Graham Phillips on Getting More of Prince Eric in ‘The Little Mermaid Live’

Graham Phillips
F. Scott Schafer

ABC is taking The Little Mermaid live on Tuesday, November 5, and one of its stars, Graham Phillips, is ready for his first foray into a production based on the classic.

But the actor, known for his roles on The Good Wife and Riverdale, was ready for this gig because he knew Disney was planning things involving the original Little Mermaid. “I started working on the music because I love the music and even if I didn’t book it, it’s something fun to work on,” he says.

The Atypical star says he was called in “at the last second” and got the part of Prince Eric in the room — a first. “Never trust it until you’re on stage doing the damn thing,” he laughs.

Here, Phillips discusses rehearsing for the big night and teases what to expect from the live TV event.

You have a background in theater and music. How has that helped you the most with this production?

Graham Phillips: Without [that] background, I would be pretty nervous. It’s very different than being on television or film, but thankfully, I’m kind of unusual in that I get less nervous on a stage than I do in front of a camera. It’s probably because there’s less room for non-committing. If you’re on a stage and everybody’s there, you have swing for the fences.

What are you most nervous about?

Singing with in-ear monitors. It’s a pretty different experience. That’s something I’ve never done before. It really isolates your hearing from the ambient noise. The audience pretty much carries us on a boat at some point, which I’m interested to see how that works out. I believe I swing in on a rope at some point. Hopefully all that stuff goes well.

This hybrid format is different from other live productions. Can you talk about it and how it keeps it close to the original?

It’s blending the original film to carry the plot forward with live musical numbers. I feel like it’s actually really smart because people love the original film so much, it’s hard to compete with a lot of those elements. By focusing on having these musical numbers be extravagant and new in conjunction with having the film everyone’s nostalgic for in between, it’s the perfect blend of what people want and what they didn’t even know they wanted.

(ABC/Andrew Eccles)

How’s rehearsing going and what’s been the biggest surprise?

The rehearsals are going really well. The team is super professional. The dancers are incredible. I love the aerialists. The biggest surprises would be how big the stage is — it’s hard for us to even find a place to rehearse that’s big enough to represent the station — and also getting used to the giant puppets that are made to look like different underwater creatures. Making sure you don’t run into them at any given point is a bit of a challenge.

Is there something you’ve discovered you particularly enjoy about playing Prince Eric from rehearsals?

One thing I didn’t anticipate was how much of Prince Eric I would relate to. When you watch the movie, they don’t really give you much insight into what’s going on in this guy’s head. In the film, he doesn’t even have a song he sings. Thankfully they’ve added a couple songs including one that was in the Broadway show.

The more time I spend with him and rehearse with him, the more I realize there’s a lot of things I have in common with him. He’s this guy who’s felt trapped in his comfortable life that he has but he doesn’t want to stay in his castle. He wants to go out into the ocean, explore new uncharted waters, and that’s where he really feels like he’s alive and is his most vital when he’s on an adventure.

When I get really comfortable and I have a very easy routine, I feel the most bored and I don’t end up meeting people that really help me expand my horizons and what not. That’s something Prince Eric is after and ends up getting when he finds the Little Mermaid.

What are you enjoying most about seeing your castmates rehearse and prepare for the big night?

I’d never gotten the chance to see Auli’i [Cravalho] perform before live, and so getting to see her come to life before my eyes has been really special. She really wears her heart on her sleeve and she has this amazing capacity to express what she’s feeling through the sound that’s not overly performative. That’s really rare.

(ABC/Christopher Willard)

Getting to see the incredible dancing that our choreographers have put together with the chorus has been a treat to me. There’s a lot of bodies on stage and to make it look beautiful and not sloppy is a challenge.

John Stamos’ performance is one of the funnier things I’ve seen in a while, so always fun to peek into rehearsal when he’s working.

What will people enjoy the most about the core relationships?

There’s something really special about the relationship between Prince Eric and Ariel that is going to be explored a lot more in this version than really in any other version. You have these two people who are from completely different worlds and they’re both yearning for a life outside of their comfort zone and they’re reaching out for something different. They don’t even know it’s love.

It’s always beautiful when someone isn’t expecting that love is the thing they need and then they end up finding it. In all the great stories, from Romeo & Juliet to West Side Story, that’s at the core of what makes the romance so great. We show that in a really beautiful way in this one.

What other relationship are you most excited to have people see for Prince Eric?

One thing that we really get to explore relationships-wise in this production, more so than in other productions, is Prince Eric’s relationship with the sea and why he feels most at home on a ship of all places. Our very first number right out of the gate is this song that most people haven’t heard, which has been rewritten specifically for this production, “Fathoms Below.” It explains a lot of why he’s drawn to the ocean, what makes it all exiting to him, and how he feels like his destiny is out in these uncharted waters.

(ABC/Eric McCandless)

It’s a really strong way to start off the show because it’s not just Prince Eric who doesn’t know what he’s getting into. The millions of viewers are going to not exactly know what they’re getting into at that point either.

The Little Mermaid Live, Tuesday, November 5, 8/7c, ABC