changes that is having the imagination to show people what something else could look like.
DS: And sometimes that has to be in a fairytale world. As wonderful as that UN speech was, there are millions of girls out there who won’t watch that YouTube clip, but they will watch Beauty and the Beast, and there are many similar themes from the speech that are in the movie.
EW: Exactly. So I see them as being equally important, they both serve one another.
When you’re shooting a musical, even though it looks incredible when we watch it, we see the choreographed dances, the music playing… But when you’re shooting it, does it feel quite silly?
EW: For me it was about getting used to acting a scene to moving into singing. The first time I did that I was like, ‘oh God this is really weird’. How do you make bursting into song feel natural and naturalistic? That was the challenge for me, how do I make this very inorganic thing feel organic?
DS: The realisation, from our musical theatre education, is that a song is an extension of our emotions, it’s that thing that we can’t necessarily express in words, it’s bigger than that somehow. I guess the Beast is lucky that the beginning of his song comes out of a speech quality into a song, yours is a bit more, ‘I’m singing now!’ But still, in that Belle song you learn so much about her so quickly, it’s not just the words it’s her whole attitude in that song, and that’s what is so magical about musical theatre, it’s not just ‘here’s a song, and here’s some words’ it’s actually a blending of the two, and that’s something that Bill Condon is a master of as well, he’s a great director of musicals.
Beauty and the Beast is released on March 17th. You can read our review here.