Interview: Jodi BensonSeptember 15, 2018
Recently we had the chance to talk with Jodi Benson about her love of singing, the voice acting businesses and meeting her fans at conventions.
Was working in the entertainment business, in some way, shape or form, something you always wanted to do?
Jodi: I think I was about eight years old when I told my mom I’d love to be on Broadway, singing, dancing, and acting. I knew that was something I was passionate about and I didn’t want to be famous, didn’t want to worry about making money but didn’t want to be a waitress so it was very practical minded on my part. I kind of came out of the womb thinking that this was something God had given me a natural gift set for, that it was something I needed to work on but yeah, I knew at an early age that this was at least something I wanted to pursue.
So when did you realize you could make singing a big part of your career?
Jodi: That probably happened in college. I went to college and in my freshman year, I began to have a sense that I could perhaps make a living doing this. Once you kind of realize where you are and where you fall in the talent pool it becomes clearer and I was seventeen at that point, where I thought that I had enough to offer to at least give it a go.
Voice acting is obviously huge now, a totally separate career, but it hasn’t always been like that. How have things changed from The Little Mermaid to say next year’s Toy Story 4?
Jodi: First of all, I don’t know if Barbie and Ken are in Toy Story 4 so I don’t want to be presumptuous and say I’m in the film. (Laughs) But yeah, starting out with Mermaid for me, I was simply doing Broadway and Howard Ashman and I did a musical called Smile, which closed very quickly upon opening with poor reviews. He had already started his relationship with Disney and was going to be the lyricist and one of the executive producers on Mermaid, so he was kind enough to invite all of us girls to audition for Ariel. I had never been behind a mic before, never done a voice-over, didn’t know anything about it. Starting out at that point, it’s just all new and I think what you don’t know is that one of the beautiful surprises along the way, there are no expectations. We were not going to be revealed as in who we were, there were going to be no pictures attached, no press tours or anything, it was going to be like in the forties when you did the film, disappeared and went right back to Broadway. When it kind of took a turn and changed the course of my life, it just made it totally sweet, a beautiful gift.
What I think is different today is there are interesting expectations, it’s celebrity driven, there is more focus on residuals, how much money is the film going to make but for all of us, our film project was just a beautiful lovely gift of getting to participate in something where there were no expectations whatsoever. I think also too because Disney animation had basically shut down by the time our film was coming we were sort of the last hope. I mean, animation was off of the lot and in trailers and Disney animation, which is what Walt Disney Studios and Walt based his studio on, the animation was dying. To realize that our film and our production crew is responsible for saving Disney animation just has a whole different feeling on what this film meant, what this film means to me. Today, not that it isn’t special or lovely, and I enjoy my work, I love it, the stakes are different now than they were thirty-three years ago for me when I started with the company. There is that concept that your first project is the most special project and I don’t know of anything that will ever compare to that but that doesn’t mean the additional projects that I work on are wonderful experiences, there is just never going to be another Little Mermaid. We don’t have Howard anymore, that whole concept of working together as a cast doesn’t happen anymore, you’re by yourself, recording from all over the world and you don’t meet each other until you walk down the red carpet together. It’s different now, certainly not bad in any way, but just a different experience.
In terms of your singing, can you describe what it’s like to perform with a symphony as a soloist, in front of a live audience?
Jodi: For me, it’s so fulfilling because that’s my time, that’s what I know I was created for. When I’m standing on stage singing and interpreting a song, telling a story with a song, with an orchestra and a live audience in front of me, that is like a perfect match for me. It’s really magical, I absolutely love it, it’s so rewarding and I love being able to work off of the audience and make them feel something, they should be taking a journey with me, then I know I’ve done my job well. It’s different than being behind a mic by myself, that’s also fulfilling, It’s just in a different way. I’m not interacting with people and feeding off of their energy back and forth like I can in a live situation.
How different is your preparation for a singing role to that of a voice acting role?
Jodi: Yeah, they are completely different. For voice over you basically have a sketch and some lines and you delve into it, but the process really doesn’t happen until you go to work and you’ve got your director, scriptwriter, producers, all the people behind the glass that are feeding me and giving me insight and giving me their vision and I can jump on board with what they are doing. When it comes to vocals I do a lot of my homework before I go to work. I’m delving into the song, I’m working on my intention, my storytelling and I’m working by myself, so then I come to the table with the project pretty much finished, whereas in animation it’s a joint team project. I don’t come in with all my work done, and I shouldn’t, I need to be directable, teachable so I can jump on board with what their vision is because they’ve lived with the project a lot more than I have. I’ve only got six pages and a little pencil sketch whereas they have the whole script and they’re going to open up my eyes and let me know what the story is about, so it’s really two totally different approaches.
Do you like going back and forth between the two mediums or would you like to just get on stage and sing?
Jodi: No, I like to do both. I like the variety of it, I think that keeps me growing as an actress and doesn’t let me get stale and comfortable. I need to raise the stakes and get myself out of that comfort zone in order to grow, no matter how old I am I want to be teachable and open to change, not just be set in my ways so yeah, for me personally I do like to mix things up.
How much do you enjoy taking part in conventions, such as Fan Expo here in Toronto?
Jodi: Yeah, I just started a year ago, last September was my first one. I had been invited for about five or six years but I held off for various reasons, my kids, homeschooling and my work schedule. When I did start I was very specific on where I go, it needs to be a family-friendly environment, it needs to be the client that matches up with Disney and the characters I represent, and I want to be comfortable. I don’t do them all, I only do a handful of them and so far they’ve all been incredible. I’ve had the most amazing experiences and really enjoyed myself. I love meeting the fans one on one, I’ve been meeting fans in meet and greets for thirty years but it’s a little bit different in this setting, you can spend eight hours a day for three days straight instead of the hour and a half type of thing. You really do get to know your fan base a lot and each fan base is different depending on the city and the country.
So what projects do you have coming up next?
Jodi: I’m working on shooting special events for the 30th anniversary of The Little Mermaid for 2019, we’re going to have a big re-release for that. Wreck it Ralph 2, where all the princesses are in, that is being released this November, so we have our big press events happening at the beginning of November for that. Those are the two upcoming films that I’m working on, as well as my symphony concerts, comic cons and I appear yearly at Walt Disney World and Land, I do a Christmas celebration, a narration of A Christmas Story so we will be spending Christmas at Disney World again this year, which is a great place to spend Christmas, it’s so much fun. I didn’t know if I’d like spending Christmas there but we did it a couple of years ago with the kids, they had a Christmas tree in our room, gifts under the tree, trying to bring some of our traditions from home with us but it was really fun and exciting to be going back for Christmas this year.
I want to thank Jodi for taking the time to talk with us