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Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
June 25, 2010

Since bringing the title character of Ariel to life in the 1989 animated classic The Little Mermaid, actress Jodi Benson has been an integral and revered part of the Disney family. The fairy tale musical based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen ushered in a new, decade-long golden era for the studio that featured some of their most acclaimed works, including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Jodi subsequently lent her talents to a myriad of Disney projects, and was eventually invited to be a part of Pixar's Toy Story franchise with the second film of the series, in which she gave voice to another beloved character, Barbie.

Jodi reprises her role as the iconic doll in Toy Story 3, which finds Barbie--who is shipped off with Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and the rest of the gang to a day care center--meeting her soulmate Ken for the first time. Though she immediately falls head over heels in love, Ken's metro-fabulous image and dainty ascot belie more nefarious intentions, and Barbie must ultimately break out of her shell and stand strong with her friends.

In this exclusive interview, we had the pleasure of talking to Jodi about her time on Toy Story 3, the experience of spoofing the Disney Princess genre with Enchanted, and how her run on the Broadway play Smile led to the role of Ariel in The Little Mermaid. We also tangle with some hardcore investigative journalism and tackle the burning question: Can you be the voice of the world's most famous mermaid and still eat seafood? Congratulations on the success of Toy Story 3. Feel free to be immodest and take all the credit for it...

No, no, I don't take any of the credit! [It's due to producers] John Lasseter and Darla [Anderson] and [director] Lee Unkrich...We just do what we're told. I'm thrilled that it's doing so well--we are really thrilled.

You recently attended a press event held at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California. As someone who has worked for them, what was your impression of the creative vibe they foster there?

That was actually my first time at Pixar when we were there are a few weeks ago, so I felt like a little kid in a candy store. Lee gave us a tour, and that was so fantastic to see all the animators' little homes that they had created--you could just see that it was a huge playground filled with a bunch of people who really cared about something, and used their passions and their gifts, and it mattered to them. And I was most impressed with, I think, just the level of enthusiasm and just actually loving what they do.

Given the advancements in technology, has the process of recording voices in animated features changed much since you did The Little Mermaid?

No, it's exactly the same process for me. I'm [usually] given a pencil sketch, and then, of course, your director is the one that plays all of the characters, reads you in, reads you out, sets up the scenes, draws the pictures in your mind--it's all done through imagination. And then for me, I just let loose and have a really great time like a kid in a sandbox. It's a very great feeling where you need to be uninhibited. You know, if someone were to watch me from the outside, I would look like a fool. I mean, it's just a free for all to have a really great time. And I never stop to think about what anybody's thinking or how they're looking at me or any of that. It's just "let go and let's play." Now with Mermaid, of course, we recorded together, simultaneously between glass. But ever since then, I've always worked by myself.

While you're in that booth by yourself, do you find it helpful to do a lot of gesticulating and physical performance while you're recording?

Yes. Everyone's different. Some people can sit in a chair and never move and record. I, unfortunately, cannot do that, because my training is more on stage and full-body. I'm always standing up, and I'm usually sweating profusely because I'm acting everything out. [laughs] That's just what works for me. I'm very physical that way. So for Barbie, I was able to kind of lock my elbows into my waist, and I just physically created the movements for her, and that just really helps me to get a little bit better idea for the character to make it as real as possible.

Your voice work has been so important to so many Disney projects--was voiceover performance always part of your career aspirations?

No. Never, never crossed my mind. [laughs] I had never been behind a microphone before, besides pretending when I was a little girl. But that was my first time, was with The Little Mermaid. And my dreams were--when I was eight years old--to be a working actress on Broadway: to sing, dance, and act. And that's what I pursued, and that's the dream that I was able to fulfill--God has just given me these wonderful gifts. So that was it. And I had reached that. And then when Howard Ashman had invited all of the cast of Smile to audition for The Little Mermaid, I didn't know the first thing about voiceovers or animation--never really heard the words before. And a year and a half later, my reel-to-reel tape was selected. So it's just an amazing, wonderful journey that God put me on, because it's not at all what I had anticipated to be a part of. So it made it even more special.

Do you remember doing something special to stand out during your audition for The Little Mermaid?

