British actor Sam Riley enjoyed filming the sequel to Disney's Maleficent more than the first time around because he already had an established relationship with the film's megastar and titular character, Angelina Jolie.
Riley, who plays Maleficent's shapeshifting raven servant Diaval, admits coming on set to make the first film was a nerve-racking experience. "We [Riley and Jolie] had a lot of fun this time. I think that was partly because I was more relaxed," Riley tells The National. "[The first time around] I was quite overwhelmed by the scale of the sets and by working with her, if I'm honest. I was just beginning to relax, when it was all over. So, I was really happy to come back."
Diaval became wicked fairy godmother Maleficent's confidante in the first instalment of the two-part film series, which is based on the classic fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. In the new film, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Diaval is faced with breaking the news to his mistress that Aurora, Maleficent's adopted daughter (played by Elle Fanning) is engaged to fellow human Prince Phillip. While relaying that message might have once resulted in Diaval being turned to stone, Maleficent appears to heed his advice. Much as Riley and Jolie's relationship has gone from strength to strength, so has their characters'. "Diaval has obviously grown in confidence, so much so that he can suggest ways of how to interact with the human species. She listens to him now. Before, he was very much the servant. He sort of still is. It's a very strange relationship," he says.
Riley isn't the only actor to have felt initially overwhelmed by a more famous co-star. Harris Dickinson, who plays Prince Phillip, says filming conflict scenes with Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays his on-screen mother Queen Ingrith, was a little perturbing. "Having to shout at Michelle Pfeiffer, it was like, OK, this is strange," British actor Dickinson tells The National. "I've admired her for years. I was proper impressed by her as an actor. It was daunting, but she made me feel really comfortable."
Dependable and loyal, his character Phillip is torn between his mother, who takes exception to having Maleficent as part of the extended family, and his fiancee, who is struggling to cope with life away from Maleficent and the enchanted kingdom of the Moors. Dickinson, who is new to the film series, took inspiration from monarchs across the globe when shaping his character. "I looked at the royals collectively. Not only our [British] royals. But what it means to be a leader and the pressures and responsibilities of that," he says.
Also new to the magical film series are British actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein, who play "dark fae" fairies, who are living their lives in a secret world away from humans. 12 Years a Slave star Ejiofor jumped at the chance to join the Maleficent: Mistress of Evil cast. "It didn't take much convincing, I loved the first film," he tells The National. "I liked what it was saying, how it was re-looking at fairy tales, the characters, character tropes and reinventing them."
Ejiofor and Skrein – who Game of Thrones fans will recognise as the first incarnation of Daenerys Targaryen's lover Daario – spent around five hours in make-up transforming themselves into winged creatures. Maleficent meets the two new fairies and realises that there are others out there like her.
Skrein plays Borra, a quasi-villain, who seeks a war with the humans, one that would test Maleficent's loyalties. "What I loved about the script was there were so many messages inside it," Skrein says. "You get this great feeling of family and dysfunctional families as well as the families that you are born into or become a part of."
Family is a key theme of the sequel, in which Maleficent grapples with losing her daughter Aurora to Phillip and his family. For director Joachim Ronning, who is also a father, the film is based on his very real fear of his own children leaving home. "As a parent, you dread that moment when your child moves out and suddenly, you're not the most important person in their lives anymore," he says. "For me that was fascinating; exploring what Maleficent would be like in that kind of situation."
While the first film was based on Disney's original Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil allowed the director to be more creative with the story (although look out for a throwback to the 1959 classic). In the live-action remake, the main change is that the villains of the tale are much more multifaceted than their two-dimensional originals. Ronning believes this evolution in the characters is essential to keeping a film-goer enthralled in an age of increasingly limited attention spans. "In the old days, you used to have just bad guys. The characters are getting more complex," he says, "but you can't have bad guys anymore."
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is in cinemas across the UAE from Thursday, October 17