The Voice of Beauty, PAIGE O’HARA: On 25 years of being Belle – Animation Scoop

The Voice of Beauty, PAIGE O’HARA: On 25 years of being Belle

This Tuesday, September 20th, the 25th anniversary edition of the classic from the new golden age of animation Beauty and the Beast is being released anew on blu-ray. Many know it won two Academy Awards, one for best song, the other for best original score, and was also the first animated feature to get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. What many don’t know is those inside Disney working on the film knew from early in the production they were creating something very special. This included the voice of Belle herself, Paige O’Hara. She has memories of a screening when the film was just coming together, when she saw for the first time they had made Belle’s eyes the exact color of her own. On behalf of Animation Scoop, I talked to her about that, and other recollections and experiences being the voice of the beloved Disney princess.

The animators transferred a lot of what they saw in the recordings of Paige performing as Belle into the film. I asked her what of her own mannerisms and quirks she saw in Belle.

“One thing is I often emote with my hands. I stretch them out, or cross them over my heart. I did that in the studio when I recorded and sand “I want adventure in this great wide somewhere”. Belle does that. Also the eyebrow raise she does looks exactly like mine. The thing is animators are actors with their pens. I think Belle is me, writer Linda Woolverton, and artists Mark Henn and James Baxter mixed together. We are all in there, for sure! The brown eyes are mine, of course. You have no idea how much fan mail I’ve gotten there’s a princess that looks like me, with brown hair and brown eyes. The first time I saw that she had brown eyes was also the first time I saw Belle actually animated and my voice coming out of her. It was the opening segment and I was actually taken aback. It was like watching a young me! She is the oldest, and they say she’s the oldest princess and in her early twenties where most of them are teenagers.”

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We talked about the shift in how Paige experiences Belle as her own life has changed.

“I was like her then and I’m like her now, but the perspective changes 25 years later. What stands out to me more. I watched it recently at the Academy and what struck me was that scene where she gives up her life for her father. My parents are gone and the father daughter relationship is a lot more poignant to me now. The whole experience is different now. I go to signing events and people will come up to me and hug me and kiss me and start crying. The reaction is still phenomenal..that this movie has such an impact on these people, and that it will be doing that long into the future even after I’m gone. I think it really holds up. A lot of movies are meant to be “of the time” like Aladdin with Robin Williams’ humor but this is more like Snow White. It’s timeless.”

paige-oharaShe spoke more about her memories of her parents and sharing the experience of being in Beauty and the Beast and Enchanted Christmas with them.

“I was raised by my stepdad and my mom, and my stepdad had cancer and would go in and out of remission, and my mom also had health problems, and so she saw the movie in Ft. Lauderdale but couldn’t come to the premiere. My stepdad did go to the premiere with my sisters and shared that with me. There was a long time when I was doing Enchanted Christmas and I was recording in Ft. Lauderdale while taking care of them. Disney hired a studio engineer in Ft. Lauderdale to help me, so that was really good. The singing was done in Vegas and LA, but a lot of the dialogue I got to do at home so I could be there for them. They gave them headsets and they’d listen.”

I asked Paige about the difference between being onstage and voice acting, how she experienced being a voice actor, and she talked about how essential, yet challenging it was for her to learn to exposing herself emotionally.

“How they directed me, because I’d never done that, I’d done voice-overs for commercials but i’d never created a character, they just said treat it as though you’re on camera. Once I grasped that, it made all the difference. Robby Benson really helped me with that, because once he was hired, we were in the same room, and he’s such a great actor that I adapted to what he was giving me as we were performing together, and it made me better. Everything shows in your voice. Your heart has got to be genuine. Your intention has got to be genuine. Even the smallest difference in inflection can change the intent. Robby told me, “You ARE her.” The directors told me the more I put Paige into the character, the more they loved Belle. To be honest with you, it was really hard to let the walls down, let my guard down at first. Once I did, although it took me a few weeks because I’d never played someone that close to myself before, it made a huge difference. In live theater, I’ve done very well hiding behind or inside a character, but Belle was different. It was a really powerful learning experience about myself.”

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When questioned further about live verses voice performance, she went on to talk about one key aspect of voice acting.

“In voice acting, you do expose yourself more and being completely real and authentic it is important. That inspires the artists and the writers in how they are going to interpret her physically. (Supervising animator for Belle) Mark Henn talked about it to me and said the little inflections I’d have would create whole new ideas for him. It’s very different than performing in person. Some people have it and some don’t, and it was luckily something that came and comes natural to me.”

It is unusual for actors performing characters in an animated film to be recorded together, as Paige and Robby were. I asked Paige if there were any improvisations as a result, between them or with any of the cast.

