Disney’s Aladdin will be the first live-action Disney film that showcases people of color in starring roles. The cast and creatives of the film know this and appreciate the effort. Starring Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud as the title character, British Indian Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine, and Will Smith as the Genie, Disney wanted to be sure the characters in the beloved story represented the Aladdin origin story (which also included East and South Asian origins) as well as the animated film.
“I think it is critically important to be able to pull stories and colors and textures and tastes from around the world,” said Smith during the Aladdin press conference. “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.”
Massoud felt proud of the representation and diverse casting for the film.
“It’s not often you can go to a movie theater and see all people of color represented like this,” said Massoud. “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 agreed with the sentiment on representation. Pedrad plays an entirely new character, Dalia, the handmaiden to Princess Jasmine. She was excited to fill this new role and just be part of a beloved Disney film. She explained, “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.”
Not only did the inclusion of Pedrad’s character allow for another woman of color, but it also gave more womanhood to the film. Princess Jasmine would not be the only woman in the film.
Scott praised Pedrad for her part in the film. “She won’t say, but like, she kills it in this movie,” said Scott. “I think also, like she does so much improv, because she’s such an amazing writer as well. She was just coming out with like I was just laughing the whole time. I couldn’t keep it together. But I think she brought more to the character than I think anyone could have even imagined for this role. And, like, literally she just annihilates it.”
The conversation shifted towards Scott’s new role as Princess Jasmine. The character was given an empowering new song called “Speechless,” written by legendary Disney composer Alan Menken, Justin Paul, and Benj Pasek. Scott, who is an acclaimed singer, was really excited to have her own song.
“Incredible writer[s],” Scott exclaimed. “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.”
She added, “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.”
Not only did Jasmine have her own song, but she is also given a whole new ending. We don’t want to spoil it for you, but it doesn’t change the entire storyline, but adds to more female empowerment for Jasmine.
“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,” Scott explained. “It aligns with Guy and our producers. For me, I really think it was a natural progression… 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.”
Disney’s Aladdin opens in theaters everywhere on May 24.