In Walt Disney’s new hand-drawn fairy tale, The Princess and the Frog, Prince Naveen has been turned into a frog by the evil Dr. Facilier, but when a young girl named Tiana kisses him, instead of his returning to his former persona as a Prince, she turns into a frog too.
In an attempt to undo the spell, the two frogs travel through the bayou to find Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), a sassy, eccentric, witty 197-year-old Queen of the Bayou. On their journey they encounter Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), an alligator who plays the trumpet and longs to be a jazz musician.
Both of these characters light up the screen, and I spoke the talented performers, Jenifer Lewis and Michael-Leon Wooley, who brought them to life.
Michael, how did you find your inner alligator?
Michael: I thought I’d go into this role with all of my Shakespeare and theater training, and use it to develop this character! But, after hearing Louis, once I did the first few recordings, I realized that it’s just me at 10 being loud and crazy.
Did you have fun?
Michael: Totally, yes. We had a lot of fun. It was a real collaborative effort to find the humor of Louis. We worked a lot to find lines and develop the character. He evolved into what he is now. He wasn’t quite that, a year ago. As an actor, being a Disney voice and character is the Holy Grail. My niece is quite happy, too. She is crazy excited.
What does this movie mean to you?
Michael: I like the whole rags to riches premise of it. And, wishing upon a star. I’ve done it. I have looked up at the evening sky and wished my hardest for something I wanted so bad, in the core of my soul and my being, and one of those wishes was to be a Disney character. Go figure!
Jenifer, how did you find the voice of Mama Odie?
Jenifer: I have a painting, in my breakfast nook, of “Moms” Mabley, so when they said, ‘Will you do an old lady?’ I pulled her out. My mother had all of her albums, and I had listened to them as a child.
As a child, I remember hearing, ‘The only thing an old man can do for me is introduce me to a young one.’ So, I ‘took my teeth out’ and created Mama Odie.
Were you allowed to contribute your ideas to the voice of this character?
Jenifer: That’s always open, most definitely. You go in and they have the script, but there you are, speaking with no lips, and the character comes out. You just add things. Whatever you feel comes out and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s just great. That wasn’t there. Do that again! Bring more.’ They get really excited about you bringing that other element in.
When you develop a character, you can only come from where you are, and your interpretation of what you’ve seen when you were in New Orleans, and what you heard from somebody Southern. If you’ve been to a psychic’s house, they don’t know no more than you do, but it’s about the whole set-up. You want to put the kids at ease. All of that came. You can’t write that.
The movie introduces the first African American Princess to children. Did you realize what a huge landmark this film will be?
Jenifer: I walked into the Disney store, down in San Diego, and there was a little African American girl with her hair in braids, like I had when I was a kid, and she had Princess Tiana in her hand. I said, “Are you going to get that doll?” and she said, “Oh, yes. She’s beautiful. Don’t you think?” It was over!
Did you tell her you were in the movie?
Jenifer: Oh, yes! I said, “If you come right over here, to this little ugly lady who you didn’t buy, that’s me, little girl.”