When Emma Watson accepted the role of Belle in Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast in January, she earned a fevered social-media reception that befits the coronation of a future royal. But what of Beast? Who’s the perfect actor to romance and growl at our fair princess? Joe Manganiello? Ryan Gosling? Jason Momoa? Some Australian unknown, waiting with his haunted teapots and candles in the shadows?
Instead, Disney announced this week that Dan Stevens would assume the role. As in Matthew Crawley, the weary would-be scion of Downton Abbey, he of countryside gentility and polished pretty-boy good looks. To watch him on that show, which he left seasons ago but hasn’t entirely shaken off, does not inspire great confidence that he can bring the anger and brood that will be necessary to liberate beast from cartoon to flesh-and-blood character. He’s just a little too … lovely. Is he really capable of the embodying Beast, one of Disney’s most grievously wounded souls?
I am here to report he is. I claim no special insight into Disney’s process, but I suspect at some point, a casting director sent some executives home with a copy The Guest. The little-seen horror-action hybrid, directed by underappreciated genre savant Adam Wingard (You’re Next), stars Stevens as a mysterious man who visits a family that’s just lost a son in Afghanistan. The man, David, claims to be an old war buddy who arrives to fulfill a promise to his fallen brother. The family, wounded as it is, takes him in, and the fun begins.
It’s hard to overstate the control Stevens has over the movie. In the early scenes, there’s little indication anything is even wrong with David, aside from the camera staring into Stevens’ dead eyes, ominous score swelling in the foreground. He prowls through the movie with the cocksure energy of someone who asserts authority just by entering a room. As The Guest becomes increasingly bizarre—it evolves into an uproarious mix of action, comedy, and they-came-back-wrong shocker—Stevens’ icy glares at characters become their own running gag. Bullies pick on the family’s teenage son, guys at a party get rough with a woman, and we can only wait in giddy anticipation of all the terrible things David is going to do to them.
There is also the little matter that Stevens makes the most uneasily sexy lunatic this side of Paul Spector on The Fall, a trait that will serve him well as Beast. We know David is up to no good, but he has a demented charm and erotic menace that’s hard to resist. Even the teenage son seems to have a crush on him. In one amusing mic drop, David walks out of a steamy bathroom in a towel to the shock of the family’s 20-year-old daughter, Anna, who is the only character who has the good sense to doubt David’s motives. Except at this moment, when she totally melts at the fleshy display.
Stevens is a revelation in this movie, bringing no trace of the consummate gentleman who made him famous. He makes a marvelous monster, and since we already know he can play a storybook romantic, the trick will be fuse those two personas and tease out Beast’s inherent duality.
In case it isn’t clear, I think he’ll pull it off. Disney has hired Bill Condon to direct the new movie, and his past work on Dreamgirls and the final two Twilights suggests he will give this story the gaudy, theatrical treatment. That likely means Stevens will play his role under pounds of industrial-grade makeup, which, for obvious reasons, is a shame. Then again, that also means he will get his purest opportunity yet to act entirely with his eyes. (He does that very well.) In many ways, Beauty and the Beast is more urgently a story of a prince than a princess—the dramatic irony rests on Beast, not Belle—so Steven’s casting should be the real thing to celebrate among the Disney’s films fans. Rejoice.
Next up: Who do you get to play a talking candle?