Deliciously evil female characters have always played an integral part of classic Disney films. In ENCHANTED, Susan Sarandon lights up the screen, bringing a gleeful malevolence to her role as the archetypal wicked stepmother: Queen Narissa. The movie, also starring Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey, combines classic Disney animation with a modern and intriguing romantic comedy. The plot revolves around a beautiful fairy tale maiden who is hurled out of her magical world, into the chaotic reality of contemporary New York City, where she meets a modern day Prince Charming. We find out whether ‘Happy Ever After’ endings are possible in the real world.
From the wicked queen in SNOW WHITE, to Cruella De Vil in 101 DALMATIANS, evil, power-crazed archetypes have helped to bring Disney films alive. In the original new film, ENCHANTED, directed by Kevin Lima and written by Bill Kelly, Susan Sarandon invests her role as the horribly evil Queen Narissa, with a flamboyant wit and dynamism. “It was so much fun playing this evil character, it was almost addictive,” laughs Sarandon, “I really loved it.”
She is the antidote to the film’s lovely heroine, Giselle, (Amy Adams), who plays a delightful country maiden. Giselle is in love with Narissa’s stepson, Prince Edward (James Marsden). The trouble is, the land of Andalasia is currently controlled by Narissa, who is deeply concerned, that if Edward marries his true love, she will lose her power. So she decides to take swift action and banishes Giselle to New York, where life is neither simple nor innocent as it was at home in the forests of Andalasia. But it is definitely interesting – particularly when she meets the handsome, but cynical Robert, (Patrick Dempsey) a divorce lawyer, who is a single parent with a little girl. He could not be more different from the chivalrous, romantic Prince Edward. The film is ingenious because while they inhabit the fairy tale kingdom, the characters are animated. But when they arrive in the harsh reality of New York City, they turn real.
Edward goes off to find his true love in Manhattan and Queen Narissa decides to go too. Like every classic Disney stepmother, Narissa is determined to get her nemesis out of the way. To that end, she pursues her mission with a relentless determination. Sarandon’s Queen Narissa arrives in New York, dressed in leather, looking theatrically regal and very scary, she then transforms herself into an ugly old hag in a grey wig and ragged purple robes, and is practically unrecognizable. The usually glamorous actress has a huge nose, wrinkles, warts and an ugly face. She arrives at a glamorous Manhattan ball – to tempt Giselle with a poisoned apple.
“Susan has vast experience and she has class. She was wonderful as the queen and the hag, she made it so easy, she wanted to have fun, she wanted be wicked and she was perfect in the role, there is a great deal of joy and passion in her portrayal of this evil queen,” says producer, Barry Josephson.
“Susan is so good, she transitions from a cartoon character to a larger-than-life villainess,” adds director Kevin Lima. ”She brings a wonderful archness to the role and a dedication to the theatricality of the role. She is not afraid of the role and she stepped into those costumes and it was amazing to watch her. It takes some guts to be the hag and even under that make up, her performance shines through, she is wonderfully scary too.”
The formidably talented actress has played a wide variety of characters over the years, from mothers to sexy leading ladies. She won an Oscar for her powerful and poignant portrayal of a nun in DEAD MAN WALKING. Other memorable film roles include her Oscar nominated performances in ATLANTIC CITY, THELMA AND LOUISE, LORENZO’S OIL and THE CLIENT. She also starred in STEPMOM, LITTLE WOMEN and SHALL WE DANCE. She’s starring opposite her daughter Eva in her next film, MIDDLE OF NOWHERE and has just begun work on Peter Jackson’s new film, THE LOVELY BONES, based on the bestselling novel by Alice Sebold. Glamorous and opinionated, the actress is a devoted campaigner for many charities and social causes.
Q: Why were you excited by this role?
A: “I love acting, but no matter where I am in my career, I am always trying to find something that I haven’t done before and I was honored that they asked me to play an iconic Disney figure. I have certainly never done anything like it. I thought it would be challenging physically and it really was, it also involved a different style of acting for me. I’m always open to fresh challenges and actually read the script years ago and thought it was very interesting at that time.”
