Combustible Celluloid
 

Interview with Jodi Benson

The Little Mermaid Speaks

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jodi Benson doesn't look terribly different from Ariel, the character she provides the voice for in Walt Disney's The Little Mermaid. She's an attractive strawberry blonde with the same enthusiastic disposition and love of life as Ariel. She doesn't have fins, though, and she drinks water instead of breathing it.

We're in the lobby of the Clift Hotel in San Francisco. Jodi introduces herself and says my name 3 times so she'll remember it. It's weird hearing Ariel say my name. I remember 8 years ago when I was an usher at the Sonora Cinema 5, I snuck in to The Little Mermaid dozens of times to hear "Kiss the Girl." It was the most vibrant Disney comedy in years, and it instantly became a treasured classic.

Jodi is a Broadway trained singer and actress, who never really intended to get into movies, much less into animated movies.

"Nobody really wanted to do those types of jobs," she said. "It wasn't a very prestigious job. it was like a voice-over job, but you're not on camera. My goal was to do Broadway musicals. Voice-over was something I didn't know anything about or had ever even pursued, or would know how to pursue it." Well, somebody knew something Jodi didn't. She auditioned and was chosen over 600 other applicants. A year had gone by since her audition, and she had pretty much forgotten about it. It was another year before she started work on the film. "I still had never met anybody until I got to the first rehearsal."

How different is it for a stage-trained actress to act using only her voice? "It was very challenging. The only way I knew how to approach it was like a play. All of us had stage background, so this was the first time in Disney history for the whole cast to meet each other before the movie actually came out. We sat down around the table like a play reading, and did a read-through. We started working off of each other. That's the only way we knew how to approach it."

So, we've all wondered... what comes first, animation or voice? Jodi loves to tease people with this question. She takes votes first, then springs the answer on them. "They do the voice first, and the reason why is because the animators will tell you that the character doesn't get its life until the voice is given. Once the character has its voice, then it has its life. And then the pictures start to change. Their original concept drawings of my character changed after I started laying down a voice."

They started recording that same afternoon, the actors sitting in glass booths, separate from each other, but working together. "We got to work off each other and do scene work together, and you just physically do it like you're on stage, but you'd have to pump it up even more. I'd be doing a scene and I thought it was translating well, and the director would push on the button and say, 'it's great, but when we close our eyes, it's still missing something.' So you need to go that extra mile."

"So, you're really in there, acting it out. You're like a little kid in a room, moving around, and pretending like a boat is coming near you, and it's like playtime. Then they take the videotape and the audio tape, and then the animators just literally plug into you for days on end. You see them walking around with walkmans -- you are ringing in their ears. You become a part of them when they're starting to do their sketchwork. It's an amazing process."

"Of course it takes 2 1/2 years, 'cause ours was the last hand-painted, hand-drawn, full length feature for Disney studios. There will never be another one. There are millions and millions of bubbles in this movie, and they're all hand-drawn. It's unbelievable. Now they do it with computers and stuff. Ours was the last of the dying breed, unfortunately. We'll never see that again."

Jodi started singing at age 5. "I can't take any credit for the voice. It came with the package. It's a God-given gift. I just started singing and it was there. I didn't do anything to get it to come out. And I've been singing ever since. It's something I really love to do."

A resident of Illinois, she attended Millikin University in the city of Decatur, where she started out majoring in law. After one semester, she changed her major and became one of the first students in the BFA program for musical theater. During Christmas break of her Sophomore year, she auditioned for a Broadway show, Broadway Follies, and got the job. Years later, she went back, got her degree, and graduated, cap and gown. "I work so much with college students, and I just got tired of saying I was a college dropout." Her professors actually flew out to New York to see her in Crazy for You, and gave her 20 hours of Life Experience college credit. Since then, she has made a steady living on Broadway. Her credits include; Smile (by the late Howard Ashman, who also wrote the lyrics for The Little Mermaid songs), Welcome to the Club (which also featured Sam Wright, the voice of Sebastian), Chess, Marilyn: an American Fable, Sophisticated Ladies, Once Upon a Mattress, Dangerous Music, and a Venice, Italy production of West Side Story, in which she played Anita.

