IN DISNEY’S live action reimagining of Beauty and the Beast, the famous waltz scene (altogether now: “Tale as old as time, true as it can be …”) remains every bit as magical as you remember it from the 1991 animated classic.
Like the cartoon Belle, Emma Watson twirls in a glorious yellow ball gown — a dress the Hogwarts graduate calls “iconic”.
“The most important thing,” Watson says, “was that the dress dance beautifully. We wanted it to feel like it could float, like it could fly.”
And like the cartoon Beast, former Downton Abbey resident Dan Stevens steps onto the dancefloor a cynic and spins off it a love-struck fool.
Unfortunately, his outfit didn’t quite live up to Belle’s dreamy standards.
“What I was actually wearing during the waltz: I was carrying an 18kg muscle suit covered in grey Lycra and marker dots, on 25cm stilts made of steel,” Stevens explains.
“So on the day, I was pretty hot and massive … I had a cooling vest underneath the muscle suit, a bit like Formula 1 drivers have, and we’d do two or three takes of the waltz then I would sit down and they’d plug me in from behind, as it were, and I would cool off.
“I’d get my heart rate back down then we’d go through it again.”
“Exactly,” Stevens chuckles. “The most romantic thing was that Emma Watson didn’t once laugh. She was the most sympathetic of dance partners. There aren’t many actresses in the world who’ve worked with this kind of digital wizardry before, but she didn’t bat an eyelid.”
Did she take a steel stilt in the foot?
“She didn’t. I didn’t once tread on any of her toes, which I’m very, very proud of. We got to know each other on that dancefloor — then we were waltzing all the way through the film.”
The first cut that Stevens — who was Downton’s killed-off-too-soon cousin Matthew — saw of Beauty and the Beast still featured him “in the suit on stilts”. The CGI wizards have since had their way with his scenes, turning the Beast audiences will see into a fearful creature, with Stevens somehow still recognisable under all that computer-generated fur.
“The amazing thing about the technology we went for,” he says, “is it can now preserve the subtleties of the human face. The fantasy is becoming quite real.”
Making fantasy real is a trick Disney has repeatedly aced lately, digging into their animated back catalogue to deliver modern live-action twists on their classic fairy tales. Beginning with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010 and continuing with 2014’s Maleficent, 2015’s Cinderella and 2016’s The Jungle Book, all have been huge box office successes.
Besides the buzzed about “gay moment” given to Josh Gad’s Le Fou in this Beauty and the Beast, it’s the sometimes sarcastic banter between Belle and the Beast that gives the new movie a modern feel.
Watson, who has loved the tale since she was four, remembers Belle as “this feisty young woman who spoke her mind and had ambitions and was incredibly independent and wanted to see the world. And she had this relationship with the Beast where they were toe to toe — that, to me, seemed like such a terrific dynamic”.
Stevens, who also currently stars as a troubled X-Men superhero in TV series Legion, united with Watson to push that dynamic even further.
“It’s about that balance of beauty and beast, masculine and feminine energies,” he says. “That’s something Emma was very keen to play with, as was I.
“Belle was one of the first feminist Disney heroines. Linda Woolverton (who wrote the original film) based her very much on Katharine Hepburn. So we looked at the screwball comedy dynamic, where the guy and the girl have equal footing. There’s a spark in that kind of engagement; even if they disagree, there’s life there.
“Humour is often overlooked in romance, so certainly when we were looking at the kind of beast that Emma Watson’s Belle could and would fall in love with, it had to be someone who had a sense of humour, had a wit, had an intelligence about them.”
The movie opens with Stevens’ primped and powdered prince partying in his castle before he’s cursed by the Enchantress.
The Beastly grumpiness that ensues wasn’t too hard for Stevens to muster: “It depends on how hungry I am, usually.”
Watson’s Belle enters befuddling her village with her reading of books and complete lack of interest in marrying Luke Evans’ handsome Gaston.
“In our version,” says a proud Stevens, who studied English Literature at Cambridge, “we really champion the power of reading and self-education and knowledge. It was really nice to throw my head together with Emma on that, another book lover.”
Where the movie veers slightly from the original is in giving the Beast a song — a surprise for Stevens, who hasn’t done much, if any, warbling in his career.
“It wasn’t clear what I would be singing initially, because the Beast doesn’t sing in the animated film. So that thought hadn’t really occurred to me,” he admits.
The song, Evermore, was whipped up by Disney maestro Alan Menken especially for Stevens and is sung after the Beast “has fallen in love and he’s let her go,” the actor says.
For Watson, Beauty and the Beast’s classic musical numbers — from the title song to Be Our Guest — are a direct link back to childhood, giving her the feeling “that everything is going to be OK”.
Everything was OK for Stevens, too, eventually. Singing was just one in a line of challenges he had to conquer to embody the Beast.
“I usually look for one or two challenges in everything I do, but this was epic,” he laughs. “I was singing, dancing, puppeteering a muscle suit on stilts, waltzing on stilts … it was the full set.”
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST OPENS MARCH 23