Capone talks to a perfect doll, Jodi Benson, the voice of TOY STORY 3's Barbie and THE LITTLE MERMAID's Ariel!!!
Published at: June 28, 2010, 9:56 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
If you have any kind of love for the period in Disney animation history that began with 1989's THE LITTLE MERMAID, then there's no excuse not to know who Jodi Benson is. Aside from being one of the busiest voice actors working today, Benson began her show business career as a Broadway actress, complete with a Tony nomination and an impressive body of work to show for it, including a lesser-known musical from creators Howard Ashman and Marvin Hamlisch called "Smile." Although the piece didn't last long in New York, it did make her a leading candidate in Ashman's eyes to play Ariel when he was brought on board to write the lyrics for MERMAID. Still, there was a grueling audition process, but eventually Benson won out. The part was her first-ever movie role.
Since then, she has done voice for countless TV shows, movies, direct-to-video animated series, and she even scored her first on-camera acting gig a few years back playing Patrick Dempsey's assistant in ENCHANTED. Further extending her great work in animation, Benson was tapped by the folks at Pixar to play Tour Guide Barbie in TOY STORY 2. In the latest TOY STORY installment, Benson's Barbie duties have been expanded greatly by playing the iconic Baribie toy as a fully realized, deeply conflicted character who finally comes face to face with the clothes-obsessed Ken (voiced by Michael Keaton). The two have real feelings for each other, but Ken's slightly evil nature stands to come between them. The subplot nearly steals the laughs and movie away from Buzz and Woody, and Benson portraying the legendary character was a responsibility not lost on her.
I got to spend a few minutes last week chatting with the woman behind the movie that saved Disney animation more than 20 years ago and the woman who finally gave us the definitive voice of Barbie. Please enjoy Jodi Benson…
Capone: Hi Jodi, how are you?
Jodi Benson: I’m doing great. How are you?
Capone: Excellent, thank you. It’s so early for you, isn’t it?
JB: No, sir, I’m on the East Coast.
Capone: Ah, okay. I’m in Chicago; you're actually from around here, aren’t you?
JB: Yes, I’m from Rockford. And my sister is in Wheaton and yeah all of my family is there. I love it.
Capone: That’s great. I’ve got to say one of the great surprises of TOY STORY 3 was the Barbie and Ken subplot, which almost steals the movie away from sort of the main characters. I’m curious, what did you like best about the way the filmmakers structured that relationship?
JB: I think just the innocence of it and the reality of it for me. With [director] Lee [Unkrich] developing this character and just making her as real and as human as possible, I think approaching the relationship with that innocence and that sort of real vulnerability is what we were going for. We were'nt going for humor, obviously, we were going for it to make it believable.
Capone: Yeah and by making it believable it makes it even funnier, because it feels like a typical relationship, where it’s just “on again/off again,” but all within the span of like a day for these characters.
JB: Right. There’s a lot of emotion going on.
Capone: This Barbie is very different than the one that you played in TOY STORY 2 in that it’s not…
JB: It’s not a character. The one in TOY STORY 2 is “Tour Guide Barbie,” so she has a character, she has a job, and she had a uniform. She had a strong position to play. She was playing her role. This is not a title Barbie, this is just Barbie, so it was a whole different thing. In fact, when I asked when they invited me to be a part of TOY STORY 3, my first question is “Which Barbie is it? Is it like a nurse? Is she a business person?” They are like “No, she is not a character, she’s going to be Barbie.” And that was wonderful to just be able to play her real.
Capone: So how did you decide what her persona would be? I’ve seen enough interviews with you for this film to know that taking on an iconic role is kind of a big deal for you. How did you approach giving her a personality?
JB: It was actually the director. Lee and [producer] Darla [K. Anderson] and of course [co-writer; Disney animation head] John Lasseter, they give you everything. They lay it out of course with an amazing story in an amazing script, and then they hand it to us on a silver platter. I just go in and I take my direction and I listen, and basically do what I’m told, because they know it. We don’t even get the whole script; we only get a page or two with just our lines on it. So Lee presented the entire script to me. He plays all of the parts, reads you in and reads you out and sets you up beautifully for that. I think for me, I just had to remove my mind from the doll and the plastic icon and this and that, and just play her like a real young lady who has all of her emotions and is incredibly loving and kind and generous and loyal to her friends and passionate about life and everything that happens, and just make it as real and human and believable as possible.
Capone: I love that Barbie uses Ken’s weakness--his love of clothes--against him to manipulate him, and how they play with the whole idea of “Is he a girl’s toy? Is he a boy’s toy?” Did you have Barbies growing up?
JB: I did. I had a Barbie, I had a Ken, I had a Skipper, and I added all of those to continue on with Barbie’s world you know. These really are about the accessories. I didn’t buy a Ken doll just to buy a Ken doll. I bought a Ken doll, so that he could get married to Barbie and create the bridal scene, but I never played him as evil. [laughs] He’s was the knight in shining armor and the Prince Charming for her, but yeah that’s kind of how I played with them when I was a little girl.
Capone: So he was a trophy husband for her?
JB: Yeah, he was just like a mystery date game you know, he was like the perfect guy. He was the one that was kind and loving and he was the one that was a gentleman. He wasn’t the rough guy who’s like the real mystery date.
Capone: Did you get a chance to meet Michael Keaton at any point during the production? I ask, because the banter between you two seemed very immediate and very believable.
