‘Beauty and the Beast’: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, and Josh Gad on the Fairytale Film

Beauty and the Beast is a magical live-action re-telling of Disney’s animated classic, staying true to the original while refashioning the characters for a contemporary audience and updating the score with several new songs. Belle (Emma Watson) is a beautiful and independent young woman, more interested in reading than being courted by the village hunk, Gaston (Luke Evans), until she finds herself taken prisoner by a beast in his castle. As she befriends the castle’s enchanted but cursed staff, she begins to realize that there just might be a kind heart and soul inside of the Beast’s (Dan Stevens) frightening exterior.

During a conference at the film’s press day, co-stars Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans and Josh Gad, along with director Bill Condon and songwriter Alan Menken, talked about translating the animated feature into live-action, modernizing Belle, finding the physicality of the Beast, making Gaston more than just the villain, how challenging horseback riding can be, the sexuality of LeFou, incorporating the songs into the film in an organic way, and how to find your own place in the world.

Image via Disney

Question: Bill, the animated movie is, for so many people, their favorite film of all time. So, when you approached adapting it for live-action, what was the process for you?

BILL CONDON: Getting over the terror first. But then, you just start with that basic idea that you’re going to take it into a new medium, which is live-action. There are going to be actors. Emma Watson is going to be playing a character, on real locations, who has to fall in love with the Beast. An animated film is a little more exaggerated, so it has to come into reality. Once you start to investigate that, then you realize that there are questions that maybe you never asked before, that you want to know about. How did Belle and Maurice wind up in this village, where they’re outsiders? And that leads to new songs. And then, suddenly, you’re creating something new.

ALAN MENKEN: When Bill came aboard, we had meetings about what would we add, and one of the things we talked about was getting into the backstory of how Maurice and Belle came to the town, and the backstory for the Beast and how he became such a cold and callous young man. We tried to root ourselves much more in the time and place of 18th century France, and that really helped, immensely.

Alan, this is one film in a myriad of films that you’ve contributed amazing music to. What do you think it is about these films that has made them such universal stories for so many people?

MENKEN: We don’t calculate beyond telling the story and serving the characters, and trying to give each of these projects its own unique musical stamp. Beyond that, it’s just storytelling. There’s no more collaborative form than musicals. They call it a musical and I’m the composer, but the truth is that it’s a director, a choreographer, a lyricist, a book writer, a composer, an orchestrator, an arranger and lighting, all put together. I think benefited a lot from the Disney association.

Image via Disney

Emma, you’ve become a role model to so many young girls and women, all over the world, and growing up, Belle was someone you looked up to. What were some of the things that you thought about, in modernizing Belle and making her your own?

EMMA WATSON: It’s really remarkable to play someone that I’m almost sure had an influence on the woman that I have become. The first time I saw Paige O’Hara sing “Belle (Reprise),” it’s the “I Want” song of all “I Want” songs, and I just immediately resonated with her. I was so young that I didn’t even know what I was tapping into, but there was something about that spirit and energy that I just knew she was my champion. And when I knew I was taking on this role, I wanted to make sure that I was championing that same spirit, those same values, and that same young woman that made me who I am today. And so, every time we would address a new scene that Bill [Condon], or Stephen [Chbosky] or Evan [Spiliotopoulos] had put together, I just always had the original DNA of that woman in mind, and I had my fists up. I was ready to fight because she was so crucial for me. It was just taking what was already there and expanding it. I love that, in our version, Belle is not only awed and doesn’t fit in, you see her reading and she’s actually an activist within her own community. She’s teaching other young girls, who are part of the village, to read. I love moments like that, where you could see her expanding beyond just her own little world and trying to grow. That was amazing to get to do.

In bringing this film to life, one of the biggest challenges has to be the creation of the Beast because he’s such a huge player and the physicality has to be so intense and specific. Dan, did you approach playing him any differently than you would with any other character that you’ve played?

