Wishing For Naomi Scott, Aladdin's New Princess Jasmine and Hollywood's Next Movie Star
A few minutes before my interview with Naomi Scott, the 26-year-old Londoner who plays Princess Jasmine in the new live-action version of Aladdin, I get a call from the director Guy Ritchie that puts me on alert. Ritchie isn’t generally the type to offer up immoderate praise, but on the subject of Scott he gushes with abandon. “Naomi is something of a nuclear reactor when it comes to radiating generosity and talent,” he says, adding that her natural charisma is downright “intergalactic.”
So of course I’m prepared for a letdown when Scott turns up that morning at a West Hollywood restaurant. What if her allure is merely interplanetary? But shortly after she settles into a corner booth, wearing a white top and chunky boots, I start to see what Ritchie means. First, Scott charms the hostess, the waiter, and a passing infant in a stroller, and by the end of breakfast she has my phone in her hand so she can record a video message for my young niece and nephews—a personalized shout-out from Princess Jasmine. (Her idea.) True, she’s an actor, and most actors can be convincingly likeable for an hour or two. But the growing buzz about Scott, who also costars alongside Kristen Stewart in this fall’s new installment of Charlie’s Angels, is especially notable because she’s not even sure whether acting is her real calling. With a budding career as a singer and songwriter and other stuff too, Scott possesses an array of traits and passions that once may have seemed contradictory but that for her generation, she hopes, is becoming routine. She’s a devout Christian, she’s a Brit with Indian heritage, she’s a footballer’s wife, she’s shooting her own music videos and producing another project for a U.K. rapper. “I’m a mix of a bunch of things,” she says.
One thing Scott definitely isn’t: a princess. So when she got a callback after her first Aladdin audition in London, she decided that some strategizing was in order. The self-described tomboy made a quick trip to the Topshop on Oxford Street to buy a flowery dress, since she had none in her closet. “It was light blue,” she recalls. “I never wore it again.” After more readings, meetings, and some screen tests opposite Mena Massoud, who plays the titular street urchin turned prince, Scott finally got the offer, ending a months-long worldwide search that involved hundreds of Jasmine candidates. (Will Smith, as the Genie, was confirmed early on.) “Cut to when I show up at the first rehearsal, and I’m wearing my Nike tracksuit,” Scott says. “It was like, ‘This is the real me—ha ha, tricked you!’ ”
Scott and the filmmakers also spent a lot of time developing the character of Jasmine, who in the animated version was two-dimensional in every sense of the term. Although in 1992 Jasmine may have qualified as a strong heroine, with her insistence on defying tradition in order to marry the man she loves, Scott felt that in 2019 there was plenty of room to humanize the character and flesh out what she calls her “boss lady” tendencies. There’s a new plotline that has the princess standing up to the evil Jafar to protect the freedom of her kingdom. “It happened that Disney and Guy and the producers were all of the same mind-set in terms of what they wanted for this character,” Scott says. “That really excited me and made me be like, ‘I’m-a get this role.’ ”
Ritchie recalls that when he first met Scott in London, he didn’t even know she’d been singing for years and was already wrapping up the third EP of her own songs. But he soon realized she had the chops to do more than just belt out a decent rendition of “A Whole New World.” The soundtrack for Ritchie’s Aladdin includes two new songs by the original composer, Alan Menken, who collaborated with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, of La La Land fame. So this time, Jasmine gets her own soaring anthem, called “Speechless.” “It’s basically her declaration that she’s not going to be silenced, which, as we all know, is a message that’s very important right now,” Scott says. “That idea of being a catalyst—if you speak up, maybe I can speak up.”
Scott began singing as a kid in church, and by her teens was acting in projects like the sci-fi series Terra Nova and the Disney TV movie Lemonade Mouth. (Her biggest film gig so far was in the 2017 Power Rangers movie.) But she always figured that singing and songwriting would be her main vocation, and the plan is still to make it big in the music world. “I don’t see myself as a niche artist,” Scott says. “I think that I have the bits that can translate commercially when the time is right.” Genre-wise, she’s been influenced by gospel pop from artists like Mary Mary and Kirk Franklin, though recent songs are more steeped in R&B and are clearly not geared toward Sunday morning church playlists—or Disney soundtracks. In the single “So Low,” which Scott released last year, she bemoans a lost love who was dazzled by the wrong things. (“Did no one tell you that the grass ain’t greener?/L.A. ain’t sweeter/It’s just full of dreamers.”) Still, this year she plans to record at least one track with a full choir as backup.
