In the age of superheroes, 'Cinderella' conquers with kindness

In the age of tough-girl superheroes, 'Cinderella' kills it with kindness

The female heroines that young girls look up to in 2015 tend to be strong, determined, tough chicks. They don't mince words. They shoot arrows. They wear leather. They don't think twice about combating male foes.

So Cinderella? With her delicate glass slippers and corset and "yes, ma'am" — how could she fit into that category?

That was exactly what Allison Shearmur — an executive producer on the female-empowerment franchise "The Hunger Games" — was wondering when Walt Disney Pictures approached her about producing a new live-action version of the 1950s animated fairy tale.

"The first thing I said was, 'OK, but ... '" recalled Shearmur of the revamped "Cinderella," which stars newcomer Lily James and opens Friday. "It was important to me that we not have a Cinderella that didn't in some way stand up for herself if she was in a situation that was abusive. She had to be responsible for her own destiny. If the prince didn't come, our Cinderella would be just fine."

In the original tale, Cinderella is a meek house servant who puts up with beratement from her stepmother before a handsome prince rescues her from her cruel fate. She wasn't exactly a feminist role model, and she was certainly nothing like Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior or the Black Widow — the female leads of today's top box-office hits.

But the way director Kenneth Branagh saw it, Cinderella's kindness was in fact her superpower.

"I wanted to make the pursuit of goodness sexy and proactive, not naive or unsophisticated," he explained.

To update the story for modern sensibilities, the filmmakers made a handful of subtle changes. Because the original Cinderella loved animals — befriending the mice in her house when she had no one else — they decided the new Cinderella would be a fearless horsewoman who was able to ride bareback. And Branagh refused to have her referred to as a "mere" servant girl.

"I saw nothing that was to be dismissed about the value of lighting a fire or cleaning a kitchen," the director said. "Service is a perfectly fine way to make a living."

As for Cinderella's prince, he would not be a nameless Ken Doll type — and the budding lovebirds would actually have a few conversations before she decided this was the man of her dreams. And when her stepmother insults the dress she's salvaged from her late mother's closet, "she doesn't stand there and take it," Shearmur said. "But she doesn't put her finger in the stepmother's face, either."

To make Cinderella feel like an actual person and not just some untouchable, angelic creature, Branagh told James to research meditation and Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent resistance.

"Obviously, Cinderella's not Gandhi," said the 25-year-old actress, who also looked to the female characters in "Amelie" and "Annie Hall" for inspiration. "But she's able to be open and in the moment, finding joy and happiness in tiny little things."

Growing up in Surrey, England, James liked Disney princesses as much as the next girl — especially Belle from "Beauty and the Beast" and Ariel from "The Little Mermaid." With two brothers, she said, she was also very into tigers. But she had a Minnie Mouse autograph book that the princesses signed at DisneyWorld, and her grandmother made her a version of Jasmine's costume.

"Princesses were the girls who wanted more from life — free spirits," said James, sipping on — what else? — tea. "They weren't conforming. They wanted to see the world rather than stay at home."

James moved to London when she was 18 to attend drama school and has since starred as Lady Rose on "Downton Abbey." But "Cinderella" — which is expected to have a $60-million debut at the box office this weekend — is her coming-out party.

It's such a big opportunity for a relative newcomer that her agents initially told her that her chance at landing the part was minuscule, trying to shield her from disappointment. And Disney certainly put her through the paces. James had to do extensive screen tests, at one point even auditioning with live mice and pots and pans filled with boiling water.

"We had a lot of meetings," Branagh acknowledged. "But even if meetings are inevitably superficial, the very fact of their number and length still offers plenty of chances for a terribly frightened or overwhelmed or serious person to reveal those things. And all along, Lily retained a sense of humor and absurdity about the whole thing. Like it was an elaborate game."

As it turned out, Cinderella wasn't all that dissimilar from James herself. Her father had once told her she had a "generous nature," and in Branagh's breakdown of the character, he described Cinderella as having "generosity of spirit."

"One director once said to me that I should stop trying to please," James said with a laugh. "Maybe because I'm trying to please, I'm warm. You can think of that as a negative thing. But I'd rather be in a room full of people that are happy and getting along."

It hasn't all been like a fairy tale, though. Over the last few weeks, there's been a lot of discussion about how skinny James looks in the film. But sucked into the character's iconic blue ball gown — the one she dons in the majority of the film's ad campaign — her waist looks unnaturally tiny. So much so, in fact, that critics have actually questioned whether Disney digitally altered the actress' appearance.

James has denied those claims, answering endless questions about her weight on the media tour for the film.

"I'm so healthy," she said in one such interview with The Times last week. "I've got hips and boobs and a bum and small waist."

Such self-assurance reminds Shearmur of Jennifer Lawrence, "The Hunger Games" star who the producer watched go from an unknown to global superstar.

"They're sturdy people to begin with, and just like Jennifer has remained sturdy, I see the same thing for Lily," the producer said. "Cinderella is quietly strong. I love Katniss' bow and arrow, but her real act of strength was saying, 'I volunteer.' The bow and arrow came after that."

Twitter: @AmyKinLA

 

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