How Eva Green Conquered Her Fear in Dumbo

Eva Green explains why being afraid of heights led her to play a trapeze artist in Tim Burton’s Dumbo.

Dumbo marks French actress Eva Green’s third collaboration with director Tim Burton, following lead roles in Dark Shadows (2012) and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016). In Dumbo she portrays an original character named Colette Marchant, an aerialist who works for — and consorts with — the amusements entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who aims to buy Max Medici’s circus and its prized flying baby elephant.

Although Colette does not believe Dumbo can fly initially, her first experience with the elephant convinces her otherwise and she becomes sympathetic to both Dumbo and the Farrier family (led by Colin Farrell), who work in the circus and are trying to do their best to protect Dumbo and reunite him with his mother.

With her dark, beguiling appearance and enigmatic air, it’s clear why the often Gothic-minded Burton would want to feature Green in his movies. Aside from her work with the eccentric director, she has played standout roles in both indie and Hollywood fare. Her Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale (2006) was one of the best Bond women ever, while her go-for-broke performance as the Persian navy commander Artemisia in 300: Rise of an Empire was a memorable achievement in an otherwise forgettable movie.

Green is perhaps best known as spiritualist Vanessa Ives in the Showtime horror series Penny Dreadful, one of the many challenging and often unorthodox parts this distinctive actress has played. Den of Geek sat down with Green in Los Angeles recently to discuss getting over her fear of heights, learning how to be a trapeze artist and working with an elephant who wasn’t there.

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Den of Geek: Is part of the pleasure of acting doing things that you wouldn’t do in your normal life, or becoming people or learning about groups of people or cultures that you wouldn’t learn about?

Eva Green:  Absolutely. It’s such a luxury. Not only what I would do if I was not an actor, but it’s so wonderful to be able to learn here, like to learn the aerial work. I played an astronaut a few months ago. It’s just to discover those different worlds, and to be able to exactly get strong, to discover things in your body, or to discover bits of history. I just finished a miniseries in New Zealand about the gold rush in the 19th century, so it’s just such an opportunity to learn so many things.

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You started out on this with a fear of heights, right?

Yeah. Really terrified. I mean, I remember on Dark Shadows with Tim, I had one scene where I was on wires, and it was not as high as the work I’ve been doing on this one, but it was still very demanding for me. And then on Miss Peregrine, I just had to do a little leap from a high platform. It was a big deal for me. And now he’s asking me to do this. There must be something with him and heights and me. But, yeah, it was kind of a big, big, big fear. Tim was like, “If it doesn’t work out, it’s okay. We’ll find a way,” and I really worked very hard, but I had the most amazing teachers as well. I’m in awe of them.

When I was a child, I was always a bit uncomfortable when I went to the circus. I mean, I went a couple of times. I don’t know why, but maybe because I felt for those people up there, or the animals. There was something, as a child you can’t put words on it, but you feel like it’s not right that they are in captivity. But now I have a totally different vision. I’ve worked with those people in the same tent almost every day, and they love their craft so much. It’s contagious, and I’ve seen several performances of Cirque du Soleil, which is such a different thing, and so joyous. I mean, these people are just unbelievably amazing.

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I was going to ask, what did you come away with from talking to circus people about their lives and profession?

Well, I don’t know, because on this, they were from different circuses. It was not just one circus, but I loved the discipline that they had every day. I trained very early, I remember, like at 7:00 AM, and every day at 7:00, you had the contortionists in one corner, then the man with the knives, and then the acrobats and the clowns. It’s such a hard job, and I admire people who really will go all the way for their craft. They’re very kind, as well. They helped each other. A clown would help a contortionist. It was very moving.

Did you feel changed physically coming out of it? Did the training make you stronger?

I’ve lost most of it, which is dreadful, but I’m going to get back into shape when I get back to London. But, yeah, it was very empowering, of course, and I really saw my body change. Because day after day, I was like, okay, now I need to do that thing. The body is such a great machine. And it’s interesting because I’m somebody who is so cerebral, but your body actually knows how to deal with things. It’s kind of nice to just cut off the head and let the body do things.

Was there any particular scene in the movie that was especially challenging or difficult?

For me, it was all the aerial work, of course. It’s not the most complicated psychological character. It was a big thing for me, and the first time I had to do something quite full on, and then everybody applauded. And I’m not, I don’t want flowers and applause, but that was such a big achievement for me more than any other scene done in any other movies. It was nice.

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When you first enter the movie with Michael Keaton, the initial impression is she’s sort of a moll to his character, but we discover she’s a much more sympathetic character. Was it nice to sort of subvert that expectation of what that kind of character could be?

Yeah, exactly. It’s always nice to not be so obvious straight away, to give a first impression. She’s quite enigmatic, and of course she’s Vandevere’s girlfriend, so you think she’s haughty and she doesn’t believe Dumbo can fly. I think once she’s seen him fly, it’s like she’s in. She has that moment of awe, and she gets close to Holt and the children, and that said, she’s on Dumbo’s side and will help him.

You’ve done a lot of films that have a lot of extensive visual effects in them. Does it get any easier to work with a main character who is not there?

I mean, yeah, I’ve worked a lot with green screen, like fake surroundings. But to really interact with a being, I’ve never had to do that before, and that was very abstract. Tim had drawings. We had a plastic thing. We had him. His name was George actually. It’s a bit confusing, but, yeah. We had George the Elephant, and then we had a man in a green suit that it was helpful to know, okay, he’s touching me. It was kind of real. And then for me for the flying stuff, it was kind of a mechanical machine that kind of moves. It’s quite jerky actually, and you had to really hang on.

Like one of those mechanical broncos in the cowboy bars.

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Totally. It’s the same thing, and then it’s extended on an arm. Exactly the same, yeah.

Do you remember seeing the original film as a child?

Yeah. It was a long time ago, but, yeah. I remember really the mother and the child being separated, and how heartbreaking it was, and beautiful. And I love those old Disney movies like Snow White, Bambi, and I love the fact that Disney was brave to tackle those kind of dark subjects because I feel like fairy tales can be a wonderful teaching tool as well. And I think children also sometimes like to be a tiny bit scared. It makes it quite exciting.

What do you think makes it relevant today? I mention that also because there were a couple of references in this movie to not having the animals in captivity.

Yeah. I mean, animals should never perform in captivity. We should not have aquatic shows. In America, it still exists, and I think we’ve seen in documentaries like Blackfish and things like that, that these beings have souls, and they cannot be in captivity. I just hope this movie kind of makes people want to care for those wild animals, and want to stand up against poaching, and protect them.

This is the third time you’ve worked with Tim. You’ve worked with a lot of great directors. What makes him distinctive in his style of filmmaking?

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It’s always kind of bigger than life. Everything is colorful, and there’s always that mixture of humor and haught, and it’s always fun because I’ve always been a big fan, so I can’t believe I’ve worked with him three times. But it’s just that you know that it’s going to be a character that’s going to be “other,” that is something that you’ve never played before, and that’s always very exciting for an actor.

Dumbo is out in theaters this Friday (March 29).

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye