At a time when fairy tales on the big screen are getting darker and more edgy, the timeless classic Cinderella show that kindness and courage can win out over all, and that maybe a princess has enough inner strength that she doesn’t need a prince to save her and make her dreams come true. This live-action retelling focuses on the beautiful young Ella (Lily James) whose idyllic life comes crashing down when her merchant father remarries following the tragic death of her mother, and her new Stepmother (Cate Blanchett) brings her own daughters into the family home, quickly turning into quite the jealous and cruel bunch. When Ella meets the dashing Kit in the woods, unaware that he is really the Prince (Richard Madden) and not merely an apprentice, she believes she has finally found a kindred spirit and hopes they will cross paths again, perhaps at the royal ball.
During a roundtable interview at the film’s press day, actor Richard Madden talked about what it’s like to be on a Kenneth Branagh set, his love for working with horses, what a challenge it was to do the dance with Cinderella at the ball, wanting a real masculinity for the Prince, his easy chemistry with Lily James, why he enjoys working on such big scale productions, and his favorite moment to recreate from the iconic story. He also talked about reuniting with Lily James for Romeo and Juliet in the West End in 2016, to be directed for the stage by Kenneth Branagh, playing a pick-pocket in the modern-day action film Bastille Day, and doing Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to air in the summertime on BBC.
RICHARD MADDEN: It was a joy. This is my first big film, and it’s a role that lots of other people have an idea of because they’ve owned it before I did. Ken understand that, and the pressure that comes with that. He just gave me confidence, every day, that allowed me to play and take away the anxiety of being on a massive movie set, playing a character where everybody has their idea of who the Prince is. He took all of that away, and I’m really thankful for that. He gave me confidence to be creative.
Did you get dizzy, going around and around on that horse, out in the woods?
MADDEN: I didn’t get dizzy, but I love working with horses. I really do. I wanted to not be thinking about that on the day. Also, I trained on Game of Thrones for horse riding. And that dance was so important. Me and Ken talked a lot about making that dance something really significant because it’s their first meeting. I was trying to control this beast underneath me. So, I started doing dressage and jumps, and stuff like that. It was really cool to do that training for this. But, Lily couldn’t ride before we started filming. There was my trying to calm Lily’s horse, and guide her through that, which is what the Prince was doing.
What was it like to do the literal dance at the ball, with Lily James in that huge ball gown?
MADDEN: There are three people in this relationship. It wasn’t fun. I’m not naturally a gifted dancer, and I don’t enjoy it. I didn’t go to any of those classes in drama school ‘cause I was like, “I’m not going to dance. I don’t need to learn to dance.” I regret that now. But, I trained three or four days a week for two and a half months, before they’d even let me near the real dress. And I destroyed two practice dresses completely. They were just ripped to shreds. They looked like cats had gotten a hold of them. But like with the horse riding, I wanted to focus on acting with Lily, on the day, and not be thinking about what I was doing with my feet. So, I just trained really hard to make that happen.
How was your costume a tool for you to get the performance you wanted?
MADDEN: I had conversations with Sandy Powell, when we first started, because I wanted to retain a masculinity for this Prince. These Disney princes, a lot of the top, can be wet or foppish, and that ties into the costumes and how they come across, especially when they’re decadent and extravagant costumes. So, I talked to Sandy and asked, “How do we do all that and keep it masculine?” Then, I came into the room and saw my outfit for the ball, and it was white and covered in sequins and glitter. I was like, “Sandy, we talked about this.” But, it is masculine still and empowering. It makes you feel regal and helps your posture. What’s amazing is that Sandy’s costumes are always rooted in practicality, first and foremost. Even though they look decadent and are beautiful, it’s function over form, first. That green jacket when you first see me is cut so it sits properly on the horse. That way, it’s easy for you to move on a horse. Those riding boots don’t just look good. They are really brilliant for riding. Same as the trousers. They’re great for being on a horse because of how you sit. We got to build something practical out of it, and that helps you build a character. It does help in the way you breathe and how stand and the way you hold yourself. It all feeds into it.
MADDEN: I did. We had bow discussions, so I had to look at the time period. It’s a Disney film, but Ken put as much detail and time into this as he would Macbeth. And then, we looked through history at what would be done in these situations. I talked to Ken a lot about royals, these days. You don’t ever see them leaning on one leg, but they’ll stand for hours and hours, talking to people. They do actually rest on one leg, but you just don’t see it. It’s really clever, these detailed little things that we tried to bring out. When you put all that into it, hopefully you end up with a fleshed out character that a bit more real. I had to get rid of a bit of a swagger. I had to walk properly. The Prince doesn’t strut about. He has good posture.
