Ever since Glenn Close told Joely Richardson that she has “no use for babies” and criticised Jeff Daniels’ career as a video game manufacturer in her mission for a Dalmatian-skinned coat, the gays have clamoured for a more in-depth retelling of Cruella de Vil. While the acclaimed actress returned for one more live-action adventure, it’s Oscar winner Emma Stone who embodies the fierce fashion designer and puppy-napper in Disney’s long-awaited prequel – which launches this Friday on the streamer. In the Devil Wears Prada meets The Joker-esque blockbuster, the title character is joined by Artie – played by Everybody’s Talking About Jamie star John McCrea – an androgynous shop owner who assists Cruella as she makes a splash in the world of fashion.
The David Bowie and Mark Bolan-inspired Artie marks a landmark moment for Disney, as he historically becomes the entertainment giant’s first openly queer character in a live-action production. “I don’t think Disney have ever had a character quite like Artie before,” John tells GAY TIMES, “so I’m just really thrilled to be the person to bring that into that Disney world.” Here, we speak with John McCrea about his “iconic” new Disney character, as well as his surprising origins, and working with Emma Stone.
Congratulations on Cruella! It’s like Disney meets The Devil Wears Prada meets The Joker.
It is a mental melting pot, but it’s completely worth it. Don’t you think?
Absolutely. For me, your character Artie was one of the highlights. How would you describe him?
I think Artie is really on par with Cruella in terms of he’s such a rule breaker, especially when it comes to fashion. Really, he’s the pinnacle of what is great about that time. For him, it’s a lifestyle, it’s everyday. It’s not performative. It’s not something he takes off and puts on when he wants to. It’s his everyday existence, wearing those clothes and that makeup. He’s just wonderful. I don’t think Disney have ever had a character quite like Artie before, so I’m just really thrilled to be the person to bring that into that Disney world.
His fabulous style feels reminiscent of some androgynous icons of the past. Did you look to anyone in particular when you were embodying Artie?
I remember when I auditioned for it the first time. Mark Bolan was given as a reference, so I had him in my head a lot. When I went to the audition, I wore this shirt as outrageously as I dared, something I would never wear on the street. I actually borrowed it from my friend because I didn’t even have anything that outrageous, and I put it on in the toilet of the audition. I was thinking of David Bowie to Mark Bolan, but David Bowie is in the back of my head all of the time, no matter what I’m doing – even if I’m just in Tesco. So, I couldn’t escape it.
I was getting David Bowie meets Sharon Needles’ confessional look in Drag Race season four.
Oh yes! I suppose so. Actually, interestingly, I shot it before but then Miley Cyrus did the hair. Do you not think it’s quite Miley Cyrus now?
It’s Midnight Sky hair!
I don’t wanna say bitch stole my look, but I definitely did it first… I remember when I first saw the picture and I was like, ‘She stole my hair!’ The first time we ever tried that wig on it, it did not look like that. It looked like Princess Diana and we really had to chop into it.
Watching the film, I came to the assumption that Artie is queer. As a queer person yourself, did you intend to portray him that way?
Yeah. I think there’s an element of that in everything. Yes, I did. I always knew he was. Interestingly, in one of the first scripts, he was a drag queen. But then, that idea changed because everyone realised it was more important, like I said, that it’s a lifestyle choice for him – it’s not a performance. But yeah, he’s fabulous in every single way. I think it’s important to say he is queer because obviously, lots of people were dressed like that at the time that weren’t necessarily queer, but in my head, he always was.
I’m taking this as official confirmation that Cruella is an ally to the gays?
Oh yes! She’d be hard pressed to work in fashion without running into them.
What would it have meant for you to see a character like this growing up as an LGBTQ+ person?
I would’ve loved it so much. I think it would’ve saved a lot of soul searching, for sure. The great thing about him is he’s iconic. He’s a rule breaker and has this great punk voice and attitude. I don’t really feel like he was, in any way… Sometimes there’s a worry about LGBTQ+ characters being there for no reason, or being the butt of the joke. But, he really feels like he fits so perfectly into that world.
Artie and Cruella have this mutual understanding. They get each other. Do you think it’s just because of fashion or is it their backgrounds too?
I think it’s because he understands a creative mind because he has one, in a way that Jasper and Horace don’t understand. He really gets it. I think that’s where they really join together, he understands how temperamental you can be if you’re bursting with all of these ideas and trying to get them out and the people around you don’t necessarily understand it. There’s a wonderful line where she asks how her look goes down on the street normally and he says, ‘People don’t always understand it, but I’m not here to be normal.’ I think they really jel together on that level.
You shared a majority of your scenes with Cruella herself, Emma Stone. What was it like working with her?
It was just amazing. She’s really quite something. I remember specifically this one day we were on set. She’s the star of the movie, number one on the call sheet, and she was doing her lines, working a prop and had a dog next to her while feeding the dog treats to make sure it stayed. The amount of multitasking this woman was doing was fascinating to watch! She’s playful as an actress, we were allowed to try new things and she just had the character down. I mean, you couldn’t help but love her and her sassiness and her fabulousness. There’s a slight evil flint in her eye that’s so fun to look at and speak to.
Cruella is far from a one-note type of villain. Watching this film, you come to love her and her backstory…
You do, and I think that’s a testament to the script and the story as well. They give you this really three-dimensional idea of a character. There’s no way you can identify with someone who is two-dimensionally evil for no reason. You really have to give them a heart and soul because everybody has one. Not everybody chooses to show them all the time, but we all have them.
The character is so evil in previous adaptations, so I’m very intrigued to see how she’ll transform from Estella to the Cruella we see in this film, to the infamous Cruella who wants to kill 101 puppies…
I think that’s the interesting thing to find out, and hopefully you will. Obviously, the way storytelling has evolved and changed is that there was a time where Disney villains were two-dimensional evil characters because of fables and fairytales. That is ultimately what this story is doing, identifying the human behind a cartoon, essentially.
We’ve had films based on Cruella and Maleficent, so are there any other villains from Disney lore that you’d like to get the prequel treatment next?
Ooh. I’d have to say Ursula, but only if it was played by a drag queen because she’s based on Divine.
Which drag queen would you like to see as Divine?
I’d hate to choose! Can we bring Divine back from the dead? That’s pretty much the only person I can see do it. That would be amazing. But, I think they’re all wonderful. That is the whole point, isn’t it? You can find that human story – well, she’s a mermaid – and humanity in everyone. I think everyone has it.
Why do you think the queer community is so enamoured with powerful female characters?
Times have changed a lot and we’re not all the way there, but in terms of representation, we are getting a lot closer. I think when it wasn’t necessarily acceptable to be gay, that was a time when women were treated like second class citizens much worse than they are today. Again, we’re still working towards 100% equality, but they’ve just always understood what it felt like to be at the helm of a patriarchal white man. I think they have that in common, which is why all of the divas are these women in these male-dominated industries who have said, ‘No, I’m taking the reins,’ and that is what Cruella does fantastically.
Cruella launches this Friday (28 May) on Disney+.