The Little Mermaid Live! will make its splashy debut on Nov. 5. Graham Phillips, 26, will be playing the swoonworthy role of Prince Eric and will show us a side of the Disney prince that we’ve never seen before. He stars alongside Auli’i Cravalho, 18, who plays Ariel, and Queen Latifah, 49, who plays Ursula. HollywoodLife talked EXCLUSIVELY with the actor about diving into the hybrid format, honoring the beloved Disney film after 30 years, and his favorite song in the production.
Graham revealed the song he performed for his Prince Eric audition and why he loves “Her Voice,” a song that wasn’t in the original film. He also admitted that his biggest challenge has been “learning to sing with monitors” in his ears. While he’s no stranger to stage work, he said the “size of this is definitely bigger” than anything he’s done before. Graham also discussed his upcoming projects, including the film he’ll be directing. Check out our Q&A below.
What was the process for you to get the role of Prince Eric?
Graham Phillips: I knew that they were doing the film version and so I was already looking at the music for that and I just fell in love with Alan Menken’s music. And so whether I was going to get the role or not, it was a fun thing for me to work on singing wise. I guess I was sort of lucky that I had already been preparing it for a while because I just heard through a friend of mine that this broadcast was happening and they were getting close to the end of it. I put in a call and expressed my interest and I went in for Dawn Soler, the head of ABC music, a few days after that. It was a very quick process. I just went in and sang the one song and they pretty much gave me the role in the room, which has never really happened to me before. I felt kind of bad about it because they had some other people that they were seeing that day afterward. And I was like, “Well, all these other people prepared as well.” But also, you never know. You can think that you get a role… hell, they can even tell you that you got a role and it doesn’t always mean you got it until you’re on stage doing it.
What was the song that you sang for the audition?
Graham Phillips: The song that I sang is called “Her Voice,” which is a song that wasn’t in the original film. It was added by Alan when they adapted it into the Broadway show. It’s a beautiful song. I think a lot of people who love the film are going to be really pleasantly surprised because it feels like such an iconic song that could have been in the original film. I bet most people that are watching it, it’ll be their first time hearing it. I just love it. The orchestrations are beautiful and it helps put you into Prince Eric’s head. I love the film but you don’t really know exactly what’s going on in Prince Eric’s head. It’s not his story, it’s the mermaid’s story. So it’s cool that they give Prince Eric this moment where you really understand him, that the forbidden love thing is on both sides and it’s a little bit more of a Romeo and Juliet story as opposed to just Juliet with Romeo.
Was coming on board the project intimidating for you at all?
Graham Phillips: Since I was born and bred in the theater world, it didn’t really intimidate me too much. The size of this is definitely bigger than I’m used to, just as far as the audience because it’s on television rather than a normal onstage shindig. It didn’t really faze me too much, but it’s definitely the biggest stage that I’ve been on. But at the same time, I’m a little unusual in the sense that I’ve always felt the least self-conscious on a stage versus whether I’m doing film or TV. You have to radiate out what you’re feeling and being authentic is the last thing on your mind. You’re feeding off of the energy of the audience and it’s just a different beast. So I definitely feel more comfortable when there are a lot of people watching, which is kind of bizarre.
I feel like The Little Mermaid Live! is going to be the perfect combination of the movie and the musical. It must feel great to open the eyes of the masses to other characters in the film that we necessarily didn’t get that much of in the movie.
Graham Phillips: It’s really exciting for me to play Prince Eric for that exact reason. Because most people never got to know him from the film. I get to shed a little bit of light on what kind of a guy he is or at least what my interpretation of that is. He does have a lot more going on than initially meets the eye. There’s a reason why he’s the sailor prince and he takes to the ocean to escape from the walls of his castle. He feels comfortable only when he’s exploring uncharted waters, that’s what makes him feel alive. I think it’s really telling that he feels like his destiny is off in the sea and he ends up finding Ariel out there. He’s at an age where he’s searching for something. Like a lot of the great love stories, he doesn’t know that it’s love. He’s out there looking for what maybe feels like adventure or something new and love just comes and hits him on the head with a pan.
What is your favorite song that Prince Eric will sing in The Little Mermaid Live?
Graham Phillips: Obviously, “Her Voice” is special for Prince Eric. It strikes a chord with what the heart of the story is. But “Fathoms Below,” which is the very first song that anyone’s going to hear when they tune in, is about the spirit of the sea. It’s about the excitement of being on a ship and going someplace unknown. I just think it really captures the essence of who Prince Eric is, but also the essence of what the whole show is about. Because it’s something very new, the excitement of getting into something that you’re not exactly sure how it’s going to turn out. That’s true for the audience as well, just in the sense that it’s a multi-medium live production. So in that sense, it’s very new. But it’s also very new for everyone who’s on stage. We’ve never done anything like this before because it hasn’t been done. It feels exciting. There’s almost a danger to it.
What was your initial reaction to this being a hybrid of mediums?
