“The bad guy never knows he’s the bad guy. He thinks he’s the hero”: Jude Law, David Lowery, Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson and Yara Shahidi on Peter Pan & Wendy
Next in the Disney canon to get the live-action treatment is 1953 animation Peter Pan, based on the beloved JM Barrie Neverland-set tale of Peter and Wendy. Ahead of the film launching exclusively on Disney+, The Upcoming had the chance to hear from the cast, including Jude Law (who plays the infamous Captain Hook(, young Alexander Molony (who takes on the role of Peter Pan), Ever Anderson (who plays Wendy), Yara Shahidi (who steps into Tinker Bell’s shoes), and director David Lowery at a virtual press conference moderated by Edith Bowman about the making of the film, how it stays true to the original text but has a contemporary feel, and the shenanigans they all got up to on set.
David, congratulations to you on this really extraordinary film. Although the world feels like they know Peter Pan and they know this story, it seems to offer something brand-new. In terms of finding your story: how was that journey and how much did you refer back to the original book and the original animated film, which is now 70 years old?
David Lowery: I initially thought, “Oh, it’s Peter Pan, I know this story, how hard can this be?”, then, as I began work on the screenplay, and as we developed it over a number of years, I realised, not only is there more to discover within it but there’s so much that has never really been seen on-screen before, and so much that we think we know. We have this sense of familiarity with it, and we need to honour that; we need to honour that familiarity, we can’t reinvent the wheel, but we have to give audiences a film where they are getting the Peter Pan and Wendy that they know and love, but, also, presenting it in a new light. And that was the real challenge: to find that light and the texture of that light.
This is Wendy’s story as much as it is Peter’s and, although it’s still set in the original era, it’s got such a relevant and contemporary feel and story to it.
DL: Definitely. I mean, the original title of JM Barrie’s book was Peter and Wendy, and so that was the jumping-off point – because Wendy is, in so many ways, the audience’s [guide]: she’s the one who goes to Neverland and we go with her. We really wanted to honour that perspective and explore that perspective.
Jude, congratulations on your Hook. He’s glorious! There are so many sides to him. One of the new things about this reinterpretation of the story, in a way, is Hook. In terms of finding that journey for him through David’s script, but then also through how you wanted to play him, how did you navigate that? There is a lot to tell about him.
Jude Law: Yeah. Well, I was given a great opportunity through the script. David gave me a chance to really understand him and to delve into his past, and therefore understand what made him the villain but the man that he is in the story, and that’s a great place to be able to play as an actor. To me, it was really important that there was truth always to him. There’s no point just playing a bad guy. The bad guy, I always say, never knows he’s the bad guy – right? He thinks he’s the hero and that all these others are the bad guys around him. And so, yeah, planting him in the truth. As David said, I went back to the book, and what’s remarkable about the book is at times how sparse it is, and yet these sentences have just conjured up years and years of imagination in all of us. And Hook, I think, is only in a couple of chapters, but the sentences they use to describe him are so specific. It talks about him being the only pirate that Long John Silver was scared of, so I knew he had to be scary – like really scary – and physically present in a way that wasn’t pantomimical; it was honest and real. And then you start to look what it must be like to live your life with a hook, and what does that actually mean, who do you rely on? Suddenly, Smee isn’t just the foolish mate, he’s actually your valet, your best friend, because he does everything for you, and that’s before I get into how James Hook got there and what made him so full of fury and hatred for Peter. So it was so much to play with, and all of that and then trying to make sure it wasn’t too arch, but still have a lot of fun, and scary but not too scary… You know, all of that.
That’s a really fine line, isn’t it? He’s got to be terrifying, but he can’t be too terrifying.
JL: Yes, exactly. You know, honestly, you rely on your director, the great hands I was in. I felt very safe. You had a great map, the script was really clear, but also it gave us all opportunity to play, and a wonderful cast to play with. And you start from day one: the truth is in literally the boots you’re wearing, the costume you’re wearing… and then it’s up to you to sort of make that leap. But all those little details help add to 360 degrees of the character.
