Fox Searchlight's "Belle" opened in limited release on May 2 and Examiner.com had the opportunity to interview the film's stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid. You will be hearing a lot more about these actors on the coming months and both give stellar performances. Read highlights from our interview below:
Q: "Belle" is helmed by a female director and writer.
GMR: I was so excited too because exactly as you said this is such a familiar classic period drama and we've seen so many period dramas over the years of Jane Austen and all that sort of style, but never told from this perspective before and to have a woman in the center of it, and not just a woman, but a biracial woman and directed by a woman, written by a woman, it was really just refreshing to me to be able to explore this love story as well as having it all grounded by this social, political context of the time, which to me really weighted it in the kind of reality and made it feel very contemporary.
Sam: And knowing that it's saying something so interesting and unique through a medium and a way of storytelling that we're very familiar with, so it's a much more easier way for audiences to go in and kind of form their own opinion and learn something from quite a formulaic way of storytelling, which is through the kind of the grand period drama - "Downton Abbey-esque."
GMR: Yeah and I think it's just quite arresting to see someone who looks like me at the center of it ... and for me even when I first saw the film even for myself ... we get introduced into such a familiar world.
Sam: This image is so unique, you know to see a biracial woman.
GMR: And not a slave, not in a subservient, brutalized role, given a ladylike education and all of that and articulate. I think that that was something that Amma was keen to see represented and of a voice of as I say a strong and educated and articulate woman of color on the screen.
Q: What did you two learn about the class structure of England.
GMR: Well, growing up in the UK I guess class has become sort of such a kind of taboo subject because it really is the structure of the society and for me I learned from this film I'm glad that the social conditioning is not as constrained now a days as it was.
Sam: I'm Australian and so I've been living in London for a couple of years and I think that there is a class system in the United Kingdom that is so ingrained that I think if it vanished, there's going to be a lot of people in the upper echelons that become equally imploded, it's a very strange system that kind of is so archaic that I'm not even sure what purpose it serves exactly but it's great to explore the love side of the relationship because these two people were so in love and they were handed all these strange barriers in front of them that served them no purpose.
GMR: Exactly and that whole idea of being able to break the rules and that society can endow you with all these expectations and labels but you don't have to accept them. You can be who you want to be and I think the fact that they did have, like you said, this romance at that time kind of going with their instincts was inspiring.
Sam: Yeah, when John meets Dido, he doesn't think, "that’s a biracial woman in a fancy dress." He thinks, she’s a little snob essentially - a rich girl. It has nothing to do with the color of her skin and they literally meet they're a meeting of the minds and then basically they fall in love obviously but it’s nice to be able to play people like that who don’t have that social conditioning and are open to kind of meeting people soul essentially.
GMR: And I think for Dido, going back to the class thing as well that she grew up in such a secluded environment, that she really was just part of the family and I think that that’s really refreshing the way that we developed the bond with Sarah Gadon as well in that family structure... so that when we hit the film where I come in to play the role it’s that coming of age moment where suddenly she’s sort of aware at the world at large and I think that all of us grow up, knowing who we are and we somehow get it beaten out of us or society kind of shapes us and it was great to sort of see that transition for the character and in the time as well.
Q: What were the characteristics about Belle that you can most relate to in your life?
GMR: I suppose that she’s feisty and determined and for me I also grew up in the country-side in a small town called Witney in Oxfordshire. So, I can relate to that sort of protected upbringing and yeah I guess her determination is kind of what I relate to most as a characteristic because for me I knew about this project for almost seven years before it came into fruition so to be able to kind of hold something in the back of your mind like that and hope that it’s going to one day work out for you and I think just in this industry as well, you have to have quite a strong sense of self because people will endow you with roles and types and all of that stuff and so here’s a lot that I can relate to in Dido.
Q: Were you always attached to the project for those seven years?
GMR: I wouldn’t say attached. I think I mentally attached myself. I wasn’t officially attached. I think I attached my heart to it.
Q: How did you first hear about it?
GMR: I met the producer when I just left drama school and I had a two line part in a film that Damian Jones was producing and he told me about this painting and had I heard of Dido ... And then at that stage there was no script, it was just an idea I think that he was working on ... and then years later I met Amma Asante for a completely different project as well and then Damian did "The Iron Lady" and that sort of meant that "Belle" kind of could happen with a little bit more momentum. So I guess that journey has been epic.
Q: Can you talk to us about the costumes that you had to wear and how did it feel having to strap up every night?
