The Little Mermaid’s Halle Bailey and Jonah Hauer-King created a special bond while filming Rob Marshall’s live-action reimagining of Disney’s 1989 animated classic, and Hauer-King isn’t afraid to be a fanboy of his mega-talented co-star. The Atlanta and London natives play the roles of mermaid Princess Ariel and Prince Eric, respectively, which Jodi Benson and Christopher Daniel Barnes memorably brought to life 34 years ago in John Musker and Ron Clements’ animated film. Thus, Bailey and Hauer-King always approached the material with reverence and respect for the original film, even if their story took a couple of detours to familiar destinations.
Bailey — who is one half of the sisterly musical duo Chloe x Halle — had to play out an accomplished singer’s worst fear as Ariel, in that she had to imagine a reality where she’s lost her voice. However, she made a point to sing live on set and not lip-sync to her prerecorded vocals, which reduced the amount of time she’d need to be mute in one way or another.
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“It definitely was a little frightening to play losing my voice,” Bailey tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But it was also really cool because, as singers, we go on this thing called vocal rest … So it’s almost like this really cool meditative state that you get to go in, and it makes you just calm down and reset.”
Bailey adds: “I really enjoyed singing live because I am a performer first, and sometimes, it’s hard for me to get all of the emotion and feeling out of myself if I’m not fully singing to the best of my ability.”
One of the most famous shots from the 1989 animated film is when a now-human Ariel bursts out of the water at sunset and does her iconic hair flip. To capture this same moment with Bailey in live action, it took considerable teamwork.
“[A stuntman] would hold my hair underwater and then he would throw it for me when I came up, so that it didn’t feel like such a weight on my shoulders,” Bailey says. “So we did it multiple times to get it just right. It looks so cool and perfect in the animated film, so we were trying to re-create that in real life.”
Hauer-King will also never forget the time where they filmed Ariel’s rescue of Prince Eric at the beginning of the film, as Eric’s footwear led to a bit of an occupational hazard.
“I nearly broke [Halle’s] legs whilst we were filming the underwater tank stuff when Ariel saves Eric,” Hauer-King says with a laugh. “I had my big boots on, and I was kicking Halle in the shins by accident. So she was very brave that day, and I’d probably remind her of that [decades from now] and ask her if she still has the bruises.”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Bailey and Hauer-King also express their interest in being a part of a potential Transformers musical after that bizarre viral video in which the trailers for The Little Mermaid and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts accidentally overlapped to the sound of Ariel singing.
Well, I assume the two of you read together during casting, but did that involve both a mute scene and a talking scene?
Jonah Hauer-King: It was actually just a mute scene.
Halle Bailey: Yeah, it was mute for me, but you had to talk. It was the library scene.
Hauer-King: Yeah, we did the library scene. Halle was obviously cast first, and I assume you had to do loads of auditions …
Hauer-King: I did some scenes with my mum in the film, and then I did the library scene with Halle, which was great. It could have been difficult, but Halle is such a present performer that, even without words, she gave me so much to respond to. So thank you for that.
Bailey: No, thank you! Yeah, that was a really fun one. I had to be silent and anyone who knows me knows that I talk a lot, so that was a little difficult for me. But the other audition scene I had to do was the moment between Ariel and King Triton [Javier Bardem], where he destroyed the things in her grotto and she got upset. (Laughs.)
Halle, it’s quite common for singers to have nightmares or anxieties about losing their voice, so was it kind of frightening to have to play out that scenario as Ariel?
Bailey: It definitely was a little frightening to play losing my voice, but it was also really cool because, as singers, we go on this thing called vocal rest whenever our voice is in distress or we use it too much. So it’s almost like this really cool meditative state that you get to go in, and it makes you just calm down and reset. So, of course, there was a little bit of anxiety with me on set when I had to not talk and show all these emotions on my face, but it was a happy medium. Half the time, I was like, “Yeah, this is cool. I don’t have to say anything and Jonah has to talk a lot.” And then the other half, I was like, “Man, I wish I could talk.” (Laughs.)
Jonah, since you’ve been called King your whole life, did this prince business feel like a demotion?
Hauer-King & Bailey: (Laugh.)
Hauer-King: (Deadpans.) I felt like I’d been demoted. I was very angry about it. I almost didn’t take the role as a result.
Hauer-King: But maybe there was some kind of subconscious messaging and that’s why I got the role. But no, I’ve never felt more royal than when I was doing this film, so I’m pleased with it.
Halle, when Ariel bursts out of the water at sunset and flips her hair back, how many takes were needed to get that silhouette shot just right?