Q: What makes ENCHANTED stand out as a film do you think?
A: “I love the fact that the princess is plucky and tries to save the day and endeavors to save the prince, rather than other way round. They have taken a modern spin on a classic theme, using those Disney characters that I grew up with. And I like the fact that it is old school, hand drawn animation. You don’t come across many original concepts these days and I thought it would be enormous fun to play this role.”
Q: How interesting is her character?
A: “The character is very interesting and there is a lot of variation, because of her different manifestations. So when she appears in disguise as the hag, I try to make her sweet and seductive, she is trying to win Giselle’s confidence. As the wicked queen, I studied the main Disney evil stepmother characters and found that they are very cool and sarcastic. Every now and then they get crazy, but they are generally icy and sadistic. As the Queen, I wear leather and long gloves and I torture my henchmen. It was extremely hard work physically though. Everyone had to adapt to being uncomfortable on this film, whether it was an itching head, a huge fake nose, a heavy ball gown or glass slippers. But I think everyone has done a brilliant job of establishing the style and look of the film. ”
Q: Can you explain your specific challenges?
A: “There was a challenge to conquering the costume limitations. My costumes were very uncomfortable. There is a reason that people only dress like that in cartoons, the clothes are hard to wear, and it took about six people to get me into that amazing leather costume. Everything is very tight and trussed and we had to find a find a way to make the collar stay up. Then one of the other pieces would separate. The bodice I wear, that looks like a boob tube, had to be sewn in place each time. The headpiece was heavy and the boots didn’t bend at the knee and they were very high, which I found difficult. With that kind of elaborate costume, there are certain adjustments that you have to make, that contribute to a certain way of walking and attitude. Dealing with the costume makes you bigger than you really are. There’s something about that high collar that empowers you immediately.”
Q: What was it like playing the hag with all those prosthetics?
A: “The hag was different because the challenge of course was learning how to use the face, which was almost like a mask. It is not really moving and it is hard to talk through the fake teeth, they cut the inside of your mouth. The rest of the hag’s costume was much more comfortable apart from having to stay hunched over, but the hump helps with that. In a way it was easier for me than playing Narissa as the queen, because I did not have to balance on those high, high heels. It took five hours to get the hag makeup and costume on and another couple to get out of it, so mercifully they did a few really long days and I didn’t have to keep getting in and out of it for weeks and weeks.”
Q: How did you come up with her scary voice?
A: “That was the hardest part of the hag, finding that creepy voice, it’s like the babysitter from hell, she sounds so nice but she’s really weird and evil. But that’s what acting is all about; it’s great to lose yourself in a character that is far from who you are. When you play characters that are very close to a real person, and you are touching on real issues about relationships and love and loss and jealousy, that’s another kind of acting. This is so much more technical, and the challenge is to make it conversational somehow, because Narissa is so extreme.”
Q: It is actually hard to tell it is you as the hag.
A: “It was interesting, people did not recognize me. My dog knew me immediately though and was not in the least bit freaked out. When I was first dressed in the hag costume, Penny just climbed right up on my lap and was not at all frightened by my appearance and I thought how could this be? It was funny.”
Q: Are you looking forward to having your own Queen Narissa doll?
A: “I am very excited and I’m hoping my action figure will be one of those that you flip over and the hag is underneath and the queen on other side. Also by the way, I’m so happy to end up on lunch boxes and thermos flasks. When I was younger I was so anti any kind of merchandising – now I want that lunchbox. Hurray! ”
Q: What was your inspiration for the role?
A: “Well I like the gal in Snow White, I always thought she was really elegant and stylish and completely imbalanced. I loved her. So I modeled Narissa on her a bit. Narissa is so vain and self-involved, she is wonderful, she is so upset about Giselle and wants to get rid of her. You can understand why: Narissa has a great life and a great set up, she’s got real estate, she’s a party girl, she’s got her henchman Nathaniel (Timothy Spall). Her stepson Edward, (James Marsden), is not too bright and she’s managing the world. Then suddenly this alliance between Giselle and Edward threatens to change her position in society and she will not allow that to happen.”
