Jodi Benson

The voice of Ariel talks about her voice work in the prequel and her role in Toy Story 3

Jodi Benson is floating into some familiar territory once again. After getting her start on Broadway, Benson beat out more than 500 voice actresses to land the coveted voice role of Ariel in The Little Mermaid, a role which she has reprised numerous times for various Disney productions like the sequel The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea. She also lended her voice to Toy Story 2 as Tour Guide Barbie and was most recently seen as Sam in last year's Enchanted. I recently got to speak with Benson about her coming back to Ariel with the upcoming straight-to-DVD prequel, The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning, which hits the DVD shelves on August 26. Here's what Benson had to say about her classic voice role.

I read that you originally went to college to be a lawyer. How did end up doing voice work and theater work and everything else that you've been doing?

Jodi Benson: Oh, my goodness. You found that out, huh. Well, I came from a small town in Rockford, Illinois and my family was not thrilled that I was pursuing musical theater. So, to just kind of ease over the pain, I decided to go into Pre-Law with a minor in theater, but I really had no intention of pursuing law (Laughs). I just thought that would kind of appease them, so that was my cover for my freshman year while I was at school. Just a complete joke, that's all, just to say, 'Hey guys, get off my back,' but I was really pursuing a BFA in Muscal Theater and within the middle of the sophomore year, I had gotten a show, so I left. Then, 10 years later, I went back and crammed two years into a semester at home, after each show with correspondents and went back on my vacation and walked with my commencement class, 10 years later.

So what made you want to get into voice work, coming from Broadway? How did you get into doing that sort of work and doing the voice of Ariel?

Jodi Benson: Well, I did not pursue voice work. My whole passion, ever since I was 8, was to do Broadway. I was on Broadway and doing my thing, I was doing Smile with Howard Ashman and Marvin Hamlisch and Howard had already started a relationship with Disney and was working on the beginnings of The Little Mermaid. Our show closed, after 6 weeks, which is a huge heartbreak for everybody and he invited all the girls in the cast, there were over 20 of us, to audition for the film. Sort of like a little sidebar for us, so we wouldn't feel so bad. I made a reel-to-reel of what I thought Ariel would sound like and sing like and a year later, my reel-to-reel got selected. There's no explanation for it. There were a ton of girls who could do this. It was a God thing, you know. The Lord just plopped this miracle in my lap and it has been my passion and my minstry ever since, these 20 plus years.

So, tell us a little about the prequel? How far back does this go with the journey of Ariel?

Jodi Benson: It starts when Ariel is five and establishes her relationship with her family, her father, her mother and her sisters. It's really about that, those relationships and what transpires after that. Then we go 10 years later and she's between 14 and 15 and it's a prequel because it happens before the original film and it focuses on the relationships and the passion of music. I think that we have captured the essence of Ariel and I'm hoping and praying that the children of this generation will fall in love with Ariel all over again. That's our hope, so I think that's the whole reason why we're doing it, is to keep her character alive and to let this next generation really get to know her with their own film.

How do these voicing sessions work? Do you actually work with Samuel Wright (voice of Sebastian) in the booths? You have Sally Field on this one as well, so what was that whole process like?

Jodi Benson: Here's the trick. Back in the old days, we'd do a big read-through of the movie, like a stage play, and then we'd go into the booth, behind the glass together, working off of each other. Not anymore. Those days are done. So, at our premiere, I hope to meet the cast. I worked alone, never saw anybody, and that is a bummer. We're doing that with Toy Story 3 as well. I went to work for Toy Story 3. I play opposite Michael Keaton and Michael Keaton is leaving as I'm walking into the booth. I'm like, 'Could we just have 10 minutes together to meet each other, face to face, and just read through our lines, just one set of lines?' So that you can get a bead on each other, because your read changes so drastically when you're reading off of somebody. So, that is probably my one complaint, but hey. We're in 2008 and people have lives and they're all over the planet. I had Peggy, I had (director) Peggy Holmes, like I had Howard Ashman. I had her right next to me and in and out, acting out all the characters and giving me a read on the whole script. She danced it, she sang it, she spoke it and she's the one. She's the one that has to transport you into those scenes because you don't have anybody else there. So, Peggy is like a mini-Howard. She did an amazing job and without here, we wouldn't have a film.

