Last Sunday, Geeks of Color had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with a selection of the creative minds behind Disney’s latest live-action adaptation at the Aladdin press conference. Kicking the conference off with a Disney medley from the legendary composer Alan Menken, the panelist quickly decided that this will be an unforgettable night. We were Joined for the evening by:
· Will Smith (“Genie”)
· Mena Massoud (“Aladdin”)
· Naomi Scott (“Jasmine”)
· Nasim Pedrad (“Dalia”)
· Navid Negahban (“Sultan”)
· Director Guy Ritchie
· Composer Alan Menken
· Production Designer Gemma Jackson
Watch Alan Menken’s performance below:
Our moderator, Dani Fernandez, initiated the conversation by asking the panel what they’re most excited about as their film enters the world of general audiences.
MENA MASSOUD: You know, I’m especially proud of the representation and the ethnically diverse casting that was put together for this. It’s not often you can go to a movie theater and see all people of color represented like this. It’s certainly something that I was missing in my childhood. So I’m proud of the cast and the casting that Guy and Disney put together. So I’m excited for little boys and girls to go see people that look like them on screen, man. That’s what I’m proud of.
Nasim Pedrad spoke about what it was like to bring her original character, Dalia, to life and adding another prominent woman of color to the Disney roster.
NASIM PEDRAD: It was so fun, because I think all the joy of creating something from scratch, but then watching that intersect with this story we all know and love. Which I had so much respect for coming into it. I’m a 90s kid. So for me, Aladdin was like golden age Disney. And to echo what Mena said, I’m so proud to be part of the most diversely cast Disney movie of all time I think. And it really, that film resonated with me as a child because it was the first time I saw a Middle Eastern protagonist in a major motion picture.
So to get to be a part of that and play a little fun role in being Jasmine’s friend and handmaiden and especially under the guidance of Guy who is so collaborative and fun and every day, you’re like oh my gosh, like he puts the scene up on its feet, and it turns into a whole fun new thing that you wouldn’t have necessarily even seen on the page. It was just such a blast. And we got to spend time together. A lot of my scenes were with Naomi. We got to spend time together before we started filming. And there was such an instant camaraderie and friendship that I think hopefully translates into the dynamic of the characters.
Naomi Scott talked about why Jasmine’s new song ‘ Speechless’ resonates with her.
NAOMI SCOTT: Yeah, oh gosh, where do I start? So Speechless, written by this guy over here, Alan Menken, Pasek, and Paul. Incredible writers. So the fact that they wrote a song and I get to sing it, first of all, I was like wow. That’s already surreal. But also then when I heard it and just the words and the lyrics and how timely it was, the message behind the song and the idea of not going speechless, that everyone has a voice, doesn’t matter who you are, doesn’t matter what you look like, doesn’t matter what your gender, your voice matters. And speaking out against injustice matters. Not just standing by and being a spectator. So yeah. Like that day was very emotional, right, Guy?
But it was really emotional because I wanted it to feel raw. And I wanted it to feel like it’s what she’s going through in that moment. And we did some of it live as well which was a different type of challenge. And yeah, you know, it’s out there. The song is for me, it’s like, it’s the world’s song. Like whatever it will be, it will be. And then whatever people take from it, they will take. I’m just obviously very blessed to be the person to kind of embody it in the movie.
Will Smith discussed which song impacted him the most, and how his roots in 90’s hip hop inspired him to bring his own twist to his performance.
WILL SMITH: The song that got me over the hump of yes, I can play Genie, was Friend Like Me. I went into the studio the first day and I really wanted to play with it to see if I could add something to it. And literally 30 minutes in the studio, and starting to play with it and finding that in that 94, 96 BPM range, we were playing around in there thinking ultimately it was a little bit faster than that. But that 94, 96 BPM range is right old school hip hop. So I grabbed the Honey Drippers Impeach The President which is a really classic old school hip hop break beat. And I had them throw that break beat under there. And I messed with that and I messed with Eric [PH] Bien Rokems. I know you got sold under Friend Like Me. And I was like oh my God. I’m home, I’m home. And then I started playing with the hip hop flavor and then the Genie was really born in my mind from the music. And I understood once I played with Friend Like Me.
ALAN MENKEN: It was great. Absolutely. I say this a lot. I liken myself to an architect. I design a house that others are going to live in. And Will, you threw a hell of a party in that house. Yeah. And I just loved it. Once he did that, I just go, just back off and let him do what he does. Because it’s so good.
PRESS: Hello. So what I love about the movie is that, before, everyone loves the animated films. But it came from an origin from east Asian, south Asian, and Middle Eastern culture. And I really love that you guys were able to put that all together in this film. How important was it to tell this tale not only from the animated motion picture, but also the origin culturally to keep it authentic?
