Jodi Benson On ‘The Little Mermaid’ 30 Years Later, How Ariel Defined Girl Power & Her Advice To Aspiring Actors (Exclusive)

Jodi Benson is what you call a Disney Legend. L-E-G-E-N-D! The critically-acclaimed actor came to be known as the voice behind one of our favorite Disney Princesses, Ariel.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the film that would change Jodi’s life forever, The Little Mermaid, and Her Campus caught up with the iconic voice actor to discuss Ariel’s impact 30 years later, what the film would be like if it were to get a modern day redo, voicing Ariel for Ralph Breaks the Internet, her advice to young women looking to make it in Hollywood and more.

Thinking back to when The Little Mermaid was first released, in what ways do you think the film and Ariel added to the notion of girl power?
Well, I know that when we jumped from Cinderella in the early 60's to Ariel in '89, we had a huge transition of going from Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, to Ariel. So we've got the stubborn quality, we've got the rebellious spirit, the adventurous spirit, the tenacious spirit, the dreaming outside of the box, reaching for the unattainable, reaching outside of a realm that is even possible for her as she explores the human world. We see a princess rescuing a prince and saving him. And we're in the realm of a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, so we don't have the freedom to just go crazy with whatever script we need. It needs to be loosely and strongly based on the fairytale in order for it to be a fairytale. So I think with all of that, I love where Ariel landed in 1989 to be the stepping stone and the landmark and sort of the foundation of where we have gone from '89 to 2019 coming towards with our princess line of lineage and our royal girls. And we should grow with each and every one. There should be new character qualities. There should be new strengths. New battles, shall we say.

But when folks say, "Well, mermaid? I don't really want my kid to watch it. It's this or it's that," I totally get that. It's fine. Everybody needs to do what's best for their kids. But you have to take it into the whole perspective of where we were in 1989 and the realm of the fairytale. We don't have the total freedom—I mean, she does give up her voice—so there are parameters within the fairytale that we have to stick by.

What would you say is the film’s biggest takeaway?

My hope for the new generation as we've cycled now four generations is, I want them to hear this absolutely brilliant score and the songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken and remember that this is where it started. This is where the second golden age of animation began. This is when the Disney Animation Studios were saved, and it's because of Howard and Alan. It's because of combining a Broadway sophisticated wry humor to meet the needs of all ages, blending that with an animated feature film.

So I think that's the takeaway, that I hope that people will be reintroduced to Howard's brilliant lyrics and Alan's gorgeous music. And of course, we have enjoyed Alan and Howard with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. And then once Howard passed away, Alan has found talented and wonderful writers. But I think The Little Mermaid is where it all began, and so that's kind of the takeaway that I hope that this generation can come back, is to fall in love with the music again.

Speaking of the music, I read that “Part of Your World” was your favorite song to perform in the film—why that song?

Because it was written by Howard and Alan. Because I was given a cassette tape of Howard recording it so perfectly with his acting, and he's such a brilliant actor. And having him as my director on Smile for three or four years previously on a Broadway show was just ... it's a really treasured memory that I have, being in the studio with him directing me and coaching me and getting me to the place I needed to be. So those are special memories now that he's not with us, and it allows me to pay tribute to him and honor him and thank him and make sure people don't forget him. And so it's just another opportunity to kind of being that wonderful memory back to life for me.

That’s beautiful. What has been the best part about being the voice behind such an iconic character? And how does it feel knowing, 30 years later, that Ariel and the film continue to have an impact on young girls?

It's a huge honor. It's a blessing. It's a gift from God to be the voice of Ariel. I love my job and I love my company. I am genuinely so happy with the story I get to tell every day, and when I meet people, that relationship. And I'm thrilled to get to share the story of what my journey has been. So I'm very proud of the film. I love being able to introduce it to new kids, and I love to hear the stories of grandparents and great grandparents revisiting it with their kids and them kind of recalling the memory that it brings and triggering where they were the first time they saw it. All of those things are really special to me. So it's not just a film, it's an experience. And people make a really strong connection to this character and to this film, and I like to hear those stories.

You also voiced Ariel in Ralph Breaks the Internet. How has her image changed since the debut of The Little Mermaid?

