‘The Little Mermaid’ left Halle Bailey ‘tired’ and ‘isolated
“Part of Your World” is a song of questions.
How many wonders one cavern can hold. What it costs to spend a day on the sand. What the word is for that thing fire does. All of them building to the ultimate ask: “When’s it my turn?”
In the 1989 animated classic “The Little Mermaid,” Jodi Benson‘s Ariel delivers the lyrics with a wistful, resigned sigh, as if the number were a prayer the undersea princess had repeated too many times to count. In Disney’s live-action remake, opening May 26, Halle Bailey, taking on the role that a million aspiring princes and princesses sung along to, attacks the song’s climax with a powerful ascending vibrato, and holds on long after the orchestra drops out. The song’s questions assume new urgency, as if this Ariel, her Ariel, were desperate for answers.
And perhaps she is. In embracing her own turn — her first major film role, and her first project apart from her sister, Chlöe Bailey — the multi-hyphenate talent has faced a gauntlet of challenges: a technically intense shoot, a protective fan base, racist abuse and the demands of adding dimension to a beloved character, sometimes without being able to say a word.
No wonder Bailey’s rendition of “Part of Your World” is sprinkled with angelic riffs and strategic voice breaks — choices made, in apprehension, when performing the song during her audition for the part of Ariel in early 2019. “I was so anxious to be there,” she recalled in a recent interview with The Times, “so a lot of those nuances were just me trying to get my nerves out, and allowing myself to be free and be myself.”
By the time she finished, director Rob Marshall was in tears. “She was the first person we saw for this role and she set the bar so high,” he said. “When she sang, you got a deep understanding of what it is that Ariel wants, you believe that the stakes are high, and you just root for her to succeed.”
“I think we all go through the things Ariel goes through: feeling uncertain but passionate about our future, knowing when we want something great for ourselves and what lengths we’ll go to get it,” said Bailey. “This whole process was a lot on me, physically and mentally. I never thought I would ever be able to accomplish something like this, and coming out of it, I’m a very different person. I know now what I want for myself and my future.
“Much like Ariel, honestly,” she added with a laugh. “Throughout this experience, I really feel like I learned a lot from her.”
Halle Bailey plays the beloved character Ariel in Disney’s live-action “The Little Mermaid.”
(Giles Keyte / Disney)
‘The racism didn’t surprise me’
Bailey, just 18 at the time of her audition, was“shocked” by the production’s interest in her. “If I would have seen a Black mermaid when I was younger, it would have changed my whole life,” she said, calling the animated movie a childhood favorite. My whole perspective on how I feel about myself, my self-worth, my confidence, everything.”
When her casting was announced, a small but vocal faction of observers inevitably complained online about the decision to hire a Black actor to play Ariel, who is white in the cartoon version. “The racism didn’t surprise me,” said Bailey, who grew up outside Atlanta. “It’s a little disappointing, but it’s bound to happen. I didn’t let it affect me and just focused on the positive response I was getting. This moment is so much bigger than any of that. Especially for the Black and brown babies out there, I hope they feel filled with love and confidence in who they are, because it’s essential that they see themselves in roles like these.”
On set, the task at hand was no less formidable, though far more gratifying. This “Little Mermaid,” nearly an hour longer than the original, endeavors to explore the personal grudge Ariel’s gruff father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), has for humans; the contempt his human counterpart, Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni), has for the underwater realm; and, most vitally, motivations for Ariel that go beyond her infatuation with the handsome Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). Here, Ariel’s willfulness stems from a deep curiosity about the world on land and a hunger to see it for herself.
“The Hans Christian Andersen tale is written in the 1830s, and yet it feels so contemporary, like an antidote to the divisive times we’re living in,” explained Marshall. “It’s really a story about this beautiful, passionate, headstrong girl who feels like she doesn’t fit in with anyone around her because she sees something that no one else sees. And so, with great sacrifice, she goes on this journey of discovery, of herself and this whole other world.”
“I never thought I would ever be able to accomplish something like this,” said Halle Bailey, photographed in Los Angeles, of playing Ariel in “The Little Mermaid.”
(Shayan Asgharnia / For The Times)
To play Ariel, Bailey did the same, after more than a decade harmonizing on intricate duets with her older sister as the five-time Grammy-nominated R&B duo Chloe x Halle and splitting deadpan dialogue with her through four seasons of the college-set Freeform comedy “Grown-ish.” “I was suddenly across the world, by myself without my sister, which never happens,” said Bailey. “As excited as I was, I was also scared in the beginning, because I’ve never done anything away from her. I really lean on her for everything.”
Chlöe eased the transition by moving to London with Halle for the first two months of the film’s rehearsals, working out alongside her every day as she built up her core muscles and producing her own music in Halle’s trailer.
“That’s my little baby girl, and I wanted her to feel confident and secure and amazing, and know that even though I wouldn’t be on set with her, she would never be alone,” said Chlöe, who is two years older than Halle. “Whenever she was doubting herself, I reminded her of her talent and her worth, that she deserved to be there, and that it was time for her to go out there and do the best job she possibly could.”
‘I probably looked like a crazy person’
Some of those doubts were surely reasonable, given that each section of the film presented Bailey with a distinct set of obstacles. To film Ariel’s underwater sequences, she repeatedly simulated swimming motions while suspended in harnesses and tuning fork rigs.
“We had a whole team of people to move Halle in front of blue screens, and it was all timed to a musical cue,” said stunt coordinator Adam Kirley. “She put in a huge amount of hours rehearsing with us, holding these shapes while making it look effortless and beautiful. It was incredibly physically demanding for her while also probably being quite monotonous, as we have to work out things many times to get them right. She really had a great work ethic from Day 1.”
