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The Princess & The Frog - Anika Noni Rose interview

The Princess & The Frog

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ANIKA Noni Rose talks about playing a Disney princess in The Princess & The Frog, finding the right voice for her character and why Tiana’s journey mirrored her own path to success in many ways…

Q. How did you prepare to play an iconic Disney princess?
Anika Noni Rose: Well, I think you sort of prepare in the same way… I grew up on Disney, so I sort of had Disney in my veins before I even got to the studios. But it’s the same type of preparation in that you find out who this character is. I did a lot of calling around in New Orleans to listen to people’s voices in different areas without telling them why. I just wanted to hear the way they sounded to figure out what I wanted her to sound like. I read up on New Orleans, its history and I listened to a lot of music from the jazz era – the era when it was being created and made. But I’d also been to New Orleans before. So, those were the things I did in preparation for her character.

Otherwise, I read the script and felt like I knew this girl. I was saying they I feel like [co-directors] Ron [Clements] and John [Musker] have a teenage girl in their breast pockets! She just pops up to inform them every now and then [laughs]. It was very clear to me who she was. Her journey was so similar to my own journey in life… being an actress, being someone who was from a small town and choosing this profession. There were so many nay Sayers around me, telling me it was impossible, one in this many people and didn’t I want something to fall back on. But no, I didn’t.

This was what I wanted to do and I did it. I worked at it and I made it happen. So, at some point – and it didn’t hit me immediately – during our journey of creating Tiana and the movie, it hit me that this was also my journey and my story, even though it’s not the same time and not the exact same situation. So, on that end of it the preparation was life. That doesn’t often happen but I was really lucky with this.

Q. You’re clearly a great study of accents and what you did here is very, very different from something like The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. How do you latch onto that? Are you intuitive?
Anika Noni Rose: You know, I’ve always had an ear for sound. I consider dialects to be like music to me. You can learn a song, learn the lyrics and learn the notes but if you don’t have the rhythm, you don’t have the song or the style. But I’ve always been… probably awfully as a child, I was somebody who’d imitate people. I would walk through the mall walking behind people and imitating them to the chagrin of my mother! So, it’s something that I’ve always liked to do. I love to listen and when I travel I travel with tape recorders and I tape people everywhere I go, so that I have at home tapes of people from different places so that I can use them if I need to, or just if I want to.

Q. Did you have a dialogue coach for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency?
Anika Noni Rose: We had a coach there… She was Botswana and it was very interesting because it was so quickly put together that we really didn’t have a whole lot of time before we just had to do it. What was amazing, and I credit Anthony Minghella for this, was that for the first movie that we did, the first instalment, I was there for two months even though I filmed for just 12 days. The rest of the time I was in people’s faces, standing behind doors, sitting in my room listening to the cleaning people and other people who worked in the hotel taking sounds from them – whether it was just words or something as innocuous as “ah!” Because that really means something there. If someone says something that’s shocking or offensive, you might go “ah!” with that. It’s not something we’d do in America or in the UK with that open sound. So, there are little things you get like that just from listening and taking in. I often asked people if they would mind me taping them, but they’d usually change the way they speak. They get very, very proper [laughs]. But I love sounds and I love to be able to work with them.

Q. How many frogs does a girl have to kiss before she finds her prince?
Anika Noni Rose: You know, I think we all kiss a few frogs as we go along. My first amphibious kiss was probably 8th Grade and that didn’t work out so well [laughs]! But I’ve been lucky in life that I’ve learned to recognise what is good for me and what is not. I’m very content right now in my little aquarium.

Q. What was it like to be involved in the animated process and see your character gradually coming to life?
Anika Noni Rose: It was great, so great! For me it was truly a dream come true. It’s something I’ve always, always wanted to do since I was a very little person… since I saw Fantasia when I was two. I was so moved by the imagery and the music and I was convinced… my mother told me that when I was in my favourite night-gown I looked like a dancing mushroom! But I felt like I was a part of that landscape and I always wanted to do a Disney voice. It occurred to me about two months ago that there is nothing else that I can think of that I have always wanted to do – not even act. Because when I thought of this, it wasn’t thinking of being an actor. It didn’t occur to me in that time that that’s what it was. I just wanted to be in it and do that voice.

So, for me this was a magnificent experience. It’s been the realisation of a dream, which is what Disney represents anyway. So, I’m so honoured and humbled and pleased and thrilled about the whole thing. I wasn’t planning on being a princess… I thought I’d be a weeping willow or something. So, I’m hoping to come back as something out of the box and crazy.

When I went in for my general meeting with Disney in 2004 I didn’t know what they were calling me in for… they weren’t specific. I was really excited and I had a voice ready. I was ready to be a tic; I had this voice prepared, I knew what it would sound like when it bit somebody, I was prepared! So who knew it would end up with me being someone beautiful and regal and Southern and charming. I was ready to be loud and pain inflicting and bite somebody and draw blood! So, it’s thrilling.

Read our review of The Princess & The Frog