Disney’s live-action “The Little Mermaid” had “no agenda” when it came to the casting of Ariel, director Rob Marshall told Entertainment Weekly. The “Chicago” and “Into the Woods” director said his team auditioned “every ethnicity” for the role before landing on singer Halle Bailey.
While Bailey’s casting has been widely championed and celebrated (see the viral supercuts of Black girls watching the film’s teaser trailer), a small portion of racist fans have expressed outrage against Disney for casting a Black actor as Ariel.
“We just were looking for the best actor for the role, period. The end,” Marshall said. “We saw everybody and every ethnicity. [The goal was to find someone who can be] incredibly strong, passionate, beautiful, smart, clever [and with] a great deal of fire and joy.”
Bailey had all of those qualities, plus the kind of voice the role of Ariel demands. As Marshall explained, “That voice is something that is so signature and so ethereal and so beautiful that it captures the heart of Eric and he looks for her for the entire film.”
The film’s teaser trailer features only a portion of Bailey belting “Part of Your World,” but her vocals were enough to get fans excited for the live-action remake. Marshall said he never expected there to be such an intense focus on Bailey’s casting.
“I wasn’t anticipating that because, in a way, I felt like we’ve moved so far past that kind of thing,” Marshall said. “But then you realize, in a way we haven’t. It was very moving to me to see how important this kind of casting is for the world.”
Bolstered by toxic fans on social media, the hashtag #NotMyAriel sprung up on Twitter after Bailey’s casting was first announced. The actor told Variety that her family helped her drown out the backlash. Bailey’s grandparents shared their own memories with her 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 said.
Bailey also overcame the backlash by thinking about how such a casting would’ve impacted her as a young girl. “What that would have done for me, how that would have changed my confidence, my belief in myself, everything,” she said. “Things that seem so small to everyone else, it’s so big to us.”
Disney is set to open “The Little Mermaid” in theaters on May 26, 2023.