Our June cover star, Naomi Scott on bringing Princess Jasmine into the 21st century
Her favourite movie, working with her husband and working with Will Smith
When I heard that Disney’s live-action Aladdin was going to star a young, West London, British-Asian woman in the lead role, I was excited. And when I was told Naomi Scott was inspired by my film Bend It Like Beckham, I knew her Jasmine would be the kind of ballsy, strong-minded heroine my own tween daughter could be inspired by.
Gurinder Chadha: I heard you really liked Bend It Like Beckham…
Naomi Scott: Yes, absolutely!
GC: Thank you for saying such nice things about the film. How old were you when you watched it?
NS: Like, eight.
GC: Where did you grow up?
NS: In Hounslow. [laughs]
GC: Oh my God, where in Hounslow?
NS: Park Road. The park that you filmed at was one I used to go to all the time. Bend It Like Beckham was the first movie I watched that hit close to home on so many different levels. I think that’s what was so cool about it. I was like, “Oh my gosh—that could be my aunty!” I liked football, Jasminder was Indian… There were all these things I felt connected to. It’s shot in Hounslow where I grew up, an area that’s not this kind of fairy-tale world, and I think that is something that makes you feel such comfort…and having a laugh about funny cultural things.
GC: It’s very relatable.
NS: I guess it was also just that “English-Indian” thing. Being half Indian, there’s a part of me that feels disconnected. I think that as you get older, you begin to realise, “I am who I am”. I don’t need to pretend to be one thing or another.
GC: That’s the whole point of Bend It Like Beckham—that you can be all these mixtures of yourself. I remember when I went to India with the film and people were slightly confused, I said, “Just because this is India doesn’t mean that you have the right to decide what’s Indian or not. We do that for ourselves.” And that kind of surprised Indians in India a bit; it expanded their idea of who an “Indian” is and what “Indian culture” is. The movie put that on the table for all of us who feel a combination of different things. When you are part of a diaspora there is an unspoken connection. That’s partly why the film was such a global success.
NS: Exactly! It’s universal.
GC: And it had never been articulated and celebrated in that way before on screen—and that’s why people who saw it as kids are now showing it to their kids. My 11-year-old twins watch it with their friends and they all get it.
NS: And then Bride And Prejudice, I just loved it as a movie. I feel like that was just fun.
GC: Did you want to be like Aishwarya [Rai Bachchan] when you were little? Did you want to be an actor?
NS: No, I wanted to be Jasminder, not Aishwarya. Aishwarya was the kind of beautiful, elegant Indian woman who I didn’t see as much of myself in, as I did with Jasminder.
GC: Is Aladdin your first job after drama school?
NS: I didn’t go to drama school actually, I’ve been working since I was around 17 or 18.
GC: Really? How come I have never come across you? You have such an amazing voice.
NS: Oh thank you. Basically, the singer (and my mentor) Kéllé Bryan heard me singing at a community church event on a Sunday night, and came up to me and said, “Oh you should join my agency.” I agreed, and one of the first jobs I got was this Disney Channel kids’ show. And Peter McGrath, who’s been my manager since I was 18, procured an opportunity for a Disney Channel movie then.
GC: So in 2015, when I was struggling to find an Asian girl who could sing for the musical ofBend It Like Beckham, where were you?
NS: I did the Disney Channel movie and then I did a show called Terra Nova, which was on Fox with DreamWorks. But then I had a couple of years of being the ‘nearly’ girl and almost getting all those projects… But now that I look back, I suppose I would have been a riskier, exotic choice.
GC: Well, you are perfect for Jasmine.
NS: When Aladdin came up, I sat with the producer and I asked, “What kind of movie do you want to make?” Because I wanted to know what Disney had in mind for this version of Jasmine, because if they wanted me to not do what was instinctual to me, I was going to say, ‘‘I think I might not be the right person for it’’. My natural instinct was to give her a sense of maturity. There is an inner strength to her and a kind of settled-ness. And she knows what she’s doing; she knows exactly who she is. In the beginning of the movie she does this whole journey of self-discovery, but there is also a bit of gravitas to her character. So yes, Disney was really supportive.
GC: They know that it’s incredibly important to get a Disney princess right.
