Always Ariel: An Interview with Jodi Benson

She's played Broadway, sung with orchestras and symphonies across the country, and was guest soloist at the Kennedy Center Honors for

James Plath's picture

She's played Broadway, sung with orchestras and symphonies across the country, and was guest soloist at the Kennedy Center Honors for Ginger Rogers. But Jodi Benson is and will remain best known for giving voice to Ariel, Disney's "Little Mermaid." She was the speaking and singing voice for Ariel in the 1989 film, a sequel ("The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea," 2000), an animated television series, and the new prequel, "The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning." That's just fine with her. In fact, Benson told DVD Town in a phone interview that she feels blessed to have been given this role and the chance to make so many people happy by offering up a positive role model.

Plath: You've been Ariel now in three animated features over the past 19 years, and I was just wondering, how much do you feel a part of Ariel, and how much does she feel a part of your world?

Benson: Oh, yeah, she's in my blood, this character. This has been a part of my life now since 1985, and it's been ongoing. In between the movies we're pretty non-stop with the characters, as far as the princesses. After the first film then it was the television series for four years, and then from that point until the movie two and in-between, we do all the product--all the sing-alongs, the toys, the DVDs, the computer games--you name it, we do it for the princesses. So it's been a wonderful, wonderful ride for me and for my family. But yes, I'm very protective of this character, and besides [lead character designer-animator] Glen Keane and probably Ron [Clements] and John [Musker], our original directors, I know this character probably better than anybody else, so I really wanted to stay true to the character. That's what we've tried to work on with each one of the films.

This one in particular was a little bit trickier. We had to work through several revisions of the script to make sure that she was relevant for this decade and for this time frame and for this new generation of children, but, uh . . . unfortunately, sometimes teenagers are represented in film and television with quite an attitude . . . .

Plath: [Laughs] And Disney can plead guilty there, too.

Benson: Yeah, and we had to stay away from that, and there were a few nights for me that were really rough, after coming home from work feeling kind of broken-hearted about it, actually--very protective and saddened by the fact that we were trying to go into this different realm that is so non-Ariel, you know? We needed to get back to her innocence, and that was my plea-to just communicate that, and in a loving fashion to say, "Guys, we've got to stay true to who she is. I don't care that it's 2008, you know? We can't go in a direction that's just not her. We can't do that. We can make her relevant and have it be real, but we can't lose the heart and her innocence, because then we've kind of given way and taken away who she is. So that's what we had to try to really work hard on.

Plath: Well that sounds awfully protective. How proprietary do you get? I mean, when you walk through a store and you see Ariels lying on the floor or flopped over, are you a straightener? Do you pick them up?

Benson: [Laughs] I am very protective, but in a loving way, you know? That's me. You ask my kids and they'll say, "That's my mommy. Ariel is my mommy." And I love it. It's my ministry, it's my passion, it's my focus, it's a huge part of our family's life--obviously--and to just see that it's touched so many people around the world for all these many years and will continue to live long past me . . . . As my daughter will tell you, at the age of seven, what does she want to be when she grows up? "Well, when my mom dies, I'm going to take over the voice of Ariel." I kind of wish she'd leave the first part of the sentence out, but I understand what she's saying [laughs]. It could live on well past me. It's kind of one of those immortal characters, and I'm very thankful and grateful for that, and I'm thankful that I haven't had to be recast, you know? I'm grateful that my voice hasn't changed that drastically as I've aged. So gosh, I hope that I can give her what she needs as long as I can.

Plath: Actors often talk about getting into their characters. How did you first approach the role of Ariel? It's a long time ago, but I'm wondering what you did to become her?

Benson: [Laughs] Well, it's not a very great story. Basically, during the audition line-up--we were in New York at this really tacky theater rehearsal studio--we lined up in the hallway and I excused myself and went in the ladies' room and stood in the mirror by myself and started talking to myself. [Laughs] You know, I'd never done voiceover, certainly didn't know what I was doing, never worked with a mike . . . so I just started talking to the mirror. And I remember exactly doing that. I know exactly what I was trying to come across and just talk to myself and, "Is this what she would sound like?" and "Does this sound right?" Then I walked back to my line and waited for my number to be called and then went into the reel-to-reel and [laughs] tried to recreate what I did in the bathroom [laughs]. And a year later I got a call that my tape was selected. No rhyme or reason to it. It was just a gift from God, you know? No other explanation for it. I'm very grateful.

Plath: How is making a direct-to-video sequel or prequel different from making a feature film. Is there a different mindset for voice actors, is the approach different in any way, or is it all the same?

Benson: All the same thing to me. When I go in to do a talking toy or a DVD storybook, it's Ariel. It doesn't matter what the product is, whether it's a movie or not. With a movie you probably can get a little bit more involved because of the time frame--there's more days involved, more hours involved, and then with singing, of course, that elaborates it--but the character is the character for me. I pour myself in, no matter what we're doing.

Plath: The biggest surprises for me in "Ariel's Beginning" were Marina del Rey and her henchdugong, I suppose it is. After Ursula and her tentacled sister, this villainess seems almost kind of tame--more of a cross between the villainess of "The Rescuers" and the kind of power-hungry but not really deadly Yzma from "The Emperor's New Groove." And I'm just wondering if you could kind of cue us in as to what was the thinking behind going a different direction with a milder villain.