I mean, obviously the physical look. We've got CGI, and going from our classic hand painted, hand drawn animated feature film with Mermaid 2D to CGI, so she's gonna look a little bit different. But as far as me with Ariel, nothing's changed because that character is so a part of me, and it's been an ongoing job that I do all the time with the company for 30+ years. My job is to make sure I hold the integrity of the character so that when you hear Ariel, you know it's her and that we can go back in time. She needs to stay the same. So that was really important for Rich Moore and for Phil [Johnston] and for Clark [Spencer], is that we're not changing anything about Ariel. In fact, while I'm in the studio, because I know the character better than anybody else now besides Glen [Keane] and Mark Henn, they let me rewrite things. I'm like, "No, no, no. She doesn't say that. That word's not in her vocabulary, so we've gotta figure out another way to say that." They're like, "Oh, great, great. Thanks for telling us." So all the ad lib stuff that I add before and afterwards to make sure that it's Ariel. And Disney and Pixar both are really great about that. They're always accommodating to say, "Is this how she would sound?" Send me the line, "Is this how she speaks?" So they're really good about that.

And so she's really just a part of you at this point because it's just been so long.

Yes, and even when we were doing the TV series, 36 or 42 episodes, I don't remember, I mean, there were so many days in the studio that I'd be like, "You know guys, are you cool? We're gonna rewrite this whole thing." And they'd be like, "Yeah, absolutely. Please do. Make it Ariel." Because no one really knows her better than me at this point. Because there's not a lot of us still around that are still there, besides Glen who's not with Disney but knows her. And then Mark Henn, he's still with Disney. So basically, it's like Mark and I with a few other people that are still around that where there when we started in '84 or '85.

 

Oh my goodness, such a lengthy time period. Hypothetically speaking, let's say the film were to get some sort of redo. What are some of the things that you would want changed, and what are some of the things that you would make sure remained the same?

I wouldn't change a thing. I mean obviously, technology is gonna change on the sound, which we've done with each of the re-releases. And the picture and the colorization, all of those things have been touched up to the most that you possibly can without just actually making the whole film all over again. There's only so much you can do with new technology, which, obviously with 4K and things like that, it's phenomenal what you can do. But I wouldn't change a thing. You know it has the stamp of all the Disney people that were there

Love it. What is one piece of advice you would give to young college women who are hoping to pursue a career in Hollywood or Broadway?

Okay, so I do a lot of masterclasses with high school students and college students. And the thing that I try to impress upon them is, this industry, you need to pursue it if you really feel called. If you have the skillset, you've got your tool belt filled with all the proper tools and the training and the coaching and the mentoring, and you feel that you really need to pursue this industry, and if you don't, you feel like you're just gonna bust. It has to be that feeling of that do or die, I've got to try this, otherwise I'm gonna have so many regrets. Then, I say go for it. But if you have any doubt in your mind of like, "Well, am I gonna have a steady paycheck? Am I going to be a star?" Because we kind of have an American Idol mentality that everybody's fabulous and everybody's talented and everybody's a winner. That's not how it is. There's a million talented people, and only a handful of people can make a living. But if you have that feeling in you that, "This is what I was created to do, I've got to try this or else," then I would say, by all means, go for it. But if you need a steady paycheck and you've got to have your two weeks vacation, you have to have a schedule, you need to have a calendar, you need to be a planner, then you're going in the wrong business. Because none of that exists.

But I knew that about me. I have to go for this. I have $100 in my pocket. I've got a friend's sofa to stay on. And 10 days later, I got my first Broadway show. That's unheard of, but I knew that I had to go for it. And I knew that I would have tremendous regret [if I hadn’t]. And you don't want to have those what-if's and regrets later on in life. But if you've got any of those other issues going on that I want to be a star, no. Don't do it for those reasons. Those are just not the right reasons. Or "I need a steady paycheck," no. Because even now, today, after working professionally for 40 years, I never know when my next paycheck is coming. Never. Never do. Phone rings and then we go from there.

So if you're looking for that 9-to-5, you need to know there's other elements of the industry that you can go into, but I would not go down the performance track. I would do something a little bit more behind the scenes, something that's a little bit more regimented, a little bit more consistent. And there are ways to still express yourself creatively in the entertainment industry that are much more job secure than this end of it.

The Little Mermaid 30th anniversary edition is out on Blu-ray/DVD and digital now!

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