The Little Mermaid Director Speaks Out On Controversial Casting

Director Rob Marshall says there was "no agenda" in casting Halle Bailey in the title role of the upcoming The Little Mermaid remake.

By Michileen Martin | Updated

the little mermaid

What was director Rob Marshall’s social agenda in the casting of Halle Bailey in the lead role of his upcoming live-action remake of Disney‘s The Little Mermaid? In a recent sit down with Entertainment Weekly, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker says there was “no agenda.” The 22-year-old singer is the best actor for the role, and that’s all there is to it.

“We just were looking for the best actor for the role, period. The end… We saw everybody and every ethnicity.”

The Little Mermaid director Rob Marshall on the casting of the new Ariel

To fill the role of Ariel, Marshall said they needed someone who could portray a young woman of beauty, strength, intelligence, cleverness, and passion. He also said that, along with obviously needing to be able to sing, The Little Mermaid lead needed to exude “a great fire and joy.” It was these qualities, as opposed to her skin color, that lead to Halle Bailey’s casting as Ariel.

Regardless, many of the fans who voiced their anger at the casting when the first The Little Mermaid teaser trailer was released in September will likely brush off Marshall’s words. The choice of a woman of color in the role was seen as “woke” casting by many, and the outcry — leading to over a million dislikes on YouTube — was less surprising than it was disappointing. Denying any accusations of racism, critics of the choice have reached as far as they can for justification; including claiming that “scientifically” a non-white mermaid doesn’t make sense (as opposed to just a mermaid, which apparently is totally believable).

Rob Marshall is no stranger to moviemaking; having been nominated for a Best Director Oscar for his 2002 adaptation of Chicago, as well as helming such big-screen musicals as 2014’s Into the Woods and 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns. He’s also directed non-musical fare like 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha and 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. In spite of his decades behind the camera, the director says he was surprised at some of the positive reactions he received to the first teaser for The Little Mermaid.

The release of The Little Mermaid teaser prompted many Black parents to share reaction videos of their children online, who were visibly thrilled to see themselves represented on the screen. Marshall told EW his initial response was naive.

“I wasn’t anticipating that because, in a way, I felt like we’ve moved so far past that kind of thing, but then you realize, in a way we haven’t. It was very moving to me to see how important this kind of casting is for the world.”

Rob Marshall on the casting of Ariel

We’ll all get to finally see and hear Halle Bailey as the star of The Little Mermaid when it hits theaters on May 26, 2023.