“My biggest regret, because Howard Ashman’s favorite song was “Human Again” that it was cut from the original movie for time. In that Human Again, segment Robbie and I pretty much acted that whole scene with her teaching him how to read and all of that, then Linda fixed it and we went back and fixed it, but the idea was ours. There were a lot of little things in there because we’d feed off each other. One example of brilliant improv is Cogsworth. I tell you, David Ogden Stiers ad-libbed so much that a lot of the funniest lines in the movie are his. Like the line, “Flowers? Chocolates? Promises you don’t intend to keep?” and “If it’s not baroque, don’t fix it”…That was David. Not only is he a classically trained actor, he’s a true comedian. They think like that. Robby and I did a lot of little things. One big thing that we almost did was when he turned back into a human and she’s stroking his face. I said, “Do you think you could grow a beard?” They loved it, but ultimately they didn’t use it.”

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Beauty and the Beast had a female screenwriter in Linda Woolverton and a great protagonist in Belle. Paige talked about both the film and the lead character as the start of stronger, more independent female leads, and about Linda’s part in that.

“I think in a lot of ways Beauty and the Beast was revolutionary. It was the first Disney heroine that was really her own woman, she was looking for adventures she’d read about all the time. She was an avid read, not looking for a man. She had the guts to turn Gaston away and be very strong with him. She just paved the way for so many heroines that came after her. Of course they went to another level with Mulan. Belle was the first one, and the reaction was phenomenal. To this day. There’s one girl I’ll never forget. She said she was suicidal, that no one loved her, that she felt weird, she read all the time, she was intellectual, and made fun of, and she said she saw the movie and said it made her stop having the feeling she didn’t want to be in this world. I feel like hearing that even just once…Belle really paved the way. and Linda, who continues to write great scripts. Linda is Belle as much as I am. I have to say that because it really is her character, her personality. Linda was hands-on the whole way through the making of the movie. She, Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, Don Hahn, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. They were all hands-on and popped in and out all the time.”

Belle was designed with lots of influences, but Paige loves that she can see herself in her, and that she

I remember seeing when they sent drawings over of what she was finally going to look like. I had seen a wall the artists had with all the influences of who inspired the way she was going to look. There was Liz Taylor, Natalie Wood, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Angelina Jolie, and of course, Linda Woolverton, and then I saw my funny picture on the wall with them all. I thought, “what’s wrong with this picture?” They said, “Your face is going to be in there, too!” In the first concept drawings of the character, she looked like those beautiful starlets. She was so gorgeous and so perfect. Then they decided to make her more identifiable and quirkier. If she’s too pretty and too perfect, how can anyone relate? I think that’s one great thing about both Ariel and Belle. They are the first average, normal looking girls that people can say, “Hey! that looks like me!” Unlike Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, who I loved, but always seemed perfect to me.

Paige O’Hara, in addition to being an actress, has painted her entire life. Recently she started working creating images of official licensed art they called “Belle Paints Belle”. She talks about being around and learning from the 2D animators she got to know when the film was being made, and the honor of being asked to create art for the digital download of the 25th Anniversary release.

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“They are all such amazing artists. I mean, the patience it takes to spend an entire week drawing twenty seconds of film, which was four years in the making. That’s hand drawn animation! I love it and I miss it, and I have a great appreciation for it. I didn’t get to see them working very much, but when I was in LA I would go and hang out and watch them. One thing I learned was a lot of them use their fingers for blending skin tones. I’ve always just instinctively done that, and I got a chance to really watch how they did it. I don’t have the training these great artists have and every time I was near them, I learned so much. They are all so multifaceted. It was such an honor to be able to create a piece of art for this new release. They wanted a conceptual painting that people could use as a screensaver so it didn’t have to be exactly from the movie like I usually do. I painted the sky with the rose in it. It’s one of my favorite moments in the movie where she takes his hand and puts it around her waist before they dance. That touch. It’s called “Tale as Old as Time”. Of course!”

Speaking of that, when we were done with the interview and just chatting, I asked Paige if she and Robby Benson had ever actually waltzed the way Belle and the Beast did. She laughed.

“No! You know, maybe we should just make that happen. I’m going to see him next week in New York for the big event. We should absolutely make that happen!”

“Beauty and the Beast” 25th Anniversary Edition releases Sept. 20th on Blu-ray™ and DVD

Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale

Leslie is a freelance film critic and interviewer at Cinemasiren.com. She began representing artists and animation art in 1988, co-founding ArtInsights in 1994.
Leslie Combemale
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  • Great interview, Leslie! I love this movie so much, and your chat with Paige contained some real gems!