Disney’s new movie Cruella may be an origin story for the titular villainess, but it is as much the Baroness’ story.
Played by Emma Thompson to perfection, the Baroness serves as the antagonist to Cruella and she dazzles in the finest haute couture while delivering lines positively laced with venom and sarcasm. She is delightfully devilish and is the villain we hate, but the kween we secretly stan.
But make no mistake, underneath that polished, preened, and posh veneer lies a terrible, selfish, and cruel person. Think of her as Miranda Priestly (from The Devil Wears Prada) dialled up to 11, with no redeeming qualities aside from her commitment to succeed.
It is a far cry from the characters the celebrated actress is known for, and, a far cry from who she is in real life.
Speaking to international media during the global press conference for Cruella on May 16, the warm and witty British thespian shared the inspiration behind her character and pointed to the mean people in showbiz.
The 62-year-old said: “I found pretending to be mean, well, it came horribly easily. I was very well brought up by a very kind and wonderful woman — my mum — and my dad, a wonderful man. I was surrounded by lovely, kind people, and my experience of people who were truly mean and hardened and narcissistic is quite rare. But there are quite a number of them in show business — mentioning no names — and some of those people have come to light recently.”
It’s unclear who Emma is referring to as there have been a number of big names in Hollywood who have been accused of being mean.
Daytime talkshow host Ellen Degeneres was accused of bullying and creating a toxic work environment. Glee star Lea Michele was also accused of racism and bullying her former black co-star on the show. Not to mention, the string of sexual abuse allegations against some male stars in the industry.
“So, awfulness in any profession, in any walk of life, is always possible. I suppose the Baroness is a mixture of all kinds of people. She’s quite venal but her greed is really, just for herself. She can’t bear anyone else to succeed in any way. She has to destroy the competition instead of thinking that the competition might bring her game up, might make her better… [She] contains the inevitable seeds of her own destruction because she can’t acknowledge talent in any other person,” she shared.
Cruella is a live-action film about the origin story of Cruella de Vil (played by Emma Stone). It is set in 1970s London amid the punk rock revolution, and follows a young grifter named Estella (prior to becoming Cruella) who is determined to make it as a fashion designer. She eventually catches the eye of fashion legend Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) and their relationship sets off a chain of events and revelations that leads to Estella embracing her wicked side.
Emma facetiously added that, like the Baroness, she found it “very difficult” to work with someone who is younger, more beautiful, and more talented.
In other words, her co-star Emma Stone.
She said dryly: “I swallowed my bitterness and I dealt with it. Mostly through drinking negronis, one after the other, late into the night.”
Success at what cost?
Playing a villain is kind of a dream come true for Emma, who mentioned that her mother described her previous roles as “good women in frocks”.
“Now, I got to play a really evil woman in frocks,” she quipped.
There is another side of the coin to her terrible personality, though.
As Emma explained: “She is hardened completely, and believes in hardness. She thinks that’s the only way… the Baroness is so single-minded and she says this wonderful thing.
“She says, ‘If I hadn’t been single-minded, I might have had to put my genius at the back of the drawer, like so many other women of genius who died without producing anything, without using their genius.’ And actually, it is a very good point.”
While Emma won’t walk the same path as the Baroness — as much as she enjoys exploring the dark side of women — she admitted that the character’s commitment to her own creativity “is rather admirable”.
It’s fun to be bad
As for the younger (and more beautiful and talented — we kid) Emma, there is something enticing about embracing the dark side. She found it really fun to play Cruella because she gets to go all out.
Before Cruella goes full-on evil, she was taught by her mother to conceal, don’t feel. Instead, she tried to become the sweet, mild-mannered Estella.
When asked which side of the character she most preferred, the 32-year-old replied: “Estella is sweet, but she’s not fully-embodied. So, I would say, there is something about Cruella that is pretty enticing because she is who she is. She’s in full acceptance and autonomy there. So I am kind of interested in that Cruella world.
“That said, she has some lines that I wouldn’t necessarily cross. But to be honest, I sort of prefer Cruella.”
And in this duality lies the complexity and depth of the character as the show explores how Cruella’s weakness evolves into her strength.
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Emma explained that in the beginning, Estella is taught that her volatility and reactiveness is a weakness. But, as Cruella, she harnesses it and makes it work to her advantage through her creativity and genius.
She said: “I think it really is a movie about how your weaknesses do sort of become your strengths, in a way. Although, again, this isn’t necessarily an aspirational character so to speak. Except for the fact that she is really harnessing her creativity and who she is in a really strong way.
“She is learning to accept that who she is in her nature really does win in the end.”
Cruella premiered in cinemas on May 27 and is available on Disney+ with Premiere Access.
This article was first published in AsiaOne.