Growing up, Halle Bailey was obsessed with “The Little Mermaid,” wearing out her family’s VHS tape watching and rewatching the 1989 Disney animated hit and pretending to be Ariel every time she went swimming. “Her sense of longing, her searching for herself, was something that I could resonate with,” Bailey says. “She knew where she wanted to go, and she wasn’t going to let anybody stop her.”
Bailey can relate. Now, it will fall on her 22-year-old shoulders to bring Ariel’s quest for true love and independence to life on-screen for a new generation of movie fans. Four years ago, Bailey, best known as one-half of the Grammy-nominated duo Chloe x Halle, landed the title role in the live-action remake of the classic film — which has wrapped shooting and will open in theaters in May 2023.
Before Bailey’s casting, only one other Black actor had been crowned a Disney princess (Anika Noni Rose as the voice of Tiana in “The Princess and the Frog”), so she understands the barrier-breaking importance of donning Ariel’s fins. “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 says. “There’s no reason that they shouldn’t be. That reassurance was something that I needed.”
Most fans were thrilled at the news that Bailey would play Ariel, but the trolls were just as vocal, decrying the prospect of a Black mermaid princess with the hashtag #NotMyAriel. The criticism stung. Chloe Bailey, the actor’s sister, says their tight-knit family banded together against the backlash. “It’s important,” Chloe says, “to have a strong support system around you. It’s hard to carry the weight of the world on your own.”
Bailey also got important perspective from her grandparents, who shared memories of the racism and discrimination that they had endured in their lifetimes. “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,’” Bailey recalls.
And she started to think about how her younger self would have been inspired if the cartoon version of Ariel had been a person of color. “What that would have done for me, how that would have changed my confidence, my belief in myself, everything,” Bailey says. “Things that seem so small to everyone else, it’s so big to us.”
Several COVID delays later, “The Little Mermaid” is finally slated to open in theaters next summer. The premiere will mark a critical pivot in Bailey’s career as she makes the leap from music to movie stardom, especially with an appearance in the film version of the Broadway musical “The Color Purple” hot on its heels. Together, the projects seem designed to transition Bailey into one of the more promising young actors of her generation.
Bailey has been in the public eye for more than a decade, after the world discovered her and her older sister’s covers of popular songs, which they began posting on YouTube when they were teenagers. After their take on Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” went viral, the superstar took the girls under her wing, signing them to a deal under her Parkwood Entertainment label.
But even teen idols grow up. The past few years have seen the Bailey sisters — who are two years apart, despite playing twins for four seasons on Freeform’s “Grown-ish” — carefully detangling their personas and forging independent artistic careers. And as Bailey carves her own path in the entertainment industry, the traits that she admired in Ariel, such as the character’s tenacious pursuit of her dreams, could prove invaluable.
“I find myself learning things from these characters and trying to adopt them and keep them with me as I go about my life,” Bailey says. “It’s like the universe is trying to give these themes to me, like ‘Here, do it! We’re putting it in through the characters.’”
Filming “The Little Mermaid” was a metamorphic experience for Bailey, who was 18 when she auditioned and 21 when she finished production. “When I moved away to London I learned so much about myself,” she says. The U.K. and Italy-based shoot was the longest she had ever been away from her family in Los Angeles, and the shoot was emotionally and physically demanding. “It was kind of a shock because I had never done anything like that before.”
Director Rob Marshall, who made “Chicago,” says she was a natural onscreen. “Halle had this incredible facility to be able to dig deep, find the truth of Ariel’s passion and her heart,” he recalls. “It was like watching a great film actor being born.”
Marshall first spotted Bailey on the 2019 Grammy telecast as Chloe x Halle performed “Where Is the Love?” He was enraptured by her crystalline singing voice but didn’t know if she could act. So he asked Bailey to audition for “The Little Mermaid” by singing Ariel’s signature anthem “Part of Your World.”
“When she finished, I was in tears because she’s so soulful,” Marshall remembers. “You could tell right away that she was able to harness Ariel’s passion, her fire, her soul, her joy and her heart.”
The first time Bailey really saw herself as Ariel was during her screen test, when costume designer Colleen Atwood came to her home. “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 asks, giggling as she compares the fitting to a scene in “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” where Duff cycles through outfits in an avant-garde fashion show. “I felt like that.”
Bailey is hesitant to discuss the details of the design, and hardly anyone outside the production has seen her in full regalia. But her sister admits that she cried after seeing Bailey transformed for the first time. Marshall spilled a bit more about the character’s coif, which incorporates Bailey’s trademark locs with some looser tresses. “She looks stunning in red hair; not everybody does,” he teases.
