Toon Zone News Inteviews Kathryn Beaumont, the Voice of Wendy in "Peter Pan"
Born in London, England, in 1938, Kathryn Beaumont came to the United States as a child actress for MGM at the age of 7. About three years later, her acting ability and charm led Walt Disney to cast her as Alice in the studio’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The story goes that Disney selected Beaumont because he wanted the animated Alice to speak with a British accent, but not so much of one that it would put off American audiences. Soon after, Beaumont was cast as Wendy, the heroine of Peter Pan and another young leading lady of classic British children’s literature.
Beaumont eventually left the acting business behind her, becoming a schoolteacher for 30 years while doing occasional work for the Walt Disney Company. In 1998, she was named a “Disney Legend” for her work with Disney. In conjunction with the upcoming release of the 2-disc Platinum Edition of Peter Pan, Toon Zone News was given the chance to catch up with Ms. Beaumont via telephone to talk about her young life in the Disney studios.
TOON ZONE NEWS: The story of how you got picked for Alice is pretty well known, since you were “British, but not too British.” Is that similar to why you were cast as Wendy for Peter Pan?
KATHRYN BEAUMONT: Yes, for the Wendy part, I was already at the studio and I was working on Alice and Disney was already working on the story of Peter Pan. They had decided this was to be their next animated feature. Now, here was a role for a pre-adolescent. By that time that’s where I was, so there was one similarity. The other was that Peter Pan is another British classic, so they wanted British voices again. So, I was able to lend my voice to that. It was almost just a natural going from one situation to another because there were so many similarities.
TZN: How familiar were you with Peter Pan before you got the part?
KB: Oh, gosh, well, having grown up in Britain, because I lived there until I was eight, those classics were used so much for children. With Alice in Wonderland, I was already so familiar with the story and knew all about her adventures and probably had that read to me when I was not able to read, and then read it by myself when I was. So I was totally familiar with everything that happened in that story, and I was very familiar with Peter Pan and the wonderful adventures in that. So, yes, I knew the stories very, very well by the time that I got here.
TZN: I ask because it seems like today almost nobody knows about Peter Pan except for the Disney movie.
KB: That’s true. Well, times have changed. I guess the idea that you’ve got these wonderful animated features means that people really get to know them before they really know the classic. They didn’t have that opportunity 50 years ago, so people read the classic, and then suddenly studios were creating their version of the story, and what a wonderful version it was.
TZN: At the opening of the remastered Peter Pan at the El Capitan Theater, you mentioned that you were involved in the story meetings for Peter Pan. Do you remember anything that you were able to change or affect in the final movie?
KB: I was there because the animators and the directors wanted me to be part of this creative process, in that I could observe what was happening in the sequence, and in so doing it would help me better play my part. Now, when I was at MGM, when you had a part, you got a script for your part and you memorized your lines and did your part, but you really had no idea what the whole story was about. You just knew that scene. So, in terms of the big picture and what the story was about, you really didn’t have that much of a handle on.
Well, when I went to Disney, they wanted me to be part of seeing, “Well, this is how the sequence is going to go.” They were always explaining to me the whole story, they would have meetings with me and talk about, “This is where the story is going to go. This is what’s going to happen throughout. Then, this particular sequence, we’re going to get ready to record now, so we’re working on the storyboard for that. Come up and sit in on it so that you’ll understand what’s going to go on in the sequence.” And that’s where I saw all this creativity going on, because as an observer, I was there so that I would better understand my role, and what I was supposed to do. But I was seeing how they put it together and that’s what impressed me so much, even as a youngster, to see this chit-chat going back and forth. The ideas that were being brainstormed was such a wonderful experience for me to see.
TZN: Did you get to sit in with Alice in Wonderland as well, or did it start with Peter Pan?
KB: It started with Alice in Wonderland that way, and it continued with Peter Pan. They used the same process. They still did all their storyboards and had me involved, and that was wonderful.
TZN: What was the biggest difference between voicing Alice and voicing Wendy?
KB: Well, Alice’s character was very different from Wendy’s in that her character was this rather prim British girl who was very curious about everything and very practical. As a contrast, Wendy was pre-adolescent. She was starting to grow up and things were changing within her, so she was one part developing and maturing, and one part still a little girl. So the story, or the character that I had to portray, called for that kind of changing back and forth. So they were two completely different characters, really, and they were to be interpreted in different ways.
TZN: In terms of the process, it was pretty much the same?
KB: The process was the same, but the experiences were a whole lot different because Alice was in every scene. There was a lot more work involved because I was on call all the time for that. With the Wendy character, she was more of a supporting role, so I didn’t have as much involvement, but the process of doing the recording and then doing the live action, that kind of process was exactly the same.
