Call it a cliche, but Disney movies have a certain magic about them. How else do you explain classically trained British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw giggling delightedly when discussing being transformed into the feather duster Plumette for the new live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast”?
It’s a departure for the actress, who’s made her name in tougher fare like the the abolitionist period film “Belle,” Matthew McConaughey’s Confederate rebellion drama “Free State of Jones” and “Miss Sloane” with Jessica Chastain about the seedy world of lobbyists.
While it’s no issue film, the animated “Beauty and the Beast” was revolutionary in its own ways back in 1991. It’s perhaps the only Disney movie where the heroine (Emma Watson) rescues the prince (Dan Stevens). And despite being household objects, the supporting cast are hardly mere window dressing — as the dove-like feather duster, Mbatha-Raw got a true love story too, with Ewan McGregor’s candelabra Lumiere.
We talked to the 33- year-old actress about childhood dreams and the controversy over Disney’s first openly gay character.
You grew up in England, are Disney movies as influential there as in the States?
Oh, absolutely. Disney has a global impact and for me, certainly. When I was 8 years old, it became my favorite Disney movie. I was obsessed with it. I knew all the words to all the songs, I had the cassette tape and listened to it in my mum’s car — I don’t know if she sang along, but I certainly did.
What made it your favorite?
I was really inspired by that idea of beauty coming from within, which is an oldie but a goodie. I loved Belle as a heroine — I also grew up in a small town [Oxfordshire] and I always knew there was more out there. I didn’t always feel like I fitted in where I grew up, so I related to Belle on that level, and also the fact that she reads books and she knows her own mind. She’s a really cool heroine.
How does the audition to be a feather duster work?
I was really fortunate enough to be offered the part, which was very exciting. When I got the call from my agent I squealed down the phone. That 8-year-old inside of me was so excited on my behalf. It was a real honor, and this cast is so amazing.
Unlike in most animated films, you actually got to act with your fellow castmates.
The first time I met Ewan McGregor was actually in dance rehearsal, we had a class to learn the dance for the final ballroom number. So that was a great icebreaker, to dance with somebody, because when we went off to record all of our vocal work solo in a recording studio just with a sound engineer and [director] Bill Condon.
The film has come into some controversy after revealing that Josh Gad’s LeFou, the sidekick to Gaston, will be Disney’s first openly gay character. Do you think art has a responsibility to reflect the real world?
Absolutely, and I think that that was Bill Condon’s intention to make a “Beauty and the Beast” for 2017. I’m proud and psyched to be associated with a movie that celebrates diversity and celebrates love in all its forms to reflect the world we live in today.
It’s interesting that you were just in the dystopian show “Black Mirror,” which is about the dark side of technology, yet this “Beauty and the Beast” is made possible entirely because of new technology. How do you feel about the power of tech?
The exciting thing about technology is it’s how you use it. Part of the joy of this new “Beauty and the Beast” is that the technology just wasn’t available back in 1991 to do what we’re doing now, and that version is wonderful and it was groundbreaking for its time. In the past, sometimes when I’ve seen CGI characters, I’ve felt a disconnect emotionally, and that’s really not the case in our version, I really felt like, “The Beast has a soul!” So I think technology can be used, like all things, for good or for evil, and it’s up to us how we use it.