Image via Disney

DAN STEVENS: Well, it was a very physical engagement. Just to support that muscle suit on stilts was a challenge that I’d never really encountered before. I’ve definitely been taking a more physical approach to my roles, in the last few years, and just training myself in different ways. With the backstory, we decided that the prince, before he was the Beast, was a dancer. He loved to dance, so I trained myself, like a dancer, and learned three quite different dances for this movie. There was a lot of work, dancing on stilts. Getting to know Emma, first and foremost, on the dance floor was a great way to get to know your co-star. I’m going to try to do that with every movie I do now, whether there’s a waltz in the movie or not. No. There was the trust that Emma had to place in me, that I wouldn’t break her toes. The essence of a waltz is two people being in this whirlwind, and we had to learn the storytelling through dance, and not just get up and dance but actually really tell a very crucial part of the story, in that big turning point. So, there was lots of physicality.

A story entitled Beauty and the Beast has to have someone trying to keep those two apart, and that’s Gaston. Luke, how did you find this character, in a way that made him more than a villain to you?

LUKE EVANS: I just think that a villain shouldn’t start out as the bad guy. A villain should end up being the bad guy. And with Gaston, outwardly to a lot of people in that village, he is the hero. He’s a bit of a stud. He’s got the hair and the looks, he’s always impeccably dressed, and he’s got not a bad singing voice. He’s got a great pal that makes everybody support him and sing about him. So, I just thought, “Let’s make them like him, a little bit first, so that when the cracks start to appear, which they very subtly do, there’s something inside of him that shows he’s not used to things going like this, and that this is not what she’s supposed to be doing.” And although he keeps believing that Belle will change her mind, that’s where the cracks appear. Slowly, the jealousy takes over. He has no book of spells. He has no magic powers. He’s a human being, and he uses his status within that village to rouse a crowd, but he does it all from just being himself, which is quite terrifying. So I played on the humanity of the character. He is larger than life. There was a lot to pull on. He was a war hero, of sorts. His murals are all over the pub that he drinks in. There is this animalistic soldier in him, when he finally fights the Beast on the rooftops. You see this man who’s out for blood, and it’s a scary moment to see the arc of somebody who was the loveable buffoon of the village becoming the monster.

Image via Disney

Josh, we’ve seen you on Broadway and in other musicals, so we know that you’re very adept at singing and doing comedy, but in this film, you also get to ride a horse. How was the horseback riding for you?

JOSH GAD: I learned a couple of great lessons on this movie, one of which is that Jews don’t belong on horses, specially overweight Jews. My horse was an anti-Semite. Interestingly enough, they would call, “Action!,” and the horse that they told me was trained for this movie, acted like they found him in the wilds of England. So, Luke and I are walking into the village on our horses, and on, “Action!,” all our horses needed to do was walk side by side It was so simple. Luke’s horse did it, but mine was a cold-blooded killer. He proceeded to walk backwards. Then, he ran through multiple extras in the village, and then ran around these pillars and back again. I heard, “Cut!,” and I heard laughing, and the laughter was coming from the horse’s trainer. He came up to me and said, “I’m so sorry! I’ve never seen this happen before!” It was so sad. It made me feel so awful about myself. Ironically, my horse’s name was Buddy. That is a true story. He’s nobody’s buddy. I’m begging Disney to press charges against him, and I’ve told my agents to never send me another script with a horse in it again, unless it’s on wheels. In the sequel to Beauty and the Beast, I’ll drive a DeLorean.

Bill, there’s been a lot of talk about the sexuality of LeFou. How do you feel about that?

CONDON: It’s a translation to 2017, you know? And what is this movie about? What has this story always been about? For 300 years, it’s about looking closer, going deeper, and accepting people for who they really are. In a very Disney way, we are including everybody. I think this movie is for everybody and, on the screen, you’ll see everybody. That was important to me and, I think, to all of us.

Bill and Alan, how did you approach organically incorporating the songs into this film?

CONDON: They often say, in musicals, that people sing when it’s no longer enough to speak because their emotions are running so high. As one example, the song “Evermore,” for the Beast, is one of the dramatic high points in all of literature, where at this moment, the Beast lets Belle go and becomes worthy of love. He discovers what love is, but at the same time, sacrifices his future. And so, we talked about the fact that we needed a song, and there had been a song in the stage adaptation.

