For the casual snorkeler, experienced diver, or novel tourist, the Caribbean Sea is a limitless world of adventure and worthy of wonder. Mythologically, however, Disney’s The Little Mermaid has defined a generation's curious desire to discover what lies beneath these pristinely blue tropical waters of the Western Hemisphere.
First released in 1989, the animated film made a splash on theater screens across continents, uniting audiences with the fictional story of Ariel: a high-spirited mermaid princess whose fiery, rebellious personality and thirst for adventure trod precariously between two worlds. Living in the underwater Kingdom of Atlantica where her father, King Triton, rules and protects his people from dangers unknown, Ariel longs for permission to explore the human-occupied surface above. Now, 34 years later and an hour longer than its predecessor, The Little Mermaid returns to the big screen this Friday, May 26, reimagined in live-action for a new generation.
Since the announcement of her casting as Ariel, Halle Bailey has been catapulted into the spotlight of Hollywood. Bailey has faced a tidal wave of nostalgia-driven support and lofty expectations, and been subjected to an incessant debate over her casting qualifications — placing her at the center of viral conversations about race, opportunity, and Black female representation in global entertainment spaces. Amidst the noise of public opinion and even in the most valiant acts of perseverance, it’s easy to lose your voice when you’re finally ready to stand on your own.
Teen Vogue recently sat with the dynamic actress and singer to discuss her art and artistry, the Caribbean legacy of the film, and her vulnerable journey of self-discovery as a budding movie star. The Georgia-born Bailey gets candid about the parallels between herself and her on-screen character, finding her own voice in real-time, and how this Disney blockbuster creates a safe space for young Black Girls to lean into their magic and dream beyond limits.
Teen Vogue: Halle, it’s so good to catch up with you again. How are you feeling?
Halle Bailey: I’m feeling good today! How are you?
TV: I’m doing well. I’m really excited to see the movie! You know, I feel like we all have our own little personal connection with this film as a staple from our younger years. What is your first memory of watching The Little Mermaid as a child?
HB: Wow… my first memory of watching The Little Mermaid. I had to be like 5 years old – so I’m the baby girl of three sisters — and I just remember my sisters Chlöe and Ski, we all just collectively loved this film so much. We had the really big VHS tape version, so we would just pop it in and watch it on repeat, and it’s part of the big reason my sister Chlöe and I would want to swim and how we would be in the water. Because Ariel inspired us.
TV: That’s so inspiring. Let’s exchange stories a bit… For me, in Trinidad and Tobago back in 1990, there was an attempted coup against the government in power at that time. So, when the terrorist organization took over our national television station, there was only one movie that played on repeat for six days while the country was under siege, and it was The Little Mermaid.
TV: I still have those memories, and I guess looking back on those moments now as an adult, the film kept a lot of kids safe and secure, and put us in this bubble, this safe space. In connecting your own experiences to your role as Ariel, what were those moments like?
HB: Yes, well it’s truly an honor and it feels very surreal honestly, because as you said in your experience, this movie has meant so much to us for such a very long time. A lot of it is this safe feeling that we get from remembering where we were when we were watching it, and your story about what it meant for you… that’s such a beautiful story, wow. I was just really excited by the readaptation of the film; I was genuinely curious as to how they would really put their stamp of their own in this new version and if it would live up to the one we all know and love.
Our director, Rob Marshall, is a visionary; he is a perfectionist, and I was really grateful to be working on a project like this with him where he has such vision, passion, and drive. It really inspired me to go after what I wanted and to put my all into this film because knowing how much it meant to so many people. Knowing that we have just something amazing to live up to.
TV: Halle, that is so beautiful. Walk me through any lyrical changes in this live-action version of The Little Mermaid. You’ve previously mentioned that there were some slight changes to the theme — including less emphasis on the relationship Ariel has with Prince Eric?
HB: Well honestly, when I first heard the original songs, the new versions, I didn’t notice any lyrical changes. I feel like there’s something so strong and so beautiful already that we didn’t really have to touch the music a lot, and it’s beautiful because the original composer Alan Menken is a part of this new readaptation of this film. He is an icon and a legend so it means a lot to have the original creator of these songs to really reshape and give new life to our version. Not much was changed — it’s just showing a deeper sense and a deeper look into Ariel’s brain and her heart. The love story is there, because it’s such a special and prominent part of the film.
I think before in other conversations, people misunderstood what I was saying where these values and themes that were in the original— they are perfect as they are and we are just diving deeper so that you can see more of [Ariel's] perspective and journey.
