It’s natural to think that, as a title, Beauty and the Beast refers strictly to the fairy tale’s provincial princess (Emma Watson) and her buffalo beau (Dan Stevens). It’s perhaps more along the lines of an epiphany to realize that the title is equally accurate in describing the best and worst of Gaston, the charismatic morganatic problematic villain who now springs to life in Disney’s 2017 remake.
Luke Evans, the chiseled 37-year-old Welshman inhabiting the Frenchman’s very sizable boots, can convince you to believe in such an epiphany. Evans paints Gaston as a broken man devolving into monstrosity, transforming in counterpoint to the actual titular Beast’s evolution towards civility; more than this, the actor’s take on the burly villain comes loaded with a heavy history and more gravitas than one might expect of the one-dimensional (albeit six-abbed) antagonist.
EW sat down with Evans the morning after Beauty and the Beast’s Los Angeles premiere, where he still brandished a smile over the previous night’s packed audience cheering for (25-year-old spoiler!) his character’s climactic demise. After a slew of badass character roles in films like The Hobbit, Fast & Furious 6, and Dracula Untold, he’s learned what it means to poke around inside a villain but steal the show like a hero.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s your Beauty and the Beast history in a nutshell?
LUKE EVANS: I remember being 12 years old in my little village in South Wales, and the town next to it had this little cinema we called the Fleapit because it was disgusting. That’s where we used to go to watch all the Disney shows. Imagine watching something as colorful and beautiful and vibrant as Beauty and the Beast in that s—ty little cinema. I remember that music, especially, being something that always connected with me as a child, though. Even now as an adult, those songs take me back to a certain moment. The second I hear them, I’m 12 years old again in the Fleapit with my mother.
Is it safe to assume you didn’t exactly relate to Gaston back then?
I don’t think anybody in their right mind wants to see themselves as that arrogant narcissist. [Laughs] I connected more to the character roles, like Lumière; Simba, for The Lion King, or one of the hyenas; the Tramp in Lady and the Tramp; and Aladdin, I always thought so much of. But never Gaston. Weirdly, I suppose part of the reason why I’m playing him is that casting has been informed by other things in my career — musical theater for nine years, and then playing villains in adult-themed films like Fast & Furious and Dracula. Maybe they thought I could do it!
This is your first musical movie, correct?
This is my first time I’ve ever sung on screen.
That’s a big moment for a theater veteran. Do you remember the first major role — or responsibility, rather — that you were given in the theater?
It was probably originating one of the main characters in Taboo, the musical about Boy George’s life. It was an incredible, massively underrated show, but it was a big moment for me because it was quite high-profile and I was only 21 or 22. That was a moment. Playing Chris in Miss Saigon was another, and Roger in Rent. Those strong male characters who had an incredibly deep and intense vocal track. To tell a story through that music — especially Miss Saigon and Rent — is an immensely powerful thing. Everyone is crying by the end of each of those shows, and you’re partly responsible for that — that’s very powerful.
Which elements of Gaston’s costume made you feel most powerful as the character?
I remember we tried so many looks for this role. At the beginning, we stayed away from the color red, and that concerned me a little bit. For me, you can do anything you like to Gaston — I’m of course never going to be the size of him because he’s a giant — but I felt like he had to be in red, and not just any red. A certain color red. An almost blood red. I knew that they wanted to do it, too, but we were all a bit scared about how to do it without looking like the comic book color of red. But essentially, the red became connected to the darkness of his character, which I quite liked. When he starts to become the monster Gaston, that’s when he’s seen in the deep red leather jacket.
How did you feel when you first put on the costume?
It was magical. It was so special. We made it fit so it accentuated the shoulders and gave this nice V-shaped aesthetic to it. I had fake teeth as well, because I have natural fangs that were apparently quite distracting on camera when I was singing. [Laughs] So I lowered my teeth about half a centimeter, which made me speak and sing and move my tongue and lips differently, which all informed Gaston. But the icing on the cake was the wig. It was all about height, which in reality would have looked ridiculous, but with his personality, the wig was just extraordinary. Somehow, we could always go higher.
Emma Watson requested that her Belle be an inventor and have greater agency in general. Did you issue any requests for similar blanks be filled in for Gaston?
I saw massive potential to create backstory and layer him up with intention and objectives. The fact of the story is that Gaston is a war hero and an army captain, and the only reason he’s got this celebrity status in Villeneuve is because when he was about 16, he protected the town from a pack of Portuguese marauders in 1740.
Wait. That makes… so much more sense now.
Don’t ask me, but that sort of s— went on in France quite a lot. [Laughs] Villages and towns were besieged, they lost their mayors, but he defended them. But if you’re 16 and doing that, you might be suffering from a little PTSD. So we played it dark. When I first met [director Bill Condon] he asked me to play him darker. There was a lot of anguish inside him, bubbling away. And he wasn’t happy that Belle had rejected him. Instead of being this petulant pouting child needing to be fluffed up by his fans in the tavern, there was a much darker side to him. And we sent that to Disney, and… there was a delay.
How much of a delay?
Long enough that I thought, ‘Shit, maybe somebody else went in and nailed it!’ And I really thought I had done a good job. Then I got a phone call and I thought, ‘Okay, obviously they’re phoning me to tell me thank you, but no.’ And it was Bill, and he said, ‘Do you remember when you came in and you wanted to play him with comedy and I told you to do it dark? Well, I need you to come in and do that.’ It’s not ‘comedy,’ but more of the Gaston that we remember.