JB: Nope, we didn’t. Actually, when he was coming out from his first day of work, I was walking in and he was very sick with bronchitis, so he stayed very far away and just said “Hello." As he left, I asked Lee “Is it not possible to read through the script together one time?” And he said, “No, he’s leaving,” and I was like “Wow, what a shame. I really would have loved to at least heard his vocal quality.” So, no, I never did. But Lee played an amazing Ken and brought pretty much the same vocal quality that Michael did, so I think he was incredibly helpful for me with that. We met at the screening in Los Angeles, officially met.
Capone: Yeah, I saw pictures of the two of you together.
JB: Yeah, that was the first day we actually got to really meet. The other day was just passing ships you know, and like I said he was very sick and didn’t even shake my hand, obviously so as not to pass germs on. I was just like “It’s an honor to meet you, and I look forward to seeing the film." Unfortunately we don’t get to work together.
Capone: You have a very long history of being in a recording studio. How much of an actual performance do you give when you are doing your recording for any of the voices that you've done over the years?
JB: A hundred and ninety percent. [laughs] I’m full body, I stand up and I never sit down. I’m usually drenched in sweat when I finish my sessions. That’s just the way I work and that’s just what I'm comfortable with. I have never been able to sit in a chair and just say the line. I just can’t do it. It’s just because of my training; I’ve got to act everything out like I’m onstage.
Capone: I don’t know why I remember this, but it did speak to me. I remember seeing a video of you recording “Part of Your World” for THE LITTLE MERMAID, and I remember that in the video you are looking up and I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s what Ariel would be doing singing that song. She would be looking up.” I remember thinking that you might not even be aware that you are doing it, but it just really struck me that, “That’s someone performing.”
JB: That’s how Howard Ashman taught me to be behind the mic, because I said “I don’t know what I’m doing.” He goes, “You’re onstage, just act it out,” and that’s what we did. He was by my side and he played all of the parts, just like Lee played all of the parts. Lee wasn’t in the booth with me, but after 25 years I can feel… and in fact we did some of our sessions over video-conferencing with a large screen, but it was the same kind of feeling and direction that Howard Ashman did standing right next to me. That’s incredibly helpful.
When you have an amazing director and a great story, you are going to be in great hands. I’m a perfectionist and I’m kind of obsessive about that. I’d probably do 5,000 takes on a line, but I’ve learned to trust my directors that when they are good and they’ve got a good story and they are excellent directors, I trust them and I never ask for another take, because they will know if I need another take and if they ask for 50 passes on a line, I trust them. If they ask for two passes on a line, I’ll say “Did you get it?” and they will say, “Yep, I got it.” I don’t have to second-guess somebody like a Howard or somebody like Lee. I don’t have to second-guess them. A lot of times I have to direct myself, and then I have to push them back and stuff, because maybe the director doesn’t know me and takes two passes and that’s it and I’ll say “You know what? We didn’t get it and I need to do another couple of options on that.” But I was fortunate and very blessed to be able to have Lee. I knew with Pixar and John Lasseter is the same way. He’s more of a perfectionist than I ever will be, so I knew I was in good hands.
Capone: Yeah. Seriously the Disney people must treat you like royalty when you come in at this point. They must just give you the keys and tell you to lock up when you are done.
JB: You know what, I don’t ever think in those terms. It’s my family, and Roy Disney was like a father to me, and we had that kind of a relationship. I’m never a star. I’m just part of the family. That’s the way that it works with me and they know that with me. They know that if they want a job to get done, they are going to come to me and I’ll get the job done for them. My work ethic has always been incredibly high, and that’s just he way I am. That’s how I’m wired. But they are my family. They consider me family and they are my family, and it’s a love and respect relationship with them, and I feel very blessed that it’s been able to continue on now with Pixar, and that John Lasseter feels that same way. I think having the honor of going up to him at the premiere and saying to John and Nancy, “Thank you so much for this opportunity. It’s been a huge blessing in my life to be part of this film, and I feel so honored with this cast of stars that you chose a no-name voiceover person to participate in it.” And John said, “You know what Jodi? We love you. You are in our family. We love you.” That’s the kind of relationship that matters to me with Pixar and with Disney.
Capone: You had a pretty substantial career in the theater. I think you were nominated for a Tony, right?
JB: I was nominated.
Capone: Is it strange that now that you are known for being in a medium where people don’t get to see you, or do you feel like it’s just a different way of people sort of appreciating your talents?
JB: I think it’s just a different way of using the gifts that God has given me. It’s just a different way, but I absolutely love it, and any time that I get to share my gift, whether it’s on stage or in a concert symphony hall singing amazing music with a 100-piece orchestra behind me, standing in a booth for three or for hours working my body out. At the end of every one of those experiences, I know that I’ve used the gifts that God has given me to hopefully be a part of family entertainment and draw children in and let them know that we care about them. That’s the ultimate goal for me, and it doesn’t matter how it comes, in whatever form, I feel good with that.
Capone: Well it was good to see you in ENCHANTED. That was a nice surprise. I can’t believe that’s your first on-screen appearance.
JB: [laughs] Yes it was. It was an incredible experience and everybody was so kind to me and so gracious to me in teaching me the ropes. I kept putting my hand in front of my face and the director of photography kept coming over to me, “You know sweetie, you can’t put your hand in front of your face.” I said, “I don’t even know where you are with the camera, so how do I know that?” He’s like, “Well I’ll just point to you and then you will know that the camera is going, and then you just try your best.” [Laughs] So he was so nice to me about that. They could have probably gotten very angry with me that I had to make them do it over a few times, but I’m Italian and I used my hands all of the times and I wasn’t aware of where the camera even was. So that was really fun. [Laughs]
Capone: Jodi, thank you so much for talking to me.
JB: Thank you for your time. We appreciate your support of the film and Pixar. God bless you. Have a great day.
Capone: You too. Thanks a lot.
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