Feb 16, 2017

Emma Watson on the fearless Belle of Beauty and the Beast

Entertainment Weekly – In the original 1991 version of Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast, the winsome, bookish Belle strolled through her village singing this lyric, a dreamer’s lament for escape and adventure. But in the new live-action remake (out March 17), Emma Watson delivers the line in a way that’s more urgent and heartbreaking than before.

This time, there’s more darkness at the edge of this provincial life.

In the new cover story for Entertainment Weekly, Watson reveals new details about Belle’s backstory – as well as her own. Both the actress and her book-loving character manage to defy expectations and break boundaries.

The Harry Potter star speaks about the real-life crossroads she faced in college about whether to continue acting, and the indie movie that made her believe movies might be a good way to change the world. (It also has a Beauty and the Beast connection.)

“I was like, ‘I have to tell this story. Oh my god if I don’t do this, nothing else makes sense,’” she recalls. “[It] made me feel that I had something else to give and offer.”

That’s how her version of Belle approaches the world, too. It may be a fairy tale, but it’s still a place where girls have to fight against impossible resistance for their own happily ever afters.

For instance, amid the chorus of villagers and shopkeepers in that opening song, you see a line of boys being led to school, while a group of little girls are left to do the laundry. Learning is not women’s work, and Belle’s neighbors no longer regard her simply as a quirky bookworm.

Her ideas and independence are considered worse than unladylike – they’re dangerous. Subversive. Beastly, even.

“They see her as a threat,” says director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters). “It’s that thing that remains under the surface. But when there’s a real threat that unifies everybody, they start to look for other people who make them uncomfortable. That’s a pretty common pattern.”

This new danger: progress. This Belle is a tinker who invents a washing machine that frees the little girls from their chores, allowing her time to teach them how to read. The townsfolk respond first by marveling at her device – then by smashing it.

“They don’t think women should read and it goes further than that,” Watson says. “They are deeply suspicious of intelligence. Breaking the washing machine is symbolic of not just them breaking something she spent hours working on, but them really trying to break her spirit and trying to push her and mold her into a more ‘acceptable’ version of herself.”

In that way, Belle has already clashed with plenty of close-minded, brusque, bullies by the time she ends up in the clutches of the cursed Beast, (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens,) a prince who is living out anguished penance as a giant, hairy fiend in his castle full of living candelabras, clocks, and tea sets.

But here’s something different about him, a sensitivity and intelligence that separates him from the hard-hearted heartthrob Gaston (Luke Evans, The Girl On The Train.) Maybe there’s something Belle can teach this Beast, as well.

 When Entertainment Weekly sat down with the 26-year-old Watson, she was just five days away from demonstrating at the Women’s March in Washington D.C. alongside her mother. We spoke about bringing her childhood Disney hero to life, what struggles she sees today for women and girls, and how this movie brings new dimension to Belle and the cursed prince.