Scott’s parents are both pastors at a church on the outskirts of London. (Her mother’s family emigrated from India to Uganda and eventually to the U.K.; her father is English.) “I’m sure there are many things that come to mind when people hear ‘pastor’s kid,’ ” she says. But her parents’ take on Christianity was less rigid than stereotypes would suggest. “Ultimately, what’s really important is having an openness to questions,” Scott says. “I’m definitely a questioner in every sense—and if someone shuts down my questions, then I question even more. Like, hmm, there’s something weird there.” Scott says her parents essentially allowed her to discover her faith on her own, which not only made it stronger but also helped her relate to those who don’t share it. “Yes, I have a belief system, but I don’t know everything, and we’re all just as messed up as each other,” she says. It was in church at age 16 that Scott met her future husband, the soccer player Jordan Spence, who’s now a right back for Ipswich Town. Married since 2014, the two work as a team on music projects, including an upcoming video for the rapper Nick Brewer that they’ll produce and direct. (Scott hasn’t signed with a label and says she prefers to stay independent for the freedom it allows.) But Scott’s incoming movie offers keep complicating the couple’s schedule. Elizabeth Banks, who three years ago signed on to direct the new Charlie’s Angels, had met Scott in 2016 on the Power Rangers set and figured she’d be perfect to play Elena, one of the three Angels. During casting, unaware that Scott had just been hired as Jasmine, Banks’s team reached out to Scott’s reps. “They were like, ‘Well, she’s doing Aladdin. Bye!’ ” Banks remembers. Then Banks’s start date was delayed, and she managed to bring Scott in for a reading in London.
This time, Scott didn’t need to pass for someone who knew her way around a royal palace. “I was looking for an everywoman,” Banks says. “A relatable girl next door that audience members could look at and go, ‘If that girl can become a Charlie’s Angel, then I can, too.’ ” After Scott’s reading, “the studio executives watched about 40 seconds of her tape and were like, ‘Yup.’ ” Once filming started, Banks saw that Scott was up to pretty much anything she could throw at her, including improvised scenes, which can flummox even veteran comic actors. “People are going to see a lot of range from Naomi,” Banks says. “I think this is going to be an epic year for her.”
While it’s still easy for Scott to bounce around L.A. or London without being recognized, she’s been getting some foretastes of the relentless scrutiny that’s inseparable from stardom these days. Within hours of the announcement of Aladdin’s full cast, a round of sniping began on Twitter as some users lamented that Scott’s background isn’t Middle Eastern. (The film’s setting is the fictional city of Agrabah, but in earlier versions it was Baghdad, and the original story comes from The Thousand and One Nights, also known as The Arabian Nights.) Scott chooses not to snipe back. As a mixed-race person, she knows what it’s like to be considered too white, and not white enough, among other perceived shortcomings. “My responsibility is to the character,” she says, adding that she’s proud of the diversity of the entire cast.
In the broader world of social media, Scott, who admits to a people-pleasing side, is still searching for ways to disregard the snarky remarks of whomever the anonymous troll du jour might be. “It’s hard, man,” she says. “I’m not going to lie to you and say I never look at Twitter to see what people are saying about me. Anyone who says that is a liar! So you have to train yourself. It’s actually like a discipline not to look.”
Banks remembers that when she first observed Scott on the Power Rangers set, the actress was in her early 20s, but she was already married and exuded a grown-up aura that set her apart from her young costars; there was something serene and settled about her. To Scott herself, those qualities can still seem elusive. “I’m a work in progress,” she says. “I know I’m going to mess up and say the wrong thing and not always get it right.” For now, “I’m just trying this approach of being honest, of being myself, and seeing how it goes.”