Frank Grice meets Dan Stevens – the Downton Abbey star who is about to take on his biggest (and hairiest) role yet, in the hotly-anticipated re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast.
Amid an alarming trend towards modern takes on films that don’t need them, there are some gems that simply shine too brightly to ignore. Enter Disney’s forthcoming live-action remake of the 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast.
Starring Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as the eponymous monster with a heart of gold, the star-studded adaptation is set to be a real treat. For Stevens, the allure is clear: “I think there’s a timeless element to this story and it exists in many quite similar forms in all different cultures. It’s about acknowledging the two sides of our nature – how love can connect us with the better part of our nature – and I think that’s universal.”
While it’s a tale steeped in rich, mythical history, the creation of this new, star-studded adaptation proved to be a thoroughly modern affair. In a bid to stay as true to the beloved original as possible, the special effects needed to be world-class, as the creators fused real action with CGI trickery in order to bring the magical characters to life while still allowing just the right amount of humanity to peek through. For 34-year-old Stevens, the experience proved to be both exhilarating and physically exhausting; certainly a huge departure from his days swanning around the manor as Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey.
“We shot the scenes on a real set with Emma in her real costume and real face and then I was on stilts in a ‘muscle suit’ made of grey Lycra with marker dots,” he explains. “Then every couple of weeks I would go into a booth and be sprayed with UV paint, about 12,000 dots, and sit in another little booth with 27 little cameras. Emma would sit on the other side and we’d play all the scenes again to capture the facial performances. Map it onto the puppeteer Beast’s body that we’d shot in the scene –and there we are!”
While visually spectacular, this style of filmmaking inevitably led to some unusual compromises, such as the Beast’s horns being reversed to allow for intimacy between the leads. “Some people have been upset by the fact that the horns are pointing the wrong way, but it was either that or a blind Emma Watson!” Stevens laughs.
Joining the dazzling couple are some of Britain’s finest talents, including Emma Thompson as Mrs Potts, Ewan McGregor as Lumiere and Ian McKellen as Cogsworth. Even so, the remake certainly has some big shoes to fill, with the classic 1991 version having earned two Oscars for its memorable music and spawning sales in the millions of Belle’s iconic golden ball gown. The reincarnation of this for the new movie captured the imagination of Stevens’ seven-year-old daughter Willow, who had a hand in designing Watson’s dress after she overheard the pair talking about it in the early stages of production. “She scurried off next door and came back with this bit of paper. It had three or four different dress designs on it,” Stevens reveals, beaming with pride.
“Emma very sweetly sat down with her and picked one, and when Willow came on set a few weeks later, Emma was wearing the dress and she looked at it and went: ‘Yup, that’s the one.’ In Willow’s mind she really designed that dress!”
Stevens has been forging himself an impressive and diverse career since the tragic demise of his Downton Abbey character. Following his departure, the Croydon-born actor was keen to avoid being typecast, and relocated to New York with his South African jazz vocalist wife Susie, Willow, and son Aubrey, four. The move certainly seems to have allowed him to expand his horizons as an actor, and he has made his Broadway debut in the Henry James adaptation The Heiress, along with forays into the darker side of cinema, in independent crime-thriller The Guest. But like it or not, Stevens remains best-loved as a romantic anti-hero and fans will no doubt be delighted by his upcoming turn as the misunderstood monster.
In fact, Stevens appears to be incredibly sympathetic towards his character, owing his transformation to Belle’s love and kindness as she reminds him of the man he once was. “People often talk about Beauty and the Beast and say, ‘Oh, it’s about how a woman comes and changes a man and they all live happily ever after!’ That’s not how I saw it and that’s not how Emma saw it, I don’t think. She really reminds him and reconnects him to parts of his better nature, and that’s the key to the yin and yang of our story.”
It would seem that the master – as Mrs Potts says in a classic line from the film – is not as terrible as he appears.