Bailey: Oh wow, we did a lot of takes of that, because there were so many technical elements to think about, and my hair is long. It was longer then, but it was so heavy. Whenever it gets wet in the water, it gets so heavy, but I actually had this amazing stuntman named Dan who helped me. He would hold my hair underwater and then he would throw it for me when I came up, so that it didn’t feel like such a weight on my shoulders. So we did it multiple times to get it just right. It looks so cool and perfect in the animated film, so we were trying to re-create that in real life.
Hauer-King: It looks amazing.
Jonah, when you found out you were getting your own song, did you need to sit down for a minute and take a few deep breaths?
Hauer-King: (Laughs.) Yeah, I collapsed to the floor. It was frightening. I was scared anyway because it was still during the audition process, and up till that point, they had asked me to just sing some of my favorite songs from other musicals. And then, when they actually showed me the sheet music for “Wild Uncharted Waters,” I felt like I was being brought into the inner circle. It felt like it was getting quite real at that point. So it was exciting, but it was also quite daunting because it’s a beautiful song. [Composer] Alan [Menken] is incredible, and Lin[-Manuel Miranda] did a wonderful job with the lyrics. So I just had this feeling of not wanting to mess it up and wanting to do it justice. So it was exciting, but I definitely had some wobbly knees.
Halle, they obviously added your studio recordings to each musical number in post, but would you still go all out and sing live on the day?
Bailey: I would, actually. I really enjoyed singing live because I am a performer first, and sometimes, it’s hard for me to get all of the emotion and feeling out of myself if I’m not fully singing to the best of my ability. So for “Part of Your World,” it was a three-day sequence, and even though I was mouthing to the live vocal that I had recorded, I was still singing live on set while I was filming it. It just felt like that was the only way to get the exact emotion and feeling and desperation that we needed so much in her voice. On “For the First Time,” when Prince Eric was coming up the stairs to meet my version of Ariel, I actually asked a few times if I could sing it live because, once again, it is difficult to get that same feeling and emotion by lip-syncing to the vocals I recorded. I think they actually used the take I did live where I’m singing and belting my heart out right before Ariel meets Prince Eric. So, as a singer, it helped me to just get it out and do it on the day, and I feel like I’m prouder of my performance that way.
Overall, what scene from the animated film were the two of you most excited to reimagine?
Hauer-King: I think the carriage ride is quite fun.
Hauer-King: It’s a great scene in the original. It’s adventurous, and they’re having a fun time. I’ve actually seen a couple shots from the original compared to what we did, and I think it pairs up really well. It just felt like quite a fun sequence, and being out in Sardinia [Italy] was really, really nice.
Bailey: So nice!
Hauer-King: So that felt like it would be good [to reimagine].
Yeah, the first date, followed by “Kiss the Girl,” is my favorite stretch of the film. What was the highlight of putting that sequence together?
Bailey: Well, “Kiss the Girl” was so fun to film because we were in the middle of a rainforest that they created in the studio, basically. They built it from the ground up, and we felt like we were walking into a Disney World ride. It was that beautiful. So that was a highlight, and then all of the onshore beach scenes were really fun for both of us. Like Jonah just said, we were in Italy toward the end of filming, and it was hot and warm. It almost felt like we were on vacation from where we had been in London, which was gloomy and gray for four months. So I loved those moments.
There was a viral video the other day where the Little Mermaid trailer and the Transformers: Rise of the Beasts trailer were playing simultaneously at a movie theater, and Halle’s voice somehow made it work quite well. Did you happen to catch that?
Hauer-King: I have seen that!
Bailey: Yeah, it was cool!
Hauer-King: You could put Halle’s voice over anything, and it would somehow become cool and moving. That [viral video] showed that.
What if that fluke occurrence inspires a proper Transformers musical?
Hauer-King: I’d be down. I’d love to meet Bumblebee.
Bailey: Oh yeah! Bumblebee? I would cry. That would be awesome.
Hauer-King: Optimus Prime would be awesome, too.
Decades from now, when the two of you reunite for the anniversary of this film, what day will you remind each other of first?
Bailey: Wow, I think we’ll just remind each other of how beautiful of an experience this was and just tell each other how proud we are of each other. We both put a lot of hard work into this, and it was a really nice bond that we got to create together.
Hauer-King: I’d remind you of that, but I’d also remind you of the time I nearly broke your legs whilst we were filming the underwater tank stuff when Ariel saves Eric.
Hauer-King: I had my big boots on, and I was kicking Halle in the shins by accident. So she was very brave that day, and I’d probably remind her of that and ask her if she still has the bruises.
Hauer-King & Bailey: (Laugh.)
The Little Mermaid opens in theaters May 26. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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