It’s mere hours since Amma Asante’s new film “Belle” premiered to a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival, and the director is still feeling overwhelmed. “My phone is blowing up,” she says. “My family is reading Twitter and everyone is messaging me.” By her own admission, Asante feels spoiled by Toronto audiences. “They’re too gorgeous, too kind. They’re so savvy and fast and they get everything so quick. There are things that interest me and I find funny, but I’m alone in my room. So to see it out there, working, with an audience, is satisfying. “
The British Asante began her career as a child star on the long-running show “Grange Hill” before turning to filmmaking. Nine years ago, her debut feature “A Way of Life” premiered at Toronto. Now she’s back with the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the woman depicted in a seminal 1779 painting. The biracial daughter of a Royal Navy Captain, Belle was instrumental in the fight to end slavery in England. The film’s impressive cast also includes Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, and Emily Watson, and will be released next year by Fox Searchlight.
You began your career as an actor. Do you ever miss acting?
No, I don’t miss acting at all because I wasn’t a great actress. I was too self-aware; I couldn’t let go of myself; I couldn’t lose myself in a character. But I knew a good performance when I saw one. I’m a much better writer and director than I was an actor. I’m so satisfied in seeing or drawing a good performance and creating character, that’s where I get fulfillment. I feel like I’ve got the best job in the world.
How did you go about rounding up this great cast?
My producer Damien said to me, “We need to surround whoever this rising star we cast as Belle with a great cast.” Every day he would pump into me, “Do your best to write good roles.” Everybody does their best when they’re writing a script, I just tried to write roles people would want to play. Never knowing if we could get these great actors to say, “Yeah, I’ll be a supporting role to this unknown lead.” I hoped the material would appeal to them but I also hoped to appeal to the kind of people who would want to do a story like this.
When it came to casting your lead role, did you always want it to be someone fairly unknown?
We had to cast somebody you would believe could be young enough and her environment and world would dictate that she didn’t know what was going on in the rest of the world. There are not that many known actresses who kind of fit that role. We’ve got many beautiful actresses, but they look like they’re in their 20s or 30s. It was always going to be an unknown or an up-and-comer. We knew it would be easier to find established thespians in the other roles.
Where did you find Gugu?
She’s English, but she’s done some stuff in America. She was best known for starring in “Hamlet” opposite Jude Law and she was also in a couple series, “Touch” and “Undercovers.” So I knew her because you stay in touch with who’s around. England has a wealth of beautiful mixed-race girls out there. The difference for me with Gugu is she has an innate grace that is so right for the period. It made her stand out. And she had an incredible understanding of the piece. Which made my job so much easier.
I’ve heard you spent four years working to bring “Belle” to life?
Yes. I was writing on my wedding day, I was sitting by my dad’s deathbed at the hospital, writing pickup scenes. He died an hour later and we were shooting those scenes the next day. It was timely and weird that my dad died when he died because Tom in the film is my dad. Benevolent, loving, but strict and all about the rules. This is how I saw my father. And the only way to draw the character was to use this man who was my first love, my daddy. Tom embodied all of that.
Was your father ever able to see the film?
No, I’m afraid not. But he was my biggest supporter and fan. He was here with me in Toronto for my first film and he loved it, he loved the festival, all of it. But that wasn’t his kind of movie. This would have been the movie he would have paid to go and see.
Your film was picked up by Fox Searchlight for distribution last June.
That was so exciting. And I’m convinced it’s my dad that did that. I’m totally convinced he’s up there working his magic. I’m even convinced he was there today, pulling everyone to stand up at the end of the film.