Well, at least you knew what the extreme looked like, so you never had to wonder what would have been.
Also, the best villains are not villains from the beginning. They turn into villains. He probably does suffer from PTSD, which he manages to keep under wraps because he has people like the villagers and LeFou and the girls who puff him up and make him feel sexy and wanted. But below that is a broken human being. He’s jaded, and the second he realizes that he’s not going to get what he wants, this military creature comes out of him.
And yet, there are bits of the film where I thought I was almost rooting for him. Was that intentional?
You sort of quite like the dude, don’t you? As much as he’s annoying and stupid, everyone wants a Gaston in their gang. He’s somebody to laugh at… but I wanted to enjoy those moments because then the reveal of this insane monster that he becomes is even more terrifying. I think that’s why he was always such a great villain. I see him as the biggest villainous threat in any of the Disney films. He has no special powers. He’s not Jafar, or Ursula, or Maleficent. He’s a human being! He’s an arrogant, narcissistic, bigoted, chauvinistic, self-absorbed man who, once he’s told no, is driven by jealousy and revenge to fuel the fear of quite an idiotic group of villagers to go kill something they’ve never seen before. I mean, it resonates massively to what’s happening in the political climate throughout the world now.
Tell me about your friendship with your LeFou, Josh Gad. Your Instagrams were a roller coaster this year. What was the moment you felt your bond had transcended beyond Gaston/LeFou?
It was super early on. Josh has this wonderful energy about him — this warmth. I don’t have it as much. People like me on spec. [Laughs] But there’s something about Josh. If he walked into this room now, people would laugh and smile. I remember he walked into the read-through, which was the first time I had met him, and I looked at this guy and saw him giggling with people he’d never met before, and I thought, ‘This is going to be so easy. This connection is going to work.’ And the second I chatted with him, I felt it. He’s just the sweetest guy — and the warmth he gives out, from his children, to people he doesn’t know, to the world — is just magical. I couldn’t have asked for a better compatriot.
How does LeFou factor into the Gaston backstory you described?
The LeFou in the animation can only work in animated form. He’s a bit of the brunt of everyone’s jokes — he gets sat on by animals, dumped in a muddy pond, constantly being flattened by cymbals. That’s not what Josh came onboard to do. Josh had a huge arc to create with this character which involved my character. He became a very sensitive guy who understood the right and the wrong, even if he was slightly blindingly following Gaston. But they have a history. They were at war together. LeFou was with him during those conquests, protecting the town. Only through LeFou are Gaston’s heroic moments from 20 and 30 years ago kept alive. They work symbiotically with each other and this is what I love about their relationship: they wouldn’t work without each other. Without LeFou, Gaston is just another buffoon in the village, but with LeFou, he’s revered and lifted to a higher level. We all have those friends. If you’re feeling down, I know the mate to call who’ll make me feel better.
In doing all of your own stunts for this film, which past movie did you flash back to the most?
There was a very poignant moment. The first day I was on the rooftops, I was like, “Oh, here we are again, on rooftops trying to kill a beast.” I spent two weeks on rooftops in New Zealand trying to kill a giant dragon during The Hobbit. The comparison was not lost on me…although this time I was much better dressed, had less dirt in my hair, and my teeth were perfect.
I feel like you leaping across rooftops might raise at least a little alarm for a studio.
It happens on every film. But I love it. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge — not just the physical challenge, but also staying in character, delivering lines, hitting marks. It’s so technical: You jump to one rooftop, pull an arrow, aim at a moving target, shout your line. I love that shit!
Which of Gaston’s boastable talents came easiest?
Horse riding was great. I love horse riding. I actually used to fear horses throughout my whole childhood, and it was only when I started doing films that I was trained properly and gained this immense respect and affinity for that animal which I now love so much. They’re so clever and sensitive and intelligent. We had two horses on this film — one was a stunt horse, and the other was just this beautiful supermodel horse.
Magnifique. That was my horse’s name. [Laughs]
This is a somewhat impossible question, but humor me: In 10 or 20 years, which day of filming Beauty and the Beast do you think you might snap to?
It would probably be the filming of “The Mob Song.” We worked at night in the middle of the Sussex countryside, and there were these villagers — hundreds and hundreds of axe-wielding villagers with flaming torches — walking through the fields, miles away from any civilization. It was all real, no CGI, and we were blasting out the song so loudly in the middle of the countryside at one o’clock in the morning. I won’t forget that because that was just so surreal. I remember wondering, as all of these riders on horseback are belting out songs and carrying flaming torches, what these horses must possibly be thinking.
Are you more comfortable in a skin of fantasy, like Dracula or The Hobbit, or in one more grounded in real life, like The Girl on the Train or, arguably, Beauty and the Beast?
Honestly, I feel as comfortable in either, and the fact that I juggle both keeps me really comfortable. I’ve just done a film last year about a 1930s Harvard professor who created Wonder Woman, and then [I jumped] into a contemporary thriller in Atlanta, then a thriller in 1890s New York City. If you put it all next to each other—go from Dracula to playing Gaston to playing an illustrator for the New York Times in 1895 — there’s a part of me that feels a bit like a time-traveler, almost! Especially if the film is based in reality. It’s the fantasies that are a little weirder. I suppose then I feel a bit more like Doctor Who.