NS: A hundred percent. And it’s not necessarily about change. You take the basic ingredients—the foundation of what Jasmine did for you as a kid, the qualities that made us connect with her—and then you translate that to a live-action movie. And thankfully, Guy Ritchie’s the kind of man who, if he trusts what you are doing, will let you go for it.
GC: He knows a feisty woman.
NS: Guy loves anyone who has something to say or has an opinion or a direction he or she wants to go in. I loved that about working with him.
GC: Will Smith is very sweet, isn’t he?
NS: Yes, he is. He’s the most positive, fun person to work with—and so generous as an actor. Even off-screen, he wants to help you as a young actor and give you advice. Imagine what you imagine him to be like…and he is ten times better than that. And everyone, honestly everyone on that set was just brilliant. It wasn’t a restrictive, overly controlled atmosphere. And I think that works for certain stories like Disney’s. There’s a certain magic that its stories capture. I actually watched the movie a few weeks ago for the first time and…
GC: Oh how is it?
NS: It is awesome! Your kids will love it. And at 11, your daughter’s the perfect age. Oh my god, this excites me so much when I think of young girls watching the film. Every day when I was on the set, I’d think of my own nieces and their friends watching it, and I kept telling myself, “This is why I am I putting myself out there”. And the music in the film is fantastic too.
GC: Alan Menken right?
NS: Menken, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who did La La Land and The Greatest Showman. They did Jasmine’s song.
GC: Oh great. So Jasmine gets to sing the new song.
NS: Oh yeah, and boy did she go for it.
GC: It’s her ‘Let it go’ moment.
NS: Exactly. And it’s at a point in the movie where she definitely is like, ‘‘You know what? Fuck you, listen to me, I’m out of here.’’
GC: When you see my movies you see how I use music in them…
NS: I love that, because now, whenever I hear Basement Jaxx, it takes me back to that scene in Bend It Like Beckham, with Jess [Jasminder] grabbing the bag from the bushes outside her home. It is so nostalgic for me.
GC: I’ve just made a new movie, which is similar to Bend It Like Beckham. It’s called Blinded By The Light and its releasing worldwide in August.
NS: Oh my god, really?
GC: We premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and had an incredible response. It’s set in Luton in 1987 and it’s a true story about a young boy who wants to be a writer. His dad works at Vauxhall Motors, but he’s been laid off. They are poor, his mum sews clothes at home, there’s lot of unemployment, it’s the time of Margaret Thatcher…and this boy is desperate to break out of his environment and leave Luton and do something and write. But his parents and family just don’t understand. One day when the boy is feeling very low, someone gives him a cassette of an artist and the words and the music of that artist suddenly speak to him and transform him out of his world into becoming who he is. It was Bruce Springsteen he was introduced to…This film is about how the power of music unites us. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it transcends everything…It’s why I do movies.
GC: By the way, speaking of nostalgia, where do you live now?
NS: Me and my husband live in Colchester.
GC: Why Colchester?
NS: Because at the moment, he plays for Ipswich Town (F.C.).
GC: So he’s a footballer? Oh my god, what’s his name?
NS: Jordan Spence.
GC: And when did you guys get married?
GC: You have been married for five years!
NS: We do a lot of work together as well, in the sense that our world is kind of coming together. We just directed our first short film together.
GC: Do you see yourself wanting to direct?
NS: I wouldn’t say that I want to direct, but I think there will be moments where I feel like Jordan and I might take it on together. There might be a story…
GC: Does he want to act?
NS: No, he’s happy behind the scenes. He’s the facilitator; he makes things happen. Speaking of making things happen, I feel like this, meeting you, is a full-circle moment for me. I always go back to Bend It Like Beckham. Thank you for making it.
GC: Well, it’s sort of based on me and my dad. In the film, that’s my dad. And my mum’s whole mission in life was to get me to cook round chappatis.
NS: I can’t cook, but my mum and I used to make chappatis together. That was one of my favourite things.
GC: I still don’t make chappatis. But we are rebooting the Bend It Like Beckham musical here in the West End.
NS: Oh my god!
GC: …and you have to see it. I know it’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s better than the movie.
NS: No, no, no! Don’t say that about my favourite movie. I’m not having it!