Halle Bailey landed the role of a lifetime four years ago when she was cast as the lead in the live-action reboot of one of her favorite childhood Disney films, The Little Mermaid. Now, 22, the singer best known as one-half of sibling due Chloe x Halle, can finally start talking about the grueling, inspiring process of slipping into Ariel’s fish tale, a role that was much, much bigger than she could have ever imagined.
In an interview with Variety that pulls back the cover on some details about the closely held film slated to open in May 2023, Bailey talks about being cast as only the second Black actor to play a Disney princess — following Anika Noni Rose as the voice of Tiana in 2009’s The Princess and the Frog — and why she’s looking forward to inspiring a new generation.
“I want the little girl in me and the little girls just like me who are watching to know that they’re special, and that they should be a princess in every single way,” Bailey said. “There’s no reason that they shouldn’t be. That reassurance was something that I needed.” After listening to her grandparents share their memories of racism and discrimination, Bailey took their inspiration to heart as she prepped for the potentially career-making film role.
“It was an inspiring and beautiful thing to hear their words of encouragement, telling me, ‘You don’t understand what this is doing for us, for our community, for all the little Black and brown girls who are going to see themselves in you,’” she said they told her. The encouragement was even more important in the wake of some backlash from trolls, who launched the #NotMyAriel hashtag to protest the idea of a Black mermaid princess.
“It’s important,” her sister and musical partner Chloe told the mag, “to have a strong support system around you. It’s hard to carry the weight of the world on your own.” That system also helped Bailey consider what her younger self might have been feeling if she’d had a Black Ariel to look up to. “What that would have done for me, how that would have changed my confidence, my belief in myself, everything,” she wondered. “Things that seem so small to everyone else, it’s so big to us.”
The process of landing the role in the film that was delayed several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic began when Bailey was 18, after director Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns) spotted her on the 2019 Grammy Awards telecast where Chloe x Halle performed “Where Is the Love?” And while the director was enraptured by her singing, he wasn’t sure if she could act, so he asked her to audition by singing Ariel’s anthem, “Part of Your World.”
“When she finished, I was in tears because she’s so soulful,” Marshall said of the star who has since logged four seasons on Freeform’s Grown-ish along with her sister. “You could tell right away that she was able to harness Ariel’s passion, her fire, her soul, her joy and her heart.” He was sold, but it took a magical costume fitting for Bailey to feel like she was ready to swim with the big ‘maids. During her screen test, the actress-singer said costume designer Colleen Atwood came to her home for what Bailey said was a scene right out of another of her childhood faves.
“Have you ever seen that Hilary Duff movie where she has a twin and she’s thrown into a room to put on all these clothes?” Bailey said, comparing the fitting to a scene in 2003’s The Lizzie McGuire Movie in which Duff runs through a series of outfits. “I felt like that.” While nobody is really allowed to reveal any details of the costume design, Marshall told Variety that the character’s hair incorporates Bailey’s signature locs. “She looks stunning in red hair; not everybody does,” he said.
Another sneak peek came when Bailey said she borrowed from her own life to get into the character’s emotional headspace when it came to building a relationship with her movie father, King Triton (Javier Bardem). “I would always talk about [how] my dad is like a mirror of King Triton; he’s always been so overprotective of my sister and I,” she said of her real-life pops. “That’s one of the things that we love about him — the way he loves. When I had scenes with Javier, I just pulled from my experience with my own father: how deep that love is, and how strong and protective they get.”
In addition to the hard emotional work, Bailey also had to learn to soar on wires and other technical apparatuses that allowed her to spin, fly and flip through space to capture Ariel’s mermaid maneuvers. Because Bailey came to the part with musical experience in hand, her singing inspired Oscar-winning songwriters Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda to write some new songs for her Ariel, though Marshall said one of the highlights was her “wrenching” rendition of her audition song “World.”
“[Halle] sings that moment up an octave from the original,” Marshall said. “It’s the most chilling, and the most thrilling, film moment because it crystallizes not just her incredible vocal ability but the emotional passion she has in singing it.”
Melissa McCarthy, who plays Ursula in the film — which also stars Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina and Jacob Tremblay — said in June that when she heard Bailey’s version on set, she was overwhelmed and that “seven of us that just burst out crying because we had not heard it.”
Following Mermaid, Bailey jetted off to Georgia to work on the musical drama adaptation of The Color Purple, in which she will play main character Celie’s sister, Nettie.