So why do you think that process has changed so much? Is it just everybody's schedule?

Jodi Benson: Yeah, and you've got stars and you just have people with lives and they're all over the place. I mean, I did Lady and the Tramp II, singing opposite somebody in England. Singing! Singing a duet. I was like, 'Oh my goodness sakes.' This is just too bizarre for me, and the time lapse, so you're singing behind three counts. So it was like, 'I cannot believe I'm singing a duet with somebody in London.' That's the way it is. I guess I'm just old-fashioned so I just always put my two cents in like, 'Any chance that I could possibly be doing a scene with somebody today?' 'Oh, no. It's just you and Peggy.' But, hey, we're supposed to be professionals so we're supposed to make it work.

So what are the chances we might get to see another continuation of Ariel? Since this is a prequel, maybe another sequel from the original two?

Jodi Benson: I don't know. She's already had a daughter in The Little Mermaid II. Does she have a granddaughter? I don't know where we go from here (Laughs). It would certainly be great, if she has other lives and it'll be exciting to see what happens. Who knows. With Disney, we're pretty creative over here so I'm sure they can come up with something.

Yeah, I imagine so. Is there anything that can tell us about Toy Story 3, or anything you're looking to move forward with in the near future?

Jodi Benson: Well, we just started Toy Story 3 and, pending the actors strike, we'll be able to finish it. We started that last month, or a month before. I guess it was the end of June. I'm excited because, when I did Toy Story 2, it was Tour Guide Barbie and for Toy Story 3, I'm just Barbie. Barbie actually has a part, and Barbie has a Ken. It's Michael Keaton and I'm sure he's gonna be fantastic. It's the year of three's for me. I seem to do all the two's in one year. I did Lady and the Tramp II, 101 Dalmatians II and The Little Mermaid II, all in the same year, in the same timeframe. Now we're in the three's so (Laughs), I guess I'm just a sequel person, but I'm excited about Toy Story 3 because I love Pixar, I love John Lassetter and now these two companies for me are combined. It's just great and the script is really good so I'm excited about that.

Any chance of an Enchanted 2?

Jodi Benson: I haven't heard. Sam might live, who knows. Sam might live, Sam who has no last name. Yeah, Enchanted was amazing. I was just telling another interviewer it was supposed to be a blip on the screen and it turned out to be this little character with a couple of scenes and I had a blast. I'd never done a film before. Patrick (Dempsey) and Amy (Adams) were amazing to me. They were so kind and gracious and patient, because I didn't know what the heck I was doing. Kevin Lima was just a treasure to even invite me to be a part of it, as his little inside joke with the princesses so he was great, great to work with.

Do you have anything coming up on the stage soon?

Jodi Benson: Nothing on the state. I have two little ones at home that I home school, so that's my full-time job during the week and I do concerts on the weekend and then I generally fly out here to do most of the film work, but the rest of the stuff, I could do Ariel in Atlanta. We have a second studio for Disney that we base in Atlanta, so I do all the product from that studio and where we live in north Georgia in the mountains at Lake Lanier. So, I can work it out. Teach the kids Monday through Friday and then do my gigs on the weekends and my studio work is generally one hour a week, in the afternoon after I finish school, so it works out well for our family. It's been a real blessing.

Finally, with the movie coming out on DVD, do you really want this new, 21st Century youth to kind of get back into Ariel and re-discover Ariel again?

Jodi Benson: Yeah. Our heart, I know from Peggy and (producer) Kendra (Halland) and myself, and I'm sure I can speak for the rest of the cast, but for those of us who have been a part of this whole thing for many many years, is for the next generation to have their own film to hook onto. So, for the new kids in that 3 to 10 range right now, it's for them to be introduced to this character for the first time and we want them to have that connection like the other children did, when I got 20-plussers who decorate their college rooms in Ariel, we want that. We want to build that generation with this film. Our hope is that we can keep this character alive and let this new generation fall in love with her?

Well, that's about all I have for you, Jodi. Thank you so much for your time today, and best of luck.

Jodi Benson: Well, thank you. Thank you for your time today and we appreciate your support.

The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning brings Ariel back to DVD on August 26.