Interview with Paige O’Hara, Voice of Belle in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast

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By: Scott Muller

Prior to Megacon 2017 in Orlando, Florida, I had a chance to sit down with the amazingly talented speaking and singing voice of Belle in Disney’s Oscar-nominated classic Beauty and the Beast (1991). I talked to Paige about landing the iconic role, her experience working on the movie, her thoughts on the live-action version of the movie, and what she’s up to today.

Scott from Nerd HQ (NHQ): Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me. So clearly you were in this little movie, this little Disney independent film called Beauty and the Beast.

Paige O’Hara (POH): Oh, yes.

NHQ: I know a few people who saw it. Tell me how you went from singing on Broadway to being in, arguably, one of the top Disney movies of all time.

POH: Well, they really were looking for Broadway people because they created a Broadway musical, as you know, on film. And so I auditioned with 500 other actresses in New York and I kind of had this strange feeling, Scott, because I’m never usually the most confident person in auditions. But when I went to the audition and I read the script, it was so much like me, it was crazy. In fact, it’s the only part I’ve ever played in all my 45 years in this business that is so much like me that I had just let my guard down and let Paige come through. And they kept encouraging me to do that. They said that, “They want Paige to come through, they want Paige to come through,” and so it was just my audition. And I went through seven auditions and the last couple of them, everybody was there, [producer] Don Hahn, all of them. They would close their eyes sometimes when I was signing and talking, and then they’d go through and give me direction.

NHQ: Wow. So seven auditions.

POH: Yes, I even knew some of the women that were up for the role with me, one was a friend of mine.

NHQ: Oh, really?

POH: Marcia Mitzman. Yeah, Marcia Mitzman, a wonderful Broadway actress. And Don Hahn told me later, he says, “You know, it was just the acting,” he said, “You were both great singers and whatever.” And I think that’s because I just identify with Belle, which is kind of strange. And [composer] Howard Ashman, actually – I found out later after I was cast – was a huge fan of my Showboat recording which I did for EMI Records, yeah. So he listened to that a lot. He and I both love Jerome Kern, so we had that in common.

NHQ: Very cool. So I’m assuming, so if you’re very much like Belle, you’re a big reader?

POH: Oh, yeah. Always have been. I always loved to read. I always felt like I was kind of like Belle growing up because I was in acting class and everybody else was going to the beach and listening to Led Zeppelin and I was listening to Gershwin.

NHQ: Wait, you’re saying they’re not alike…Zeppelin and Gershwin? I thought they were pretty much the same!

POH: Oh, exactly. Same genre, right? (Laughs)

NHQ: So your husband’s with you. Did you marry a Beast or did you marry a Gaston?

POH: Oh, no. He’s the Beast for sure. And actually, ironically, he plays the Beast in the Broadway version. It’s funny.

NHQ: Oh really? Crazy.

POH: Yeah, in the Los Angeles production. It was weird being in the audience watching him. It was just really strange.

NHQ: That’s awesome.

POH: It was kind of an odd week because he proposed to me a couple days before I got the part. So at least I can’t say he married me because I got the role.

NHQ: (Laughs) Right! That is awesome. So, after Beauty and the Beast, it seemed like Disney kind of went to more having a speaking voice and a singing voice. I’ve met Irene Bedard and she’s the speaking voice of Pocahontas and there’s a separate singing voice of Pocahontas. I believe Jasmine is the same, where there’s a speaking voice and a singing voice…

POH: Yes. Linda Larkin, yes.

NHQ: Yeah. It’s pretty clear that you have an amazing voice. What was the hardest part about Beauty and the Beast? The acting? A particular song?

POH: No. Quite honestly, it’s one of those projects that everybody was on the same page. And Howard Ashman was the orchestrator.

NHQ: Right.

POH: And his vision and truthfully it was easy for Robby Benson and I. But for me the hardest part was the first month before Robby Benson was cast. Because I was recording and I didn’t have a Beast yet.

NHQ: Oh really?

