It’s a tale as old as time. But for the upcoming live-action remake of its 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast, Disney is adding a modern twist.
In the April issue of Attitude, director Bill Condon revealed that Beauty and the Beast will feature Disney’s first-ever openly gay character: Gaston’s lovable sidekick, LeFou.
He’s played on-screen by Josh Gad, a Tony nominee recognizable to Disney audiences for voicing Olaf in Frozen. In Beauty and the Beast, the 36-year-old will dig his teeth into LeFou’s new subplot—which includes a crush on his pal Gaston (Fast & Furious star Luke Evans) and a happily ever after moment of his own.
“LeFou is somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston,” Condon revealed. “He’s confused about what he wants. It’s somebody who’s just realizing that he has these feelings. And Josh makes something really subtle and delicious out of it.”
“That’s what has its payoff at the end, which I don’t want to give away,” Condon added. “But it is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.”
It’s a watershed moment for Disney. While the studio has a long line of characters whose stories can be interpreted as allegories to the gay experience—most recently Queen Elsa in Frozen—they’ve yet to explicitly feature an openly gay character on film.
The move will no doubt be a move for visibility for the openly-gay actors and creatives employed by Disney, and the thousands of LGTBQ people and their families who attend Disney theme parks’ annual Gay Days.
Gad, who plays LeFou, has been married to wife Ida Darvish since 2008. The couple has two children together.
It was also important for Watson and Stevens, who grace the cover of Attitude and wanted to understand what they say is the underlying queer sensibility of the original Disney version of the tale.
“I think it was really important for Dan and I to develop and understand why each of our characters feel as if they don’t fit in,” Watson said. “I certainly felt watching the original that I wanted to know more about why Belle feels that she’s different and why she wants to be different and why she’s naturally different.”
Elsewhere in the issue, Condon reveals how lyricist Howard Ashman’s personal battle with AIDS helped shape the 1991 animated film.
Ashman had just been diagnosed with AIDS when Disney showed him and composer Alan Menken the story ideas for Beauty and the Beast, which the studio had been developing for decades.
“It was his idea, not only to make it into a musical but also to make Beast one of the two central characters,” Condon explained. “Until then it had mostly been Belle’s story that they had been telling.”
“Specifically for him it was a metaphor for AIDS,” Condon continued. “He was cursed and this curse had brought sorrow on all those people who loved him and maybe there was a chance for a miracle and a way for the curse to be lifted. It was a very concrete thing that he was doing.”
Beauty and the Beast would go on to become a global smash, and make Oscars history as the first animated film ever to receive the Academy’s Best Picture nomination. Sadly, Ashman didn’t get to see the film’s success. He died from complications related to the disease on March 14, 1991, just four days after the film’s first screening.
LeFou’s gay backstory also won’t be the only major change coming to the new Beauty and the Beast. Watson has also pushed the film to make Belle to think for herself and take control over her own story.
The biggest symbol of that shift: making Belle—rather than her father—the inventor character. She creates a washing machine that frees little girls from their chores, allowing her time to teach them how to read. The townsfolk respond first by marveling at her device—then by smashing it.
“They don’t think women should read and it goes further than that,” Watson told Entertainment Weekly. “They are deeply suspicious of intelligence. Breaking the washing machine is symbolic of not just them breaking something she spent hours working on, but them really trying to break her spirit and trying to push her and mold her into a more ‘acceptable’ version of herself.”
Beauty and the Beast hits theaters March 17.