The live adaptation of The Little Mermaid is probably one of the biggest films of the year. It’s certainly one of the most talked about. After watching the film at the Sydney Premiere, I can safely say this is one of the most magical films you’ll watch all year. A large part of that is thanks to the talent that is Halle Bailey and Melissa McCarthy.
Lifehacker Australia chatted to McCarthy and Bailey about how they brought the underwater charm to life, the power in pain and the real-life inspirations behind their characters.
How McCarthy fell in love with Ursula
Out of all the Disney villains, I’ve always felt incredibly attached to Ursula, and perhaps that’s because she’s misunderstood, isolated and rejected by most of society. It’s also why many other queer people see themselves in her.
McCarthy also has a deep love for Ursula and found herself attached to the character, and her drag queen references, long before she took on the role.
“First of all, I’ve always loved Ursula, it’s like, ‘My god, I’d love to get a drink with her,’ at all times,” McCarthy said, adding, “I’m such a Divine fan and John Waters fan and drag fan, I always have been, since I was a teenager.”
“I think [queerness] is just poured into [‘Poor Unfortuante Souls’]. I think it’s everything that makes drag the incredible art that it is so to get to do that is is like truly like a fever dream.”
Even though that campiness is still present in the film, when you watch the live adaption of The Little Mermaid, you’ll notice that McCarthy’s interpretation of Ursula goes far deeper than that. Her take on the character seems to break away from the stereotypical tropes that plague female villains, offering more layers to the Ursula we know and love.
“I spent so much time thinking about all the things I loved about [Ursula] and how dishy she she is and she’s just a constant cabaret act to me, which I love,” McCarthy said.
“But then I also started to think all of those affectations, even the makeup, the corset and the voice. What is all that distracting from?”
“I thought a lot about her damage and a lot about her isolation and being shunned from her family and not being accepted and her mental health. I think we’ve all now experienced what it is to be truly in isolation and how terrifying and altering and damaging to the human spirit that can be,” she added.
“And so, all of a sudden, this kind of fun part really changed for me and I had great compassion for her and I already loved her, but I feel like I fell in love with her.”
It’s this nuance in McCarthy’s portrayal of Ursula that adds a new dimension to a character that we’ve all enjoyed for over thirty years now.
Who inspired Bailey’s Ariel in The Little Mermaid?
If I were to sum up Bailey’s performance as Ariel in one word, it would be ethereal.
She was so captivating and magnetic; it’s not an exaggeration to say she possesses the audience with her presence on screen. Long-time fans of her music know that she can sing, and yet, the performance still manages to take your breath away.
Although it this Ariel was distinctly Bailey, you can tell there’s an amalgamation of inspirations behind the performance. Turns out, Bailey had a lot of real-life reference points she brought to The Little Mermaid.
“I have so many inspirations and with this film, I really was trying to base it off of the spirit of Ariel and the love that she has, the passion and the gumption,” Bailey said.
“But also the work that Judi Benson did. She was definitely an inspiration for me.”
“Then I think of pioneers in my life, like Whitney Houston, the supreme that she is, and people like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Beyoncé, [too]. I think of the Black women who have inspired me and who have left this legacy, and this beautiful world behind them through their art, and I really try my best to hone in on the spirit of them and say, ‘Please, help me!’”
How did Melissa and Halle prepare to go under the sea?
One thing that comes to mind immediately when watching the live adaptation of The Little Mermaid is how much is set underwater and how the actors’ bodies move like they are actually swimming.
As you’d expect, there was a lot of training and preparation that went into making sure Bailey and McCarthy were fully realised as underwater creatures.
“It was a lot I think of training to go through stunt wise, physically and mentally,” Bailey said.
“I went through mermaid training and worked with synchronised swimmers to get the gracefulness as well as the physical training [because] you have to be strong when you’re in the harnesses [it’s] like a core workout and you’re trying to look like you’re not shaking.”
While McCarthy didn’t have to go through mermaid training (which sounds like a blast), she did have a lot of moving parts to help her bring Ursula to life.
“[Halle] did everything. I was always under the water for the most part so then you’re just working dry, but you’re always working with a stunt team and dancers and people puppeteering my tentacles and puppeteering the eels,” McCarthy said.
“If you want to move three feet as if you’re swimming you go into a different rig and you’re kind of held horizontally, and if you want to go up and spin, you switch between rigs. [There were] all these different kinds of amazing systems that they came up with and so many of them have never been used before to give us that truly undulating movement.”
“For Halle and I to have the simplest conversation, there could be up to 20 people below us, moving us forward, spinning somebody else … it was such a beautiful elaborate system that I think I always love. It’s what I love about films, but it takes so many people to get in sync and work in this harmonious way,” McCarthy continued.
And that’s part of what makes The Little Mermaid so beautiful to watch. The performances by the cast, especially from these two women, appear seamless on screen, but there is an incredible amount of depth, and many moving parts, sitting beneath the water’s surface.
The Little Mermaid comes out in Australian theatres on May 25.