You might not be familiar with Donna Murphy, that is, unless you live in Manhattan. Murphy has won a slew of awards for her performances on Broadway, appearing in the musicals Wonderful Town, Passion, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, They’re Playing Our Song and The King and I.
With her first venture into the world of animation, Murphy voices the character of Mother Gothel in Tangled, Disney’s new take on the old fairytale Rapunzel. Gothel has stolen Rapunzel as a baby from the King and Queen, because the infant’s hair, as long as it’s never cut, give everlasting youth for anyone who touches it. Hid at the top of a tower in the middle of the woods, Rapunzel grows up longing to be out in the world, with only her ‘mother’ to stop her.
What were your initial thoughts when you were approached about this film?
I heard about the project through my manager and agent. They were not releasing the entire script. They’re very private about projects while they’re still in development. But I was given a number of Gothel’s scenes and a character description. The filmmakers were very intent that she was a character that could be as funny as she was frightening, and was capable of projecting a kind of warmth that was believable in her relationship with Rapunzel.
I thought about that and those ideas, and the circumstances of the story just started to sort of swirl in my imagination with what was on the page, which I thought was quite funny and scary. She was so psychologically manipulative. It’s really the only power she has. She doesn’t have a scepter or mirror or any other object, or anything within her that allows her to do supernatural things. She has her single-minded need that she will use anytime to get what she wants.
How did Bryon Howard and Nathan Greno, the movie’s directors, describe the character?
They felt that there was a Rosalind Russell kind of wittiness and glamour, and that sort of mid-Atlantic clipped speech that somebody said, ‘Oh, and she’s British.’ And I said, ‘No, she’ s just very affected!’ There was a kind of ex-showgirl quality to her. The vanity and the kind of posing, knowing that if you hit a certain angle you looked really good; if you put your leg out like this, or you thrust your head. And that was very evocative for me.
She’s probably been performing for herself, and she now has a real audience in Rapunzel. Byron and Nathan said to me, ‘Think of somebody who envisions herself periodically being hit with a spotlight.’ And then they literally did that in the Mother Knows Best number.
What does Gothel’s downfall being her vanity say about our culture?
It’s funny, I wasn’t thinking about that. That resistance to aging is Gothel in comparison to the villainesses who have preceded her. I think she’s competitive with Rapunzel, she would be competitive with everybody.
But I think the circumstance here is more about her being threatened about Rapunzel’s departure and her becoming wise and independent enough to leave her. The aging issue, unfortunately, runs rampant in the society now. And as a woman, I’m very aware of the pressures to remain appearing to be youthful.
But it’s deeper for Gothel because she’s not a sixty-year-old woman who’s trying to remain looking thirty. She’s three-hundred-and-seventy years old. It’s about mortality too, which I think is a deeper layer to the whole issue of vanity and aging.
Had you ever done voice work before?
I’d never done animation. And I thought it would be something that would be fun to do. I knew that they were seeing actresses of many different kinds of background, meaning people who had mostly big film careers! (They also saw) a lot of people who had, like me, much experience in the theatre and people from the recording world.
But I remember thinking, ‘I get this kind of character and I have an idea about the way to play her that I think could serve the movie.’ But I also felt like I could bring them ten different versions of it. And Bryon and Nathan were great, in that they had some real specific ideas, but were also open to my questions and wonderings about what if this and what if that.
What surprised you the most when you saw the final cut of the movie?
How moving it was at the end. I’m not involved in that part, I’m gone, but how the individual journeys and relationships collectively add up to something that’s really quite moving. And also the combination of it having certain contemporary elements in terms of what they did with the Rapunzel character.
In what way?
I thought it was smart because she’s not a princess in a tower who’s waiting to be saved by someone else. She’s a young girl who wants a life of her own that is more than her mother is offering in this sequestered circumstance. And what fifteen, sixteen, seventeen-year-old kid hasn’t felt that?
Also she’s feisty and innocent but still willful and intensely curious and questioning. I want my daughter to see that heroine!