MENKEN: Each iteration of Beauty and the Beast is a different medium and a different shape. In the Broadway show, there was a song called, “If I Can’t Love Her.” The stage musical is a two-act structure, so we wrote a song for the Beast because that act break is the moment where the Beast, out of anger, has driven Belle away and we needed for the Beast to howl for redemption. But in the structure of a live-action film, which is more of a three-act structure, Bill and I felt that the more satisfying moment is the moment when the Beast lets Belle go because she’s no longer his prisoner. He loves her, and the spell will not be broken now, but at least he knows what love is.

CONDON: Honestly it was just us, working out moments that we wanted to musicalize.

MENKEN: You have the initial tent pole moments from the animated movie, and those are going to stay. And then, you put them in place and look at it like architecture. Where do we need the emotional support? Sometimes the songs will respond to a moment. Sometimes you’ll go, “I feel like we need a song in this spot,” and we will massage the story, so that a song could fit there. I could spend five hours talking about this, but essentially, a lot of thought and a lot collaboration goes into what song is going to come, where’s it going to go, what it needs to accomplish, and how it will interact with the song that preceded it and the song that came after it. What will be the overall effect of it? What character is underrepresented in songs? There are so many factors.

We all have these songs permanently etched in our brains, but they’re very challenging. How did you work through that?

GAD: I remember first getting the call, and I immediately flashed back to being a kid. I was 10 years old, it was 1991, and I saw the movie in a small theater in South Florida, and I remember that the response was something that I had never seen before, which was audiences applauding after these animated characters were singing these songs. It was very unusual. Prior to that, The Great Mouse Detective didn’t have much applause when I saw it. And The Black Cauldron certainly did not have applause. So what [Howard[ Ashman and [Alan] Menken brought to the Disney library was hearkening back to a time of the Sherman Brothers and the early days of Disney, that was so a part of our childhood. I cannot tell you how important Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin were to me. So, I got nauseous. I was like, “How am I going to bring a song like ‘Gaston’ to life?” I went into my office and I started singing it, and I literally started choking up because you think back to yourself, as a kid, and you’re like, “Oh, my god, I’m doing this for real! I’m going to be the version that a lot of kids are going to see!” That was such a thrill. And my kids walked into the office and were so tickled that daddy was singing this song that they know so well. I thought to myself, “This is going to work. We’re going to work at it, but we’re going to make it our own.” And it was the first day that we did the table read that I watched everybody perform and make all of these pieces come together before our eyes. I don’t think there was a single one of us who didn’t have goosebumps. It was the stuff that dreams are made of.

MENKEN: My mantra for myself, throughout the whole thing, was just, “Don’t screw it up!”

Emma, you are truly an inspiration and this role you have is so special. Playing somebody to whom books and education is so important, how do you feel about the value on knowledge, in society?

WATSON: Gosh, where to begin? I think that Belle is this ultimate symbol of the fact that books can be rebellious, incredibly empowering, and liberating. You can travel to places in the world that you would never be able to, under other circumstances. I was just really proud to play a character that has a certain earnestness about her. She’s not, in any way, ashamed of that. It’s not easy being an outsider and it’s not easy to pick battles. It’s not easy to try to move and work against the grain or the status quo. But, Belle does so with this amazing fearlessness. She has the support of her father, but it’s something that she weathers on her own, really, at the end of the day. I’m very grateful that this character exists, and that I get to bring her to life. It’s fantastic.

Image via Disney

This movie has the theme of feeling like you don’t quite belong. Emma, as someone who went to college, what is your advice for dealing with the feelings of being an outsider and feeling like you don’t quite belong, especially when it comes to your schooling?

WATSON: Gosh, what’s difficult about the microcosm of school or university is that you feel like the people that are in your immediate surroundings are the only people in the world. I remember feeling like, if I didn’t fit in at school, there was nothing else, and that’s a really difficult feeling. I guess what I would say, for anyone that feels like an outsider in their environment, is that there is a big, wide world out there, with so many different people with diverse opinions and perspectives and interests, so go out there and find your tribe and your kindred spirits. They do exist, but they don’t necessarily come easily. Pursue the things that you love and that you’re really passionate about, and they’ll be there. But, don’t give up because they are there.

Beauty and the Beast opens in theaters on March 17th.

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