‘Godmothered’ Stars Jillian Bell and Isla Fisher on the Responsibility of Leading a Girl-Powered Disney Adventure [Interview]
Godmothered is built on an indelible premise: what if a fairy godmother ventures into our world to prove that we still need magic, only to discover that the little girl she set out to assist has grown into a jaded adult with a couple of kids and loads of emotional baggage? Like Enchanted before it, this film leans heavily on Disney iconography, often playfully poking and prodding it from a thoroughly modern perspective. But in the end, it reveals why fairy tales still continue to resonate – there’s a gentle post-modernism to Godmothered for sure, but it all comes down on the side of magic and why we all need a little bit of it in our lives.
As Eleanor, the fish-out-of-water fairy godmother whose endless supply of pep often proves more powerful than her literal magical abilities, Jillian Bell proves that her scene-stealing comedic stylings remain razor-sharp even in family-friendly fare. And as Mackenzie, the single mother and reporter who finds her life turned inside out by Eleanor, Isla Fisher provides the perfect exasperated foil, asking every question that the viewer would. It’s an unlikely comedic duo, but a lovely one.
We had a chance to speak with Bell and Fisher ahead of Godmothered‘s debut on Disney+ this week, and the topics included the inherent responsibility of starring in a Disney comedy, what movies families should pair with this new release, and, perhaps most importantly, what it’s like to sing poorly for comedic effect.
You’ve been in so many comedies, but this is a case where the name “Disney” carries a certain cultural cache with it. Do you feel a sense of responsibility knowing that families and women and little girls are going to be watching this? Was that intimidating or exciting?
Bell: Well, now I do!
Bell: Now I feel like so much responsibility is on our puffed out shoulders. Look at us both with our puffed out shoulders. [Editor’s note: the actors are both wearing dresses which have puffy or padded shoulder designs.] I mean, of course. When you join a movie, we had so many conversations early on about what we were saying in each part of the movie or if a joke went too far, or if there was something that might go over kids heads but adults would think was funny. I think there has to be a balance of all of that, but I think the thing that we all were agreed on was that the message was really beautiful in this film. The message wasn’t about finding a prince and a castle and a gown. It was you get to pick what your own happily ever after is and what makes you happy.
This is a movie starring women, directed by women, written by women. Can you talk about working behind the scenes with female filmmakers, trying to keep that audience in mind, and trying to make sure that this movie is not a throwback – it’s looking to the future and trying to appeal to women who are not looking backwards?
Fisher: I like to think it appeals to all audience members. I think that just because it’s a female buddy comedy, in the same way that women can enjoy a male buddy comedy – it’s a family movie, it’s for everyone. The relationship between the two women, friendship is something that occurs for everyone. I definitely am very proud of how lady-centric the film is and the message at the end about us having our own version of happily ever after is refreshing, given that we were raised as little girls on fairy tales that involved the male rescue trope or being asleep and kissed, or being domestic and having an evil stepmother that was a woman. There’s a lot of these fairy tales, obviously, that don’t reflect how we think about the world today as conscious, modern parents. I’m hoping that for families, they’ll get to see a new version of fairy tales. Because boys like fairy tales, too.
One thing that’s striking about this movie is that there’s no traditional main villain. There are people that you don’t like, who you want to boo a little bit, but it has no good vs. evil message. It’s a movie about coming together and understanding. Can you talk about finding that tone either on set or in the script? At what point during the making of this movie did you realize, “Oh, this is kind of untraditional”?
Bell: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think that we always need to have a villain. Or maybe the villain is just the outdated system. (laughs) I don’t know. Maybe it’s just growing up and seeing that there are other definitions of what love can be. It doesn’t have to mean romantic love. Or what a happy ending, what happily ever after means for everybody, is different. That’s what I loved about this movie. We’re breaking what traditional is. That’s actually how I look at it. We’re taking how the real world feels and thinks and saying that’s what this modern fairy tale should be about. It should be about a single mom who is mourning the loss of her husband, and a fairy godmother comes down and tries to put her in a dress and a gown and that doesn’t work, so she’s got to figure it out from there.
As you’ve both referenced, this is a buddy comedy first and foremost. It’s really funny and you both have such great chemistry together. One of the things that really works, Jillian, is how your character is so outlandish and over the top compared to your co-star, who is more straight-laced and buttoned down. That collision feels very real. Was there any inspiration you both drew for your characters? Did you look to Disney movies, other fairy tales, or more dramatic roles?
Fisher: I watched Broadcast News. I love what Holly Hunter does in the newsroom: how downtrodden she is, and humble but hardworking. But no, I didn’t base Mackenzie on anyone. For me, it was about the dialect, that slightly Bostonian dialect, and taking my voice down and making her sort of deeper sounding. That was my starting off point, and then I built on it from there. I was lucky enough to go to a news station and spent a day there, so I did a bit of research and spoke to a few single mom friends and just tried to pad out who she was emotionally. Then we got into deciding on the costume. Once I met the actresses playing my daughters, I knew straightaway that it was going to be an easy mission to feel all the emotions around her and her world. Because they were so fantastic, these actresses, and so wise and warm and professional. We got on really well, all of us.
For you, Jillian, clearly the traditional picture of a fairy godmother is not what you’re playing here. It’s subverting expectations. Did you intentionally make a list of what not to do, or did you go back and watch Cinderella? What was your research like for this character?
Bell: I didn’t want to watch anything like that because I didn’t want to have any one thing stuck in my head and play to that. I didn’t want to have anything fresh in my mind. So I started just working on what to me seemed like the funniest and freshest take. The hilarity that came from my character’s interactions with Isla’s, it felt like sometimes she’s a little brutal in what she’s saying even though it’s coming from an honest and kind place. She’ll tell her, “You’re not going to find Prince Charming by wearing sweatpants and drinking wine.” Lines like that stood out to me as being funnier in a higher vocal range, so that’s what I started from. Then it was the costume fittings and how that created my posture, and all of that, it all kind of formed together. Originally, obviously the script informs that. But just playing around with something that felt different for me and for what I’ve seen before for fairy godmothers.
I have to ask you specifically about all the sequences where you are singing your heart out to maybe not to the best of a traditional Disney heroine’s ability.
Bell: [mock offended] I’m sorry?
Bell: That’s the first I’m hearing of this, but OK. No, no. Every time, [director] Sharon [Maguire] would be like, “Worse! Worse than that!” I’m like, “I want people to be able to enjoy their experience watching the film,” and she’s like, “No, just keep making it sound worse.” But it was actually fun. The first scene I shot in the movie was standing out in that town square and singing at the top of my lungs in the worst way possible to a bunch of strangers. So it was a fun way to kick off playing that character.
When families sit down to watch this over the holiday season, what’s a good double feature? What movie would you pair with this and have them watch either before or after Godmothered?
Fisher: Maybe Rough Night? And then…
Bell: (laughs) Wedding Crashers. No, maybe like Elf. Elf would be a good partnering.
Fisher: Or even Cinderella, to see the traditional formula and to be in the Disney world and to have that fairy godmother in there and then see your interpretation, I think would be fantastic.
Bell: That’s a good answer.
Godmothered begins streaming on Disney+ on December 4, 2020.