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Jonah Hauer-King, the prince in ‘The Little Mermaid’: ‘I hope I’m not destroying an illusion here, but the mermaid fins did not exist’

The British actor has the charm and features to bring Prince Eric to life in the remake of the Disney classic, and make an entire generation fall in love

Jonah Hauer-King
Jonah Hauer-King wears a cow print jacket by Fendi.Charlie Gray

“They needed to be sure they had got the right person,” Jonah Hauer-King explains, while discussing the lengthy casting tests he underwent to secure the role of Prince Eric in the 2023 remake of The Little Mermaid.

The first person considered was Harry Styles, who was offered the role in 2019. He turned it down because, according to him, he wanted to go on tour, although director Rob Marshall claims that the rejection was because Styles wanted to play adult characters in non-musical films.

However, casting eventually decided that 28-year-old London-born Hauer-King also has the features of a prince. That is, a Disney prince — he’s not a member of the House of Windsor, although he did study at the posh Eton College, just like real British monarchs. And on top of that, he could sing: he demonstrated this talent by belting out I Heard Love is Blind by Amy Winehouse, during one of the many phases of a casting call that lasted nearly a year.

Hauer-King — who was born in 1995 — admits to not remembering the first time he saw the original The Little Mermaid, which is why he feels that the movie was always a part of his life. “The Disney films of the 1990s were my introduction into cinematic storytelling,” he notes, explaining that for many people of his generation, these movies are part of their “makeup.” “They’re in your body somehow. They’re part of how we learned about the world. We don’t remember a life without them. That’s why they’re so special, they’re such a massive part of our upbringing and cultural sensibility. I played my mum some music from our film, and she hadn’t seen The Little Mermaid in 25 years, and she knew all of the words.”

His mother — who worked as a theater producer — gave him only one piece of advice before shooting began: “Work hard, be nice to people and learn the lines.” His father, meanwhile, is a prominent London restaurateur who launched businesses such as Wolseley, Delaunay and Brasserie Zédel, where Jonah spent six months working as a waiter after leaving high school at the age of 17. He loved the experience, because in a certain way, it helped him to put his acting into practice, by having to adapt his energy to each distinct group of diners. But he didn’t get cast in a single role during those six months. Frightened about his acting prospects, he decided to study Philosophy and Theology at Cambridge University.

“Whether you practice or not, religion has a fascinating place in our society. I wanted to understand how religion helps people deal with existential problems. So after six months of not getting any work, I thought, I still want to be an actor. I’m still going to try and do that. But if I have the privilege of getting in, why don’t I go learn about something completely different, try to enrich myself as a person, subsequently, hopefully enrich myself as an actor as well.”

“What’s interesting is that I really didn’t choose that course because of my acting aspiration,” he continues, “but looking back now, what I’ve realized is that so much of that course was about trying to understand people who are different to you and understanding people and communities, often at different times of history, who are trying to make sense of themselves and their lives and the world around them. And I feel like I bring so much of that to my work.”

Jonah Hauer-King poses for EL PAÍS, wearing sunglasses by David Beckham and a Prada jacket and jeans
Jonah Hauer-King poses for EL PAÍS, wearing sunglasses by David Beckham and a Prada jacket and jeansCharlie Gray

Hauer-King is aware of his privilege: like most famous British actors, he comes from a wealthy family. That’s why he chooses to volunteer at Wac Arts, a theater school that helps marginalized young people explore their artistic abilities. “You have to raise your hand and say, ‘I’ve had a lot of opportunities that others don’t have.’ Art should be available to everyone,” he emphasizes.

His first roles came in 2017, in the BBC-produced adaptations of Howards End and Little Women. In the latter, he had the role of a young heartthrob, which was played by Christian Bale in 1994 and Timothée Chalamet in 2019. Between takes, the actor distracted himself by trying on the actresses’ corsets and hats. Did he ever repeat this tradition by trying on the mermaid tail?

