For Melissa McCarthy, Ursula in 'The Little Mermaid' is More Than Just a Villain

CUL PS Melissa McCarthy
Melissa McCarthy Jon Kopaloff/Getty

"That song looms so large for me that if I can't do it, I shouldn't be doing it."

For Melissa McCarthy, playing Ursula in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid (May 26) began with terror. "That song ["Poor Unfortunate Souls"] looms so large for me that if I can't do it, I shouldn't be doing it." Fortunately for us, she did do it—and did it well. That's partly because she saw Ursula as more than just a villain. "She's not just ostracized, she's isolated...She is such a complicated character." The animated Ursula was heavily inspired by the drag queen Divine, which made the character even more rich for McCarthy. "There has never been a world without drag. And I do not care to ever see a world without drag." Directed by Rob Marshall and with Halle Bailey as Ariel, McCarthy has nothing but praise for them. "He did this beautiful thing. He built the world we all want to live in. There's variety there. It's like everybody wins. Everybody has their seat at the table. Halle leads this movie with such strength. This isn't like girls need help from the prince. It's like Halle is charging to her destiny."


How did you take being cast as Ursula?

First of all, I actually pursued it knowing that I don't have any business really doing this. But I have such an affinity and a connection [for The Little Mermaid]. I've seen The Little Mermaid more than any movie ever. I've seen it probably 100 times. I was a nanny in my early 20s and these two great little girls would watch a little bit of a movie each night before bed, and it was The Little Mermaid for like a year and a half. And I just remember Pat Carroll [the original voice of Ursula]. Oh, my God. I was just like she is perfection. Back then you didn't know how to look that up, [but] I was like, there is no way that this isn't Divine. An homage to Divine. But you know what? Now I know that is true, I was like, I knew it. Because I'm a huge John Waters fan. But to get to play that part, I was like, I don't know if it's even appropriate and I don't know if I can do the song, but I know her in my heart. I know how damaged she is, and I desperately wanted to have drinks with Ursula. I was always like, can you imagine saddling up at like Julius' [New York City's oldest gay bar] and having Ursula next to you?

For Melissa McCarthy, Ursula in ‘The Little
Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in 'The Little Mermaid.' Disney

I can, actually. I can imagine that.

I can imagine that, too. I may have even seen that. But I met with Rob, which was already like, I'm sitting here with Rob Marshall. I feel slightly crazy. And we just kind of hit it off. I think because I loved her so much that we connected. We saw her the same way. And it wasn't just she's so funny, she's such a great broad and my love of drag. I think all of that, but it's [also] what are you putting on as your armor? What are you distracting people with? What do you put on so they don't see what's really there? It's all of those things. We started before all of this crazy COVID stuff, but by the time we were actually shooting it, we had spent all this time in this strange isolation and I think it even helped me because I already had thought a lot about this woman. She's not just ostracized, she's isolated. And then coming out of two years of I haven't been to a Trader Joe's, to suddenly stepping into [this character] who has been in severe isolation. I was like, if I don't understand that now, I never will. I really felt like her mental health, everything, she just became so much more. Having that time with her, as much as I thought I loved her, I don't think I had given her the full breadth of how how fantastic of a character she was, and how much the damage and even the lashing out is because she's angry but she also wants to be accepted. She's doing it the wrong way. It made me even think about all these people saying these hateful things, it's just because they're so unhappy and they don't know how to communicate [they're] unhappy. "I'm lonely. I'm scared." So instead they say, "I hate you. I hate you." They flip it.

I had the same reaction, I always related to her more. I knew there was something deeper.

I did too. Her damage. She is complicated because there is a mothering aspect of it. At some point, I was like, "Oh my God, I've gotten so inside of this thing." She's calling Ariel and doing this mothering to her. But she didn't get to mother. So it's not all false. She's so in the gray murky area of some of it one second, it's real, the next it's a con, then it's a grift, then it's an attack, then it's just pain and vulnerability. She is such a complicated character. That's all you ever want in a character. You're like, let it all be gray.

You're not known for singing. How do you prepare?