Your chemistry with Lily James was so crucial for this. How did you map that out?
MADDEN: I’d never met Lily before. We had about five or six days, before we started filming, where we talked about and walked through a lot of the scenes with Ken. But, it was just clever casting on Ken’s part. He cast well. Between me and Ken and Lily, there is great chemistry, hence why we’re working together again in 2016. You have to throw yourself into a situation of trust with these things, especially that first day when you don’t know someone and you’re on a massive Disney Hollywood movie set. Me and Lily just grabbed on to each other and were like, “Okay, we’re both in this together, let’s get on with it.” Luckily she’s lovely and kind and a wonderful actress.
MADDEN: Me and Lily are going to be doing Romeo and Juliet in the West End in London, with Ken directing. I’ve got Ken guiding me through it, so I’m in good hands. And I’ve got Lily to act across from. I know it’s going to be a wonderful experience .
How did you approach making this Prince someone we want Cinderella to end up with, for the right reasons by contemporary standards?
MADDEN: That was the challenge for me. Cinderella could not be more wonderful, as a woman. You’re with her, the whole film. I had to create a guy that was worthy of her affections, and that was difficult. We tried to get rid of that old-fashioned view of things. I love the old animated movie. I think it’s great. But that concept of a woman with a terrible life who needs a man to come and rescue her, doesn’t apply and isn’t something we should probably be teaching kids. This was so much more interesting because I had to make a character that’s worthy of being around her and worthy of her affections. So, I made him someone who had a sense of humor and who is aware of his own privilege and who has compassion for everyone around him. That was exciting for me because you don’t see him like that in the animation. You don’t even get his name in the animation. It was the fun to start from scratch with this and hopefully build someone who was a bit more fun and more real.
MADDEN: It was wonderful. He’s just a stunning actor to be around. He’s funny. That’s what was good. I wanted to build a relationship that had a sense of humor, and Derek has got a sense of humor. That’s why we could improvise and play around, and we did, every day. When you’re on set with an actor like Derek Jacobi, it’s not hard to tell the truth when you’re looking in his eyes, and he’s so open and creative and ready to play.
What was it like to be on set with Cate Blanchett?
MADDEN: There’s a reason someone like Cate is a massive movie star, and it’s not just because she’s a really good actor. It’s also how she conducts herself. I was really taken aback by that. She is so compassionate, but she also has such an awareness of every person around her. You can meet lots of actors who are in their own world and do their own thing, and they have no idea what’s going on and they don’t know anyone’s name around them. Cate has a real awareness of everyone around her. She wants to know that everyone else is doing all right. That’s really refreshing. She’s fearless. She’s not afraid to do anything, but she’s got such a physical grace that it’s really special to watch how she holds her body and moves on set.
MADDEN: More and more, yeah. You have the fear because it is a huge production, but on something like this, we had so much time to do stuff. That’s really good, as an actor, when you have time to play. It’s not as rapid fire as other smaller tele productions can be. We’d shoot 10 episodes of Game of Thrones in the time it took us to shoot this film. We had five times more time on this to do our jobs, and that’s better. With something like this, there weren’t a lot of fake walls or CGI. We built that massive ballroom set, and there were 2,000 lit candles during that scene and 600 extras. When you put all of that into it, it makes my job a lot easier. I’m actually in the middle of it. So, big scale is very helpful.
Of all iconic moments in Cinderella, what was your favorite to recreate?
MADDEN: Good question. Despite all my moaning about it, I think the ballroom was my favorite to recreate. Just doing that big waltz in the spotlight, with Lily in that big dress, was special.
MADDEN: I think they are quite different demographics. It’s going to be weird. You just hope they don’t want to watch your other work. “It’s not really for you, guys!” I don’t know if it prepares me, or not. It’s just good to be involved and do different things. With this, there’s a lot in this for adults, as well as kids. It’s not just a kid’s movie.
What other projects do you have coming up?
MADDEN: I finished a film in December, with Idris Elba, called Bastille Day. It’s a modern-day thing, which is great ‘cause I’m in jeans and a T-shirt, for a change. It’s an actiony, felony, French Connection thing, with hopefully a bit of humor in it. I’m playing someone who’s not royal, which is nice, and he doesn’t have a good moral compass. He’s a pick-pocket and a street rat. It’s totally different from anything else I’ve done. I also did Lady Chatterley’s Lover for BBC, which will be on in the summertime.
Cinderella is now playing in theaters.