Why Little Mermaid remake was sink or swim for its star

Disny’s eagerly-awaited live action remake of its animated classic The Little Mermaid is expected to make a blockbuster splash when it dives into cinemas tonight.

Grammy-nominated star Halle Bailey plays fish-tailed beauty Ariel, effortlessly spinning and soaring through the ocean – but it didn’t go as swimmingly as it appears on screen.

“Basically it almost killed her,” says her British co-star Jonah Hauer-King, 27, who plays handsome Prince Eric.

Halle was filming the scene where Ariel rescues a drowning Eric from a shipwreck inside a giant water tank at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire.

“When they turn on the thunder and lightning and fires around us and the waves, it feels like you’re in the middle of the ocean, like actually in the middle of a thunderstorm,” Halle says.

“So I was trying to look like, you know, I’m a mermaid. I do this all the time.”

But Jonah, as the prince, was wearing knee-high boots that kept filling with water, dragging him down as he lay unconscious in Halle’s mermaid arms.

“We kept laughing about these boots he had to wear, because he kept sinking under because of them,” she adds.

“We were just dying in the water.”

Jonah confesses to Halle: “I was kicking you. I was breaking your shins. It was really bad.”

Recreating the famous scene where Ariel emerges from the sea and flips back her hair in a cascade of water was also problematic.

“My locks were heavy as hell in the water,” Halle, 23, recalls. “I honestly felt like I was going to break my neck. So someone from our amazing stunt team would go underwater with me and help me throw my hair up. It would take some of the weight off. We had to do it so many times.”

This live-action version of the film also stars Melissa McCarthy as villainous sea witch Ursula, Javier Bardem as Ariel’s father King Triton, rapper Nora Lum – aka Awkwafina – giving voice to scatterbrained seabird Scuttle, British actress Noma Dumezweni as Eric’s mother Queen Selina, and Hamilton star Daveed Diggs as Sebastian the crab.

After almost five years in production, Halle says: “I feel like they’re my family, they’re so talented and have inspired me for so long.”

Updating the original 1989 animated movie, The Little Mermaid now includes three new songs, plus lyrics by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Amazingly, Halle was the very first actress to audition for the role, in 2018, singing Part Of Your World. The director
Rob Marshall admits her. audition had him sobbing with emotion.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he says. “I thought: ‘Oh my gosh! We’ve been doing this for five minutes – have we found Ariel?’ And we had! But we didn’t know that. Then we saw hundreds of other actors after that, and Halle kept coming back in. We saw every ethnicity. We saw everybody. And she claimed the role for herself.”

When finally told she had won the role, Halle admits it was a joyous relief: “I was crying for the whole day.”

Yet her happiness was quickly shattered when racist trolls attacked Disney for hiring an African-American to play Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale mermaid.

“The racism didn’t surprise me,” says Halle, who grew up near Atlanta, Georgia.

“It’s a little disappointing, but it’s bound to happen.”

Her friend, pop legend Beyoncé, offered some words of wisdom: “Don’t read the comments on any social media post.” Halle adds: “It’s kind of sad, but very good advice for your mental health.”

She admits being surprised Disney even considered hiring a black Ariel – a role she grew up watching repeatedly on DVD – assuming that like all Disney princesses at the time, Ariel was invariably Caucasian.

“If I would have seen a black mermaid when I was younger, it would have changed my whole life,” she says. “My whole perspective on how I feel about myself, my self-worth, my confidence, everything.”

There have also been claims the film contains a subtle dig at the Princess of Wales. One early reviewer pointed to the scene where Ariel and Prince Eric meet, after she’s given up her voice to get to the surface, and he has to try to guess her name. 

His first guess is Diana. His second guess is Catherine, but after Ariel gives a disgusted reaction, he concludes. “Okay,
definitely not Catherine”. 

Is it coincidence the names of Princess Diana and Kate Middleton are invoked? Or because Meghan Markle once admitted she identifed with Ariel after marrying Harry, saying: “Oh my God, she falls in love with the prince and because of that she loses her voice”? Who knows?

Halle, who found fame with her older sister in the R&B duo Chloe x Halle, and acting in TV comedy Grown-ish, hopes young black girls watching will “feel filled with love and confidence in who they are, because it’s essential that they see themselves in roles like these”.

She spent months repeatedly diving into water tanks, training with synchronised swimmers and working out at the gym.

“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,” she says. “I would literally sleep the whole weekend because of how tired I was, but I also ended up feeling very isolated.”

Ironically, that loneliness aided Halle when filming in Ariel’s undersea grotto, wishing for a life among humans on dry land. “In the end, it helped me feel more connected to her,” she says.

But Halle couldn’t help feeling “stupid as hell” filming scenes where her computer-generated co-stars had yet to be added.

“When Sebastian’s talking to me, I was there with nothing, making those facial expressions while talking to an imaginary crab,” she explains.

“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.’”

Like many of her co-stars, she also spent months filming in specially-designed harnesses and rigs that flew her through the air, spinning and turning, with underwater CGI scenes added later.

Melissa McCarthy, 52, recalls: “I was literally never on my feet; never on the ground.”

She had a team of eight dancers to control her giant octopus tentacles, and another team of stunt experts pulling her on rigs through the air to recreate underwater scenes.

Javier Bardem, 54, the Spanish star of Bond film Skyfall and Coen Brothers thriller No Country For Old Men, was glad not to be filmed with most of his clothing removed, like the original animated Triton. “I’m very thankful that they put on armour, instead of having me naked,” he laughs. “That was the only thing I was really worried about.”

Despite being confined to life on land, Halle confesses to sharing a deep bond with the little mermaid. “Ariel truly has helped me find myself and this young-woman version of me,” she says.

“It’s been five years of my life now, from 18 to now being 23, so those are very intense, transformative years as you’re developing as a young woman; what she had to go through with her passions and drive and speaking up for herself. And even though it may be scary, she went for it. Those things I really try to adopt. She’s taught me so much.”

Just as Ariel sacrifices her voice to the sea witch Ursula in exchange for the chance to walk on two feet on land, so Halle says: “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.”

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