No. [laughs] I mean, we all read the exact same scene. We all stood in a little room with Albert Tavares pushing a reel-to-reel, a big machine, in New York City, and we all sang the same verse of "Part of Your World." I just went to the ladies room before I went in and looked in the mirror and started talking to myself with this handful of lines, and just tried to imagine what a 16-year-old girl would sound like. So I just went from that restroom back into the line. And then when my name was called, I walked in and he pushed the button, and I went ahead and did what I had just done in the ladies room, and that was the end of it. And you know, they pushed the reel-to-reel, they didn't attach our names or our pictures onto them, and a year and a half later, I got the call that my tape was selected. And of course, Howard Ashman was thrilled because he had just been my director, and he was thrilled that the [Little Mermaid] directors Ron [Clements] and John [Musker] had selected mine because he knew I was pliable and I was teachable, and he could get me to do anything he needed me to do. And so when I got the job, I went to the studio thinking, "I don't know what I'm doing." He's like, "Don't worry, I know how to get it. I'll be right next to you. We'll make this work. I'll teach you." And that's kind of how it started!

Given that Ariel has become such an important part of your life, do you eat seafood, or have you given that up out of respect to the character?

Oh! [laughs] Well, yes, we do eat seafood, but when we are at Disney World, Disneyland, or on the Disney Cruise, I make sure not to have lobster or crab. [laughs] I mean, I don't do lobster and crab in front of people--I really don't. Especially when I'm on a Disney event, because that's like a perfect photo opp, and it would probably not be a good, positive thing. [laughs]

I don't blame you for not giving it up completely--Ariel has many delicious friends. But moving on to your Toy Story character of Barbie: How did you go about finding a voice for this doll that has been such a huge part of American pop culture?

Well, I think for me, when John Lasseter invited me to be part of Toy Story 2, I was kind of blown away. You know, "Why did you pick me?" And he said, "Because we love you and you're Ariel, and I know you can do this." I didn't even audition for it. And when we got to the studio, I said, "Well, what do you want me to do?" And so he kind of pulled out a box of Barbies and we just started playing with them, and kind of started talking. And I said, "Well, this is kind of what's coming out. Is this what you want?" And he said, "Yep, that sounds great!" I tried to remove from my mind this iconic character of a perfect Barbie doll, because I felt like it was really getting in the way of creating what the voice would be. [laughs] So I said, "For me, it's just best if I kind of put that out of my mind." And especially for the third one, I just want to make her real and as human as possible, and kind of forget about the plastic exterior of her, because I felt like it was really making me, actually, nervous--I was getting nervous and overwhelmed of how to give this iconic character a voice. So I had to just stop thinking about that...And thankfully, John and Lee and Darla work that way as well. They are very much about the story, and they're very much about conveying the reality of these feelings and these lines, and making this as real as possible. So I just stopped thinking of her as a Barbie doll, and just started thinking of her as a young woman who loves her friends, and would basically die for her friends. She's passionate, she's filled with joy, she loves life, everything is exciting to her, everything is big and lovely and wonderful. And she's very innocent. So I kind of just approached it more as a young lady than as an iconic doll character.

One of the funniest things about Toy Story 3 is that Barbie is very expressive, and she's clearly not shy about showing her emotions. Is that part of her innocence, or do you think there's an element of craziness/obsessiveness to her?

[laughs] No, innocent...We didn't play for humor, we didn't play for sarcasm, we didn't play for vulnerability. We approached it as "she's real, and wow, she does express everything." And I'm very much like that. I wear my emotions on my sleeve, so I can easily relate to that. But no, we didn't go with anything except just her being real. And if you watch it, if it's funny, then it's funny because it's real, you know? Like we never talked about "let's make it funny." Nobody ever mentioned that, ever. And what's wonderful is when you're recording, you don't hear what's going on in the booth. Like my husband came to work with me last week in Los Angeles, and we were doing a Barbie project. And he's like, "Can you hear everybody just dying laughing in the booth?" I'm like, "No, I don't hear a thing." And I'm not playing for laughs. I am really saying these lines--I mean, she's really feeling this stuff. And he's like, "Oh my gosh, honey, it was hysterical." I said, "Really?" That never crosses my mind. All I'm doing is just trying to make her believable. So I guess that's the way we kind of worked with it, and that's how Lee approached it.

