Dan Stevens: ‘Beauty and the Beast’s’ Woke, Feminist Beast
Just because a tale is old as time doesn’t mean it reads well in present times.
Such has been a major concern in the recent spate of live-action updates of Disney’s classic animated fairy tales, especially the upcoming release of Beauty and the Beast. It was, it turns out, a concern of stars Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, who play the film’s titular characters, as well.
A week before Beauty and the Beast is set to break box office records in theaters, we chatted with Stevens, best known for sending Downton Abbey fans into a heartbroken fury in his three seasons as Matthew Crawley, about that scrutiny: a girl who’s ostracized as “odd” for enjoying reading and rebuffing the proposal of the town alpha male falls in love with the aggressive, emotionally abusive beast who imprisons her while he and his minions attempt to coerce her into loving him.
From glamorizing Stockholm syndrome to being anti-feminist to, yes, even winking at bestiality, criticisms of Beauty and the Beast’s fairy tale love story have paraded over the years like enchanted dishes performing a show-stopping production number.
Stevens didn’t just have a smart answer to those criticisms at the ready. He started spouting feminist theory, throwing around words like “patriarchy,” and referencing Gloria Steinem’s most recent essay on the topic in The New York Times.
Friends, the Beast is woke.
It was about calibrating “the relationship between masculine and feminine energies,” Stevens tells The Daily Beast, clarifying that he doesn’t want to reduce those energies to gender identities male and female. “And I was really, really excited to wade through the water with a brain like Emma Watson’s.”
Before they spent several months frolicking around a French castle, Stevens had seen a video of Watson delivering her famous HeForShe speech at the United Nations headquarters in 2014, which made a plea for men and boys to be active advocates in the fight for gender equality, because it is an issue that affects them, too.
The HeForShe movement “captivated” Stevens, he says.
“It was really addressing a lot of things I had always seen in fairy tales, that I had always seen in literature and really believe in: that feminism is about redressing a balance, and in order to do that you need to engage boys and men,” he says. “You need to engage masculine energy, and grapple with what that balance is, what that entails, what are the elements of the patriarchy that need walking down and which are just elements of masculinity that need to be balanced with femininity.”
And, yes, it’s a conversation that applies to the film—and to the criticisms of its love story—as well.
“All of these ideas are very much at play in Beauty and the Beast and they’re also very much in play in Emma Watson’s mind,” Stevens says. “It was getting to sit with her and discuss how this fairy tale resonates timelessly but also resonates now. Not shoehorning anything but just realizing how much of what we both believe about the gender spectrum and those masculine and feminine energies are at play in this fairy tale.”
To that regard, there was also consideration about how threatening and how terrifying to make the Beast. Part of that had to with the fact that this is a family film. He wanted his Beast to be scary enough for kids to jump into their parents’ arms, but not to the point that “you’re carrying them screaming from the theater.”
But the calibration also had to do with the optics of a girl ultimately forgiving and falling in love with a man who was her volatile, emotionally abusive captor. Combatting that involved tapping into the Beast’s sense of humor. And, like many things in this filming process, involved a conversation with Watson.
“He can’t just be a monstrous, growling, grumpy dude,” Stevens says. “There has to be ‘something there’ in order for her to fall in love with him. What kind of guy would Emma Watson’s Belle fall in love with? If it’s not the strapping, handsome Gaston, what is that she’s looking for?”
Much like Watson’s Hermione in the Harry Potter films encouraged girls to not only be the smartest person in the room, but to own it and be proud of it, her Belle’s interest in literature morphs from the kooky hobby it was depicted as in the film to a keen intelligence, supplanted by her skills as an inventor.
Stevens and Watson, then, found the spark between Belle and the Beast “in the more soul-deep intellectual connection, the toe-to-toe screwball thing about the books they read and their tastes.”
There’s a scene in the new film that’s not in the animated feature, for example, in which the Beast is impressed by Belle’s affinity for Shakespeare, but scoffs that her favorite work is the love story Romeo and Juliet. Later, when she spots him reading about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, she teases him for being interested in the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere.
It goes back to the conversation about men and women, Stevens says.
“There’s a great piece Gloria Steinem wrote last week in The New York Times about chick flicks, and should the opposite be called prick flicks,” he says. “Trying to explode these traditional labels that we have.”
It applies to the literature that would have been available in this castle’s library in the 18th century as much as it does to the conversations men and women have today.
“It’s like a couple who’s getting together and he discovers that she really likes The Notebook and he’s like ick, and she’s like oh what do you like, Fast and Furious?” he says. “I know tons of guys who like The Notebook and tons of girls who like Fast and Furious. It’s finding the way to tell the same kind of stories.”
It’s hard to imagine skeptical viewers of the new Beauty and the Beast finding too much fault in the well-intentioned attempts to address the fairy tale’s latent ickiness. But as the film has already learned, not all well-intentioned progressiveness goes unpunished.
When it was revealed, before any critics or journalists had seen the film, that it would feature Disney’s first “exclusively gay moment,” the news spread like wildfire, with applause, calls for boycotts, and news that Russia would put an age restriction on the film all flickering together in the flames.
Having seen the film, the “moment” is so small and seemingly inconsequential that the sight-unseen outcry seems absolutely ludicrous.
“I presume somebody somewhere thought it would drive a lot of traffic to their site, that’s usually how these things start,” Steven says, begrudgingly, when the controversy is brought up.
Another attempt to engage—I mention a comedy website’s headline about the controversy, “Outrage at Inclusion of Gay Character in Film About Woman-Buffalo Romance”—gets a reluctant chuckle. “I saw that,” Stevens says. “That was very funny.”
It’s not that he hasn’t had practice with passionate, protective fanbases with strong opinions and no qualms about holding scandal grudges. Stevens still finds himself answering to the outrage over his early exit from Downton Abbey, even whilst on a press tour for what is sure to be one of the biggest films of the decade. And he’s currently the lead on Legion, FX’s trippy foray into the X-Men universe.
It’s that, as he says, “this movie has been made by an enormous group of fans of the original film.”
He’s much giddier, then, when we start talking about the film’s most iconic scene, the magical, sweepingly romantic ballroom dance to the title song—a waltz with Watson that Stevens had to perform while on stilts and wearing a sweaty lycra bodysuit, which would be CGI’d to transform him into the Beast.
Could the experience possibly have been as sweepingly romantic as it looks?
“Weirdly it was,” Stevens laughs. “At least after a while. Maybe not on day one, up on the stilts terrified that I was going to break Emma’s toes.”
The song is his favorite from the film, he says. The ballroom set they filmed in was as impressive as you’d think. Then, there’s the sensation of nailing a waltz.
“It’s hard to describe, really,” Stevens says. “It speaks to great choreography that you can tell a story, you can tell the crucial turning point of a story during a dance. He takes a few tepid steps, and she’s gently reminding him that actually he used to be an excellent dancer. They are very much in love although they probably don’t quite realize it yet, in a whirling waltzing wonderland.”