It’s a wonderful playground and, as you say, a great cast, a brilliant collection of talented individuals. Yara, this iconic character that you play so beautifully and so memorably: what was the reality for you in terms of filming this?
Yara Shahidi: Oh, it required so much imagination, which was actually quite a fun challenge. It was such a treat to see the beautiful sets that were built and these really immersive spaces. And I think I was lucky because I got to see some of the first scenes of the film just when I was preparing the film, but I was in a beautiful little garage set in Burbank filming my stuff, and it was really interesting. So, I think this was my first time – I just got to meet Ever and Alexander an hour ago for the first time! But I had such a fun time because I think… coming from a show where I play a college character and I’m on a college set, there leaves very little to the imagination, and I think there was something really interesting about having to create that very immersive experience for myself. It brought a lot of fun to the journey. And I think what was nice was David was still my touchpoint throughout the entire process, from beginning to end, so we still had a lot of room to play. But, yeah, my setup looked like GoPros on grip stands – if you didn’t know that was multi-million-dollar tech – that I was looking at. And they gave such a beautiful performance that it was really fun to be able to watch those scenes beforehand to see what I was being added into. So I had a lot to work with.
Alexander, you’ve brought something so new and fresh and fun and honest to your role. For you, what was the starting point to find how you would play your Peter?
Alexander Molony: I mean, firstly, it was just a massive honour to play this character who people have known and loved for so many years, but I think I really got into my character by sort of bringing him off-set as well with the amount of fun we had on-set – all the pranks, all the water fights we had, it was just an amazing experience and I think that really helped to sort of allow me to develop my character further.
Was there a lot of prep in terms of the physicality of it as well? What was asked of you on that side of things?
AM: Yeah. So, Ever and I, we arrived about two months early and spent quite a while in the same room just working on flying and fighting. That was great, but the amount of effort that had to go into each sequence… It was quite tiring.
You make it look effortless – both of you – you really, really do. Ever, congratulations on the Wendy that you’ve given us. She’s fierce, she’s loyal, she’s so many brilliant things, what did you get from David’s script about her that you were really excited about bringing to the screen?
Ever Anderson: From the get-go, when I first got the script when I was auditioning for it, there was this new sense about Wendy. She has this heart for adventure. It wasn’t easy being a woman at the time when the script is set, in the early 1900s, so you can tell how scary that must have been for her to have to accept what she had to go out and do – like go to school and get ready for the life that was already set up for her before she was really ready for it. So what I loved about Wendy was, through all these challenges that she had to face, she was still so true to herself and she dreamed on, and she continued to follow what she loved.
With regards to the collaboration on-set with these brilliant playmates that you have around you, whether it be your brothers, Peter, Hook – was that a wonderful thing, in terms of these different relationships that she has with all of these different characters?
EA: It was, absolutely. For example, I think Alex and I brought a lot of ourselves into the character and brought a lot of the characters into ourselves off-set. It was amazing to get to bond with all of these incredible actors and such beautiful, beautiful people. And I think everyone was very supportive of each other on-set.
AM: Yes, definitely.
EV: And super kind; it was such a dream.
David, obviously it’s a fantasy world but it’s set and steeped in what feels real and looks real, and places you can recognise and see – in Scotland, for example. Why was that the choice for you in terms of the way that you designed these landscapes and the settings for it?
DL: That was something that was really important, for me, from the beginning, was to have the film… I don’t like to use the word “grounded” because this is a film about flying children, but I did want it to feel like Neverland was a place that you really could get to, that it wasn’t a soundstage, or that it wasn’t all CGI – that it was a place within reach. And I just thought of all the landscapes that appealed to me when I was younger, and, to be honest, Scotland was one of them. Scotland, Ireland, we ended up shooting in Newfoundland, the Faroe Islands, to create our Neverland, and those landscapes are just so magical to me. And they are a version of Neverland that we haven’t seen before. They’re not the tropical, Hawaiian Neverland of past generations – this is a bold and breathtaking version of Neverland that feels invigorating, to me, to see on-screen.
It’s absolutely beautiful. Ever, Alexander and Yara, what has it meant to you to play such well-known characters in popular culture?
