Roundtable Interview With Idina Menzel On Frozen
Emotionally capturing both the poise and vulnerability of a seemingly privileged, majestic princess whose every desire is within her reach can be a difficult challenge for an actor. But Idina Menzel, who began publicly singing as a teenager in part to prove to herself that she could rise above those who targeted her for her talents, brought a strength and openness to her role as a Disney princess in the new animated comedy, Frozen.
Frozen follows sisters Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), two princesses of Arendelle who are very close to one another. Elsa’s inability to handle her secret power of being able to create snow and ice delights her younger sister. But when the magic gets out of control one day and injures Anna, Elsa’s fear that she’ll do more harm to her younger sister forces her to hide her secret and distance herself from their relationship.
As the two sisters grow older, Elsa gets ready to take her position as Queen. Still trying to hide her magical power, she accidentally plunges the Kingdom into an eternal winter during her coronation. Trying to protect Arendelle from any further damage, Elsa runs away. Determined to find her sister, Anna sets out on an epic journey with a few companions and battles the elements to bring back her sister and save the kingdom.
Idina Menzel recently took the time to sit down with us in New York City during a roundtable interview to talk about lending her voice to Frozen. Among other things, the singer-actress discussed how she loved the process of working on the film, how a lot of her classmates gave her a hard time when she was younger, how she got involved in the film and more.
Check out the full interview below and enjoy!
Did you have to audition for the role of Elsa? How did you become involved in the film?
Idina Menzel: I had auditioned and met the creative people for Tangled, so they kept me in mind for this. I had a meeting with Kristen too. But I think the reading was sort of an audition. Then they came back around, and gave me the gig.
Were you able to develop the character at all? Since she’s so complex, what did you get to contribute to that?
Idina Menzel: I think it’s a nice, organic relationship between the creators and actors. I love working on a Disney film like this; when you show up to the studio, and they show you storyboards and each picture drawn out. You’re always at different stages, but they want the actors to really understand where they are, so they’re not guessing about their characters. I just love the process of working on animated films.
I find that, maybe because I’m also a singer, I hear music in characters all the time, even if they don’t sing. I hear what affects me in my heart. So with Elsa, I explored with keys, and where we placed her in my voice. I love being at the recording studio, and playing with my voice. (laughs) I also loved exploring what Elsa was like when she was angry and when she was bold. So I really enjoy the process.
I’m also in awe of the animators and what they do, and the talent that’s in that studio. I’ve actually asked for backstage time, when the directors took me around. My husband (Taye Diggs) and I just hung out with the animators and went to their offices, and saw how they worked on the computers and programs. I really took on the whole experience.
In the film, everyone thinks it’s true love’s kiss that’s going to save Anna. But the story also focuses on the sisters’ relationship and their empowerment of each other. What do you think Elsa brings to female empowerment?
Idina Menzel: I do agree that it’s not just about the man swooping in. But it’s more than just female empowerment; it’s about family and sisters. It shows that true love doesn’t have to be romantic love between a man and a woman. It’s a bond and family, whatever that means. That’s what I love; I think it’s larger than any story that Disney’s told in the past.
With the female empowerment, what I take from the character for myself, and where Elsa and I meet, is wrestling with being a strong, powerful, extraordinary woman. Also, we worry about having to hide that, in fear of hurting other people. I understand and relate to that. I think as women, the smarter and more powerful we are, the more it can be threatening and alienating to other people, more than with men. That’s something we need to support each other with.
I thought about it a lot when I was younger, more than I do now. Now I celebrate who I am, and what I’m doing. When I was younger, I never wanted my friends to think I was showing off. That’s why I think it’s great for kids to see this movie. Everything’s always about being homogenized, and following in a group. The people who stand out always have the most problems. So the more we have those messages out here about the people who are struggling with something, or are different or gifted, as well as the opportunity to give them a platform to celebrate that, is the stronger way to go.
A lot of school children will be watching the film. Did you ever struggle in school?
Idina Menzel: Yeah, there were a lot of girls in school with whom I had a hard time. One of them was an aspiring singer, in the third grade. (laughs) We were both up for Dorothy; we were always up for the same roles, even though she was a year older than me. She was so mean to me, because she felt threatened by me.