Q: How much fun was it voicing the animated Queen Narissa, before we see her in human form?
A: “The process was interesting, when they started working on the animation, they filmed us doing the voiceover, in order to help with the animation and I got the feel for her. These bad girls like Narissa are very cool; they are so bad that they don’t even have to raise their voice, except that every now and then they have a momentary lapse when they freak out completely. Her voice is very seductive and evil; she has a good time being powerful. I loved playing her.”
Q: Did you enjoy Disney films growing up?
A: “I loved them. I remember being absolutely distraught over BAMBI, but I don’t remember that we got out much too see a lot of movies because I was one of nine children. We didn’t take a lot of trips to the theater. But I have always enjoyed the Disney classics. In my family, one of my sons identified with Peter Pan and the other one loved Captain Hook. I have always wanted to play an evil Disney archetype, the evil ones definitely have better scenes, better clothes and have more fun than the princesses who never get angry and are very sincere.”
Q: Was your daughter a keen fan of Disney princesses? Or course she (Eva Amurri) is now an accomplished actress herself?
A: No, my daughter was never into princesses, she was a cross dresser till she was 10, a real tomboy. I think she’s very romantic but she never wore huge fancy dresses. She couldn’t move in the princess dresses. She asked for a white tuxedo for her 6th birthday. I do remember my first communion when I got my first ‘stick out slip’ and fancy dress, though, I thought that was very cool.”
Q: Did you always want to act as a child?
A: “I was pretty introverted actually as a kid, although I wrote things that I thought were plays. I would rehearse in my neighborhood from the time 1 was 9 or 10. I would be bossing kids around and making them practice my plays, which now I realize could only have been done as films, because they had so many different locations and I remember there was one about a guy who lost his true love and he went all over the world looking for her and he kept seeing her face, she was a ballerina. I had dance classes and then when I was in high school I was in school plays. I studied drama and literature at the Catholic University in Washington, and did some modeling, then later, quite by chance was sent to audition for a film called JOE. Then I did some work on a soap opera. I loved performing but I did not really know I wanted to act for a living – even when I had been doing it for a while. After I got my first role I thought it was just a lark, I did not take it very seriously for a long time.”
Q: You look so glamorous; do you think the image of older actresses in Hollywood is changing?
A: “If I look good, I am not alone. There are lots of women my age and older (as well as men), who are living very vital lives over 40 and 50. You know, by the time my daughter gets to my age and she looks fabulous, I hope that it will be accepted and that no one will be making a fuss. That will be even better, when it’s just accepted that you can look good at any age. Because I think some of looking good and youthful is a state of mind. It about saying yes to life and having an inner light I think.”
Q: How do you stay looking so youthful and glamorous?
A: “Well I have a team of experts who come in an hour and a half early to really get me together. (laughs). I have an advantage because I have help to get pulled together at the last moment. But I think it helps if you’re healthy. I think that as you age, if you’ve been a smoker, that is really hard to overcome. But all my girlfriends come in different sizes and shapes, some are slightly older, some younger. All of them are really fun-loving girls who are interested and passionate about something. They’re not necessarily actors. They have passion in their lives though. Some have children, some don’t, but I think it helps when you have something you care about, whether it’s gardening, children, a hobby or work.”
Q: How contented are you at this stage of your career?
A: “I enjoy my work and although there is a downside to fame, I accept it. I use my celebrity, I don’t feel it uses me and I’m quite happy with it. I really don’t believe people who are in the limelight and complain about how terrible it is. There’s a way to have your privacy. I think being normal is highly overrated, I’m happy to have access to so much information and I’m happy that my kids get to meet so many interesting people. I have a great lifestyle. I have structured my life in a way that I am constantly being challenged and so I’m happy for that lifestyle because it allows me to wear a lot of different pairs of moccasins and educate myself.”
Q: You do so much work for causes close to your heart. Do you feel a responsibility to bring about social change and improve the quality of life for people who are suffering around the world?
A: “Well I wish I could change the world. I think it’s a question of not being able to live with yourself if you didn’t try. I can’t live with myself unless I do something to make this world a better place.”