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Beauty and the Beast: Emma Watson on playing a more 'proactive' Belle

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Laurie Sparham

As a child, Emma Watson watched Disney’s 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast more times than she can recall and regarded the film’s book-obsessed heroine, Belle, as a role model. “There was something about her indignation and rebelliousness which I really loved, to be honest,” she says. “It troubles her that she doesn’t necessarily fit in, but I think she really holds close to her heart her dreams and her aspirations. She was definitely a role model.”

A quarter of a century on from the original film’s release, Watson is playing Belle in Disney’s live-action remake (out March 17) which costars Dan Stevens as The Beast, Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, Maurice, Luke Evans as Gaston, and Josh Gad as Le Fou, among others. But the actress’s fondness for the original character has not prevented the Harry Potter star from changing the part to make her more proactive and realistic. In the original film, for example, it is Maurice who is the inventor of the family while, in the new version, that character trait has been co-opted for Belle. “We tried to tweak things to make her more proactive, and a bit less carried along by the story,” she says, “and a bit more in charge of — and in control of — her own destiny.”

Watson also made sure that her character’s clothes and footwear were appropriate for Belle’s assorted activities and adventures. “She’s very practical, she’s a very good horse-rider” says the actress. “She always has these pockets on her where she’s carrying tools and books. In the movie, she wears these little ballet shoes, and I knew that they had to go, because if you’re going to ride a horse, and tend your garden, and fix machinery, then you need to be in proper boots. So, Belle’s got proper boots, and she’s got pockets which sit outside of her skirt that kind of works like a tool belt, and she’s also got bloomers on underneath all of her skirts, so she can get on and off a horse and she can run. She looks quite grounded and earthy and practical, as far as possible.”

That practicality even extended to the shoes Watson’s character wears in the ballroom sequence during which Belle and the Beast fall deep in love. “Well, they’re more difficult [to wear than boots], but much easier than any other high heel I’ve ever had to wear,” she says. “I can run in them, I can do stuff in them. They don’t have a stiletto heel or anything like that. They’re kind of a traditional court shoe. We actually had them made by a dance company, so that you are able to do things in them, because Belle goes into the final act of the movie with those shoes, so we wanted to make sure she looked like she could run.”

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Watson is keen to point out that the film is essentially the vision of its director and co-writer, Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Parts 1 & 2). But the changes do dovetail with Watson’s hope that Belle be the best role model to the many young girls destined to see the film, just as she has tried to be a positive influence away from movies. In recent years, the actress has become a public promoter of gender equality and in 2014 was appointed a U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador.

“It’s interesting because it’s sort of made my role as an actor more complicated,” says Watson of her activism. “Obviously, in this capacity, I’m not being employed as a script writer, I’m not in charge of the narrative, I’m not director, I’m not the editor. But I obviously have very strong views, and opinions, and those are personal, but I also have very strong views, and opinions, about my character and making that work. So, it’s been interesting to come back to being an actress post-activism and trying to reconcile those two very different roles. But I think Belle as a character represents a woman who is willing to stand outside of what is expected of her, and chase her dreams, chase her intuition, and I think that that will really resonate and really appeal.” 

For more on this week’s cover story, watch EW The Show, available now here, on the new PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and web devices.

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