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Beauty and the Beast cast member Audra McDonald is photographed at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills, California, U.S. March 5, 2017. (Phil McCarten/Reuters)
Beauty and the Beast cast member Audra McDonald is photographed at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills, California, U.S. March 5, 2017. (Phil McCarten/Reuters)

For Beauty and the Beast cast member Audra McDonald, love conquers all – even Disney skepticism Add to ...

In 1993, Audra McDonald was a recent graduate of Juilliard, and auditioned to be in the ensemble of the new Broadway musical Beauty and the Beast. She wasn’t cast. “I was devastated about that,” she says over the phone from her home in New York. She had seen the original Disney film in her early 20s, while she was performing on the road. “I walked in sort of skeptical and snarky, and walked out in tears.”

In 2017, McDonald is a Broadway legend (she won three Tony Awards before she hit 30, and three more after that, making her the winningest performer on Broadway), and didn’t have to audition for her role in the live-action screen adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. “When I found out they were making the film, I was just excited as a fan to see what they did with it,” she says. “So when my agent called to say, ‘They want you to be a part of it,’ I was shocked. I was thrilled.”

McDonald plays the opera-singing wardrobe who dresses Emma Watson’s Belle in her iconic yellow gown, which should please McDonald’s now-teenage daughter Zoe (as does the fact that her mom got to be in a movie with the original Hermione Granger). “The first time we took our daughter to Disneyland, she saw all these kids in their Disney princess dresses and got so excited,” McDonald remembers. “We got her a Belle dress, and she jumped and danced around in it all day having the best time.”

McDonald’s children (she also has an infant daughter, Sally James, and her husband Will Swenson has two sons from a previous relationship) play an important role in determining her career decisions. “I’m always thinking about what effect anything I do is going to have on my children,” she says. “While I may do things that they may not be old enough to see, I do want to make sure that I’m always doing something my kids will be proud of. … I always make sure I try to pick roles that don’t stereotype me or my race or my gender. Mainly I’m just looking for work that is fulfilling.”

Likewise, as she’s been able to take a more pro-active role in her career over the years, she finds herself more drawn to projects that are collaborations – she doesn’t want to be a passive performer, meekly obeying a director. “I don’t want to say I insist on collaborating more, but I’m not afraid to speak up,” she says. “And that’s something I wish I could have done more of when I was younger, but you just don’t know.”

There was no defining moment that made her decide to stand up to a director, just the confidence that comes with age and experience. “I think that as I started to understand who I was as an artist, and that my instincts are strong, that made me confident enough to speak my mind,” she says.

Speaking of, well, speaking up, McDonald has been vocal about political and social issues, especially marriage equality (she joined Twitter in 2009 specifically to promote that cause with the handle @AudraEqualityMc), so she’s pleased to be in the first Disney movie to feature (however subtly) an openly gay character. Although it does sadden her that there’s been a negative response from some groups to that aspect of the film.

“The message of this film is about love. And it’s about the fact that love conquers all, and love can transform. And you see the Beast not only become worthy of being loved, but he also learns to love himself. And that’s the main message of this film,” she says. “The film is incredibly diverse – every race, colour, creed, orientation. At its heart it’s still a family film, but it’s about seeing into who each of us truly is on the inside and celebrating that. I just feel bad for those who are going to not see it because they think there’s some subversive message there.”

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