For 25 years, actress and singer Paige O’Hara has been the definitive Belle of Beauty and the Beast, but she’s more than happy to make room for Emma Watson to take up the role for the upcoming live-action film.
“I thought it was genius casting!” says O’Hara, who’s celebrating the 25th anniversary of the original 1991 animated classic, newly released on Blu-Ray Sept. 20. “I don’t think you could pick anyone more right for Belle that’s out there that’s the right age. She’s beautiful, she’s got the intelligence, she’s extremely smart. I think she’s going to be wonderful. I really do!”
O’Hara, who performed opposite actor Robby Benson as the Beast in the original, also gives high marks to the casting of Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens as Belle’s shaggy soulmate. “I fell in love with him on Downton Abbey,” she says. “I was so angry and upset for three days after he got killed off that series – I almost boycotted it I was so angry!”
As for the film itself, O’Hara says, “Oh, I can’t wait – I’m really excited about it,” noting that producer Don Hahn, a Disney veteran who produced the original animated film, “tells me wonderful things – and I know what a perfectionist Don is, so I’m sure if he likes it, it’s gonna be great … I hope I’m there opening night!”
O’Hara’s been there all along through the remarkable history of Disney’s take on the classic fairy tale. Beast was the second film, following the success of 1989’s The Little Mermaid, that returned Disney animation to its classic roots, adding fresh contemporary spins and eternally sing-able music from composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. The film ultimately became the first animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and was subsequently adapted into one of the longest-running stage musicals in Broadway history.
A quarter century later, O’Hara still marvels at how Belle’s saga has evolved from a phenomenon to a full-fledged cultural icon.
“I had no idea that the impact of the film would be so great for this long a time,” O’Hara tells PEOPLE. “I go to different countries and I do concerts, and then I do interviews and I do a lot of signings. And I had women come up to me crying saying, ‘I went through such a rough childhood and your character just inspired me so much.’ I’ve had young men say the same thing. And I had no idea that the impact of the film would be so great for this long a time.
“Now that I’m 60 years old, I’m thinking, this is going to be a classic forever like Snow White. I mean, it’s long after I’m gone,” she says, noting that today she has a fresh perspective on the film. “I appreciate things about my character a little more now that I’m older, [like] her sacrifice for her dad, I knew it was poignant and pretty incredible then, but now as I’m older, I realize that’s one of the most noble characteristics of Belle.”
Back when O’Hara first heard about the role, she was a rising star on Broadway best known for her performance in Showboat. The film’s acclaimed lyricist Ashman – hot off the success of The Little Mermaid – had his eye on her for Belle early on (“He was already an established genius,” she recalls, “and the stardust that he sprinkled on the Disney animated franchise resonates still today”). Almost immediately she felt she was destined to play the part.
“She’s so much like me, it’s crazy,” she says. “I felt like it was almost written for me. That’s how I felt in my heart, because so much of my childhood was like Belle: the oddball, the bookworm, all of it, and wanting adventure – I wanted adventure as an actress in New York, so I moved to New York at 17.
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“Ironically when I was cast, constantly Howard and our directors Kirk [Wise] and Gary [Trousdale] would say, ‘Paige, the more you put Paige into it, the better it is,’ ” O’Hara explains. “This was the only role I ever played that had that much of me into it, and that was hard to let that guard down and totally be myself into this character. And even now, it’s the only character I’ve ever played in my life that was that close to me.”
Despite that connection to Belle, she admits that once she landed the part and began recording, she was “a wreck! I started talking way too loud, and it was all like nervous, and Howard said, ‘Calm down. We want your voice. No playing to the second balcony.’ I got more confident as it went along.’ ”
One key factor that proved to be a tremendous advantage was the fact that she was allowed to record several of her scenes alongside actor Robby Benson, who played the Beast, at a time when it was rare to allow voice actors to perform their scenes together.
“They actually encouraged us to ad-lib, so we wouldn’t feel like we were hindered by just the written word on the page,” she adds. “It really helped the relationship grow by being able to be together.” Their performances were videotaped to allow the animators to borrow their expressions, gestures and subtle nuances and add them into their drawings. “Because of Robbie’s generosity and who he is – he’s the sweetest man in the world – I just connected with him immediately.”
She also recorded together with longtime friend and fellow stage performer Richard White, who voiced Belle’s obnoxious suitor Gaston. “I’d known Richard 15 years and I could really pick on him as Gaston!” she laughs.
Today, the passage of time has evolved her voice just beyond Belle’s more girlish tones, but she does stay intimately connected to the character through her artwork. An artist since childhood who bolstered her early acting career selling her art on the streets of New York, she began painting her character “just for fun,” but after a painting commanded a hefty price, she was recruited by Disney Fine Art to create a series of limited edition “Belles By Belle” originals which became instantly in-demand collector’s items.
And of course, the fan connection endures, especially with the littlest admirers who are often downright enchanted when they hear Belle’s voice coming out of her mouth.
“The parents will be hugging me, like, ‘Oh, I grew up with you!’ And the little kids are trying to figure it out,” she says. “They’ll look at me, and I’ll say, ‘Okay, close your eyes,’ and I’ll say, ‘Gaston, you are positively primeval!’ And they’re like, ‘Belle!’ ”
And Belle’s popularity remains a force to be reckoned with. At a recent event at O’Hara’s gallery, Disney had provided an actress dressed as Elsa from Frozen to fulfill a little girl’s Make-A-Wish dream, but once the girl realized she was in the the presence of the actual Belle, O’Hara recalls, “she wouldn’t leave my side! ‘Goodbye Elsa! I’m hanging out with the real Belle!’ ”