Graham Phillips: When I found out that it was going to be a hybrid version of the show with the musical numbers being live and the movie being screened to carry the plot forward and handle all of the scenes, I was really relieved because one of the things that I wasn’t so sure about was how we were going to compete with the original film. Because there are so many of those scenes that are so embedded in people’s heads. So to try to compete with that sense of nostalgia is just, in my eyes, impossible. Just the mechanics of doing a live show with a mermaid, having to swim around and everything, it just seems really challenging for two and a half hours straight. Thirdly, my last concern was that there are so many different unique locations and to do seamless scene transitions where you can really transform the space enough, seems really challenging. So I was really happy when they were going to be using the film as the foundation. I think it gives us a little bit more leeway with exploring new ideas in the songs. They’re very exciting because they’re different. But it’s nice for people to have a bit of what they already know as well, if we can get away with it.
What’s it been like working with Auli’i and collaborating with her on some really great songs and the cast as a whole?
Graham Phillips: I love working with Auli’i. She’s got such a great spirit. I feel like she’s a perfect mermaid in that she’s very thoughtful but she’s free-spirited. Just the way that she sings even, she really exposes her feelings in a way that’s very natural and not performative. You can naturally hear her emotion in her sound. I think that’s really rare and something that’s important for Ariel. We have a duet that we’re singing in this that has never been done before. So that’ll be really fun to hear people’s reactions to that. It’s a unique story between the two of them because they don’t really spend all that much time together. The time they do spend together, they don’t really get to speak all that much. So in some ways, it is like love at first sight story because even though they’re with each other, they don’t get to learn all that much about each other after that initial electric first moment. So it’s really important that you have two people that can have that chemistry and I feel like she really makes it easy.
Over the course of rehearsals and getting into character, what’s been the most challenging aspect for you?
Graham Phillips: Honestly, the most challenging thing has been learning to sing with monitors in your ears. I grew up learning to sing without anything in my ears. I heard my voice through the natural environment. Even when I record in a studio, I have one headset off of my ear so I can hear what my voice sounds like in an ambient environment. But then, because of the nature of the space and just how they’re having to isolate the sound, your monitor is completely soundproof. So you’re hearing your voice basically piped back into your ears, after going through the sound equipment. Your voice sounds completely different. Just learning to retrain yourself to not be bothered by that and not be hyper-focused on what you sound like. Because I find that I sound best when I’m not thinking about how I sound. So that’s been the biggest challenge.
I can’t believe it’s been 30 years since the movie came out. What do you think makes The Little Mermaid Live! so timeless?
Graham Phillips: I think the theme of people feeling trapped in the routine of their life is something that will never really go away. You have young Prince Eric on one side who is trapped in his seemingly perfect life in a castle where he should really have no problems, and yet he’s fairly unhappy with that life and is trying to escape from it. Likewise you have Ariel, who is trapped inside of a different sort of castle and trying to reach out for something new and different. It just goes to show that no matter how fortunate you are, how good of a life you have, or how good of a life other people think you have, there’s always this part of all of us that wants to connect with others. For every piece of fear in us towards things and people who are different than us, there’s this capacity for love on the other side of things.
You also have so many other projects coming up. What’s next for you?
Graham Phillips: On the completely other end of the spectrum, my brother and I have been working on the other side of camera. We have a modern-day western that we filmed that took place in North Dakota. It comes out November 11 and it’s called The Bygone. It sort of deals with the oil fracking boom in North Dakota and this cowboy who falls in love with this Native American girl who disappears. You have to figure out what happened to her, as she’s fighting her way through this wild borderland of crime and the North Dakota Badlands. What’s interesting is there are actually some similar themes between The Little Mermaid and The Bygone, which I hadn’t really thought about. But again, there’s this theme of two groups of people that you sort of see as different and incompatible in some ways. And in The Little Mermaid, it’s humans and merpeople. And in The Bygone, it’s cowboys and Indians. By the end of both, you realize that they’re not as different as you think. They’re going through a lot of the same things.
You’re also going to be directing!
Graham Phillips: So the next film that we’re doing is based on this novel called The Fighter, written by this incredible Mississippi author Michael Farris Smith. The screenplay title is Rumble Through the Dark and it’s about this middle-aged, illegal cage fighter in the Mississippi Delta who’s deeply in debt and has bad amnesia from all the fights that he did growing up. Basically, it leads up to this one last fight to get himself out of debt and to take care of his elderly mom and get her house back for her. There’s just such unbelievable characters and we’re going into casting right now and I can’t wait to get the cast together. We had been shooting B-roll in Mississippi already and it’s such a unique part of the U.S. There’s just so much history there. There are so many souls there that are still like floating around, be it slaves or soldiers. It’s just where a lot of the U.S. became what it is today.
You’ve obviously been acting a really long time. Have you always wanted to step behind the camera or was this something that you realized pretty recently?
Graham Phillips: I’ve always been messing around with cameras as long as I can remember. Taking them apart, trying to put them back together again, sometimes putting them back together again. I always wanted to be on the other side of camera. I’d say when I was like 13 or 14 I really started piecing together footage into stories. The thing was, I always knew I wanted to do it with my brother. He’s a really talented writer. He’s five years older than me. So we were really just waiting for me to get out of college. Because when I was in high school, he was in college. Then when he graduated, I was in college. So we started The Bygone while I was still writing my thesis at Princeton, which was actually on Native American issues in the United States. That’s sort of what inspired the first film, this problem of violence against Native women and this parallel between how people treat their land and how they treat their women. We’ve always wanted to make films. Now we’re finally getting to do it and we’re loving it.