Interview with Paige O’Hara
Earlier this week, about 14 bloggers (including me) were given the opportunity to interview actress, singer, and artist Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. This was a dream come true for many of us; Beauty and the Beast originally came to theatres when I was about 9 years old. The character of “Belle” was the first Disney heroine that I remember really identifying with: she felt “odd” and “out of place” in her surroundings, she loved to read, and she had a thirst for adventure and excitement.
When Paige O’Hara dialed in to the conference call, I got chills and a big, goofy smile spread across my face. In just a few minutes, I’d be asking a question to my favorite Disney princess. Yes, even after 20+ years, Belle is still my favorite. The story of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast holds magic for me, and my eyes get wet during the epic scene near the end when Belle races back to the castle to stop Gaston’s horrific plan.
Now 21 years later, Beauty and the Beast is returning to theatres on January 13, 2012 in 3D for a new generation of children to enjoy. I attended a local screening of the film and took my 3-year-old daughter, who has long brown hair and brown eyes, just like Belle.
Before she was given the role of Belle, she had auditioned for it 5 times. “I just felt really confident that it was my part and of course when the timing did happen and they said it was my role, I was just, that moment was a life-changing experience.” The same week she learned she would be the voice of Belle, Paige also became engaged to her husband, Michael, and celebrated her birthday.
Paige has many other talents in addition to signing and acting. “I’ve been an artist since I was 3 years old,” Paige said, “but I’ve never actually been hired to be an artist so this is great.” Disney has hired Paige to create oil paintings of scenes from Beauty and the Beast for the Disney Fine Art Collection.
Paige herself hasn’t actually seen the new Beauty and the Beast 3D version, but in regards to Belle’s appearance she said, “There’s nothing that was changed in terms of the way she’s drawn and the way she looks…When we were putting the film together originally 20 years ago…she sort of looked like Angelina Jolie initially. But her look changed and sort of came about and they used some of my face and they made it look a lot better than my face.”
Paige always knew that Beauty and the Beast would be a special film, but she had no idea it would become the classic it is today–until it was shown at a film festival in New York. “It was a special premiere where it was about 60% completed and the rest was hand drawn, and coming from New York as a Broadway actress, I know how tough the audiences are and how tough the critics are, and after the film — first of all they laughed and applauded through the whole movie, but then after the film there was a 10 minute standing ovation from the toughest critics in the world.”
Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for an Oscar. Paige was asked to perform at the Oscars that year singing the song Belle. “They gave us the option to lip sync or sing live and it’s like of course I’m going to sing live, I’m a Broadway girl, you know. But I was standing in the wings and Angela Lansbury was standing next to me and she was going to introduce me and she was shaking like a leaf, and I was shaking like a leaf. And I said, ‘Angie you nervous?’ And she said, ‘Honey when you get to be my age you’ll learn when you’re supposed to be nervous — this is it.’ And she leaned over and she patted me on the bottom and she said, ‘If I could sing like you, you have no reason to be nervous.’ That made me feel so good.”
Belle was specifically drawn the way she was to appeal to a younger audience, but she is also has a personality that audiences have identified with. Even Paige herself shares many similarities to Belle. When the other people her age were listening to Led Zeppelin, Paige was listening to Gershwin and Rogers & Hammerstein. “I was also…a theater person, which is kind of like not the norm; I was totally indulged in theater since the time I was 6 years old as well as my artwork…I relate to her quite a bit, actually. Particularly the part of her that felt out of place and odd.” Paige also has a great love for books, and was never looking for a man to complete herself. “That’s the thing about Belle, she’s the only princess that’s not looking for a man. She wants to enjoy life, and that’s Paige as a young teenager, wanting to you know go to Broadway and experience, you know, travel around the world you know, with my career.”
Like Belle, Paige also had a close relationship with her parents. She would have made the same sacrifice that Belle made when she traded her life for his with the Beast. And in a way, Paige’s life did parallel that sacrifice. “I actually put my career on hold for about 7 years to take care of them when they were sick so and I don’t regret any of those, it was the most important thing I could do at that time.”
Paige and her co-star Robby Benson (the Beast) had a unique studio experience while recording the voices for Belle and the Beast. “They let us create and there wasn’t a time clock. And Robby Benson and I were allowed to go out of the norm which is when you’re normally in a booth by yourself, and actually record together and create the relationship together. It’s more expensive and more time consuming to do it that way,” she explained. “The whole creative process was just something that I have never experienced before or after that movie.”