WILL SMITH: Right. I think it is critically important to be able to pull stories and colors and textures and tastes from around the world. I think that in this particular time in the world, that kind of inclusion and diversity will be a critical part of turning our connectivity, because we have more connectivity than ever, but transitioning that connectivity into harmony is going to be really critical. And I think these kinds of interactions in these types of movies are a powerful global service. It was critical and important to me. I spent a lot of time in the Middle East also. So this one particularly was critically important in that way. Guy?
GUY RITCHIE: I think you’ve done it very nicely.
Naomi and Guy shed light on Jasmine and how she expresses female empowerment in the adaptation.
NAOMI SCOTT: Who wants to go first? Me, you?
GUY RITCHIE: You go.
NAOMI SCOTT: Okay. Well, first of all, I think it’s a wonderful thing when you have a vision for a character or you think oh, I would love to see Disney do this with this character and it aligns with the people involved. It aligns with Guy and our producers. For me, I really think it was a natural progression. Guy said something in [INDISCERNIBLE] which I thought was really great. He was talking about equality of challenge as well. So the idea, I’m stealing your thing now. The idea that Jasmine needed even more of a challenge in this movie as well. As I said, it’s a natural progression. The fact that she wants to become the leader. I kind of just want people to walk out and go, oh yeah, that makes sense, right? She should be the leader. And as opposed to, it’s not this thing that’s been shoe horned in. It just makes sense. And she’s a human. For me as an actor, my main thing is, how do I humanize her, how do I give her depth. So those things just came naturally. And yeah. Guy, what are you thinking?
GUY RITCHIE: Yeah. So you’re right.
NAOMI SCOTT: I took what you said. I took his…
GUY RITCHIE: No, no, it’s valid. But what was conspicuous, if there was anything that looked like there could be some evolution in this narrative, it was that there needed to be a voice given to Jasmine. I mean, Aladdin has been given enough challenges to get on with. Genie had his hands full. And the most conspicuous character thereafter was Jasmine, who was arguably a tad bit passive in the original. And it just felt like there was an obvious space there that we could have worked on. And as Naomi just said, really to me, it was about equality of challenge. Because there’s no point banging on about something unless you can back it up. So not only did Alan come up with what I think is the best song in the film, but to illustrate that particular point, but this is the bit where I got the reputation for being called Cry Ritchie is because Naomi, who is a tremendous pleasure to work with, but here is, I don’t want this to turn into the sycophantic show, which is slightly in danger of becoming that. But Naomi as a performer embodies, she’s very light of spirit. But when it comes to actually committing to a performance, is profound. She can immediately switch into that mode which to me is the best of everything. Because you can talk to a human being before they perform.
And then as they perform, they deliver 100%. So she was wonderful at doing that. And actually so was everyone else. But in that particular case, Naomi was spectacular. But that particular part, the scene, I’m very proud of really. And as we all should be, because we all worked on this together. But she earns her right there. And to me, it’s not really about gender as much as it is about an individual standing up for themselves at a pertinent time. And they can illustrate that point. They can articulate that point. And they have the breadth and personality to do that. And I think it really works actually, that part in the film, because it is backed up. So that just felt like it was the most obvious place that this narrative could evolve was to give Princess Jasmine a voice and that she could back that voice up.
Will Smith graced the room with one of a live version of one of his Instagram stories while answering the question about competing with Robin Williams’ legacy and what keeps him inspired.
WILL SMITH: Yeah. You know, I took a couple of years off. And I guess I had sort of hit a ceiling in my life. I had created the things that I could create in my career. I was getting to the end of my wisdom with leading my family and I kind of got to a point where I had a bit of just a collapse of my life and creations. So I took a couple of years off essentially to study. To study and journey spiritually. And Aladdin was really my first sort of coming back in and seeing if my heart was even still in this kind of performing. And what I discovered is everything starts with what am I saying to the world? How does this piece contribute to the human family? Can I go around the world with the ideas that the movie represents and can I teach and preach these ideas in good conscience? And Aladdin checks all of those boxes. I love the idea of Genie and one of the things that I related to in Genie is that the Genie has shackles.
The Genie has these spectacular powers, but he’s shackled. Like he is a prisoner of his spiritual fate. And that is sort of how I felt with Will Smith. I was sort of shackled by Will Smith. And in these last couple of years, I’ve just started finding my freedom, where getting free of Will Smith and I’m getting more comfortable being me. So Aladdin was that first step back out. And in terms of Gemini Man, that was like, we are not going to talk about that yet. But just the ideas of that and there’s some deep concepts under that. And really it’s just about my beliefs. I’m going out into the world and I have a big voice and people look and people listen. I just want to make sure I’m saying things that improve and contribute to people’s life and growth and joy and evolution.
Disney’s Aladdin hits theaters on May 24!