It was so far beyond terrifying. At one point, I was like, I have to call Rob, I have over served myself. I was so nervous. That song looms so large for me that if I can't do it, I shouldn't be doing it. And I don't want to do it poorly. I would never forgive myself. So I just started with Eric Vetro, who is everybody on Earth's vocal coach, he is the sweetest most patient human. And I said, "I'm scared to death to sing. I can't sing. I don't know how to sing." And he was like, "Get it all out." I'm not a shy person.

That's a shocker [laughs].

This is coming out of nowhere [laughs]. But I used to do a thing growing up, where if somebody's like, which song are you talking about? What's it sound like? I'd be like, "I can't sing it." And they're like, "We've been best friends for like, 12 years, you can't sing a bar of something?" I could not actually sing. I got so nervous. And I went for months and months, and finally I was like, I'm still so embarrassed. I can't. This is a weird feeling, I can't get on the other side of it. And he's like, "Well, you're trying to sing well as Melissa. You're trying to sing as yourself." He goes, "You're not singing. How would Ursula?" So he would have me talk as her. The second I started doing that. I was like, "Oh, I know where she is." I know when I'm kind of talking to myself and when I'm talking to the eels, I know when I'm threatening, when I'm trying to seduce. It was great. It seems obvious, because, of course, you have to perform in the character, but since I don't come from that world, I was separating them. But it still was terrifying. One of the first rehearsals, Alan [Menken] and Lin-Manuel [Miranda] popped in one of my singing lessons. I'm hoping I'm not going to dissociate and pass out. And then very sweetly one goes, "Do you want us to hang out?" And I, before he even got it out, I was like, "No, get out. I'm so sorry to both of you." Who would? I can barely stand here in front of you. But then I did settle in and I got used to it. When we recorded and then when it was over, I was like, "Wait, I don't get to go to singing class tomorrow?" [They] said no one calls it singing class. Good to know. Everything about doing this and being part of it with Rob Marshall in his wonderful world where everything just floats on cashmere clouds and is so supportive and so completely open to working as a team, but also feeling so encouraged. You can't feel better about yourself. And then when you're in the glow of Rob Marshall, it's pretty magical.

I don't remember your past films involving much CGI. What was it like working with that?

There was a lot on Ghostbusters, but still not like this. I mean, we are fully in and surrounded, none of it's real. So we would be on these rigs, it was amazing. You're in almost giant baby walkers and they just had all these different little smooth wheels, someone turns you and I'm standing on something the size of a dinner plate. I'm harnessed in. There's three people that physically move you around the space. We're fully diving and doing all this stuff. Someone else's dial just rotates you on your little dinner plate. Someone else goes up and down. Everyone's just kind of freestyling. There's no pattern.So all of a sudden, you start to get the rhythms. Am I going to be looking like I'm dancing? I don't know if I should say this. I'm not a huge CGI fan. Only because it removes me [from the moment]. I finally saw it three weeks ago and it's so stunning. It's so beautiful. And you feel the weight of the water. It's just it's the most spectacular looking and feeling thing I've ever seen. I was like, I can't say that anymore about CGI, because my mind is fully blown. It is exquisite.

I know so many are like me who have been waiting for this for so long. To see it on the big screen.

I love to hear that. And I just think to see this, it's gonna give people so much joy. The world. He [Rob Marshall] did this beautiful thing and Disney just encouraged it. He built the world we all want to live in. Where there's variety there. It's like everybody wins. Everybody has their seat at the table. Even when she's vulnerable. Halle leads this movie with such strength. This isn't like girls need help from the prince. It's like Halle is charging to her destiny. Both fish out of water, no pun or pun intended, but it's really something else. We need joyful stuff. I also love the thought of a packed theater, feeling and falling in love with some of these characters, rooting against others, to get us back together to have that collective joy. I do think that we need that as humans.

Not many people know the influence of drag queen Divine on Ursula. How did the influence of drag help you find your character?

