John McCrea on Playing Cruella’s Ride or Die and ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’

In the upcoming retelling of the 101 Dalmatians villainess Cruella de Vil, Disney’s Cruella tells the story of a young Cruella (Emma Stone) and her rise as a famous (or infamous) fashion designer and future dog-killer. The film follows Cruella’s upbringing and the friends (or minions) she makes along the way. One of those friends is queer vintage shop owner, Artie or Art “as in work of art,” played by British actor/singer John McCrea. 

Dressed fabulously at all times during the 1970s rock glam era, Artie defies gender roles with his choice of fashion emphasizing his queerness. Cruella instantly forms a bond with Artie and he becomes part of her “de Vil” crew. It’s hard not to be charmed by Artie because of how confident and assured the character is in his own skin. 

The Nerds of Color got to chat with McCrea, who is currently in London, over Zoom. At first glance, McCrea is very reserved with his signature light blonde hair and his fantastic bone structure wearing a denim jacket over a white t-shirt. Far from the rockstar persona of Artie and his best-known role originating the main character Jamie New in the 2018 West End production of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, McCrea is a humble and quiet person. 

“You see, I’m pretty dull,” McCrea says modestly when asked about Artie’s motto “Normal is the cruelest insult of them all”. “To be honest, as you can see, [I’m] pretty toned down.”  But still, McCrea doesn’t see himself as normal because he doesn’t believe anybody is truly normal. He emphasized, “‘Everybody has their own spark inside them and I think it’s when you try and hide that, it becomes devastating.”

It says a lot about McCrea’s talent to see how he transforms into the characters he portrays that are completely different from his real life personality. When he is complimented for his acting ability, he becomes unassuming and credits others for his character’s transformations. 

“I mean, I think if the writing is good, you don’t have to do too much,” says McCrea. And, everything comes together in this film.Once you put the wig on, costume, and makeup, and you’re on that set. It really feels like you’re in a different world.” 

Emma Stone as Cruella in Disney’s live-action CRUELLA. Photo by Laurie Sparham. © 2021 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

McCrea made sure to acknowledge costume designer Jenny Beavan for Artie’s entire look and image. He had a sense that the character drew inspiration from David Bowie, Marc Bolan, and Iggy Pop, but wanted to make Artie his own person without any influences. During a musical number scene, which Artie covers The Stooges’ hit song “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” McCrea wanted to bring a real sense of theatricality with lots of movement and head-banging, which was very ‘70s punk rock. It was hard for him to not feel like a rockstar with dancers behind him with the music blasting with lots of pyrotechnics along the stage.

“None of that was choreographed,” McCrea explains. “So I was just really feeling it in the movie. I had my places I had to be, but in terms of when I got there, I [was] allowed to just go. I would challenge anybody to not just feel like a rock star being in that situation. I would have done it all night if I could have.”

McCrea ended up even performing his signature “Jamie New” back-bending move during the scene, which McCrea laughs, “Every single job I do, that’s not even a joke, I was on set the other day filming something else and I ended up back-bending in a scene that you would think it wouldn’t work, [but] it did work. I thought, well, maybe that’s my thing.” 

As for Artie’s relationship with Cruella, McCrea saw the two to be very similar and share their love of fashion, music, and a little bit of danger. The two are also very different from the everyday people in London, especially Cruella’s friends/minions, Jasper and Horace. 

“I think [Jasper and Horace] understand that she is a creative person, but they don’t understand that sometimes that can be quite a tricky person to deal with,” McCrea explains. “I think that’s what makes [Artie and Cruella’s] relationship so special and the fact that she doesn’t want to be normal like that. She doesn’t want to be bland. She wants to make a statement. She wants to break [the] rules. I think she finds a kindred spirit in Artie and him in her.”

Emma Stone as Cruella in Disney’s live-action CRUELLA. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2021 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Even when confronted with the idea that young Cruella becomes Glenn Close’s iconic dog-killing villain in the ‘90s live-action version of Cruella, McCrea confirms that Artie would remain Cruella’s “ride or die.” Of course, McCrea doesn’t remember the 101 Dalmatians and the sequel 102 Dalmatians, so he can’t really talk about that version of Cruella. But, he says that Stone’s version of the character is very much like a controversial figure that would probably be on the cover of The Daily Mail, but people wouldn’t really know the real story.”

Another reason Artie would follow Cruella anywhere is because he’s a bit anarchic against the institution/status quo and that status quo being the Baroness (Emma Thompson). It’s one of the reasons why he’s willing to put himself in danger for Cruella and why he’s not afraid to show off his queerness, especially during a time whern the LGTBQ+ community were still not widely accepted. 

“At the moment, I was sort of thinking more about the way he chooses to dress,” McCrea admits. “I guess naively at the time, I wasn’t thinking how that is completely sort of intertwined with who he is as a person. It’s massively important because, even though it is a fantasy world, it’s still ‘70s London. It still exists on some level. I think that it would have been a missed opportunity to pretend that [it] didn’t exist because it does and it still does. People are afraid of things they don’t understand, which is insane, but we got to talk about it.”

Speaking of talking about something, the conversation of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie arose as the film adaptation of the West End musical is coming to Amazon Prime in October. McCrea is excited to see a film based on the stage version that he originated because it will then be viewed by the masses. 

“It’s wonderful to create a role,” McCrea shares. “It’s the luckiest gift that can be given in theater and in musical theater even moreso because you’re so often doing roles that were created years before. But, to get the opportunity to create one from the ground up was amazing.

McCrea reminds me that it was inspired by true events, and that it’s really about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. The musical has re-opened in London, following strict COVID-rules, and performed their 1000 show on the day of this interview. 

“It’s inspiring that a small independently-written British musical could do so well,” McCrea expressed. “Hopefully, it will inspire a new group of young writers to just keep going.”

As for McCrea’s role in the film Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, he plays the younger version of Richard E. Grant’s drag persona, Loco Chanelle. Through McCrea’s performance, we learn the origin of Grant’s character, which McCrea compares to Cruella, since it’s also an origin story. 

McCrea laughs, “I don’t want to spoil it.”

Cruella opens in theaters and on Disney+ Premier on Friday.