There's a running gag that Ken gets no respect. In your expert opinion, what do little girls who play with the dolls think of Ken? Is he an idealized guy, a mere accessory, or kind of a joke?

Well, for me, when I had my Barbie and my Ken, he was an accessory. I mean, Barbie was the focus, and then I added Skipper and I added Ken. But I felt like their relationship and their love for one another was very innocent and kind of real. As a little girl, when I would play with them, I never made him to be the villain. He's like the Mystery Date game: "Who's behind the door? The wholesome guy! He's athletic, and he's kind, and he's a gentleman." That's kind of how I played with him. But he was definitely part of Barbie's life...You know, I used him as her special love and her Prince Charming kind of thing. But I didn't really think of him in terms of know, unkind or evil. [laughs]

What was the most coveted Barbie accessory? The clothes? The pink convertible? Or was it really all about the dream house?

I think for me as a little girl, it was the bride's outfit--just that special outfit for her.

At one point in the film, Barbie suddenly bursts out with an unexpected outcry of sociopolitical commentary. Aside from the comedic element, what do you think that scene says about the character and what the writers were going for?

Well, I can only speak for how we tackled the line, which happened to be the most difficult line for me to say because it was quite a mouthful. And they were always laughing, but I couldn't hear them laughing. Of course, it wasn't a funny line to me, saying it--it was really a culmination of her saying, "You know what? Enough is enough." And she always respected Jessie, and Jessie is a "get 'er done girl," and Barbie really learns how to be a get 'er done girl through the storyline of the movie--I mean, for her to be the one to actually turn the tables, to get Buzz fixed, and to go against Ken, and to be loyal to her friends...So when she says that line at the end, it's just the culmination of everything that she has learned--you know, "I'm not going to just be a victim. I can make a difference. This isn't right, and I'm done with it." So it's like girl power at the end between the two of them just saying, "Enough is enough. We draw a line in the sand, and we're not crossing over. And if it means we die, I'm okay with that." That's kind of how we tackled it. [laughs]

Despite how beloved so many Disney characters are, there's always room for playful spoofing, as was done in Enchanted a few years ago. How did you feel about making a cameo in that film and poking fun at the conventions of the fairy tale/Disney Princess genre?

It was an honor. Again, it wasn't something I auditioned for. I got a call through my agent from [director] Kevin Lima, who was an animator on The Little Mermaid, and invited the Princesses to be a part of it. And I just thought, "Well, I've never been on camera, I don't know what I'm doing." And again, just like with animation, Kevin said, "Don't worry about it, I'll take care of you. I'll help you get through this." And I was very nervous and didn't know anybody on the cast. I thought that Patrick Dempsey was actually going to be Patrick Duffy. And I don't watch TV, so I didn't know who he was, so when he walked [in], I was kind of disappointed because I thought I was working with either Patrick Duffy or Patrick Stewart. I got the names mixed up. It was, again, just me and a whole world that I don't know what I'm doing. And I don't care about making a fool of myself. Really, it doesn't bother me. So I told Patrick Dempsey, "I don't know what I'm doing. I've never been in a movie before, so just bear with me." Well, it turned from like one line to like three little scenes because Patrick enjoyed working with me, because, I guess, I just didn't care about who he was or anything. And we talked to each other like a mom and a dad would talk about their kids--and that's what we talked about most of the time, was our children. So we just had a really good time working together. He was very nice and very generous to me. And everybody was incredibly kind to me. So I had a great three days. I loved the experience. And I'd never done anything like that before, so it was great.

What was your impression of Amy Adams' portrayal of an archetypal Princess, and did you recognize elements of Ariel in her character of Giselle?

She was absolutely brilliant. When we met the first day, she was kind of nervous and a little bit...intimidated to meet me? Which I didn't really understand why. And she just was like, "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I can't believe that you are here and that I'm singing in the film, and I had to sing in front of Alan Menken!" And so I just tried to encourage her. I was like, "You have done an amazing job with this, and you're absolutely fantastic." And I love everything that she created with that character. And it was Princess-like--I could see several of the Princesses in her performance. I just thought she was absolutely brilliant. I was so impressed.

Jodi, thank you very much for your time this morning. And in the bigger scheme of things, thanks for bringing so many wonderful characters to life and being a part of so many people's childhoods.

Well thank you so much for having me. God bless you, and I appreciate your time today and your support!

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