A soft, lilting voice. A gentle, radiant spirit. It takes an actress with a sweet and special sparkle to convincingly play a mermaid. And, Poppy Drayton is perfect for the role.
“I wasn’t the best swimmer in the world to be perfectly honest,” Poppy admitted. “Luckily, I had two months to train before I started the movie.”
The mermaid Drayton portrays is the most famous mermaid of all. Poppy stars in The Little Mermaid, an enchanting live action adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tail… uhm, tale, which opens in AMC theaters on Friday, August 17. In this story, the mermaid’s name is Elizabeth. When we first meet her, she is not swimming freely about the ocean, she is the prisoner of an evil sorcerer named Locke (played by the sinister Armando Gutierrez), who has stolen her soul. He keeps Elizabeth captive in a tiny water-filled tank at a circus.
“I took myself to my local pool every day for those two months,” Poppy continued. “I swam for hours and hours and hours and I got really, really good.”
Initially, Drayton ran into a little trouble. Since she was to play a mermaid, she needed to learn how to swim like one, so she was given a monofin. A monofin is a single flipper that both feet slide into – it makes the user look and swim about like an actual mermaid.
“The lifeguards said it might be dangerous and they might not be able to save me if I came into trouble, so they told me I wasn’t able to use it. I ended up having to go to the manager and explain my situation. He was incredible! He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got you. You’ll be fine. I’ll sort this out.'”
“And he did. From then on, every day when I arrived at my leisure center with my monofin under my arm, he would grab a walkie-talkie and say, ‘Clear lane three for the mermaid,’ and all these other swimmers would have to be marched to a different lane to do their swimming because I was given a lane to myself. I was very grateful for his help on that.”
For the movie, Poppy wore a prosthetic mermaid tail that was extremely heavy. When she was in the water, the buoyancy helped, but it was still a bit of a workout when she had to do the swimming scenes.
“I thought I was pretty fit when I started the movie. But by the end, I was in really good shape,” she laughed.
In one scene, Elizabeth sneaks away from her captor to meet a dashing young journalist named Cam Harrison (played by the dapper William Moseley of The Chronicles of Narnia). Cam is investigating a story about a “Miracle Mermaid Elixir” that is allegedly a “heal all cure.” He has been assigned the story, but he also has a personal stake in it because he is searching for a cure for his niece, Elle (played by the fabulous, scene-stealing Loreto Peralta), who has a baffling medical condition. Elizabeth and Cam end up taking a moonlight swim together. Since this is when Cam realizes Elizabeth is actually a mermaid, they needed a particularly spectacular location for the magic to unfold.
“We went down to a mermaid theme park in Florida called Weeki Wachee and we shot there for an entire day. We got loads of footage,” Poppy informed. “Basically, Weeki Wachee is this natural ecosystem, a beautiful, spring-fed paradise. There’s fish and turtles and manatees… It was great because I’d be swimming along and I’d look behind me and there would be a turtle following me in the back of the shot! That was a really special day.”
Entertaining Options wondered if Poppy had any anxiety about swimming with a prosthetic mermaid tail out in the water amongst the aquatic wildlife.
“Quite the opposite, actually. I loved it!” she exclaimed. “I found it quite serene and calm down there and I loved the challenge of holding my breath for longer and longer periods of time. I definitely practiced that in my training, I would go down and I would try and get to a meditative state to get my heart rate down so I could hold my breath longer. And, I would keep trying to increase it by just five seconds. Then another five seconds. And another five seconds. I found that if I didn’t listen to the little voice inside my head that was saying, ‘You know you need to breathe now,’ and I stayed calm, I could actually push through those various mental blocks and hold my breath for longer than I thought I could.”
For Dayton, being a mermaid wasn’t only about the water scenes, she wanted to maintain the same grace and fluidity to her movements when she was on land.
“I didn’t want it to be that she’s a mermaid when she’s in the water, and when she comes out of the water, she’s just a person. I wanted her mermaid quality to translate into her human form, as well,” Poppy explained. “I did lots of research into the movements of certain fish and dolphins to try and get a fluidity and a kind of serenity to Elizabeth’s movements. I also made a lot of mood boards. I gathered pictures together of different mermaids and different fish and different creatures that I thought captured the essence of her.”
Beyond that, Drayton used a technique that she learned in drama school. She asked her character a list of 70 questions to help her better understand and really get into the mindset of being Elizabeth.
This level of care and attention to detail is one of the many reasons why Poppy is such an absorbing actress. No matter what the role is, she takes the time to bring something extra to it. You can see that in her work on Downton Abbey and The Shannara Chronicles. You’ll also be able to see it in her work on the upcoming film called The Rising Hawk.
“The Rising Hawk is set in 1241 and it’s about a Mongol invasion of a Ukrainian Village. I play a young Ukrainian girl who falls in love with a Ukrainian boy. We fight alongside each other to try and defeat this Mongol army that’s coming to attack us. It’s a pretty epic film. I’m going back to do the last bits of fighting next week. There’s lots of horse riding, sword fighting, and bow and arrow work – which is great fun because I’ve never done any bow and arrow work before!”
Regarding The Little Mermaid, Poppy expressed, “I’d love for people to take away the message that they should just believe in whatever they believe in with their whole heart. Even if it means believing in the impossible. It may seem ridiculous, but it is so important. Especially as adults. You get swept up in the stress of life and you overthink everything. If this film has taught me anything, it’s to try and let go of that and listen to your spirit as much is you listen to your thoughts. Believe in magic because there’s so much magic in this world. Hopefully, our film reminds people of that and they can find some magic in their life.”
The Little Mermaid (PG) opens in AMC theaters on Friday, August 17. It is a wondrously inspired version filled with supernatural perils and heartwarming joy. This kindhearted movie will rekindle your belief in magic.