Actress and costume designer Melissa Claire—and her 7-year-old daughter—discuss villains and princesses

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Blech.

That’s a loose paraphrase.

Think of that quote more as the mostly-silent-but-enthusiastic pantomime of a retching action of a 7-year-old girl eating a chocolate éclair. That’s how Bella—daughter of award-winning Marin County actress and costume designer Melissa Claire—reacts when asked what she thinks of movies featuring princesses in frilly dresses waiting for princes to come along and take them on an adventure.

“Blech.”

So, when Bella was recently invited to go see the new live-action adaptation of Disney’s Cinderella, she was reluctant. It was her mom who changed her mind.

When I told her that Kenneth Branagh (one of the best Shakespearean actors and directors in the world) directed it, and that the money he got would pay for him to do more Shakespeare, she said, “OK. For that reason I’ll watch it.’”

“I really like Shakespeare!” Bella says, indulging in the aforementioned éclair at a coffee shop, where we’ve settled in to talk about the tremendously popular Cinderella, which has raked in a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in its first three weeks of release. The éclair is a last-minute substitute for the chocolate croissant that was a strongly stated request when asked to tag along with her mom for this interview. Bella’s introduction to Shakespeare has included watching a recording of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and last summer’s Marin Shakespeare Company productions of As You Like It, and Romeo and Juliet. She also appeared last summer as the fairy Peaseblossom in Bacchus Theatre Company’s production of Midsummer.

“She takes great pride in pointing out to me that she was doing her first Shakespeare when she was 6, the same age I was still playing a gumdrop in Hansel and Gretel,” Claire says.

One additional element of Shakespeare exposure was Return to the Forbidden Planet, produced last year by Marin Onstage and Curtain Theatre. It was for that show—a blend of the Shakespearean text and B-grade science-fiction movies, with rock and roll classic for good measure—that Claire won a costuming award from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle earlier this month.

Claire also played a roller-skating robot.

“Of all the Shakespeare she’s seen, I think Bella especially liked seeing Romeo and Juliet,” Claire says, “because there are sword fights, and lots of people die.”

To this last remark, Bella grins and vigorously nods.

Unfortunately—aside from whatever pride she can take in having supported Kenneth Branagh’s future Shakespearean efforts—the actual experience of watching Cinderellawas not nearly as much fun as watching Romeo and Juliet kill themselves.

“I hate princess movies,” Bella says, just putting it out there plain and simple. “I think I liked them once—and my cousin REALLY likes them—but I don’t like them anymore, because princesses aren’t really very interesting.” Asked if maybe she liked the relatively interesting princesses in Disney’s Frozen, Bella shakes her head. “Boring,” she says. In the interest of full disclosure, however, it must be revealed that last October Bella did appear in public dressed as Queen Elsa from Frozen. It was in Copperfield’s Books’ annual Zombie Walk.

“I played Zombie Elsa,” Bella says, giggling. “I was Elsa, but I was dead.”

“As we walked along with all of the other regular zombies, a lot of parents were giving me silent thumbs ups,” Claire says. “I think every parent is a little bit sick of Frozen by now. Bella and I were talking about it earlier today, and she said that if she had a choice between playing a princess in a show, or playing a villain, she’d rather play the villain.”

“Villains do things,” Bella affirms. “Princesses just wait for something to happen.”

“But you have to admit,” Claire says, “their costumes are sometimes pretty nice, right?”

“Blech!”

Lily James stars as the frilly-dress-wearing princess in ‘Cinderella.’ Pretty and all, but why wait for a man to come along before you go on an adventure?

Speaking of costumes, it must be said that in Cinderella—which is a fairly traditional take on the classic story, with only the faintest of revisionist twists on the original animated version—the costumes are spectacular. Even I noticed how spectacular the designs were, from the viper-green dresses of Cinderella’s deliciously evil stepmother (Cate Blanchett) to the stunning blue gown worn by Cinderella (Lily James) at the Prince’s ball.

It’s a pretty spectacular dress,” Claire says, training her costumer’s eye on the work of designer Sandy Powell, who is almost guaranteed an Oscar nomination at next year’s Academy Awards. “But that said,” Claire goes on, “I couldn’t help focusing on the construction of the dress, particularly regarding the waist. I was thinking about what it would be like to wear that dress, with the corseting at the waist that would have been required to achieve that kind of thin-waisted body image. It’s not a very attainable look, for almost anybody but Lily James. As soon as she put that dress on, she didn’t really move very much. She did dance during the waltz scene, but she really didn’t walk very far or do anything very active, because I’m sure she couldn’t really breathe.

“What did you think of the blue dress, Bella?”

“It was pretty,” Bella says with a shrug. “But I don’t think she could really run very far from the prince in that dress.”

And everyone knows that Cinderella does run from the prince, when the clock strikes midnight, resulting in the loss of a certain iconic glass slipper.

“I did like those slippers,” Claire confesses of the shoes that looked as if they were crafted from diamonds rather than out of glass. “They didn’t look delicate. They looked pretty sturdy. And the Fairy Godmother said they were very comfortable, and I believe her.”

In the original Brothers Grimm story, as told in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods—Disney’s other recent fairy tale adaptation—the glass slipper wasn’t very comfortable at all, especially for the stepsisters, who each hack off pieces of their feet in order to fit into the shoe. The mere mention of such bloody podiatric mayhem causes Bella to burst into a fit of giggles.

“After I saw Into the Woods last year,” Claire explains, “I wanted to show Bella the original show, and there’s that great PBS recording of the Broadway stage play, with the original cast. And when they did that scene, where they cut the sister’s toe off—and her toe pops off and flies into the air—Bella thought it was hysterical.”

“I did,” admits Bella, a happy grin inhabiting her face. “It was funny. I wanted to watch that part again right away.”

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David Templeton

Writer, journalist, playwright, producer, performer, film critic, novelist, short story writer, and . . . you know . . . a very busy guy.

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