Now the difference was that in the live-action with Alice, (laughs) Alice went through so many different adventures with all her different sizes and all the different things that she got into that they had to create all sorts of interesting contraptions to use on the set so that artists could see the movements and make the character look realistic. So, when you did live action on that kind of a stage, there really was no set. There were just planks and boards and various different things on the ground. And you went from there. However, with Alice, because of going down the rabbit hole, they created a contraption so they could see how Alice would look upside down and how, when she landed on her head how she had to turn over and then get back on her feet to run after the White Rabbit. Then there was the scene where Alice had eaten the mushroom and she was giant-sized and she was caught in the rabbit house. What they did was to create a frame house — they did not want a solid little doll house, they wanted a frame house (laughs) — that they put over me over the top of a table. The artists would just say, “We don’t want to have anything solid. We’ve got to have something in this frame so we can see her entire body moving. We have to see her shoulders, we have to see her knees, we have to see the way she moves as she is trapped in this small place because we have to show it realistically.” And so all of these things were important details, but when you look at the scene, it’s just a rudimentary practically imaginary staging setup. (laughs) There were some very interesting scenes with Alice.
TZN: What do you think was the hardest thing about doing the voice of Wendy in Peter Pan?
KB: I didn’t find there was anything really hard. I just found it a wonderful experience. With Alice, I had an opportunity to do voice work with a lot of people who were very, very well known at that time. I was in awe of them, and it was a lovely working experience. It was a new challenge for me working on sort of a radio situation, and then getting into live-action — that again was a totally new experience which I had not had because my experience with live-action was that you were given a script, you memorized your lines, you did your lines, and it was photographed. But with this experience of the live-action reference, the voice was already recorded, so when you got to the stage, when they were ready to shoot the scene, they would put the recording on and you would have to play to synch. You’d have to synchronize your mouthing to go with that recording, and it had to be exact. (Laughing) And I got to the point where I was pretty good at the timing. There were not too many moments where they said, “Oh, she’s out of synch, we have to do this scene again.” It worked really well, but it was kind of an interesting take on doing the acting that way as opposed to remembering your lines and saying them to empty air. As a result they were just interesting experiences both ways.
TZN: You’re credited as the voice of Wendy and Alice in some more recent cartoons and video games. Is that new stuff, or are they recycling older recordings?
KB: They’re probably now recycling some of the old ones. I really couldn’t tell you because I don’t know for sure. I know that a few years ago, they did ask me to repeat some of the voice lines for the park and for the Mickey Mouse shows and things like that, and it’s been wonderful, a great opportunity to reprise some of the lines I had done as a child and continue to work for Disney a little bit, which was lovely.
TZN: Why did you choose to leave the acting life?
KB: I don’t know that it was a conscious decision or not. Probably in retrospect, I may not have had the strong motivation to continue in the acting field because I left to finish schooling, had my high-school experience, and went to college. I ended up with a teaching credential, and once I started working in the classroom, I found it extremely satisfying and very gratifying, and I really loved the job, so I stayed with that and I certainly had no regrets because I just found that it was too satisfying for me to not feel that way.
TZN: Are you still a teacher?
KB: Not any more. I taught for well over 30 years and then I retired, so now I’m just enjoying retirement, and doing what retired people do (laughs).
TZN: Were you ever able to link those two lives together, where you could pull something from your voice acting career into your life as a teacher?
KB: Actually, I did. I had very young children because I did teach 2nd grade probably most of my career. It was mostly the younger children, in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade, but I did have quite a few 2nd grade classes and while they were very young, they were able to get some experience with animation and have an understanding of what animation was about and what was involved, because I did use what I had learned and what I had found out from the process of making animated films. Of course, the children had seen animated films and loved them, so just finding out how actually it’s done was a wonderful fascination for them. They just had to come up with a very simple one-action story. One thing happens, and then they had to do a storyboard. They had to get into small groups and decide among themselves the introduction, the thing that happens, and how you end it, draw the pictures, prepare and decide who’s going to draw the main character, who’s going to draw the background, who’s going to paint this, who’s going to paint that. And then we had a shooting day, with a one-stop camera. We took the figures and cut the arms and legs and then put little strings behind them so that they were attached but the arms and legs could move. So they would move the character from one place to another and it would actually show the movement with the stop-action camera. So they really did see just the first stages of what the process was.
Toon Zone News would like to thank Ms. Beaumont for taking the time to speak with us. The Peter Pan 2-disc Platinum Edition will be released on May 6, 2007.
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