‘The Little Mermaid’ Star Halle Bailey Gets Advice From 1st Nonwhite Actress to Play Ariel: ‘Keep Your Head Up’

“I never had one kid in 300-something shows over the course of a year say, ‘Oh, you don’t look like Ariel,'” stage actress Diana Huey tells TheWrap

Diana Huey The Little Mermaid Halle Bailey
Mark and Tracy Photography/Courtesy Diana Huey

Halle Bailey won’t be the first nonwhite actress to play Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” And Diana Huey, a Japanese American who played the red-headed mermaid in a national touring production of the Broadway hit in 2017, has plenty of advice for her big-screen successor in dealing with the pressure of reimagining an iconic role.

Keep your head up and know than it’s so much bigger than you as a single person fighting these battles,” Huey told TheWrap, advising 19-year-old newcomer Bailey, who is African American, to tune out all naysayers and online trolls. “If she can stay positive and just remember, there’s more support than there is hatred. It’s an important battle to fight and she’s not alone.”

Huey said that in her year playing Ariel in theaters across the country, she found widespread support — at least from young people in the audience.

“I never had one kid in 300-something shows over the course of a year say, ‘Oh, you don’t look like Ariel.’ They would see me come out of the stage door with my hair and street clothes and throw themselves at me screaming. ‘Ariel!’ when I looked like Diana,” Huey said. “The kids were totally on board. So if we just keep doing this, that’s the good work we need to do to make the world just a more opened-minded place.”

In one town in middle America, Huey remembered meeting a white woman in tears after a performance because she was so glad her adopted Asian daughter could see someone on stage who looked like her.

That said, Huey said she did encounter pushback from adults who had grown accustomed to the long line of Ariel actresses who looked exactly like the Disney princess, with light skin and red hair.

The first online comment she read about her casting came from a woman who said Disney should “Keep it classic.” “That literally happened in the first couple of moments of my photo being released, and I was like, ‘Oh, great, this is going to be a really hard year. Oh my gosh, how am I going to do this?” Huey recalled. “And within seconds of her comment, I had people comment back and say, ‘Keep it classic means keep it white, keep it racist.’”

Huey managed to put the internet trolls behind her until an article was published in the Buffalo Daily News that made her casting explicitly political.

“It was supposed to be, come see this play at the Buffalo Shea Center. Fish, glitter, Disney, yay,” Huey said. Suddenly her phone blew up with notifications and she got sucked back into the rabbit hole of people trolling her online. But her outlook changed when she received a message of support from the original Ariel on Broadway, Sierra Boggess.

“Having Sierra post something and say I stand with Diana Huey meant so much to me,” Huey said. “For every mean, hateful comment were hundreds of supportive comments.”

Boggess’ support also prompted Huey to speak out for Bailey this week just as the younger actress experienced some online pushback of her own and #NotMyAriel became a trending Twitter topic. “As soon as I saw this was happening to her, I needed to pass on that torch and stand up for my fellow Ariel sister, just help shut it down in any way I can,” Huey said.

“We have to continue to raise the positive voices and let them outweigh the negative,” she said. “If I have to take some cyber bullying to help this little kid in Indonesia feel better, then I’m here for it.”

Huey noted that acceptance is a central message of “The Little Mermaid.” “It’s a story about a character who wants to find where she belongs and fit in and why she doesn’t feel comfortable where she is… that’s everyone’s story,” Huey said, adding that casting a nonwhite actress adds another layer of outsiderness. “It’s a great way to tell a fairly simple story and make a bigger statement, and now we’re having a bigger conversation, and why not? And she’s a mermaid, she’s half fish!”

Huey dismissed commenters who argued Ariel should be a white Danish woman since “The Little Mermaid” is based on a Hans Christian Anderson fable. “But then where does Sebastian the Jamaican crab come from?” Huey said. “You guys, it takes place under the sea in a magical kingdom of mythical creatures that don’t actually exist. So yeah, we can have them look however we want them to look. That’s the great thing about storytelling, imagination and fiction.”

As for Ariel’s trademark red hair, Huey said she’d be surprised if Disney didn’t put a wig on Bailey like the one she wore on stage for the role. (Bailey’s Twitter account tweeted a cartoon Ariel with dark skin and dark hair.)

Huey has her own suggestions for the rest of the big-screen cast. She loves the idea of Melissa McCarthy as the villainous sea witch Ursula, and suggested Tituss Burgess (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) to reprise his role from the Broadway stage production as the crab Sebastian.