Belle: Sarah Gadon on 18th Century Marriage and the Oscorp Hologram

Belle Sarah Gadon

As director Amma Asante told us, the movie Belle is inspired by a real life painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray. It was groundbreaking in the 18th century for a black woman to be portrayed as equal to her white counterparts. The film includes Dido (Gugu Mbatha Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) sitting for the painting, and each woman considering marriage in an age where women weren’t considered equal to men, let alone racial equality. I got to speak with Gadon about the film by phone when she was in New York. Coincidentally, the same weekend Belle opens, Gadon appears in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as the holographic interface of Oscorp. The timing was opportune to discuss both films, as well as her upcoming ones.

CraveOnline: Did Elizabeth want to marry for status or for love?

Sarah Gadon: I think that she really had the two confused. I think that she fell in love with the idea of marrying someone who would help her situation and her status, and ultimately her livelihood. I think sometimes when you’re young like that, you think that you want something or that you need something and you don’t really know what it is you really need.

That’s such a different era. Can you imagine thinking like that?

I think that there are a few lines that Elizabeth says that really helped me get into the ideology of the time. One specifically that comes to mind is when she turns to Dido in the carriage on the way to London and says, “We are but their property.” I think that that speaks volumes about the situation that women were in whether or not we were rich or poor, black or white, independent or not independent. They were subordinate in a lot of ways and at the mercy of their marriage choices, especially in England at that time.

Had you seen the painting of Dido and Elizabeth?

Before I read the script, I didn’t know about the painting and when I read the script, I Googled the painting and I fell in love with it. I found it really, really compelling because I love how paintings influence art and contemporary art specifically. There’s so much to be said about perspective within paintings and I’ve always been really drawn to that as a student of film. I thought that seeing the two of them as equals looking out from that painting was such a powerful image and I knew it would be such a powerful story and that I had to be a part of the film.

Did you see a resemblance between Elizabeth and yourself?

Yeah, a little bit I guess. I don’t really think there’s a huge resemblance. After all, I have blonde hair in the film and in the painting, she’s a brunette. It’s just a really great painting. I don’t know if anyone told you, but afterwards Gugu and I were invited by Mansfield to Scone Palace to see the actual painting. So when we wrapped, the two of us set out on a pilgrimage to Scotland to go and look at the actual painting. It was this incredible, cathartic experience.

Did you notice that Elizabeth was touching Dido in the painting?

Yes. I think the entire painting is just really powerful because you never see women at that time together as equals from different racial backgrounds.

Did you audition for this role?

Yeah, I did. I was in Germany at the time working and I read the script, and I fell in love with it and the story and I flew myself to England to meet with Amma. I met with her and at the time I was taking a feminist film studies course and I was reading a lot of about female filmmakers and statistically how difficult it is for them to get their second film made, and how the drop-off rate between first time directors falls significantly for women because they have a hard time getting their second film made.

I just felt this huge connection with Amma about her making this film and making her second film and having to tell this story as a woman and as a director. So we had this long conversation and this long meeting and then afterwards she said, “Would you mind reading for the role?” I said, “Absolutely not.” Then the next day I went in and I auditioned for it, and I got the part.

Were they seeing other people for the role of Elizabeth too?

Yeah, they were.

Did Amma want you but need to prove to the studio or put you on tape?

I think it was more just that I think she was maybe taken aback by this fiery Canadian who sort of forced herself into an audition for the part. [Laughs] For me, I know when I approached Elizabeth’s character and in my audition and talking to Amma about it, I didn’t want her to seem bratty or privileged by comparison to Dido. I wanted them to seem like young girls who were eager about the rest of their lives and both facing difficult challenges as sisters together. That kind of, I guess, perspective spoke to Amma.

You probably couldn’t have known you’d have two movies opening the same weekend when you made them. Was playing the Oscorp hologram in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a very technical process?

Yeah, it was. It was the most technical thing I’ve ever done. I basically went to New York and was scanned and face scanned and laser scanned and photographed, stood in front of a green screen and read all these lines. It was very different than any other acting experience I’ve ever had, but it was cool. For me, I really liked that part because it was almost like reminiscent of a HAL 2001 Space Odyssey and very Cronenberg-esque which is, as you know, pretty up my alley.

How is it Cronenberg-y? Just the bodylessness of it?

I think because he has a huge obsession with technology and the body, technology and humanity. He loves robots.

Do they have an option to use you for Amazing Spider-Man 3 or any of the spinoffs if characters visit Oscorp again?

No, no, but you never know?

What do you get to play in Dracula Untold?

In Dracula Untold I play Mirena and Dracula Untold is the origin story of Dracula. It’s about their undying love, so I play opposite Luke Evans.

This is a prequel so it’s before Mina Harker.

Mm-hmm, but it was so much fun to do. Aesthetically it’s such a beautiful film. Ngila Dickson did all of our costumes and she was absolutely incredible.

Is it an action heavy role?

Yeah, it is. It’s an action film but it’s also really a fantasy film. I’d say it’s more of a family fantasy film.

Family as in appropriate for all ages?

Yes, and it’s about a family as well.

Is it not that violent and graphic as you might imagine Dracula could be?

Yeah, it’s going to be a PG-13 film and it is more about the family than it is about sexual angst.

What do you get to play in Maps to the Stars?

I play Julianne Moore’s dead mother in Maps to the Stars and I get to haunt her.

Is it very different than the other two David Cronenberg films you made?

Yeah, well, I think Maps to the Stars and Cosmopolis are really different from each other and I think A Dangerous Method is very different from Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars. It is different but I think it’s just as suspenseful and violent as most Cronenberg films are.

Were David and Brandon Cronenberg very different directors?

I think they have very similar sensibilities. They’re both very technical. They don’t do rehearsals or read throughs. They’re both very intelligent and have very specific visions but I think that working with Brandon was ultimately different than working with David because he was a first time filmmaker and at a different place in his career, but I really enjoyed working with Brandon. He was fantastic.

This might be a spoiler for Enemy but for people who already saw it, did you actually turn into the spider at the end?

[Laughs] Oh no, I’m not talking about the spider anymore. I get into too much trouble when I talk about the spider.

Since you mentioned a feminist film studies class, what are some films that inspire you in your performances?

I think for me one of my favorite films of all time is Cleo from 5 to 7 by Agnes Varda. I saw that film when I was 18 and it really changed my whole idea about being a woman and perspective, ideas of being looked at versus doing the looking yourself. I just love that film. It was a huge milestone, touchstone for me as a woman exploring film. That’s got to be one of my all time favorite films.

That’s pretty young. Were you seeking out art films and intellectual films at a young age?

No, I watched it as part of a course. I studied film at university. 

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel and the host of The B-Movies Podcast and The Blue Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.