POH: And then Robby Benson came in. Yeah. They found him later. And truthfully when he came aboard everything came together for me. We requested to record together and it’s a lot more expensive and time-consuming, but they allowed us to do that which was phenomenal for me. And consequently, Robby and I became really close friends.

Paige O’Hara and Robby Benson


NHQ: Nice. You did a convention in Tampa a few years back and I got to meet – well, not meet. I say meet like you and I were chums, but I got to chat with you for a minute and Richard White [who plays Gaston in the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast] was also there as a guest.

POH: Oh, yeah. He is a riot. He and I knew each other for years. For years we’ve done shows together. We went to Egypt together with the Cairo Opera House of Showboat. We did the revival there together. So we were real buddies. So it was really easy to record and pick on Richard. (Laughs)

NHQ: If you can’t pick on your friends who can you pick on, right?

POH: Exactly.

NHQ: So I joked earlier you were in a little movie called Beauty and the Beast. Did you know right out of the gate that there’s something special here? Was there a particular point afterwards that you realized how special it was?

POH: Well, you know Scott, we all knew that it was great writing, a great film. We didn’t know to the magnitude of the success that it was going to be until we did the unfinished version in New York at the film festival. And so it was in and out of full animation and the hand-drawn animation. And knowing the New York critics as I do, there was somewhat trepidation on all our parts. But when the audience stood up for ten minutes at the end of that version and I said, “This is going to be something really, really special.”

NHQ: Ten minutes. Wow.

POH: Yeah. Oh, yeah. And we went up on the stage and then they sent us again. And it was pretty phenomenal.

NHQ: Yeah. No, there’s no doubt in the outcome. I mean, I don’t know. First animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture?

POH: Yep. Yes, it was. And now that they’ve changed the category, it’s the only one, only animation to be up for Best Picture now.

NHQ: So what was the craziest or most surreal part about attending the Oscars?

POH: You know what? It was crazy. I actually shared a dressing room with Celine Dion, which was really cool.

NHQ: Oh, man!

POH: I had a designer design me a dress and you’ll see if you look it up. It looks like Little Bo Peep! It looks nothing like Belle! (Laughs) It was horrible. And I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and say, “I don’t like it.” So I’m sitting there wearing this horrible dress and Celine gets a knock on the door an hour before the show and someone says, “They still would like you to wear your red dress.” And she says, “No, no, no, I’m going to wear my black dress. Thank you.” (Laughs) And I was like, “Oh, how did you do that?” (Laughs) But it was great. I went onto the stage, Angela Lansbury [Mrs. Potts in the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast] introduced me and she was shaking like a leaf. But before we went out on stage, [I said], “Angie, why are you nervous?” And she said, “Hey, when you get to be my age you’re supposed to be nervous.”



NHQ: It’s a shame I didn’t get to see that because I didn’t stumble upon Beauty and the Beast, oddly, enough a college film class.

POH: You’re kidding! Wow! Wow.

NHQ: Yep. I’m in my 20s and I’m watching it and I’m like, “This movie is great, this Gaston guy is hysterical.” The whole movie was great. I told my wife, I’m like, “We’ve got to watch this again!” And we just fell in love with it again in my 20s. So –

POH: Wow! Wow! You’d be surprised, even now, I mean, I get so many compliments. And a lot of it are adults as well as kids. I mean, it’s amazing. But it wasn’t really a kids film, the demographic is all over the chart, you know? Everybody loved it.

NHQ: Since we don’t have a ton more time, I just want to hit on two more things. Clearly, again, they did this little thing, Disney did this little thing recently called Beauty and the Beast live version and I looked it up and you seemed to have pretty positive reviews of Emma Watson and her performance –

POH: Oh, yeah. Oh, yes, yes, yeah, I love Emma and I think she has the perfect demeanor and as a person. It’s like combination between intelligence and passion. And I have to tell you I love the fact that they made her the inventor. That was so cool.