It's what I talked about a little bit before of the armor versus the vulnerability and what you put on and becoming something you couldn't say as myself but [as Ursula] I could say anything. And I think that's what drag is. I was really goth in high school and college, and I think it did the same thing. It was my drag. Because I can be a better version of myself. I can be a little more confident. It's smoke and mirrors, but we all do it. A bob and a set of pearls can be your armor, it could be Siouxsie Sioux-hair. I've been seeing drag since I was in high school. These shows, it's one performer and she's out there not just doing a number giving you personality [and] such incredible wit, but social commentary. Because why are you doing the woman you're doing? What are you saying about that woman? There's so much going on. We've been doing drag in every century. There has never been a world without drag. And I do not care to ever see a world without drag. Also, if we think drag is the problem, [then] I'd love to sit down with that person and take them to a nice drag brunch. Because you can't come out of there not feeling a little bit better about the world. But I think that was so much of her. Ursula is the outsider, she's the outcast. And I think with so many drag queens [there] absolutely is that, "I'm aware that I'm the outcast. I'm aware I'm not what you consider the norm. And I'm embracing it. And I'm cherishing it. And I'm holding it up. I'm putting a spotlight on it and giving it a mic. And I don't have to conform to what you want. I will show you what I am." It [drag] just changed my whole energy [and] said so much more than it ever said. It's funny and entertaining. It's also risky. It's just everything. I love it.

Disney loves a franchise, and I feel like we need a backstory for Ursula. What do you think that would look like?

First of all, I think it would be riveting. Because I think to reverse engineer what builds up that crusty shell. To watch [her] constantly being outed, always being wrong, I think all of that builds up like it does on all of us. You either are completely broken by it, or you build up such a hard shell that no one will ever get through to you and then you're just isolated in your own prison. And then Ursula, her journey into where she ends up would be fascinating because I think it would be an unbelievably relatable. It'd be mental health, self-confidence, body image. I think it would be every single thing. Yeah. Because to get to where she was it was not a smooth and easy mellow ride.

So you really are the female Tom Hanks. Everybody wants to be your friend and everyone wants you to host SNL. I can imagine that leads to some pretty interesting fan encounters?

Also, I'm so chatty. I can have a chat with anybody in a grocery store. No, I have to say I'm always stunned with how incredibly nice people are. That they would take the time, I'm just always so like, "I can't believe I got a job." I know some people are like, is it [OK to] bother someone? When someone stops to say something so nice? I wish we all did that for each other. I'm a big shout out the window kind of gal. I literally roll down that window, "You're killing it in that dress." They're always a little creeped out and then confused when they see it's me. But for the most part, people are so incredibly nice. Sometimes when the camera goes in my face, I feel a little like [I'm in a] petting zoo. But there was one person...I was with my sweet Midwestern mom who has never swore a day in her life. She's just made of like marzipan. She's like a good amalgamation of kittens and marzipan. And this guy stopped us again, being so nice. But he just kept swearing a blue streak. And then he also kept doubling down. He was like, "I just f****** love that you f****** swear. So f****** love it." My mom is standing there. I was like, "Oh, this this is my mom. This is my sweet Midwestern mom." And we were outside of a thrift store. And he doubled down. I was like, "I have sworn in quite a bit of my movies. I don't really do that in life to that velocity." And I just kept saying this is my sweet little Midwestern mother who has never sworn in life. It was so sweet, but I could not get him to stop swearing. I mean, we were laughing but my mom's like, "I've never heard that many in one grouping." But you kind of had to like tip your hat. It was kind of a wonderful display.

That's incredible. Yeah, I can see a lot of people, especially around alcohol, being very open.

Well in The Heat, Paul Feig [the director] at one point yelled, "Swear more." And I was like, "There's no more left." I've said all the words. He was like, "How many can you get in one sentence?" I'm like, "I just put seven in one sentence. I don't know that there's any more. I think we're gonna have to start making things up."

Now I'm sure people ask you about a Bridesmaids sequel all the time, and I'd love that, but the one I really want to see a sequel for is The Spy.

I would do it today. I would start shooting it while I'm on the phone with you. Literally, I point-blank said to Paul Feig, I was like "I'm in." I think all of us would do [it]. It was so fun. I am cheerleading it. I really love it. I could get like five new wigs again. Come on.

Listen to H. Alan Scott on Newsweek's Parting Shot. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Twitter: @HAlanScott