For scenes at the surface, Bailey spent a month diving into water tanks over and over again. “I’ve always loved being in the water, but in this movie I was supposed to look graceful and coordinated, like the water was my home,” explained Bailey, who trained with synchronized swimmers before filming began. “The toughest part was trying to stay in control of your body as much as possible, even though you’re in the midst of a storm, the wave machines are on, and thunder and lightning and fire is all around you.”
Jonah Hauer-King and Halle Bailey filmed “Little Mermaid” scenes in water tanks amid manufactured storms.
In the new movie, Halle Bailey re-created the iconic “Part of Your World” visual from the animated classic.
Bailey also had the unique task of re-creating the original movie’s iconic shots. To capture the visual for the “Part of Your World” reprise’s final crescendo, the production design team created a fake rock tailored to her body’s measurements and outfitted with a softer texture so that she could hold herself up in a plank position while filming the moment off the coast of Sardinia, Italy. “Luckily, in Halle, we found not just a great actor and a singer, but also an athlete,” said producer John DeLuca. “Whatever we wanted to try, she was game for it all.”
Pulling off Ariel’s memorable hair flip, set against the darkening sky as she emerges from the water, was more a process of trial and error. “My locs were heavy as hell in the water, so someone from our amazing stunt team would go underwater with me and help me throw my hair up,” she said. “It would take some of the weight off because we had to do it so many times. I honestly felt like I was gonna break my neck!”
Then there’s the sequence that follows Ariel’s decision to exchange her enchanting voice with the nefarious sea witch, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), in order to sample life on land. In meeting the rigors of silent acting — not exactly part of the ingenue’s handbook in 2023 — it helped that Eric too had been expanded and their attachment detailed more thoroughly than in the original.
“They’re both people who want to break free from who they feel they’re supposed to be, and who want to break down the barriers between their worlds,” said Marshall of the new movie’s script, which he wrote with DeLuca and David Magee. “They connect and fall in love because they find in each other a real kindred spirit.”
Bailey, whom Marshall praises for “portraying her emotions on her face without overdoing it like a game of charades,” handles the dialogue-free stretches with aplomb. (In the finished film, a new musical number outlining Ariel’s mixed impressions of human life, written by the original film’s composer Alan Menken and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, also allows us to understand Ariel’s thought process — inspired by the fish-out-of-water framing of Audrey Hepburn’s “Roman Holiday” and the interior musical monologues of Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl.”)
“In Halle, we found not just a great actor and a singer, but also an athlete,” said producer John DeLuca of Halle Bailey, photographed in Los Angeles.
(Shayan Asgharnia / For The Times)
Still, that didn’t always prevent Bailey from feeling “stupid as hell.”
“When Sebastian’s talking to me, I was there with nothing, making those facial expressions while talking to an imaginary crab,” she said. “I know I probably looked like a crazy person when you don’t see the crab [while filming], but I had to just trust in myself and say, ‘Halle, you can do this, and it’s not going to look stupid afterwards.’”
Doing so wasn’t easy, especially with production taking place amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “Everything was closed down, so I would just go to work and then go home on the weekends, and then do it all again for weeks and weeks and weeks,” Bailey explained. “I would literally sleep the whole weekend because of how tired I was, but I also ended up feeling very isolated.
“I was really thankful to God because it really aligned with the way Ariel would feel when she was alone in her grotto, but still wanted to reach for the stars,” she continued. “I appreciate that, in the end, it helped me feel more connected to her.”
‘Ariel taught me how to find my voice’
Throughout the lonely, lengthy shoot, Bailey found on-set support in McCarthy and Benson, who makes a cameo in a scene set on land. “She told me how proud she was of me and how I’m handling everything, and encouraged me to just go for it,” Bailey said of Benson. “I appreciate her for being so warm and welcoming to me because she’s the GOAT, and it was important to me to get her stamp of approval.”
Off set, Bailey made frequent calls to her sister “whenever I was feeling discouraged, like I needed somebody to kick-start a fire under my ass, because she will give me that tough love that I need.” She also began writing songs for a solo album that’s “a fusion of all my favorite genres: jazz, R&B, grunge, alternative, pop, everything,” she said. “A lot of the music is very internal because they were like mantras to myself to help me keep going.”
After “Little Mermaid” wrapped, Bailey filmed scenes for Warner Bros.’ “Color Purple” movie musical, due out at the end of this year, and wrote “more fun songs about love and all the experiences that come with just being on my own as a woman for the first time.”
Chlöe Bailey and Halle Bailey perform together during the 2023 MusiCares Persons of the Year gala.
(Valerie Macon / AFP via Getty Images)
She’s also taken time amid her hectic promotional obligations to support Chlöe on her sold-out tour. “It’s been a minute since I’ve been onstage with my sister, so I was nervous!” said Bailey. “I was so happy to be out there with her. Things are really happening for us. We’ve been working really hard for a very long time, and it’s cool when you start to see the fruits of your labor.”
Since coming home, Halle “has become more confident in herself and her gifts and what she has to offer,” observed Chlöe. “It was a difficult time for both of us because even though we were supporting each other in our individual endeavors, I don’t think either of us knew who we were without the other.”
Now 23, Bailey is still processing the intense, introspective adventure she’s had in the years since that auspicious audition. “I’ve learned so much about myself and grown so much as both an actor and a singer,” said Bailey, back at home in Los Angeles with her cat, Poseidon.
“Going into the film, I was more timid and shy, but like Ariel, I ended up having to come out of my shell. I gained so much confidence and courage to speak up for what I need; I came out a different, more mature human being. I really feel like Ariel taught me how to find my voice.”
“I know now what I want for myself and my future,” said “Little Mermaid” star Halle Bailey, photographed in Los Angeles.
(Shayan Asgharnia / For The Times)