GMR: Yeah, the corsets definitely took a lot of getting used to. I usually felt very sort of poised I suppose and it took about twenty minutes once they were on to kind of get used to breathing normally, but they gave me so much in terms of physicality and in terms of grace and posture. I start sitting up straight just talking about them because you can’t really even bend over at the waist. You can’t do your shoelaces. You can’t really walk up stairs without getting out of breath so suddenly you become this delicate flower on a physical level which was kind of interesting for me and they give you so much in terms of knowing what as a woman it felt like in terms of society at that time and constrained and restricted. There was some theory that with your lungs compressed like that you don’t get as much oxygen to your brain. Therefore, women can’t think as clearly ... but it was the idea that women in that time were very much not in a position of power and freedom and for me I loved the scenes that I had in my nightgown. Me and Sarah Gadon, we had those few sisterhood scenes in our night gowns and we would just lie there and feel so free and that was kind of nice to have that contrast between the outside world and these young girls basically that were trying to be women and then when you see them and they’re just there in their little nighties and so free and so childlike.
Sam: You’re not meant to wear a corset for that long I mean because you’re filming in a corset in a ten hour day, whereas women of the time would have come out for like two hours in the middle of the day and paraded around and then gone back up to their room and taken it off.
GMR: Yeah exactly. I did used to dance around my trailer at the end of the day when I had it taken off. I would just like put on some music and dance to that and sort of stretch out.
Q: Amma was very, very impressive as a director.
Sam: Amma, when I first met her, I was completely blown away by how intelligent she was and how specific she is as a director. So you’re working on a scene and she walks in and she knows exactly what she wants. It’s quite intimidating as an actor because you feel like for a second that there’s no room, but what she’s actually doing is she’s constructed the entire scenario in her head and she knows exactly how it’s going and you feel so safe in that environment because we know what our parameters are, we know where the character is we know where the story’s supposed to go and she executes it and then when you actually see the film, you realized that she has done everything that she planned and it’s quite a rare thing that you see with a director.
GMR: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I’ve worked on things before where you have three different versions. You have the script that you read, the film that you shoot, and then the final edit of the film and sometimes they can be really completely different things and for me what was so testament to Amma’s determination and vision and single mindedness about the story was that when I saw the film, it was everything that we talked about and more, but I recognized it. There were no nasty surprises other than probably the shock of seeing yourself which is always a bit weird, but that she really captured every nuance and that was the thing that was so wonderful to work with with her is that she was detailed and she wanted to capture those moments, those thoughts and to create the characters' vibrant inner life so that we can relate to them on a human level and we’re not just looking at some archetypes.
Sam: And one of the most amazing things about Amma is that she was so open about her own personal experience, so she was constantly through the filming process coming up and giving her own life, her own story, her own experiences. Just things about her own marriage with her husband and what he said to her when they fell in love and very personal moments in her life.
GMR: Her father daughter dynamic which definitely informed Dido and Lord Mansfield’s dynamic and I think that she invested in us all with a huge sense of heart because we were so aware that we were dealing with these weighty issues. Potentially worthy earnest subjects that as much as they are very important, you don’t want to feel like you’re bashing the audience over the head with politics and so to be able to kind of do that with a lightness of touch and a sense of heart and romance. I mean she’s a very romantic person and feminine. I think that’s really something that she really brought out of this film. It is a very feminine film. Not that it’s not for men but it’s just you don’t often see something so unabashedly feminine and romantic.
Q: This film is bringing a lot of attention on the both of you? How is that changing your lives?
GMR: It’s a lot more press. A lot more thinking about clothes and getting on planes and all of that sort of thing, but really it’s great to be able to share the scale of this and this started off as an independent film and now we have this international distribution, so and things like this. I mean this is kind of crazy to have your face on a book. This is the first time I saw this today.
Sam: Well, I’ve got five movies coming out between now and September. So it’s one of those things where I left drama school in 2010 and then I’ve just been working nonstop. I just finished my eighth feature film in January. It’s one of those things where it’s like you’re just working, working, and working and then all of a sudden you’re living on an airplane and I’m not quite sure where I live anymore. I come from Australia. I’m living half in Los Angelos and London. It’s very nomadic and like Gugu was saying, we were talking about this yesterday, you just take every day as it comes and it’s really fun.
Q: You are in almost every scene. Was that nerve-wracking?
GMR: For me I loved the story so much and usually, it’s just my nature to kind of turn any nerves into adrenaline and anticipation and I was just so excited to tell this story that you sort of take the pressure off yourself. You go in for the character and that’s the way to get out of any of that anxiety I think is just to take on the responsibility and just get going with it. So the schedule was full on, but I felt prepared because we had done some rehearsals and I had known about the story for a long time and read, and reread the script so, for me, it’s just like, “Yeah, let’s do this!”
Q: In "Belle," Amma made us fall in love with your love. The only thing missing was the white horse coming in. How do you picture falling in love?
GMR: Wow, I mean there’s so many different types of love and I think that this is a very, very romantic sort of historic sweeping version of it ... I think there’s many different types of and stages of love.
Sam: I think what is really great about this love story is the two characters fall in love and through falling in love, they find themselves. They’re not comfortable with their situation.There’s something amiss in their lives and they find each other and then they realize that that’s the missing piece in their kind of personalities become whole and so I guess that thing of young love is finding that within yourself. So, I think people can honestly identify with that and I’m sure we’ve all had a similar experience at some stage in our life.