NHQ: Right. That was really cool. I did like it. To me, and I talked to Rick Farmiloe who was one of the animators on the 1991 version and he was saying the new version was more of a story than a fairy tale. Like you said, they fleshed out the characters a little more. Did that seem like a good way to describe it?

POH: Oh, absolutely, it was. And I think that it’s very different in many ways than our original. But I think it’s very valid and that it’s a wonderful film. It’s definitely more of an adult film, I mean, I’m glad they made it PG. Because if I had a kid at five years old see that wolf scene, I could – I think yeah, I mean, it scared me! (Laughs)

NHQ: Oh, yeah, I mean, I’ll tell you what, and the one part where Gaston, I mean, Gaston essentially became a psychopath.

POH: Oh, my God, Gaston was pure evil in that version and yeah, that will scare little kids. I mean, when they tie up Maurice to the tree, I mean, come on, really? It was pretty scary. The gun thing at the end was very scary. So, I think they made the right choice making it PG.

NHQ: I would be inclined to agree. Now, I don’t want to put you in a weird spot but I’m going to ask this question, do you think it was good? They sort of tamped down the singing for Emma Watson’s range. Would you have rather seen it done that way or would you rather have seen the maybe have gotten a singer to have done the singing scenes? Clearly, some of the singing scenes, in my opinion, are not as impactful as your version. Would you have rather seen them try it or did you kind of like that they were like, “Let’s do what Emma can do?”

POH: Well, you know, I would have been fine with it either way. And I was fine with her singing. I know she worked really, really hard. She was right in tune and everything and she acted so beautifully that it didn’t bother me. It really didn’t bother me. It was like when I go back to the years, way back when I was a little kid and they did Camelot the movie and Lynn Redgrave was Guinevere. She couldn’t really sing but it didn’t really matter. You know? There’s a part of me that misses the Broadway sounds, but she was so good in it that I can’t complain. (Laughs)

NHQ: Well, the original Belle set the bar pretty high. So –

POH: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. Thank you, Scott.

NHQ: My pleasure. So, last question quick, so now I looked online and it’s utterly amazing, you’re an artist now. Have you always liked painting or was this something you kind of picked up along the way?

POH: Oh, no. I’ve been painting since I was three years old. And when I went to New York, I would paint at night and sell my paintings on the streets to help pay the rent and my school. And I’ve always painted. I’ve always copied famous artists like Turner and Sargent and DiVinci. So, it was really kind of wonderful that this all happened. Mike and I went to an event where it was Beauty and the Beast night and we brought one of my paintings and it sold immediately. In fact, a couple people wanted it and then that night Disney Fine Arts signed me.

NHQ: Yeah. I was about to ask about that.

POH: In fact, I have a new gallery opening, I should tell you. A new gallery in Las Vegas at the Forum Shop. Caesar’s Forum Shop. Opening on June 8th. It’s a big opening. It’s called Magical Memories and it’s all Disney Fine Artists in there. So I’m going to have my own little wall there.

NHQ: Nice. I saw the Positively Primeval painting. I wish I had a little more money socked up. But that one was unbelievable. I was like, “Oh, I want that in my room!”

POH: Thank you.

NHQ: Is there anywhere, before we go, is there anywhere online where people can see your work? Website?

POH: You know what, you can just look up “Paige O’Hara Artwork” and it appears in several different places, including on my website as well as Disney Fine Art. But if you just punch in “Paige O’Hara Artwork,” it’ll all pop up. You can also go to paigeohara.net. My husband’s saying that is even better.

NHQ: Well thank you so much. I really do appreciate your time. The movie, your part in it, absolutely amazing. You set the bar so high, it was hard to watch the second one and not say, “Oh, this, come on. This isn’t the original.”

POH: Oh, thank you. Thank you. I’ve had a lot of feedback that way, but I still think that Emma was quite wonderful in her own right. You know? And Dan Stevens, there again, was so different than Robby Benson. Dan Stevens was an adult beast. So, he was great. (Laughs)

NHQ: Absolutely. Anyway, I thank you for taking the time and have a good weekend here in Orlando.

POH: All right. Thank you!


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