After landing the role, Bailey sharpened her skills with acting lessons, but therapy has been the most helpful tool. “If you have a really big emotional scene where you’re crying, you have to pull that from someplace,” she explains.
In real life, Bailey is prone to letting the tears flow. “If I’m feeling overwhelmed, or when I get my angriest, my reaction is I just cry,” she shares. “I can try to be so tough, and so strong, and then it just comes out.”
To help herself get in the right emotional headspace on camera, Bailey borrowed from her memories. To build Ariel’s relationship with her father, King Triton (played by Javier Bardem), Bailey channeled her relationship with her own father. “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 says. “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.”
The role was physically challenging too: Bailey worked on wires and other technical apparatuses so she could turn, spin and fly, mimicking Ariel’s mermaid movements. Plus, her singing chops inspired Marshall and songwriters Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda to add new numbers for Ariel. Bailey’s most spine-tingling performance came during her wrenching rendition of an old standard. The excitement Marshall felt during her audition returned when she delivered the reprise of “Part of Your World,” in a scene made memorable in the animated film when a wave crashes up behind the mermaid, framing her with ocean spray.
“[Halle] sings that moment up an octave from the original,” Marshall says. “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.”
After wrapping “The Little Mermaid,” Bailey decamped for dry land and the Georgia set of Blitz Bazawule’s “The Color Purple.” The musical drama is an adaptation of Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (later made into a 1985 Steven Spielberg movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey), which tells the coming-of-age story of a young Black woman named Celie and her struggles with an abusive father and husband. Bailey plays Celie’s beloved sister, Nettie, a role she immediately connected with.
“We’re both the younger sister, we’re both the headstrong one and we speak up, and we’re very, very protective of our older sister,” Bailey says. “It was so cool to play this character where she had all of these pieces of me, but I think she’s a bit more sure of herself.”
For much of the film, the sisters remain emotionally tethered but physically apart, something that was easy for Bailey to key into, thanks to her experience being away from Chloe while filming “The Little Mermaid.” “She couldn’t visit me; everything was on lockdown, and it was that agony, that pain of being pulled away from something that’s like your arm, so I was pulling from that,” she says.
Bailey wrapped her portion of the production in late June; her final shot came at the end of a rain-soaked, late-night shoot. As Bazawule called “Cut!” and the crew applauded, producer Winfrey appeared and gave Bailey a floral tribute. “It was an emotional scene, so completing it was like, ‘Wow, I did it!’ And out of nowhere, she came at me with flowers, and I was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh. It’s Oprah,’” Bailey says, recounting the “pinch me” moment, which she shared with glee on social media.
Winfrey was at a similar inflection point in her career when she made her feature film debut in Spielberg’s version; at the time, she was a promising television host but had yet to achieve pop culture hegemony. “I just am so honored to be a part of this family that she has made,” Bailey says of being professionally linked to Winfrey. “You think of all the possibilities of what you could do after this, where and how far you would like to go.”
Now that both “The Little Mermaid” and “The Color Purple” are in postproduction, Bailey has come to appreciate the differences between the rapid pace of the music industry and the glacial process of moviemaking.
“My mindset is to work, work, work, so that I can see the payoff and move towards my goals. That’s what I’m used to,” Bailey says. “In the movie industry, I’m working 16 hours a day filming — I’ll be in the water busting my ass, crying, screaming, emotionally going to places I’ve never gone, and everybody there on set can congratulate you and say, ‘Yeah, you killed it today, kid,’ — but then you have all this time to wait.”
In the case of “The Little Mermaid,” it’s been so long since the shoot ended that she feels like “I’ve lived a whole other life since.”
“I’m grateful for it because it makes me slow down and cherish the moment that I’m living in now,” she says. “I was talking to my sister about it the other day, because I’m like, ‘I’ve been working so hard. I just want people to see it already, to see what I’ve been putting all my effort into.’” Chloe’s reassurance: “It’s all going to pay off.”
To keep busy in the meantime, Bailey has eased back into a routine of yoga, running, singing lessons, recording-studio sessions and one-on-one time with her cat, Poseidon. She also launched a YouTube channel, carving out her individual identity on the very platform where she and her sister were first discovered.
Music remains her passion. And just because she and Chloe are focused on doing their own thing doesn’t mean they have gone solo. Bailey confirms that the two will reunite on a follow-up to their Grammy-nominated albums “The Kids Are Alright” and “Ungodly Hour.”
“My sister is my backbone,” Bailey says. “She’s my best friend. She’s my everything. When I write with her, it’s different than when I’m just alone. When we sing together, I feel differently than when I’m just singing by myself.”