AM: I think, just as we said before, it’s a massive privilege playing characters who have been rooted in people’s childhood since the early 1900s, when it was written. Yeah, just a massive honour.
EA: It’s a massive honour and a massive privilege because you think about how many – like you said – how many children grow up with the story. And I myself grew up being read the story of Peter Pan, so it just meant so much to me and I’m so excited for everyone to see it.
Yara, what about you?
YS: I have to agree. I didn’t watch much television growing up, but it was always fairytales that my parents brought into our house, and so to play such an iconic character with a deep history is so beautiful. And very full-circle because my first touchpoint with my Disney family was being the little girl that would go dress up in the Halloween costumes they’d sell to put the pictures up in the store. So somewhere in the world is a picture of me as Tinker Bell at the age of six.
AM: That’s amazing.
YS: We’ve been trying to hunt it down. But yeah, so beautifully full-circle, and I mean I had such a ball bringing her to life.
That’s brilliant. Jude, what relationship did you have, if any, with Captain Hook when you were a child?
JL: I don’t remember having any particular relationship with him. When I was a kid, I remember finding him very funny, I think, is my memory, but I do have a relationship with him in regards to my eldest son because when he was four or five, he loved Peter Pan, so I played Hook opposite him around the house for years. It was this strange kind of discovery when suddenly I was getting to play him in the film. I think I insisted we put back the word “codfish” (the insult) because my son used to always love that bit – like shouting “You’re a codfish” – and I was like, “Oh, we’ve got to use that, please!”. So, it was a strange sort of relationship of having kind of played him already but with a coat hanger and a wooden sword running around the living room.
Coming to the extraordinary costumes that have been created for your characters, is there something about stepping into those that elevates you into the character, in terms of living and breathing that character on-set?
JL: The silhouettes of these characters are so iconic and, like I said before, the detail and the thought that then goes into, “Ok, why do these make sense?”. Like there’s actually no reference to Hook wearing a red coat in the book, I think that we assume that from the animated version, and so, again, David and I wanted to make sense of, “Well, why is it red? Does it turn red? Is it always red?”. And even in the shape of the hook. But, again, the same, I think, for Alexander and creating the Peter Pan costume – like how you make the stances and the hat, and all of those details are referenced, but you want to make it true to yourself, your own iteration, and true also to the image that everyone knows immediately, or thinks they know. You know?
What was that like for you, Alexander? That journey working with these incredible craftsmen and women in the costume department to find anything that – for David and the team, but also for you – felt right?
AM: I mean, just stepping into the costume for the first time… We had that two-month period of trialling various costumes, but it just felt right putting it on, like, I love the feel of it. And we did a few camera tests and I just looked back on it and thought, “Wow, I’m actually here doing this”. Yeah, just amazing.
Across all of your films, David, such an important part of your storytelling is music, and there’s a lovely musical journey in this film: there are some songs in there and things that might sound familiar to people. How did you navigate how much you wanted to include in terms of music?
DL: I work with Daniel Hart, who scores all of my films, and we knew there would be touchstones from the original animated films that we would include but we didn’t really know what they would be. We just felt like at some point we were going to turn back to that. But we also wanted to introduce new sounds, new musical notes to the story, and one of my favourite aspects, one of the most beautiful contributions he created for us, in addition to the entire score, was the lullaby that Mrs Darling sings, which, when we first wrote the script, that was just… Well, we need her to sing a lullaby; that was very helpful, but then that becomes so integral to Hook’s character. And that wasn’t there originally – that was something that came about as we were working on the script, as we were working the song, as we were talking about the character. I think it was while we were shooting, even, we realised that the key to that scene between Hook and Wendy was this lullaby that Daniel had written. And I think it’s an iconic Disney tune now.
How does the relationship between Tinker Bell and Wendy differ from the original, and why is this important to you?
EA: I loved the relationship between Tink and Wendy in this adaptation of the film because I think they’re really allies together, and they work together to listen to each other, and really help each other out. So I thought it was such a beautiful relationship and I’m sure something that Wendy would have cherished way beyond just their trip to Neverland.
