TORONTO — There's been much talk lately about Disney's first openly gay character in its new live-action remake of "Beauty and the Beast," but cast member Audra McDonald says she thinks the situation has "been really overblown."
"(The character) is wonderful because the film is about not only becoming worthy of love but learning to love oneself and seeing past the surface, to see someone for who they truly are and being comfortable with different types of people and whatnot," she said.
"Disney has really encompassed and represented the entire world in this film. There's every race, colour and creed in this film and that's the beauty of its diversity, so I have no issues with it.
"I think it's fantastic but I don't think it's that big of a deal."
Josh Gad plays the gay character, LeFou, the comical sidekick to pompous dreamboat Gaston (Luke Evans). Disney has shelved the release of the film in Malaysia after refusing to cut a gay scene to appease film censors there.
Emma Watson leads the star-studded cast as heroine Belle, who falls in love with the Beast, played by Dan Stevens.
The Canadian Press recently spoke by phone with McDonald — winner of an Emmy, two Grammys and six Tonys — about her role as Madame de Garderobe as well as her love of the 1991 animated version of "Beauty and the Beast" and of Canadian songstress Celine Dion.
CP: What drew you to "Beauty and the Beast"?
McDonald: I'm as obsessed with Disney as any child or child-at-heart is. I feel like everybody in the world in some way, shape or form feels like they're a part of the Disney family, and so when I was asked to sign on to the film, I didn't have to think about it. It was just an immediate, "Yes, of course."
CP: As a singer yourself, is there a Disney tune that has always stuck in your head that you belt out in the shower?
McDonald: There's one that I do in concert now that I've been doing for a while: "Baby Mine," from "Dumbo," which is just such a sweet, beautiful song. And then the other one that just has always touched me is "When You Wish Upon a Star."
CP: What are your memories of the original?
McDonald: It came out in '91 but I don't think I saw it until '92 and I was on tour in the United States with a show and I saw it with some friends of mine. I was in my 20s and I was a little skeptical and reluctant on my day off to go see a Disney cartoon ... and I walked out in tears, I was just so moved.
CP: It's such a revered film. What do you have to say to those who wonder why this live-action version was necessary?
McDonald: Well, we now have the technology that we just didn't have before. Here's the thing: the animated film was perfect. They haven't made the live-action film so that they can erase the animated film. That is there and it is perfect and everybody acknowledges that.... I call it a reimagining in the way it's been reimagined time and time again. So absolutely, it's worth seeing. It honours the animated film but it's different from the animated film, too. And it's a story that's worth being told over and over again.
CP: How was it wearing that costume? It looked pretty elaborate.
McDonald: It was incredibly elaborate. I couldn't sit down in-between takes. They had to build me a lean-to. I needed to rest my neck because the wig was so very heavy and high, but I couldn't sit down because the dress was so big, so they built me this lovely lean-to with a little bicycle seat and I just would lean in-between takes.
CP: Celine Dion sang the original "Beauty and the Beast" song (and sings an all-new original song on this soundtrack). Have you ever had a chance to meet her?
McDonald: I did, I love her, she's amazing. We got to see her at the Hollywood premiere.... I got to meet Celine Dion and tell her how amazing I think she is. At the same premiere I got to meet Beyonce, so between the two of them, it's like, "Oh, that's all we need. That's just it as far as singers are concerned."
And she was lovely, such a lovely lady. She's a phenomenon and her staying power, what she's been able to do for as long as she has at such a consistently high level is remarkable.
— This interview has been edited and condensed.
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press