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Melissa McCarthy was definitely on edge when she knew she’d be working with the actor behind Anton Chigurh, Bond villain Raoul Silva and many other intimidating characters, but Javier Bardem quickly disarmed her during their one day of shooting together on The Little Mermaid. McCarthy and Bardem play rival siblings Ursula and King Triton in Rob Marshall and John DeLuca’s live-action reimagining of the 1989 animated classic, and once her anxiety quickly dissipated, McCarthy made a point to enjoy every second that she shared with Bardem.
“I was really nervous to meet him, but the nerves went away within two seconds. The second you meet Javier, he’s like a walking warm hug,” McCarthy tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I always find it fascinating how people throw their energy so differently per their characters. When his energy is on, it’s what you would expect from being in a room with Javier [in character]. You feel it.”
Bardem’s body of work consists of mostly grown-up fare, including some of the most terrifying baddies that have ever been brought to the screen, so he definitely wanted to make something that his two young kids could enjoy. The film has also helped prepare him for the inevitable day when he has to let his children leave the nest, something King Triton struggles to do with Ariel (Halle Bailey).
“It’s about the fear and the insecurity that one feels as a father in order to understand and accept the fact that your kids are going to fly free sooner or later,” Bardem says. “And, as a father, I related to that. In Rob [Marshall] and John’s [DeLuca] version, they have strengthened that side of the story.… It’s more reliable and more emotional than the original…with all the respect and love for the original, of course.”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, McCarthy and Bardem also discuss how Marshall and DeLuca’s backgrounds in dance and choreography made their filming experiences even more unique. Bardem then makes the case for an Ursula and Triton spinoff.
Well, I never imagined that I’d be interviewing the two of you together. Had the two of you ever crossed paths before this?
Melissa McCarthy: No, but I’ve dreamed of it. I’ve always wanted to, so this is quite a thrill for me.
Javier Bardem: For me, too. I follow the amazing work that she does, and we love her at home. So it was great to know that we at least had a day that we could cross paths on the set.
Melissa, was playing against type a big factor in committing to Ursula?
McCarthy: I always start with the character. For me, a comedy or a drama, there are no differences. Energetically, there’s a different drive sometimes depending on the story, but I think of them both as the same and I prepare the same way. I kind of dig into what their armor is, what they’re hiding and what they show people versus what it’s really deflecting, so you don’t notice the insecurity. In Ursula’s case, it’s the loneliness, the rejection and all those great fun qualities. She’s a great broad. She is sliding off a piano in any cabaret bar you go to, and you can’t look away. But there’s a lot of darkness and a lot of damage to this character, so that’s really what I tried to balance. I didn’t want to take her light away and only go dark, but it was really a constant, careful balance of the dark and the light.
Javier, your character is an overprotective father who has trouble loosening his grip. Could you relate to where he was coming from as a father yourself, even if he took it too far?
Bardem: Of course. It’s about the fear and the insecurity that one feels as a father in order to understand and accept the fact that your kids are going to fly free sooner or later. And you have to support that, because that’s what life is all about. It’s finding your own way and not living by other people’s commands. And, as a father, I related to that. In Rob [Marshall] and John’s [DeLuca] version, they have strengthened that side of the story a little bit more. It’s more reliable and more emotional than the original in that sense, with all the respect and love for the original, of course.
Most of your films are intended for grown-ups, so did you also want to make something that your kids would be able to watch?
Bardem: Yeah, that was a good reason for me to say yes to this on top of many other reasons, but the fact that I could share this with my kids was an important one. They haven’t seen it yet but they will, and that will be a baptism by fire for me. Let’s see if I survive that.
McCarthy and Bardem: (Laugh.)
McCarthy: I think you’ll do fine.
Bardem: OK, let’s see!
Melissa, nobody frightens people quite like a Javier Bardem character, so were you pretty anxious in the lead-up to your scene?
McCarthy: I was really nervous to meet him, but the nerves went away within two seconds. The second you meet Javier, he’s like a walking warm hug.
McCarthy: He’s so sweet, and I always find it fascinating how people throw their energy so differently per their characters. Of course, I’m a fan like everybody else, but you don’t know what you’re going to come up against. And then I was like, “Oh, of course. He’s this very open, warm, creative person that can throw lightning bolts,” which is not a King Triton pun. When his energy is on, it’s what you would expect from being in a room with Javier [in character]. You feel it. You don’t just see it or believe it; you actually viscerally feel it. So when you get to work with someone who can do that, it is always a thrill.
Bardem: My turn! Working with Melissa is a joy and a gift. It’s sad that we only had one day.
McCarthy: I know.
Bardem: But I had a moment where [Melissa] was delivering some pretty heavy lines and they made my spine [shiver]. I felt the energy. So I didn’t see her Ursula until that moment, but I knew then that she had created a unique and iconic Ursula in this movie. She’s brought everything that you can ask for and imagine. So I need an Ursula spinoff, and since our characters are siblings, I want to have one scene with her while having dinner.
McCarthy: Let’s go for six or seven if we’re throwing it out there. C’mon!
Disney, I hope you’re listening.
McCarthy & Bardem: (Laughs.)
Rob Marshall was once a dancer before becoming a choreographer and then a director. So does he direct movement more specifically than most directors?
McCarthy: With Rob and John being dancers, they explain things through, especially John, physically. A dancer can’t not use their body and their physicality, so every move we do in this is choreographed. We weren’t standing on the floor, and so 10 people made all of our movements possible. There were people lifting us up and down, circulating and undulating. So we all had to work as this team of dancers, and Rob and John really speak to that. They speak to the physicality, and that’s tied in with the emotion and the story. So, when they do what they do, it is like nothing else. They know it from every direction, and they’ve lived it for most of their lives. So I just feel lucky that I got to be on the receiving end of that, because it’s really glorious.
Bardem: They also have this taste and this elegance that you’re either born with or you’re not, and they put that into everything they do. So, when you watch this movie, it’s so elegant. Every aspect of it is so beautifully taken care of, and it’s a joy. It has such a big heart, and it’s so beautifully done in every detail.
There’s an existing template you had to be somewhat faithful to, but you still have some input on your characters’ designs?
McCarthy: I think it’s in the recipe, but if you did have an idea, they were so open and collaborative.
McCarthy: So everything was a possibility, which is a really special way to work.
The Little Mermaid opens in theaters May 26. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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