Eleanor Tomlinson plays Princess Isabelle in “Jack the Giant Slayer.” But she is not your grandfather’s fairy tale princess. This one goes undercover to explore the world of her subjects, rebels against her father’s plans to marry her off to the odious Roderick (Stanley Tucci), and suits up in armor to fight the giants. I spoke to her about doing her own stunts, acting in a lycra suit studded with ping pong-like balls for the CGI, and keeping the enduring appeal of fairy tales while making them new again.
Tell me about the costumes — they are gorgeous and must have been a lot of fun to wear.
I absolutely loved the costumes. They were all amazing. The costume designer, Joanna Johnston (“Lincoln,” “Love Actually”) was fantastic at creating that fairy tale aspect. She and Bryan [Singer, the director], worked very hard and the minute I put on the armor or the dress I felt like a princess. It was fantastic.
Your character is not a typical fairy tale princess.
That’s what drew me to her in the first place. She’s not a damsel in distress, waiting in the tower; she’s very independent and feisty. She was born into the royal family. She didn’t choose the life and all that comes with it. So it was interesting creating that character and I worked very hard with Bryan because I didn’t want her to come across as spoiled. She still has to be lovable and Jack has to fall in love with her. Bryan was brilliant. He was so helpful. This is my first lead role in a big movie, my big break and he really took the time, working with me before we started filming to talk about exactly where we wanted the character to go. So, for example, I looked to Sigourney Weaver for inspiration because she’s a very strong, powerful woman. We decided to go down that route as opposed to making her the princess that everyone has seen before. So that was cool.
What was it like to work knowing the computer images would be filled in later?
That was a huge challenge. Bryan talked to the actors and showed us what he had lined up, how the scenes were going to play and how the giants were going to interact with us. It was fantastic! He’s a really lovely man. We shot all of the motion capture stuff right at the beginning with Bill Nighy [who plays one of the lead giant’s two heads] so that his performance was captured and put onto the giant. We would all be dressed in these strange lycra suits with balls on them and then our physical performance would be transferred onto a computer screen so you could see how your character would respond. Every movement was transferred so you were controlling this little figure. And Nicholas [Hoult, who plays Jack] and I were mainly looking at tennis balls on very large poles to show us where the CGI would be added later. Bryan was very helpful in showing us what the giants would look like and where they were going. What they did with the giants was incredible! Nick and I both said it was beyond our imagination. They are really amazing.
Were you climbing on something real for the beanstalk?
Yes, they built an enormous beanstalk! We used some of it to train before shooting so we were in tip top physical condition so we could tackle any stunts our characters would face. Both Nick and I were really passionate about doing our own stunts and we felt that was crucial for our characters. We were on the beanstalk and they would turn on wind machines and rain machines and it was all very scary! But the most amazing fun. Being thrown around by the giant when he gets hold of me — that was quite painful, and that was the day my mum came to the set. She was all, “What are you doing to my daughter!” [Laughs]
“Keep your feet on the ground.”
That’s hard to do in a movie where you climb a five-mile beanstalk!
[Laughs] Exactly! My family are very down to earth people. Keeping your friends close and doing your best. Having the confidence to speak up and be brave about getting your ideas out there. Sometimes it’s nerve-wracking in a movie this big to say, “I kind of saw Isabelle as doing this” or “I saw so-and-so doing that.” But it’s important that you do your job and are not shy about doing it. It was fantastic working with people like Bill and Stanley and Ewan [McGregor]. They were so helpful. They were really lovely to me and took me under their wings.
Isabelle has to stand up to her father but she does it in a loving and respectful way. Did you bring anything to that from your own experience?
Well, I’m not a princess in real life but I am pretty feisty! There are definitely elements of my personality in Isabelle and it was fun merging the two together. I think she feels very trapped by the lifestyle that she was born into. Working with Ian McShane [who plays the king] was fantastic. He was very helpful. It’s not every day that you go to work with Ian McShane playing your dad and Ewan McGregor playing your guardian! It was pretty special. And Stanley Tucci is so funny and so amazing to watch. Everything he does with his character is just amazing. He really pushes the limits and he is hilarious. I absolutely love his performance.
What is it that makes fairy tales so enduringly meaningful over hundreds of years?
It’s a form of escapism. Everybody loves to go back to the stories that were a huge part of their childhood. But also it’s lovely to see a movie that the whole family can enjoy. There’s something in “Jack the Giant Slayer” for everyone, romance for the teenagers, the giants for scaring. It’s nice to have a family movie. And with CGI they can tell the story in a way no one could before. It’s fascinating to see what they do. They make make it again in 20 years and it will be totally different!
What lesson do you want people to take from the movie?
The movie’s about achieving your dreams and not being afraid to stand up to people to are telling you what to do. It’s about deciding who you are, doing the things you want to achieve, even if it is climbing a five mile high beanpole for an adventure. Why not?