Emma Watson and Dan Stevens: Beauty, the Beast and why books matter

Beauty, the Beast and the magic of books weave a unique spell in Disney’s new live-action fairytale. Here, Emma Watson and Dan Stevens discuss their life-long passion for libraries – and why they’re backing The Big Issue’s literacy campaign

“I love The Big Issue,” says Dan Stevens.

There are worse things to hear as you enter a room to interview the stars of the year’s biggest movie musical. Before the interview is complete, Stevens and co-star Emma Watson will be engrossed in reading a recent issue and backing our literacy campaign.

The pair clearly have a great deal in common, besides a fine taste in magazines. Both are voracious readers, as well as celebrated actors.

Watson leads global feminist bookclub Our Shared Shelf, is an increasingly vocal activist and found time in recent years to squeeze in an English degree around her acting career. Stevens, meanwhile, is editor-at-large of literary quarterly The Junket and a former Man Booker Prize judge. So it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for them to play a pair of bookworms in Beauty and the Beast?

“Not really,” they reply in unison. Watson continues: “It is funny. I decided whilst watching the original as a little girl and particularly again watching our version: I don’t want an engagement ring, I just want someone to build me a library like the one in Beauty and the Beast. That is all I want.”

If you can get somebody to read one book they otherwise wouldn’t have read, you will change them

“My wife once built me a bookcase,” chips in Stevens. “It is probably the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me.”

“That is so awesome,” Watson says, “no wonder you married her! She’s clearly a legend.”

Watson and Stevens show no signs of being daunted by remaking and reimagining Disney’s classic 1991 animation Beauty and the Beast as an all-singing, all-dancing, thoroughly modern, technologically astonishing live-action musical that is also socially progressive – the flirtation between LeFou (Josh Gad) and Gaston (Luke Evans), and what director Bill Condon called an “exclusively gay moment”, has led to calls for it to be banned in Russia for breaking national laws against ‘gay propaganda’.

For Stevens, being digitally recreated as a beastly monster was a leap into the unknown, a sign technology is catching up with film-makers’ imaginations. “This kind of technology has not really been used that extensively before, and certainly not for a romantic lead role with singing,” says the 34-year-old former Downton Abbey favourite. “It has been used for creatures in other films but the technology has evolved to the extent that Mark Rylance can now play the BFG and you get the sensitivity through the face; big movie musicals can now embrace it, and this is a big movie musical, an homage to those big old-time musicals.”

Stevens recalls the months of training required to shoot the film’s iconic waltz. “We knew it was a crucial part of the story, and Emma and I trained for about three or four months learning that waltz. First on the ground, then I graduated to the stilts! Waltzing in stilts is not something many people have done – so, yeah, I ticked a lot of boxes on this one, in terms of firsts!”

They say that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in heels… “Yes. Emma was backwards in heels, I was in stilts!”

Both are keen to expand on the meanings they wanted to tease out of the timeless story, to reinterpret it so it can be rediscovered by a new generation. “We talked about how, in many ways, Belle and Beast, I see as one person,” Watson says.

“They are metaphors for different parts of ourselves, and how we become whole by falling in love. I think that is why the film is so potent, and why it strikes people on a really deep level – because it does carry those themes. We talked about it a lot!”

It was a fascinating thought project as well as a physical project.

“Emma thinks about big ideas,” says Stevens.

“She thinks on a very big scale, and I really like that. If you engage on that scale, you can afford all the fun and the dancing and the fantasy elements. You earn that because you are rooting it in something. We really worked on it – where do we see these characters on the spectrum of masculinity and femininity? It was a fascinating thought project as well as a physical project. We really bonded over the love of the story and the ideas behind it.

“There are a few elements that are updated without being too arch about it,” he adds. “It refreshes the tale and just carries it forwards. We are not saying we are making the last version that will ever be made. I’m sure my kids’ generation will do another one.”

The 1991 version of the story was proclaimed a game-changer, featuring perhaps Disney’s first feminist fairytale heroine. For Watson, it was vital that her live-action version went further – acknowledging that times have changed in the intervening quarter-century. This time, I suggest, Belle not only has agency, she’s a fully fledged community activist, flying in the face of an oppressive, small-minded, provincial town.

“She is, 100 per cent,” agrees the 26-year-old, who shot to fame as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films. “It was something I saw in the original but I really wanted to make sure it came out in our version – which was that she is an activist in her community.

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“And it is tiring going against the grain. It is not easy not going along with the status quo,” she continues, perhaps referencing the flak she receives online and in the press whenever she marches, campaigns, gives speeches – and most recently for her appearance in Vanity Fair. “I really wanted there to be those scenes where you see her pushing the envelope a little bit but you also see her getting quite a lot of stick, quite a lot of kick-back.”

One line that stands out in the film is when Belle visits her local library early in the film. “Your library makes a small corner of the world feel big,” she tells the librarian. Not surprisingly, it is a sentiment Watson can relate to. “If you have a book with you, then you always have a friend – or you have someone who understands you, or you have somewhere to escape to or a place to go for comfort,” she says. “It challenges you to think differently. It keeps you up at night. The best books are the ones where you can’t sleep.”

Stevens is similarly positive. “Stories are vital. Fairytales are vital. This is a classic and it has endured so long because it has so many great things to say.

I love bookish loners

And I think every generation that comes to it finds something a little bit different. Yes, it is about looking beyond the surface but it is also about a lot of other things – the value of self-education, the value of curiosity and imagination. All of these things that I think are crucial lessons.”

And a film in which the bookish loner wins out over a muscle-bound imbecile? That can give hope to many of us.

DID YOU KNOW…

Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

“I love bookish loners,” grins Stevens. “They are what make the world keep going, really. I suppose I was one. And I think Emma can relate as well. She is certainly bookish.

“We looked at the screwball comedy dynamic. How people meet toe-to-toe over something they are passionate about.

“It is not about dominating somebody with romance – Gaston being all, ‘I’ve given you flowers, why won’t you marry me?’. Instead, it is more subtle. If you can get somebody to read one book they otherwise wouldn’t have read, you will change them a little bit. Their brain will be tickled in a different way.”

The Big Issue is campaigning on literacy and libraries at the moment. Is that something they could get behind?

“Fantastic! Could I get behind it? Absolutely,” says Stevens. “It is a big concern. You look throughout history – the things that terrible regimes have targeted first are very often nurseries and libraries. The first things to go.

“Libraries are certainly where I grew up,” he continues. “The magic of the library. They don’t have to be as gorgeous as Beast’s – ours is this kind of ridiculous fantasy library. It was really mad. That set was really one of our favourites, I think. It was so beautifully designed. All those globes. It was gorgeous. But any library, really, or even a bookshelf gets me really excited.”

This is why, when presented with copies of our literacy campaign launch issue, they are delighted. 

Watson: “Oh, that is so beautiful. Thank you so much.” 

Stevens: “Can we keep these?”

Be our guest…

Beauty and the Beast is in cinemas