But The Little Mermaid is the one project that has opened doors for her that she couldn't have imagined. After years of mediocre animated musicals for Disney, it was the first to gross over $100 million and achieve almost universal critical acclaim. It was the one project that put Disney back on the map as an entertainment powerhouse. "It's opened up a whole other [type of] performing for me."

So much so, that she doesn't even have to audition anymore. John Hughes cast her as the voice of the robot Weebo in Flubber after watching The Little Mermaid without the picture. She was told she had a job and to show up without knowing anything about the movie. "Then I'm watching the screen, and John Hughes says, 'okay, I'm gonna turn the mike on, and here's a couple of ideas of some lines, and basically watch Robin and fill in the gaps. Just start to improvise with him'. Improvising with Robin Williams with no script... Wow! I was so awed, and I was like 'I'm just not qualified for this job!' I remember feeling so insecure, going 'John, I can't do this! I can't do this! That's Robin Williams! I don't even know what I'm supposed to do!' I had never seen it before, and they turn it on, and he's talking, and I'm going, 'uh huh. Oh great! Yeah. I don't know about that professor', and I'm talking to him like he's there. And John's furiously writing over in the corner, and then they started developing this script around me as I was there in the room, which was really amazing. A whole different ball game."

Although Jodi had never met Robin Williams, she felt like she had worked with him. And despite her fears, she was on familiar ground. "The character [Weebo] is kind of like Ariel. She's really strong willed, she has a great sense of humor, but she kinda has a sassy attitude. You know, kind of a dry sense of humor. She's in love with the professor, but she wants to be a human, which is another through-line between the two characters -- they both want to be human. So I thought that was kind of funny. I just can't seem to play a human these days."

Is she interested in playing a human in a live-action movie? "I don't know. Boy. I'm so content with what I'm doing. If God opened up the door, and it was meant to be, and I jumped in there, and it was fun, I'd be, like, 'ah that's great'. But if I don't, I don't feel like I'm missing something."

"It's such a big competition, and I sorta know where my strengths lie. Those folks can't do what I do, and I probably can't do what they do, so... I feel like we all have our gifts in certain areas. But it doesn't mean I wouldn't want to give it a try. If it opened up, I would definitely audition for something if I was right, but in the family entertainment realm. I have to be really picky about what I can do and what I can't do."

Jodi is a deeply religious woman, having found that faith in God saved her marriage. "It's not like I'm trying to maintain 'the Disney image', it's more for me. That I just want to feel comfortable with myself, with what I'm doing. I want to be able to feel proud of my work and not feel like I'm uncomfortable. Family entertainment is the stuff that I seem to be geared [toward]. Because I love kids, and it's something that I really really want for them, and I think we have a good relationship." Although she has no kids of her own, Jodi considers herself, "kind of a universal parent of many:"

She has used her The Little Mermaid clout to work with kids, teaching them and helping them with positive values. "I think that's probably the highlight of my job with The Company. I enjoy meeting people." She tours schools and speaks to students, everyone from college age to grade schools. "The little ones I find more fascinating to talk to than the older people, because I know that they're eager to find out about animation." She tells them about the entire process of animation, debunking myths like "It's just a voice". "I get that a lot. They don't understand that what goes into creating those types of characters is just as much, if not more, than live action."

"I was talking to some 9 and 10 year olds, third graders, I think. What I do when I go around to schools is I tell them how to make movies. And I show them a flip book and then I show them the black-and-white videotape of the pencil sketches of the movie, with the clicker counter up in the top, and I tell them how many drawings per second -- go through the whole thing. And I explain what I do in the studio. So at the end of this 45 minute presentation to these kids about animation, I said, "do you have any questions?" And this little boy raised his hand and he said, "how do you hold your breath that long under water?"

So I said, "I've got really big lungs." But the magic of that is what they want to hold onto, and that brings me tremendous joy.

Monday, November 4, 1997