There are some meetings of character and actor that just make sense. Helen Mirren as the Queen? Makes perfect sense. Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo? Ideal. Emma Watson as the bookish, sensible, apparently newly feminist Belle in Beauty and the Beast? Right on.
But in a new interview, Watson has revealed that she almost played a very different Disney princess – before passing on the part because it didn’t provide a strong enough feminist role model for young girls.
The actor and UN ambassador for women said that she rejected the role of Cinderella in Disney’s 2015 live-action remake before being offered the lead in Beauty and the Beast, adding that the character of Belle resonated “so much more” with her feminist ideals.
“I didn’t know they were going to make Beauty and the Beast at the time I turned down Cinderella,” Watson told Total Film magazine. “But when they offered me Belle, I just felt the character resonated with me so much more than Cinderella did.
“She remains curious, compassionate and open-minded. And that’s the kind of woman I would want to embody as a role model, given the choice.”
Cinderella was eventually played by Downton Abbey’s Lily James, in a reboot that was described by critics as “unashamedly old-fashioned” and “surprisingly traditional”. Some controversy arose when it was reported that James had been required to stick to a “liquid diet” in order to fit into her character’s tightly-corseted costumes, with some filmgoers accusing Disney of digitally altering James’ waist in post-production to make it look smaller.
In contrast, the build-up to the release of Beauty and the Beast has been peppered with reports of the new Belle undergoing a “feminist makeover”. Watson devised her character a proper backstory (in the reboot, Belle will be the inventor, not her father), and requested that her character’s costume be updated to an un-corseted gown and comfortable shoes.
Speaking about her time playing Belle, Watson revealed that director Bill Condon had allowed her to express her concerns about the film’s original script before filming started. “I think Bill knew I had concerns about the script, that there were things I need to see,” the actor and feminist activist said, adding that the project had been “collaborative and inclusive”.
“It’s going to become very difficult to do projects where I feel like my values are at odds with what’s going on around me,” she continued.
Watson now lives in New York, and said recently that she plans to “fight even harder for the things I believe in” under a Donald Trump presidency. Speaking to Total Film, she said that she admired Belle’s ability to stick up for her beliefs and challenge “the status quo”.
“There’s this kind of outsider quality that Belle had, and the fact she had this really empowering defiance of what was expected of her,” she said. “In a strange way, she challenges the status quo of the place she lives in, and I found that really inspiring.
“And also, she manages to keep her integrity and have a completely independent point of view. She’s not easily swayed by other people’s perspective; not swayed by fearmongering or scapegoating.”
The Beauty and the Beast reboot hits cinemas on 17 March, and will also star Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as the Beast, Ewan McGregor as candelabra Lumière, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth the clock and Emma Thompson as Mrs Potts.