“I hope I’m not destroying an illusion here, but the mermaid fins did not exist. They’re all digital. There were some more practical elements to the costumes that I did try that on. There was a red wig being passed around, and there was a bra made of shells. I think if you dig deep enough, you’ll find the [photo]. If not, when the film comes out, I’ll send it to you,” he laughs.

Hauer-King’s challenge was to breathe life into a character who, in the original film, was more of an idea than a character — he was merely a vehicle for Ariel to make her dreams come true. Which is why Eric was the least iconic character in a movie full of overpowering personalities. However, Rob Marshall and screenwriter David Magee — who made the films Searching for Neverland (2004) and Life of Pi (2012) — set out to give the new Prince Eric a bit more depth. In the 2023 version, compared to the 1989 version, Eric is the character who is most expanded upon. He has his own frustrations, which connect him with Ariel, because he feels like an adventurer and rebels against the constrictions of the palace. This time, the prince has a song of his own, which the original lacked. It’s an original composition by Alan Menken — who has won eight Oscars — and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton.

“Songs are a wonderful way of getting to know the characters and understanding them, because you’re quite literally giving them a voice. I think we see Eric’s complexity and vulnerability, that is not in the original film. We learn so much about him, where he comes from and how he feels about his life as a future king and the expectations placed on him. He wants to explore the world. And meeting Ariel is a catalyst,” Hauer-King explains.

Filming was delayed a year due to the pandemic, which gave him time to prepare physically. Hauer-King already had Eric’s blue eyes. His upturned nose, too. And his dimples. He also has a certain romantic air — the facial expressions of a good boy with good teeth, who comes from a good family. He only lacked physicality.

“I gained a little weight. I became more athletic, because Eric is a sailor at heart. And, during filming, [the people in charge] make the very, very best use of the time. If they know that you’re not going to be walking for a couple of hours, you’re off to the gym, and you’re doing a session, or you’re spending an hour doing the horse cart riding training,” he says. Even through Zoom, Hauer-King’s good manners, non-intimidating charm and upright regal posture are apparent. He’s a guy anyone could fall in love with.

Marshall knew that the success of the film depended, in large part, on the romance being compelling, despite the fact that Ariel doesn’t say a word to him throughout the movie. During rehearsals, Hauer-King and Bailey practiced the physical expressions of their attraction. “The truth is that there was a natural chemistry between us, but Rob and David did a great job of giving depth to the script and the relationship and making sure that we really understood why they were falling in love,” the actor says. Lin-Manuel Miranda modified the lyrics of Kiss the Girl — the song sung by the crab, Sebastian, when he tries to get Eric to kiss Ariel and break her spell — to be more consensual. He cut the line, “There is one way to ask her; it don’t take a word.”

Now, with the latest box office hit behind him (in just four days, the movie has raked in $160 million), Hauer-King looks to the future. “The work I’m doing right now is very absorbing and needs my full attention,” he admits, referring to the film adaptation of Heather Morris’ novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz. He plays the role of a young Jewish man, who is in charge of recording the other prisoners’ numbers in the infamous Nazi concentration camp.

The Little Mermaid has opened up a new era in the life of Hauer King. It’s about to be watched, analyzed and commented on by hundreds of millions of people. Reflecting on it, he remains silent, looking around his typical English country kitchen. Perhaps he doesn’t believe the hype, or maybe he’s aware that there are many things that are bigger than him in this production, such as the brand, the nostalgia and Halle Bailey, the actress who plays Ariel.

“I feel more comfortable being watched when playing a role. I’m less comfortable with [public] attention. I don’t I don’t know if that’s going to change as a result of this film. It might. It might not. I try not to think about it too much, because if I did, I’d probably lose my mind. What I do know is that it’s a lot of fun promoting the movie… but it’s dangerous to let it take over your whole life. That’s why I don’t go to sleep every night thinking about it.”

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