TV: How did you feel about the music challenging you as both an actress and a singer?
HB: The music really did challenge me emotionally. For example, in “Part Of Your World,” the song is such a beautiful song and when you hear the melodies you almost think it’s such a joyful, happy song if you don’t listen to the lyrics. But studying the lyrics of the song, I quickly realized how heartbreaking and desperate of a plea this song was for Ariel. It was a beautiful thing to try to incorporate the emotions that she was feeling all into this song. I really wanted to play on every single thing that she was feeling: every emotion on her face, every crack of her voice. I feel like Rob Marshall really helped me do that — as a perfectionist he will get it out of you. We felt really happy with the performance in the end.
TV: Were there any musical inspirations or persons that you looked to in fulfilling your role who were not involved in the making of the film or the Disney franchise?
HB: Yeah! The pioneers that came before me — for this movie, Whitney Houston was a really big one because of the work she was able to do through song and acting throughout her career. She was definitely someone I looked to for inspiration with songs like “I Will Always Love You” from The Bodyguard, how effortless her voice was and how big that moment was for her. Brandy in Cinderella — when you look at their journey and their experiences, you’re inspired and you hope to be just as great or even a little bit as great as they were.
TV: I know you were in Jamaica earlier this year to take a quick break, which I found ironic since Sebastian is intended to have a Jamaican accent and embodies this larger-than-life character. Even in the character brief, it’s said that Sebastian went to Music Academy in Trinidad and Tobago before joining King Triton as an advisor — so there’s some major Caribbean representation here. What do you think the role and purpose of this movie will be beyond American and European borders and audiences?
HB: The amazing Caribbean influence that this film takes on is so important; it’s a beautiful thing. First of all, Ariel lives in the Caribbean Sea, so it’s cool that we get to go on this journey with her and it makes sense that Sebastian talks the way he does. I’m just excited to be able to showcase this part of the film and it’s a big part of what needs to be seen. I think that Daveed Diggs, who plays Sebastian in this version, did a great job as well with those inflections in his voice and I’m just grateful to learn more about this part of the world.
I love Jamaica, I went for my birthday, I had a great time and it’s cool when you get to infuse these cultures together. The Caribbean is such a big part of what makes this film great. A lot of the influences with the music, from the drums to the melodic sounds, the certain instruments that are played… it plays into it in every single way. With this film, we really tried to honor that and keep it as a staple because it’s so important.
TV: What is the message you would like to tell little Black girls who live in these geographical spaces that are often invisible, specifically in the Caribbean and diaspora?
HB: It’s so important for these beautiful Black girls and boys to know that they are worthy, that they are special, that their skin is beautiful, and that they deserve to be in positions like this. They deserve to see themselves in roles as big as Ariel. I am grateful to be one of those people who get to represent someone that looks like them. I know that when I was younger, I had Brandy from Cinderella and Destiny’s Child. I remember when their dolls came out, and it’s such a special thing when you’re able to see these pioneers as women open the door for you. Because when you walk through, you feel like you deserve to be there, you are meant to be there, and there is purpose. I feel like we all need a lift-me-up and a pat on the back from others a lot of the time, and it’s really inspirational. I pinch myself that I get to be in the position to do this now, and I just hope that they feel that they are loved, and wanted, and they are beautiful.
TV: Speaking of which: I have a question from a little girl, her name is Coryn Anaya Clarke. She asked, “I’m from Trinidad and Tobago where the steelpan was invented. I don’t know how much you know about my country or the steel pan, but do you think you’ll be interested in learning to play it?”
HB: Oh, absolutely! The steelpan is such a beautiful instrument and it’s used a lot in the film, especially in “Under The Sea.” When we were in rehearsals, they had these amazing live players with steelpans and other instruments. Even the scenes where we would be on the beach, they would always play just to keep the vibe and that feeling in the air. I would totally be interested in learning how to play — it’s such a cool instrument!
TV: I’m making a note to get a steelpan for you! Tell me, what advice did Jodi Benson give you from her own acting experience as Ariel, in your transformational process for the role?
HB: Jodi Benson is such a kind soul. I was very grateful to meet her, because she is just an amazing woman and legend, and she’s the soundtrack to most of our childhoods with this film. She set the blueprint, so I was so happy when I felt like I got her approval because that was important to me. We’re both God-fearing women, we’re both from Atlanta, Georgia, and I remember she said to me that she was so proud of me and to just continue to believe in myself and to know that this is exactly where I’m supposed to be — that this is all happening for a reason. I was grateful to accept those words from her, because to have this stamp of approval from the original Ariel helped me feel better about my performance and more confident in my abilities.
