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Started From the Bottom Now I’m Nemo

A couple of years ago, while I was home for the holidays in Orlando, Disney World held auditions for its “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” show.  I had been settled in New York for a year or so at that point, but the prospect of getting to play Ariel professionally was reason enough to consider moving back to O-town.

I should mention that I’m not a professional actress. I fell in love with musical theater when I was young, I embraced the Rent-and-Wicked-obsessed drama nerd stereotype with open arms in high school and college, but as I approached adulthood, it became increasingly clear that I was marginal in terms of both talent and commitment to the actor’s emotionally harrowing way of life. A particularly painful stretch of botched performances convinced me that acting and I had to break up before things got really serious. But as with so many relationships, it was not a clean break. I am now one of the fifty bajillion people in New York who, after explaining how we earn a living, feel compelled to say, “…and, you know, I do a little acting now and then.”

And so, when Disney dangled the role of Ariel in front of me, I leapt. I dreamed of later recounting this audition as a lark—“I was in Orlando for two weeks.  What else was I doing?!”—that led to a scenario in which I’d get paid every day to fulfill a childhood fantasy. “It was a sacrifice to leave New York,” I imagined saying, “of course it was, and moving home was totally humiliating.” But the person saying this would look like Ariel and be well on her way to a long, legitimate acting career. This scenario was akin to a dream in which one reunites with a beloved ex-boyfriend, has an adorably tacky/magical Disney wedding and lives in montage-worthy bliss forever after—equally delusional and irresistible, like all the best dreams.

The Ariel auditions were at a sprawling, charmless rehearsal complex a couple of miles from the theme parks. There were a lot of other girls there, though not quite as many as I’d feared. I think there were around a hundred of us. No one was wearing a Little Mermaid outfit or a crazy red wig or anything. All of us wanna-bes sat around the perimeter of a large, windowless rehearsal hall, trying not too size each other up too overtly.  I made friends with a blonde Midwestern-looking girl, warm and beautiful and wearing a surprisingly racy outfit: short skirt, silky blazer, high-heeled booties and black lacy tights.  At some point in our conversation, it came out that she actually already worked as a Disney “face character.”  She’d played Belle at the Disneylands in Tokyo and Anaheim, and she’d just recently been transferred to Orlando.

She described the first round of Belle auditions, during which she’d been selected out of a long line of hopefuls. Later in the process, she’d been asked to put on a skullcap and stand in the middle of an enormous white room.  The people running the audition observed and photographed her from all different angles.  They also measured the dimensions of her face to ensure that it had Belle-appropriate proportions, which it did. She accepted the role when they told her she’d be working in Tokyo—as it turned out, she really was from the Midwest, and had never been out of the country before.

She really liked working for Disney, she told me (“The Christmas parties are AMAZING”), but that she yearned for a singing role, as singing performers get the best benefits. “Or,” she added, “I’d like to eventually become a Master Face. Then I’d really be set.”  A Master Face, she explained, was a gold standard: a face that other faces would be lucky to resemble. Inconceivably fortunate performers were occasionally declared Master Faces immediately, but usually you had to first demonstrate that you were in it for the long haul and that you were a good, stable employee. Disney had to be able to trust that Master Faces weren’t going to do anything crazy, like curse in front of a child or get arrested or get fat.

Then the girl on the other side of me, also blonde, introduced herself. She was from upstate New York and had spent the last few years trying to do musical theater in earnest in NYC. Like the former Belle, she was new to Orlando. “Things are so much less competitive down here,” she said.  “The city was just—I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

A cheerful pregnant lady appeared, introduced herself and called the names of the first ten auditioners.  Suspiciously, most of them were petite and pixieish, with heart-shaped faces and delicate features.  A twenty-something girl with a pink Disney princess backpack showed up at the last second.  She was accompanied by a middle-aged male handler, who greeted the pregnant lady casually.  The girl and her backpack followed the first heat down a hallway to the audition room.

When the A-team was finished, the pregnant lady began calling back arbitrarily assembled groups of us poor, motley-faced leftovers.  I knew, of course, that the game was over, but when it was my turn to sing, I gave it my all anyway.  “Why the hell not?” I thought.  After I’d belted out my sixteen bars, I looked to the pregnant lady, who was smiling broadly.

“You’re not what we’re looking for today,” she said, “but you’d really make a great Nemo.”

But she never followed up. It wasn’t till two months later, when I was back in New York and had forgotten about my Disney escapade, that I got an email from the casting director of the Finding Nemo show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. He asked if I’d come in for Nemo callbacks.

“I’d be happy to,” I said, and I mostly meant it. I flew back down to Orlando and bought a navy cardigan that was boyish without being over-the-top.  I listened to the soundtrack from the show and tried to mimic the girl playing Nemo.  She sings in a thin, nasal voice that is almost completely untethered from sex or gender. One song had a high ending that I couldn’t really sing it at all, and I remembered that I hadn’t sung anything since college, and even then I’d been competent at best.

I was just going to have to wow everyone with my uncanny Nemo-ness. My joie de Nemo.

Callbacks were held at the Disney casting offices, and I had a private appointment with the Nemo creative team.  I came in early and sat in the waiting room next to a burly guy—a Gaston, most likely.  Disney’s Aladdin was playing on a flat screen.  We watched together in silence.

The director of the Finding Nemo musical was a tall black woman swathed in earth tones. She explained that we were going to try the scene in which Nemo’s dad accompanies him to his first day of school. The show’s pudgy, balding music director would play my dad, and I was supposed to “swim” all over room exploring stuff while he tried to keep me on track.

I mumbled apologetically about laryngitis (ha!) preventing me from hitting high notes, and the director told me not to worry: what they really wanted to see was the character.  She sat down next to the pregnant lady, who was beaming encouragingly and looking way more pregnant than before, and they told me to start whenever I was ready.

Bounding around the room with the music director and a camcorder-wielding casting assistant in tow, I realized that I wasn’t ready in the slightest. I’d volunteered to be typecast, but I hadn’t fully accepted what it would mean to resign myself to this role—to distill my personality and looks and abilities and have them come out “chubby-cheeked little boy angelfish” rather than “glamorous mermaid princess.” It was ridiculous and restrictively vain, but my disappointment manifested itself in a shitty-ass audition.  I did not achieve Nemo-mess; I was not even close.

After a couple of tries, the director, her twinkling eyes dulled a bit, dismissed me politely. I tried to delude myself into thinking things had gone okay, but there was really no denying that they hadn’t.

What would have happened if I’d been able to embrace my Nemo-ness? Would booking the role have led to a sense of freedom from vanity, or maybe just to the feeling that I’d submitted to the bizarrely rigid expectations of a company peddling unachievable physical ideals to children?

It doesn’t actually matter, because I never booked it; my questionable ex-boyfriend Acting and I never got to think seriously about getting back together. Instead we’d remain uneasy friends, without many benefits, and I’m still wondering what goes on at the company Christmas party.

Elizabeth Baxa is an aspiring screenwriter, but she’ll happily tutor your kids, babysit your kids, or serve as a fit model for your kids’ clothing if you need her to.  She currently lives in New York.

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