YS: Agreed! I think what I loved so much about David’s script was the really subtle ways we got to establish this relationship that really culminates, in the end, in this bigger moment. But, you know, throughout, Wendy is the first person that acknowledges the magic that Tinker Bell provides to allow the whole crew to fly, which isn’t something Tinker Bell is even used to getting credit for. So I think throughout there are these really beautiful subtle moments where you see that Wendy is seeing Tinker Bell for more than she’s used to being seen for – and vice versa: Tinker Bell recognises something really powerful in Wendy and is somebody that she turns to throughout the journey.
David, from your point of view, why was that an important relationship to develop in a different way?
DL: I think, when you look at the original film, that relationship was, at best, reductive, and we really wanted to go in a different direction and create something that wasn’t simply two best friends hanging out in Neverland. We wanted to watch both of these characters grow and change one another. And, of course, Tinker Bell speaks in fairy-speak and Wendy speaks in human-speak so there’s this challenge for the two characters to hear each other, and out of that challenge came this sense of progression for the two of them – and for all of the other characters as well, because it’s certainly not limited to just Wendy and Tinker Bell, but that certainly was the focus, for me: to make sure that they changed one another for the better.
Another theme that is really beautiful is that of motherhood – and mothers and grandmothers as well. That’s something that’s really heightened in this version. Do you mind talking a little about that and why you pulled on it?
DL: It is something that just comes naturally to me. I think that people often point out that Steven Spielberg makes movies about his dad up until recently, and I keep making movies about my mum. The emotional heart of the movie seemed just rooted in that so naturally, especially given that we are focused on Wendy to the degree that we were. And so that sort of just became the rock around which the emotional core of the movie gradually developed. And it enveloped not just Wendy but Peter and Hook’s characters as well. And it’s one of the reasons why I think we decided not to honour the tradition of Hook playing Mrs Darling because, ultimately, that would have suggested that the themes of the movie were going in a different direction; but because this movie was so focused on the relationship with Wendy’s mother, it made sense to digress from tradition a little bit.
There’s also that sense of gangs of kids just having fun and celebrating each other’s imagination and encouraging each other. Ever and Alexander, this wonderful collection of people that you worked with – your tribe almost that you have on-set – was it a bit like that off-set as well?
EA: I mean, as the lost kids, we were definitely very tight together on-set. We were all really good friends, which I loved even more than everything because it made that time on-set so much more special. And we got up to all kinds of stuff altogether as a group.
AM: I mean, one prank I pulled on Ever… It was a flying scene, and Peter and Wendy are sort of racing along; and Wendy pulls into the lead, so I decided to have a word with the stunt riggers and the next shot Wendy’s going flying backwards instead! And your reaction, that was just…
EA: Yeah, yeah.
David, trying to keep all this lot in check might have been the hardest…
DL: Oh, I was encouraging it every step of the way.
How does it feel to be part of Disney’s 100 Years of Wonder, celebrating 100 years of storytelling?
YS: Wow! Yeah, it’s really fun to be able to have this movie come out at such a special time. You know, I work in the old animation building at the Disney lot, so every day I get reminded of the kind of history that we come from – from the earliest animated films – so to be a part of that legacy of storytelling and fairytales is really special.
DL: I think that it is really important to reflect on that legacy and understand it, but I am more excited about looking ahead to the next 100 years.
JL: That’s a great answer – sort of what I was going to say. I’m really proud to be, obviously, a part of that celebration, this huge landmark, but I’m particularly proud of being a rendition of this story that feels like it’s respectful to the past, but it’s very modern, true to now.
AM: I completely agree with you, Jude – that it’s all about this more updated version. But I have to say, though, Disney has played a massive part of my childhood, and to actually be a part of that family, it’s just amazing. And now, 100 years… wow.
EA: It’s really beautiful and it’s really fitting that it’s coming out at the 100-year anniversary. And I think it’s so lovely that all the characters are so fleshed-out, so you can see their backstories and you can really prepare a new generation to enjoy the stories as much as we all did growing up.
Thank you, everybody, for your time today.
Peter Pan & Wendy is released on Disney+ on 28th April 2023.
Watch the trailer for Peter Pan & Wendy here: