The Little Mermaid, Disney's live-action remake of the 1989 classic, made plenty of waves with its casting choices. With R&B artist Halle Bailey at the helm, the world got its first Black Ariel. And with drag queens as a major influence, Melissa McCarthy embraced her role as the villainous Ursula. But as Little Mermaid fans know, filling the role of the sea witch is bigger than a single actress.
As Ariel lives out her dream of finding true love on the surface world, Ursula sabotages her happiness while disguised as human alter-ego Vanessa. As with all the other roles in the film, director Rob Marshall was determined to find the perfect person for the job. In the end, he landed on Jessica Alexander, the young actress who shares the sea witch with McCarthy.
"Our Vanessa, she's such a wonderful actor," Marshall tells EW. "It was so clear, right from the beginning."
Disney; Jeff Spicer/Getty Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in 'The Little Mermaid' and Vanessa actress Jessica Alexander
Marshall recalls asking the actresses to sing during the audition process, even though it wouldn't be required for the film. "Jessica is not really a singer, but she acted the singing so beautifully," Marshall says. "She's just a beautiful, beautiful actress, and she went there. It's sort of rare for someone that beautiful and charismatic to be able to then turn into the sea witch literally in front of you and just lose it. It was exciting to see that change. She's a force, Jessica. She's incredible."
Alexander's casting came late in the process and Marshall explains that it was an active choice to cast a relative unknown. "I really didn't want to do too many stunt [castings]," Marshall says. "We already had Melissa McCarthy playing Ursula, so to have another well-known person playing her as Vanessa just felt weird."
Beyond McCarthy, the cast is filled out by plenty of recognizable names, including Javier Bardem (King Triton), Daveed Diggs (Sebastian), Awkwafina (Scuttle), and Jacob Tremblay (Flounder), and Lin Manuel Miranda (Chef Louis). But according to Marshall, being newer to the scene didn't hinder Alexander from delivering a "fearless" performance.
VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Jessica Alexander
"The thing is that Jessica is an extraordinary actress," Marshall says. "I mean, quite young, but you can see her work. She just gets it, and she's fearless. That's what you find in an audition. We saw a lot of people on tape first, and then eventually when you find the people that you think are interesting, you see them in person and work with them."
With reporting by Nick Romano.
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