When Finding Dory director Andrew Stanton and producer Lindsey Collins decided to press go on a sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo, there were two calls they had to make before anyone else at Pixar could know: The first, to studio chief and story guru John Lasseter. And the second, to Ellen DeGeneres.
In the 13 years since playing Dory, the blue tang with short-term memory loss, DeGeneres used her talk show to lobby hard—albeit jovially—for a sequel to Nemo. Now, Finding Dory is on the horizon this summer (it’s due in theaters June 17), and DeGeneres is finally getting to see her dream for a return underwater excursion.
This time around, the focus is all on Dory, who embarks on a quest across the ocean (this time, the Pacific) to find her parents after a chance mention of “home” sparks her deeply-rooted memories of her family. She winds up at a marine life institute in California, where she teams up with a new companion — a surly octopus named Hank, voiced by Ed O’Neill — to track down her lost belonging.
It’s an emotional departure from the perennially optimistic Dory audiences know — and a big challenge for DeGeneres, who now finds herself at the center of this summer’s most expansive aquatic adventure.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The director, Andrew Stanton, said this film came about because he realized he was still worried about Dory. In the 12 years since Finding Nemo came out, did you worry about her?
ELLEN DeGENERES: No. I realized it was just a movie. [laughs] I didn’t really worry about her. I thought about what would happen if we do a sequel, what the journey would be for her. I wondered if she would somehow get memory back. But I didn’t really think about her that much, and I honestly just kind of gave up on it because it had been 10 years. I didn’t really think about it as much as he did, but I think I kept reminding him… At first, it was kind of serious, joking on the [Ellen] show about all the other sequels that Pixar was making and that they weren’t making a sequel to Finding Nemo. Then I just kept doing it because it was funny. When he called me finally, 10 years later, I thought, ‘Well, that’s a good sign.’ And the first thing he said to me was, ‘Uncle.’ And I knew that we were doing it.
He says this call was even shorter than his first pitch to you for Nemo.
Of course. It was a great experience the first time around. The timing of that. It wasn’t that it brought my career back, but I wasn’t working at the time. It took three years to make, so by the time it actually came out, my talk show was on the air, but… nothing was going on for me. It was a huge compliment and honor that somebody thought of me specifically for that part, and had my voice in their heads. That will always mean something to me, that he believed in me that much.
Did a part of you want to help fill in some of the blanks in Dory’s story?
There was really nothing but trust. I mean, the story is the story and I liked what it was. I thought it was a beautiful story and of course the cast is incredible, and they always let me ad lib and play. I do what’s written and then I also go off in different directions and that’s really a fun experience. And then sometimes going off in those directions sparks an idea of something else, but no, I totally trust them.
How quickly did you fall back into the character?
It’s very easy for me to do her. I mean, the voice is me, so that’s not a struggle at all, and also the character… It really did surprise me how easy it was for me to be her again. It really did.
What was different about the experience this time around wherein Dory is the lead and, by extension, the emotional center?
It’s not that I felt pressure about it, but it gave me more to do with the acting. I mean, she’s funny, but she’s obviously very relatable, which is why people like Dory so much. She’s trying to find her family and she is very emotional about wanting to belong, and I think that is easy for anybody to relate to. Whatever you define family as, family is just a part of belonging to something that takes care of you and nurtures you… and when you have lost that, and you want to get that back, it’s pretty easy to get emotional about it. But it was fun, too, because when you’re acting in a regular film, you have facial expressions or different mannerisms or the way you stand or tilt your head or anything that expresses emotion, but when it’s just your voice, it really all has to come through. Especially when it’s a fish. It’s important to get those emotions very purely across, and especially something as subtle as not full-on crying, but that kind of sadness or grief… I love a challenge like that.
What did you see of the power of Finding Nemo in the 13 years since the film debuted?
All I know is that parents thank me and curse me. It’s the kind of film that their kids watch over and over and over again. Parents have seen it and kids have seen it, so we have a generation of people that know this film, and we have a brand new generation now that’s looking at Nemo again to also get ready to see Dory. I know that there’s an enormous amount of sales of Finding Nemo compared to other films. It’s still selling! So it’s just a powerful journey.
What about the staying power of Dory in particular?
I think [people love] Dory persevering and helping someone even though she really is in no way in that kind of position to be able to help anybody, and she still does it. Just because she wants to, just because she just keeps swimming, just because she just keeps going. I think the story is something everybody resonated with, and the fact that when I mentioned it was coming back, the amount of energy in the room from my audience… I think there’s an anticipation and an excitement about it that I don’t know how to explain. There’s just something that taps into the ethos.
Do you have any favorite piece of Dory merchandise that you’ve kept in your office?
[Laughs] No, but I think this time around I will. There’s a Dory cereal out there right now, and Dory Band-Aids, and Dory Popsicles. My nieces have a Dory stuffed fish but I think that’s about it. There are lots of Dory things out there, so I’ll take the most important.
To get more of our Summer Movie Preview, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now, or buy your choice of four collectible covers here – and subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.