Paige’s career as Belle did not just end with the movies or the soundtrack. “For several years I was recording a lot of interactive toys and CD ROMs and Leapfrog toys, and most recently I I was honored and given the Disney Legend award, which was really emotionally very — one of the most wonderful moments in my life and that happened this past year. And then 2 years ago I signed on with Disney Fine Art to draw the paintings of Belle and the Beast and different scenes from the film so it’s really been a wonderful ride and still continuing.”
Beauty and the Beast is also a Broadway show in addition to an animated film. We asked Paige her thoughts on the transition from animated film to Broadway musical. “I think Beauty and the Beast was one that they captured really well…They went certainly for the more broad comedy of the Broadway – which I think was necessary for the audience that they had in the live production, I think the film still has more poignancy and more dramatic effect than the play did but the play was great fun and the most important thing is it brought people to the theater that normally would never go to the theater. Young kids that would have never even think about going to a Broadway play, but to introduce people to the theater with Beauty and the Beast I thought it was fantastic.” Paige’s husband Michael has even played Beast in L.A. onstage.
Last year for the Blu-ray release of Beauty and the Beast, Paige was given the opportunity to travel to promote the release. “There was a very funny moment I was with little kids, you know 5 and 6-year-olds…you know and I walked in the room and their jaws dropped and this little girl came up to me, she says, ‘Belle where’s your ball gown?’ So they couldn’t really equate Paige– the older Paige–as Belle and then I just popped on the floor, opened up the book and starting reading the book in Belle’s voice and all of a sudden I had like 150 kids around me and it was like, it was timeless, it was like 20 years just didn’t matter. It really was a remarkable thing. I felt like the Pied Piper.”
Some of Paige’s favorite songs from Beauty and the Beast are: Something There, the title song Beauty and the Beast, and the song Human Again (which is not included in the 3D version, but may be available on the Blu-ray/DVD. It is also in the Broadway version.)
Paige also gave some advice to anyone who is an aspiring singer. “Tet proper training so you sing correctly. That’s really the key because those who don’t sing correctly a few years down the line will lose their voices. Work with a teacher, it’s always a personal thing with a teacher. It has to be someone that you connect with and that you have a bond with. It can’t be someone you’re afraid of. You won’t be able to try things and experiment. You have to be with a teacher that you won’t be afraid to fail in front of them in order to get better. And I was very fortunate to have two of those teachers in my life.”
Paige talked about her influences as a young girl that shaped her into the performer that she is today. “Mary Poppins had a huge effect on me, when I saw it and Julie Andrews was the main reason why I went into the theater, that movie made me want to go into theater, and of course I think that’s my favorite movie of all time. I really loved Cinderella as well, and I was just really glad at this time when this film came out that Belle was more independent and had more of the intellectual side and her goal was to NOT get a man, her goal was to find adventure, and to learn about the world, and it’s really just kind of amazing that that it’s still going on and it’s going to go on still long after I’m gone.”
Up next for Paige is a stage show of the life of Judy Garland. “Playing Judy would be a dream come true for me because she was my idol growing up, my favorite singer and actress, and I’m sort of at the place now where I’m physically – I’m ready to play her now. I have had enough life experience to understand her, and so I’m hoping within the next year or so we can get this back on its feet and maybe tour it and take it around the country and then I can portray Judy in a very positive light.” The musical is currently in revisions, and will cover Judy Garland’s life from the time she was 4 until her death.
Currently Paige is performing in Las Vegas at the Luxor in a show called Menopause. ““I play the bratty soap star who can’t stand the fact that she’s aging.” The character is quite a departure from Belle. “She’s totally self-indulgent and neurotic, but it’s still all very funny, it’s for comedy and what’s kind of fun about that play is that my bratty little character bonds with these three other women and lets go of her vanity by the end of the play and accepts who she is and really likes who she is. So that’s kind of fun to play every night. You know where the audience hates you at the beginning but they love you by the end.”
*I received no compensation for writing this post. Thanks to Disney for setting up the conference call with Paige O’Hara. Any thoughts or opinions in this post are entirely my own.*