I was always looking for places in my life where I could find that home and company of people where I could be myself. So a lot of times I would pretend that I wasn’t singing or going to my voice lessons. Even as I was getting older, I was doing wedding and bar mitzvahs to make some cash. I started that early, when I was about 15-years-old. I’d lie about my age, and do these gigs. (laughs)
The kids at school were having keg parties on the weekends, and I was doing a wedding or bar mitzvah in some temple on Long Island. I came into my own, and built a confidence as a performer. I did that through having to stand up with people who weren’t paying much attention, and a band of older men and women. But the people at school didn’t know that part of my life.
It’s not until now, and in the past 10 years, honestly, that I’m finally not apologizing for all the different things that I do. My first gig was in the off-Broadway show Rent. Even when it was a rock musical, people in the rock and music worlds were thinking of it as a Broadway show. We weren’t getting the street cred of working with the rock-n-roll producers and songwriters.
So I’ve always been caught in these different worlds. It hasn’t been until the last couple years of my life that I’ve been comfortable saying, this is my resume, and this is where I’ve been. Now I feel like I’ve made a name for myself.
Going along with the film’s theme of true love, what was the last romantic thing your husband did for you?
Idina Menzel: He just sent me flowers to my dressing room for my new play in Washington, D.C. I’m starting a new musical, called If/ Then. We’re in D.C. to develop and work on it, before we bring it to Broadway. It’s the first theatrical thing I’ve done in a long time that I’m really excited about. So Taye knew I was excited about it, and he sent me flowers.
We’re not perfect together, but I think we make a good couple because we push the right and wrong buttons, and we learn from each other. We’ve been together 17 years, and we teach each other about ourselves. We have joyous and very troubling days, but we keep growing as people.
How different was it for you to record the songs for Frozen, as compared to Beowulf?
Idina Menzel: It was totally different. I didn’t have the same connection to Beowulf, as I wasn’t part of the creative process. It was just me and Glen Ballard, who was my producer at the time, and was also a mentor to me.
Frozen was different, because it was the character’s journey. She was speaking for so many young people. Anytime you have a song that’s meaningful and resonates with the younger generation, while also speaking to the older generation, and it immediately strikes a cord when you hear it, is an intangible thing to describe. I felt like I also had that with Defying Gravity in Wicked.
Was it scary being video recorded in the studio, as you were singing your songs for Frozen?
Idina Menzel: Well, they film you at all times, because the animators take it so seriously. They want to see all your gestures. But you forget the camera’s even there after a while. It’s a part of the art.
They even brought me in one day. They had a special meeting for all of the animators, and about 60 or 70 animators came in. It was kind of like The Actors Studio. They wanted to understand how I breathe and develop a character. They also wanted to know how and why I thought Elsa moves.
They wanted to understand my craft, so I spoke to them about my technique and vocals and what I do with my voice teacher, and I never talk about that, as it’s my private world. I told them that when I do a big note, I actually take a smaller breath, so the air’s not plummeting out. I spoke to them about things that I would never think about, so I wanted to inform them on how I move and breathe.
When I got to visit their offices, I saw that they don’t put the dresses on the Disney characters right away. So I’m seeing all these dailies, and Kristen and my characters’ are running around like Sarah Jessica Parker; they were wearing see-through mini-skirts. (laughs)
I was like, “This isn’t very Disney.” They said, “We get the movement of the body and legs right first.” Even if they’re wearing a ball gown in the scene, the animators want to perfect the movements first. I thought that attention to detail was fascinating.
Did you have a Disney princess that you enjoyed the most growing up?
Idina Menzel: I was more of a tomboy. But right now, everything’s about The Lion King, because of my son. So I’m really appreciating what a great movie that is. I have to act out the scenes on Pride Rock with him, and he’s Scar, and I’m Mufasa. (laughs)
I was more interested in Lady and the Tramp and Tiger Lily from Peter Pan. I was more interested in the tougher chicks.
Since Frozen is set in winter, are you a fan of the snow and cold weather? Do you have a favorite winter memory?
Idina Menzel: Yeah, I love winter. I grew up on Long Island, so I’m a fan of seasons.
My favorite winter memory was from several years ago, when we were rehearsing for Rent, down in the East Village. It was one of those crazy blizzards, from 1996, and people were cross-country skiing up and down Madison Avenue. When the snow falls on a Friday night after work, where it silences the whole city, and it doesn’t get picked up and dirty for a while, it’s so pretty. Everyone’s having fun, and going to movies and pubs. Something about the city being silenced by the snow is one of my favorite things.