Beauty and the Beast's Josh Gad says playing LeFou is a fairytale come true
Josh Gad's visit to Sydney for the Beauty and the Beast premiere unfortunately coincides with the grey skies and downpours of the city's apparent new monsoon season.
He is unfazed by the lack of sunshine. Sydney is "absolutely perfect the way it is" and he has managed to wrangle time amid his press commitments to do the tourist thing, including the zoo.
"Taronga Zoo is the Jurassic Park of zoos," he says. "It's the most epic zoo I've ever been to. I went when I was here studying at NIDA and it brought back this rush of memories. It's just grown exponentially since the last time I was here, as has Sydney."
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The jovial 36-year-old actor from Florida plays LeFou, the comic sidekick to the villainous Gaston (Luke Evans), in Disney's live-action remake of the 1991 animated classic, and credits Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art as a crucial stop on his path to success, having spent a semester here in 2003 while studying for a drama degree.
"I had the option of going to Russia or England and I was like, all of these Aussies are coming and taking all of our work, what is in the water over there?" he says. "So many of my favourite actors, from Cate Blanchett to Geoffrey Rush, they all trained here, so I was like, I gotta see what's going on."
NIDA had a practical approach to acting that complemented the theory he had learnt in the US – a "perfect marriage", he says, that "made it all click".
Those skills took him on a trajectory including The Daily Show, where he exercised his comic chops as a correspondent, then as Elder Cunningham in the original Broadway outing for The Book of Mormon. He is best known as the voice of one of the most beloved animated characters in recent years, Olaf, the goofy snowman, in Disney's Frozen.
In Beauty and the Beast, Gad joins Emma Watson, Dan Stevens and Kevin Kline in the special-effects laden retelling of the 1740 fairytale, directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters). After the success of his role as a cartoon snowman, this is the first time Gad's two children have seen their father on screen in person, as he tells the Sydney premiere's audience.
As the rambunctious LeFou, Gad unleashes the full blast of his all-singing, all-dancing skills.
"The importance of this film can't be overstated for me because it's a marriage of all the skills that I spent my life training for."
He also demonstrates a talent for being convincingly beaten up by a hatstand, one of the many inanimate objects brought to life in the film.
"It's wonderful," he says of life on set. "You're getting to use your imagination in a way that is like when you are a kid, and you play pretend and you do all of these things and your imagination is limitless.
"Literally reacting to nothing there ... and getting beaten up by a hatstand, you let yourself go. You're just like, 'I'm a kid again, this is surreal, I get to do this?' You don't even need to pay me, I want to do this.
"You do need to pay me," he says, as a mock stern afterthought. "Disney, I'm waiting for my cheque. But in general, all of it is like, pinch me."
Working for the company that trades in fairytales has particular meaning for him. The Disney renaissance of the 1990s that spawned films including the original Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, with countless iconic songs from composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, defined his childhood.
Gad hopes audiences for the new Beauty and the Beast feel the joy he believes is specific to musicals.
"That sense of escapism that you get from a big-screen musical like this – which for a lot of kids, will be their first time seeing a live-action musical – I hope that stays with them and I hope it becomes as important for them in their journey as the original was for me."
The film has been overshadowed by the hysterical reaction to hints that LeFou's character is gay. Gad sees the controversy as overblown.
"First and foremost, it's a love story that comes from a place of never judging a book by its cover. But also this idea that you have a character in Gaston who stirs up this frenzy, builds on these fears, gets people to go attack a character that they've never seen, know nothing about and fear desperately because he is what? He's different.
"I think that's as relevant today, unfortunately, as it was 300 years ago."
Beauty and the Beast (PG) opens in New Zealand cinemas on March 30.
- Fairfax Media Australia