While it might be easy enough to put on a pair of fancy shoes, a ruffled dress and a shiny gold crown, actress Anika Noni Rose says there is a lot more to being a princess than an extravagant outer appearance.
“It’s not about the jewels or the castles, it’s about your state of being,” said Rose, 37, during an interview with me this past week. “You can have all the beautiful and fun stuff that goes along with being a princess, but there’s behavior that goes with that.”
In “The Princess and the Frog,” Rose, who is a Tony Award-winning singer and actress, helps prove how well-rounded a princess must be when she lends her voice to Tiana, the first African American princess in the history of Walt Disney. In the film, Tiana is a waitress living in 1920s New Orleans who is working hard to pursue her dream of owning a restaurant. When she is magically transformed into a frog, she is must find a way to break the spell with the help of a suave frog prince, jazz-loving alligator, and friendly firefly.
Before “Frog,” Rose had her breakout film performance in the 2006 musical “Dreamgirls” In the film she sings alongside Beyoncé Knowles and Jennifer Hudson as Lorrell Robinson, one-third of the Motown ensemble loosely based on the Supremes.
During our interview, Rose talked about how race doesn’t necessarily play a part in new animated film and whether or not she anticipates taking on any more responsibility on black issues now that she is the voice behind this groundbreaking character.
It’s no secret there were a couple of other actresses out there campaigning for this role. Was that something on your mind when you were auditioning?
I didn’t really think about who else was coming in for the part. I auditioned three times. I really, really wanted it and just put the work in. I wasn’t thinking about anyone else. It was just me against me.
Why do you think this was such a highly-desired role?
There were a lot of firsts in this movie – the first hand-drawn princess in 20 years; she is the first black princess; I am the first actress to sing the part and voice the part, which is sort of my own personal triumph. A lot of us have been waiting a long time for this princess to come along. It only makes sense for people to be excited and thrilled and to come out and try to be a part of it.
A lot of people are focusing on the fact that this is Disney’s first black princess, but do you really see race as an issue in this story?
In the story it’s not an essential part of what going on. It’s not a story about a girl and her blackness. It’s a story that happens to have a black girl at the center of it. It’s not a story about race; it’s a story about a young brown girl living her life. I think that is what is important. It’s not something that is exclusive. It is a very universal story. There is importance to the fact that a lot of us have been waiting for this character and to have her as part of the Disney princess world. It’s interesting because when you talk about young children, they are just happy to have a princess. This is the first princess they know on the big screen. That’s a good thing. We are such a mixed society right now. Our neighbors, cousins, sisters, and friends are all different colors and from different backgrounds.
Growing up, were you able to identify with anything you saw on television or in the movies?
I absolutely loved Disney animation. I loved the fantasy and the beauty of it all. When you think of those old animated films like “Bambi” and “Lady and the Tramp” they are so gorgeous. But when I was young, I was a big reader. The story was on the page, but the pictures were made by me in my mind.
What were your initial thoughts when you saw the first drawings of Tiana even before the movie went into full production?
I was thrilled when I first saw Tiana. Even when I saw her in pencil I was excited. When I saw her fully colorized it was mind-blowing. I had no idea she was going to look so much like me. I was so honored by that. That wasn’t something they had to do. It wasn’t in my contract. (Laughs)
What are some of the similarities between you and Tiana that stood out to you?
I grew up in a small town. I decided I wanted to be a performer. There was no one in my town who had ever done that. There were lots of people around me saying that was impossible. But I had parents that told me, “Why not? Yes you can. Go for it.” I was very lucky to have that kind of support around me. I understand having that huge dream and having naysayers around you and working at it until you make it happen despite everything. I get that journey completely whether someone is trying to be a chef or a pilot or a librarian.
Which one of Randy Newman’s songs resonated with you the most that you performed for the film? What was it about that song that was special?
The one that resonated with me most strongly was “Almost There.” I think it’s a beautiful song, but not the usual song you would hear from a princess. She’s not yearning and wishing and wanting for something while thinking, “Oh, this is never going to happen! Why isn’t it happening? When is it going to happen?” She’s thinking, “This is my dream. I have put in the work. I see it coming. It’s at the tips of my fingers. I will soon have it in my grasp.” I think that is a really phenomenal message.
Now that you are the face of Disney’s first African American princess, do you feel like you have more of a responsibility as an African American woman if people start asking you questions about black issues?
I don’t know if people are going to feel like they need to do that or want to do that. Do I feel any more responsibility? No, not necessarily. I’m not the voice of black America. I don’t think you can generalize it like that. I think it would be dangerous to do so. I can only speak for me and my experiences in life. I think you have to be careful when we hold each other up so high as role models. We’re people. There’s going to come a time when I take a role that someone is not going to like. I’m an actress. This time I’m playing a princess, but the next time I might be playing the villain. That being said, if someone asks for my opinion, I can give it from my point of view.
What do you think about this whole Disney princess phenomenon when it comes to real life and how so many little girls are interested in living out these types of fairytales. Is that really a good thing for little girls to aspire to be?
I think so. I think every young girl deserves to feel like a princess in their lives. I think every young woman deserves a partner who displays princely behavior. I think every young man should expect lovely and ladylike behavior from their partner. It’s up to us as people molding these children to let them know that you’re a beautiful little princess regardless. And you’re a wonderful little prince regardless of your monetary stature or where you’re sitting in life right now because it’s what inside you that matters most.