The Little Mermaid director explains how drag legend Divine inspired Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula

Melissa McCarthy as Ursula (L) and The Little Mermaid director Rob Marshall (R).

The director of The Little Mermaid, Rob Marshall, has reflected on the “daunting” task of bringing drag legend Divine to life in Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula.

The long-awaited Disney live-action adaptation of the nautical love story between Ariel (Halle Bailey) and Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) is due to open next month with McCarthy as the villainous sea-witch hell-bent on tearing them apart.

Since the much-loved 1989 animation, which starred Pat Carroll as Ursula, it has long been known that Ursula’s immaculately camp energy, from her spectacular number “Poor Unfortunate Souls” to her evil scheming, is down to the drag legend Divine.

To the backdrop of an increasingly hostile environment across the US for drag queens right now, the Mary Poppins Returns director told SFX magazine how he kept Ursula true to her drag roots.

“It was really daunting to think about who was going to play this part,” he said. “I love that she was originally inspired by Divine, the wonderful drag actor, who was so original and so funny. We really used Divine as our inspiration because that’s where it started.

“But the thing about Divine is that she [was] bigger than life, and this character is bigger than life.”

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As to where to find the perfect person to embody such a role, Marshall said he was looking for someone who had humour and depth, could really sing, and that it was very important for them to be plus-sized.

Fate sat him with McCarthy during the Golden Globes and he described her as “so wonderful, funny and great”.

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“I thought: ‘Well she’s fabulous’,” he added.

McCarthy went above and beyond the brief, admitting how her own roots in the acting and comedy world started in drag. “You could have knocked me over with a feather when she said to me: ‘I started as a drag performer,'” Marshall joked.

He is referring to McCarthy’s beginnings in the New York drag scene as Miss Y. Her experience meant she understood “where the beginnings of this character started” and, naturally, landed the role.

“She’s a wonderful actress, people forget that,” Marshall continued. “This character is an injured character and she was able to find all that depth and emotion, in addition to all the other colours.”

Praising McCarthy for bringing “humanity” to the role, while paying homage to Divine, he explained the technical extravaganza behind bringing Ursula to life. She required eight dancers as her tentacles, a harnessed costume, a see-saw and all-around “cutting edge” equipment. “It was like ballet,” Marshall said.

McCarthy confirmed that Divine was “100 per cent” an inspiration. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, the 52-year-old star said: “There’s a drag queen [who] lives in me. I’m always right on the verge of going full-time with her. She’s the villain, but there’s such an edge to her.”

Moving away from the original, McCarthy’s Ursula will play King Triton’s (Javier Bardem) estranged sister, therefore Ariel’s aunt.

“People are gonna be so amazed at her job [playing] Ursula,” Bailey told ET. “First of all, she’s a beautiful human being, so talented, and the way she just consumes Ursula is beautiful. I’m so proud of her and I can’t wait for people to see it.”

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The Little Mermaid opens on 25 May.

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