There was a moment when Anika Noni Rose, star voice of Disney’s new animated film The Princess and The Frog, suddenly knew the movie would work. It wasn’t when she started preparing for the role of Princess Tiana, the film’s main character. Nor was it when she realized she would be voicing Disney’s first black princess, as well as the first actress to do both the dialogue and sing the songs.
“I watched it last night in a room full of children and their parents, and grown people were talking to the movie,” says Rose, interviewed from a room high atop New York City’s Le Parker Meridien Hotel where she is stationed for the day, doing interviews. “Grown people were talking to the movie, and I was like, ‘OK, this works. Grown people are talking to a cartoon. That’s fantastic.’”
So as The Princess and the Frog hits theaters, expect to hear a lot of grown people and children talking not only to the cartoons on the screen but about the film long after the credits have rolled. For those who have been living under a rock, Rose’s star turn as the voice of Princess Tiana isn’t just another Disney film for children. As the first black princess, the film has taken on a transcendent meaning, invoking discussions of race and making grown folks talk about a film that for all intents and purposes was made for children.
Rose sat down with The Root to discuss her role’s cultural significance, preparing for the tasks of singing and acting, and what she hopes people of all ages get out of The Princess and the Frog.
The Root: Let’s start with an easy question. What’s your favorite Disney film and why?
Anika Noni Rose: I had several. My first favorite was Fantasia, Bambi. I love Lady and the Tramp—the music was fantastic; the characters were so clear. There’s a rare Disney film I don’t have joy for. They’re so specific in the way that they capture fantasy, the way that their colors express are so saturated and beautiful.
TR: Was the role of Princess Tiana pitched to you as Disney’s first black princess, and when you found out she was black, did you feel the weight of its significance?
It wasn’t really pitched to me that way; it was more just about the story of the young woman. When I got it, it was so personally significant that I don’t think the cultural significance hit me until later because I’m somebody who really dreamed about this their entire life, to be a Disney voice. So for me it’s like somebody bopped me over the head with a magic wand. And as we went along, all these things kept coming up: She’s the first black princess. I get to be the first princess who speaks the voice and sings the role as well. It’s the firsthand animated princess feature in 20 years. And these things may mean nothing to anyone else, but to me, it’s so very personally thrilling and special. I feel extraordinarily honored to be able to do this.
TR: It seems a lot of people have taken to over-thinking what Princess Tiana means in a social and cultural context. Have you read any of the criticism?
ANR: I have not read one review. I’m very happy with what we’ve done; I’m very proud of the movie that it is. I don’t wish to taint it either way. I don’t want to read something that’s so overblown and phenomenal that I’m so blown up about it that I can’t see the fact that it’s really a cartoon. And I don’t want to read something that’s so devastatingly analytical and intense that it kills my joy. So I would like to be able to be happy to be in something that has such a phenomenal cast, that was written and put out with such positivity.
TR: Despite the fact you haven’t read one review, I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about this being a significant role. Do you understand with things like President Obama being in office, why for many people this is more than a cartoon or another Disney animated film?
ANR: I think the cultural significance is we as a country have grown and things have really changed and people are seeing America a little bit more clearly. We see each other a little more clearly. There’s room for this princess because this princess is, and she’s everywhere, and she’s so much a part of everyone’s lives. There was a time when the first princess came out, Princess Tiana may not have even been in the same room as Snow White. This had been in the works long before President Obama was making his run. [The Princess and The Frog began in 2007.] It’s sort of just a coincidence that it came about in the same year because you can’t make an animated feature in a minute. It takes years to make that happen. So it just sort of happened to work out that way.
TR: Talk a little bit about preparing for a role. You’ve done Broadway and film, but how different is it preparing to voice an animated character?
ANR: Well it’s a very solitary work. So I prepared the same way. I called people in New Orleans; I listened to their voices to hear what they sounded like. I did a lot of reading up on the city, and listened to a lot of music in the jazz era. But ultimately you’re in that room by yourself with that microphone, and you need to play. You need to release whatever social strictures have been put upon us. You’re taught to fit in a space. There’s no room to fit in a space in that room with that microphone. You need to step out of that space, and I think that’s fantastic and so much fun, but very different cause there’s no one to really balance it off of. So if you’re doing live action, you’re playing with each other. And there, you’re being the 3-year-old with blocks and Fisher Price people.
TR: That was one thing I found to be refreshing about the movie:It was set in a real city, New Orleans. Have you ever visited?
ANR: I’ve been to New Orleans beforehand, and I was there for the Bayou Classic. I remember the first time I stepped into New Orleans, and it looks like a fairy tale on its own. The lusciousness of the colors and the architecture, it’s a very passionate place to be. I think it lends itself beautifully to fairy tale without having to work very hard.
TR: How is Princess Tiana a different princess besides the obvious?
ANR: I think that little girls are dreaming of different things now. There was a time when young women went to college not to just crack a book but to find a husband. That has changed, and I think she speaks to that. I think that it’s wonderful that she’s career oriented, but she’s still lady-like. I think every young woman deserves a princely young man, and I think every young prince deserves a young woman who can act like a lady and be a princess and the way that they treat each other. And the way they treat the people who serve them in a restaurant, the people who open the doors. There are a lot of lessons in that because I don’t think “prince” or “princess” is about your money, your title, your crown, but it’s your spirit and how you conduct yourself.
TR: Besides New Orleans and the obvious fact that Princess Tiana is a black princess, what else about this film is different from other Disney animated features?
ANR: I think that the definition of princess has changed. There’s nothing wrong with the princesses that have come beforehand; a lot of little girls have spent a lot of time and happy fantasies with those princesses. But I think this one is also speaking to the young women who aren’t necessarily walking around searching for a prince or searching to create their own lives and make their own reality. And it’s also talking to young boys about responsibility. There are a lot of really wonderful personalities and stories to latch on to. Even though it is of a period, it is also managing to be very modern in a way, and I think that’s special.
Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He also hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called Empire Afterparty, is a contributor at VerySmartBrothas.com and works at Twitter as an editorial curator. Follow him on Twitter.