Benson: You would probably have to ask [director] Peggy Holmes and Kendra [Holland, producer] about that, because that was established when they presented it to me. That character was clearly established. From my opinion? I think it's a wise choice, because if we're trying to target that three-to-ten, three-to-twelve range--no one's given me those numbers, that's just my guesstimation of who is going to be drawn to this film--I think it's nice to not have something that's frightening, personally, for me and for my kids. I know my daughter covers her eyes during "Enchanted" and did not like Ursula and did not watch "The Little Mermaid" practically until she was five, and then we had to fast forward around Ursula because she was so frightening. So I'm very grateful that we can have the younger ones there that will not have the nightmares and the scary images. I'm thrilled because I've got my Godsons, and I've got my best friend's little girl who's five coming tomorrow, and I can tell her wholeheartedly that I don't think she's going to have to cover her eyes and leave. So I'm happy about it. We've got enough stuff out there already [laughs]. There's plenty of horror out there if you want it.

Plath: We have a six-year-old daughter, and we covered her eyes when the point of the ship, the mast in "The Little Mermaid" skewers or shishkabobs Ursula.

Benson: I know, it's horrible! I know. So as a family it's like, goll-lee, could we please have just one G-movie a year? Just one--that's all I'm asking for, I'm not asking for two much [laughs], because PG covers the gamut, don't you know. Oh, my goodness. You have to read all that fine print with my reading glasses to figure out PG-what? What kind of PG, because it could be practically PG-13. So I'm thankful that we have one that won't be too scary.

Plath: Did you work alone in the booth, or were you with other actors?

Benson: No [sighs]. Unfortunately. I told everybody today that's my thing that drives me crazy. No, I'm by myself. But, you know, I've got Peggy, and she's right next to you and she's in-and-out and in-and-out with the books and with the sketches and she's doing the choreography and she has to do the whole dog-and-pony show by herself. It makes a lot of work for the director, but she did a great job, very much like Howard was in the original for me. So she's my saving grace. [Sighs] But I just don't get it. I wish we would [be with other actors].

Plath: You're a stage performer too, and I just wondered if you ever felt so isolated, even more so because of that.

Benson: Yeah, you do. I've gotten over it, because obviously since the original I've never been in the booth with anybody since. But we did a read-through with Mermaid one, you know, like a stage. You do a table-read. Everybody sits around and sees each other and you at least get one chance through it with the music and composers and everybody there. And then you separate. Then it's not so bad. You've got some kind of basis to go from. I've never done it since. I guess it's just logistics. That's what people tell me. "Why can't we . . .?" Oh, logistics. Everybody's all over the planet. We can't get them all together. I'm like, Good night . . . everybody's so busy? What's with that? But it's okay. We've had to learn how to deal with that.

Plath: You know, I would not have recognized Sally Field's voice [as Marina del Rey] if I didn't see the credits. It just blew me away when I looked at the credits and saw that.

Benson: Well good. That's good, because you shouldn't be able to detect the star's voice. You should be able to go, Hmmm, I think I maybe recognize it sorta kind of, but you shouldn't be focused on that person because it kind of destroys the whole image. That's the thing about having celebrities and stars doing voiceover. Some of them you can pick out right away, and then you can't get that image out of your mind, and it takes you away from the film. But the ones who can do it and hide it a little bit? Kind of color it a little bit? I think that's really great, so I think it's a compliment that you couldn't pick her out.

Plath: Is it my imagination, or is music more of a driving force than it was in the other two films?

Benson: Well it is a driving force. Have you seen the film?

Plath: Yeah.

Benson: I haven't.

Plath: It seems like there's even more of an undercurrent of calypso that's always bubbling underneath.

Benson: Right, so you know why, because you've seen the music--why music is the driving force, because it's the exact opposite of when it's banished. So that's what Peggy did. She created that whole irony of the banishment of it, but the constant, constant thrust of it underneath. So that was successful. That's why she did it that way.

Plath: Now did I read that you're involved with Disney cruises?

Benson: Yes, I have done all of the christenings of both of our ships, and the inaugural sail cruises of both of our ships, and the millennial cruise where both of the ships met out in the ocean together at the millennium, and then we went out . . . we try to go out whenever we can. I sing for my supper, and I'm not ashamed to do it [laughs].

Plath: It sounds like fun.

Benson: Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. There is nothing like it for the kids. The number one destination spot for them, besides Walt Disney World, is the cruise ship. I mean, there is nothing like it for the kids. And so, oh, goodness sakes, I just get thrilled. We just call and say, "Yeah, put me on, let me sing." The kids are so excited to go. We were gonna go for Thanksgiving, but I think it's been moved to January, and so we're very excited. So yes, I go whenever and however often they want us . . . we jump.

Plath: Do they have the second pirate ship there on Disney's island? For a while there was talk of getting the Black Pearl there, too, in addition to the Flying Dutchman that's now there.

Benson: I haven't been to Castaway Cay in a year-and-a-half, and when I was there it was the same ship. So if it's changed, I don't know about that.

Plath: Well, thank you for your time. I really enjoyed "Ariel's Beginning," and I think it's a great film for families with small children.

Benson: I'm going to see the film for the first time tomorrow, with my children at my side, and I'm looking forward to it.