TV: Let’s talk about your hair as Ariel.You had to spend so much time in the water. How many hours in the day were you in there?
HB: Oooo! So there would be periods of time where I would be solely in the water. There was one month that was dedicated to the tank work I had to do, so that would be eight or more hours per day. But then after that month, it was good, I wasn’t really in the water that much, until we got to Italy and did some of those sea-to-shore scenes.
It was really a priority for me to take care of my hair because we know, as Black girls, we love the water and we deserve to be in the water. But we also deserve to have healthy, beautiful hair, so we tried to take care of it. In the tanks, there would be chlorine and a lot of chemicals so we had to make sure to wash and condition it very well at the end of the day. It was a big task, but our crowns are so important to us.
TV: Did you have a loctician on set, to take care of your locs?
HB: I did! I had this wonderful woman, Tiffany, who was my day-to-day hairstylist who would really try to monitor the health of my hair while filming. I also had an amazing team of trichologists solely dedicated to scalp health, I think they were from the Caribbean as well.
TV: That’s amazing, reaffirming, and so important. We talk about the term “representation matters,” but having Black women actually show up in these spaces, it’s really important because it’s not just a statement, it’s an action happening on- and off-screen. In recent years, there has been a stronger call for Disney to incorporate more Black female representation in their programming, particularly in their princess line-up. How do you think your role as Ariel in The Little Mermaid moves the needle as it relates to diversity and inclusion?
HB: I definitely think that being able to play this version of Ariel in The Little Mermaid has really helped and is going to help move the needle… [until] we are able to see ourselves in big spaces and learn that we are allowed to take up space and we shouldn’t have to ask for permission. It’s a reflection of the world that we live in today. It’s so beautiful and diverse and our community is a big part of the reason why we thrive the way we do. It’s important for us to realize our worth and for others to realize our worth as well. I’m grateful that I get to be in this position to show these children that it is possible and you do deserve to be here.
TV: You finding your own voice, ironically parallel to Ariel, must have been an important part of this process for you. Who was Halle when she was cast at 18, and what was one experience while on set that contributed to who Halle is now at 23?
HB: I will definitely say Halle was a bit more shy, more timid, and a bit more not sure of herself when she first was cast, and then this whole filming experience was transformative in more ways than one. Not only physically, but mentally and spiritually — I grew and I finally found a piece of who I really am on my own. Ariel taught me those things. I remember the wrap day felt completely different than my first day on set. I felt more sure of myself, more powerful: I understood my worth, and that I deserved to be here, all of these same themes that Ariel tries to learn throughout the film. I felt like I learned those things through my experiences of playing her.
TV: I think audiences will have to reconcile with the reality of the role technology plays in this film. What’s one unknown fact about filming in CGI that you want people to know?
HB: I would say that a lot of it is put in after. For me, the very first month of filming I was on the bluescreen, on wires in the air and talking to imaginary characters [Laughs]. So it was funny because I think if people see the behind-the-scenes footage they’ll laugh, because it literally looks like I’m talking to air, but it looks complete when it’s all done.
TV: Which was your favorite song to record?
HB: My favorite song to record would definitely have been “Part Of Your World” because of the impact that song had on me ever since I was a little girl. The fact that I was able to make it my own and not be limited; I was allowed to be creative and that was really exciting to the musician and singer in me. That was definitely my favorite [song].
TV: What do you hope people walk away from this version of *__The Little Mermaid __*with?
HB: I hope that people walk away feeling joyful, happy, in love. I hope that people walk away feeling inspired to go after what they want in life. I think that a lot of times as a society, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the uncertainty of it all — our future, of what could happen next, maybe we don’t have everything that we need right now. It gets overwhelming at times. Watching this story of somebody going through these ups and downs, and this transformative experience that Ariel goes through, knowing that these struggles are ultimately what gets her to the other side. Even though it’s a lot of trouble and darkness in between, knowing that in the end it will pay off if you just follow your heart. Don’t ignore that feeling that you have within.
I hope that The Little Mermaid inspires people to apply those themes to their real [lives], and how they feel when they go home… what they want for themselves, their future, and their passions. And I want the babies to feel like they can go after their dreams and not be scared. You can be a princess, or an astronaut, or whatever you want. Although struggles may come with it, just bare through it and it will pay off in the end.