Tonight ABC takes viewers under the sea to make us part of the Little Mermaid’s world.
Graham Phillips takes over the iconic role of Prince Eric, a royal who hears Ariel’s (Auli’i Cravalho) voice and falls in love. Phillips is most familiar to viewers for the years he spent playing Alicia Florrick’s son Zach on The Good Wife. But his roots are in musical theater and before starring on the CBS drama, he played The Little Prince at the New York City Opera and the lead in the original Broadway production of 13.
Paste had the chance to talk to Phillips about singing live, how not to be nervous, and if viewers will get the chance to see Zach Florrick again.
Paste: Let’s start with the most basic question. How did you end up playing Prince Eric in Little Mermaid Live?
Graham Phillips: I knew there was a lot activity going on with Little Mermaid. I thought, “You know what? Why don’t I just start working on the music?” I’m always looking for new stuff to just work on to keep me sane because I don’t normally get to do that much singing and it’s my first artistic love. I had never seen the Broadway musical but I knew [composer] Alan Menken had written a new song for Prince Eric. I auditioned with an audition tape and they called me and it was actually pretty simple. They pretty much gave me the role in the room which was pretty awesome and had never happened to me before.
Paste: Tell me about the song “Her Voice” which is Prince Eric’s big number.
Phillips: The first time I heard the song Alan Menken had written for Prince Eric I was totally stunned by it. In my opinion it’s such a crucial part of the story. Obviously it’s the mermaid’s story 100% but Prince Eric is going through a very similar thing. As strange as it is for a mermaid to fall in love with a person, it’s just as odd for a person to fall in love with a mermaid. It’s very Romeo and Juliet so it’s kind of neat to finally hear Romeo’s perspective if you will.
Paste: You’ve done a lot of television and your roots are on Broadway. What’s it been like merging these two things?
Phillips: It’s definitely a unique preparation process. I’ve obviously done a lot of television work and a lot of theater work but when you blend them together it sort of becomes a different beast. We do have a live audience and thank God for them because having an audience in the room there’s just something electric that happens when you have all those people and it helps to raise your energy to meet them. That makes it all very exciting.
On the other hand you are hitting certain positions and tableaus which you know will work for the camera but isn’t necessarily the best position for the audience. I think the biggest difference you have to strike this delicate balance of what works for the audience in the room and what works for the cameras that are broadcasting in everyone’s living rooms.
Paste: Disney has really started to evolve and modernize their “princess canon” if you will. How will your Prince Eric be different?
Phillips: They’re showing this other side of Eric without betraying what’s true in the original. When you watch the original film you just don’t know that much about Prince Eric, he’s a little bit of a blank slate. What’s cool, because he’s a bit more of a blank slate, you get it infuse certain aspects of his personality that you maybe haven’t been able to see before. Certain questions he’s asking, certain wants that he has. It does feel a little bit more progressive. Why is this guy trying to get out of these castle walls? Why does he feel so much more at home when he’s exploring uncharted water? Why is he reaching out so much at this point in his life? Why is he so open at this point in his life that he would be able to fall in love with someone from a completely different world? You have to be in a particular mindset and place in your life for that to be a possibility.
Just as you are seeing a lot of these iconic Disney princesses finding their voice in maybe ways they haven’t before, you’re also seeing the princes be more vulnerable in certain ways too.
When you see someone who is in a position of power, like a prince, able to express uncertainty or go against maybe what everyone would expect of him, you see that these princes are not made of stone. Princes are people too. [Laughs] Make that a hashtag.
Paste: How involved is the audience going to be in the production?
Phillips: The audience they’re all doing stuff. They’re all in some sort of costumes. When you enter this world everyone is taking an active part in holding this reality together. Most of the audience will have ear pieces in. My mom and my eight-year-old niece Stella are going to be in the audience. She’s a huge Little Mermaid fan.
Paste: How excited is she that her uncle is going to be Prince Eric?
Phillips: She’s very confused by this whole thing. She’s a very bright girl. For her these characters are still a reality. She knows I’m an actor. She totally gets what I’m doing but with a show as iconic as The Little Mermaid she doesn’t quite get how I can be the prince.
Paste:How is this whole blending of the animated film with the live action going to work?
Phillips: Quite frankly I didn’t understand it at all when I first signed on to it. The format is that there’s all the original songs including some no one has ever heard before that Alan Menken arranged specifically for this. I think there are a dozen songs in total. The animated feature carries us forward as far as the plot goes. All the scenes are carried forward by the original film but whenever you get to a song, there’s a rather clever transition that takes us into the sound stage at Disney.
Paste: Switching gears a bit, you left The Good Wife to attend Princeton. How big of a decision was it to leave a successful TV series where you were a series regular?
Phillips: It was a fairly big decision, but you have to understand my character was going to college at some point. It was a pretty easy decision for me mainly because at that point I had been home schooled for four years and I like being around people my own age. I had been working with adults for a lot of the time. I always felt very comfortable with people older than myself but I was really craving a normal social situation, and on top of that I knew I wanted to write and direct so I wanted to work on my writing. I also understand that it’s really difficult to be an artist in a vacuum. If you spend all your time acting I think it’s easy to run out of fuel. Because you’re not really experiencing new things and coming into contact with people who disagree with you.
Paste: And you were a history major?
Phillips: I was US history major but I did a bit of Native American history as well. For some reason I’ve always been drawn to all things Native American. It ended up inspiring a film my brother and I did called The Bygone. My brother and I wrote it and we directed it and I actually played the lead in it as well. The thesis that I wrote which was on indigenous resistance to colonialism. It was told particularly from the perspective of violence against native women
Paste: What’s next for you?
Phillips: As far as my acting is going I’ve really been focused on getting roles that use my voice. My focus in the broader sense is a focus on this film my brother and I are doing based on this novel called The Fighter by Michael Ferris Smith. It’s a really cool southern gothic noir fight movie about this middle age fighter in the Mississippi delta. It’s just such an incredible redemption story. We are filming that in April and right now we’re calling it Rumble Through the Dark.
Paste Any chance we will ever see Zach Florrick on The Good Fight?
Phillips: [Series creators] Robert and Michelle King reached out about a year ago when I think Juliana [Margulies] was in talks to do an episode and it didn’t end up working out. I did send an email letting them know I would love to revisit Zach. I’ve matured in certain ways. I now can look back and sort of interpret where Zach might be in this point of time. I heard hints of what they had thought Zach might be doing. He becomes a little bit of a rebel in certain ways, not in a rebel-without-a-cause-way, think more like Wikileaks business. I was really intrigued by everything they’ve told me so they’re aware of my interest and it seems like something that might end up happening in the next year or so.
Paste: So how nervous are you about the live show?
Phillips: You ask me this question as I’m walking into a yoga class. I’m not nervous and I’d like to keep it that way so I’m definitely taking very good care of myself. The important thing is to keep your mind off the worst-case scenarios. There are millions of reasons you should just be going for it in a positive way. There’s so much beauty to be found in a story like this to bring yourself down by thinking how you could screw up your entrance swinging in on a rope or flub a lyric, those thoughts are parasitic if you are doing something live. There’s really no room for it so I’ve decided to not make room for it. I’m feeling really good.
The Wonderful World of Disney Presents The Little Mermaid Live! airs November 4 at 8 p.m. on ABC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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