By Sydney Bucksbaum
November 04, 2019 at 09:00 AM EST
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When it comes to Disney princes, The Little Mermaids Prince Eric is as close to perfection as it gets. He’s gorgeous. He’s kind. He loves dogs. What more could you possibly want in an animated dreamboat? But Graham Phillips is about to do the impossible and make Prince Eric even more swoon-worthy in ABC’s The Little Mermaid Live!

The actor stars opposite Auli’i Cravalho for the latest live TV musical event as a new version of Prince Eric and Ariel ready to steal your heart. It’s no small feat bringing one of the most iconic Disney roles to life on the biggest stage yet as viewers all over the country tune in to watch and judge the live performances. But right now, Phillips is more worried about how the smoke from the Los Angeles fires is going to affect his voice rather than any normal pre-show jitters.

Andrew Eccles/ABC

“I am in the fiery, dry, ashy, smoky city of Los Angeles right now—- it’s perfect right before you have a live singing performance,” Phillips tells EW with a laugh. “It’s funny, I’m like driving around with this humidification mask on just to try to keep from sounding like a 30-year smoker — anything I can do. It is live so you never know what’s going to happen the day before so you just try to be as strong as you can until then.”

But despite freak environmental factors doing everything possible to throw Phillips off in the days before he performs live on TV, he’s actually not feeling nervous at all. “Live performance and theater really is where I started out,” he says. “It’s where my roots are. I’ve always been more nervous in front of a camera when I have a whole lot of takes for some reason rather than when I get on the stage and have only one go at it.”

The actor, best known for roles on The Good Wife and Riverdale, previously starred in Broadway’s 13, so he’s no stranger to the stage. “There’s no room for a lack of commitment when you’re doing something live; there’s no room for playing it safe,” Phillips notes. “This is it. This is the only take you’ve got. There’s certainly no hiding when you’re doing something live. Thankfully for my first entrance [in The Little Mermaid Live!], I get pulled onstage by a rope that’s attached to a bizarre gimbal system so there’s not really much room for me to doubt whether or not I’m going to walk out into the spotlight; I literally get yanked into it!”

ABC’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid is going to be different than all the other live TV musical events that have come before in that it’s actually only half live (guess The Little Mermaid Half Live! didn’t sound as appealing for the title). All the songs will be performed by the live cast including Cravalho, Phillips, Queen Latifah, John Stamos, and Shaggy. But all the spoken scenes are going to be taken right from the original animated feature, airing as is. “It’s a new heightened way that’s a celebration of the original but then the plot and all the scenes are carried forward by the original movie,” Phillips explains. “Instead of competing with the nostalgia everyone has for the iconic film, we’re just using it. I was relieved to hear that because it would be a difficult challenge to try to compete with it. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

So if The Little Mermaid Live! is using the original movie for half of the production, how is Phillips going to make Prince Eric even dreamier during the songs? Well, by actually participating in the songs, for one.

“You don’t get to see so much of his perspective in the original film — it’s very much Ariel’s story, as it should be, but he doesn’t sing throughout the whole movie,” Phillips says. “What’s nice is Alan Menken got to expand on that in the Broadway musical and some of his adaptations for this particular performance and so you finally get some of that perspective.”

While Phillips promises that his Prince Eric is “certainly drawing from the original,” his performance has “so much more material” to draw on. “There’s a whole song, ‘Her Voice,’ where you finally get to hear why he’s obsessed with Ariel and what it feels like for him to not have love at first sight but to have love at first sound,” he says. “That is a super unique phenomenon that you brush over in the movie. You get a sense of how much her essence is bound with his soul with that song.”

Another way the classic love story gets expanded in ABC’s live musical is by helping fans understand more about how Prince Eric and Ariel are struggling with the same issues at the beginning of the tale.

“The first song, ‘Fathoms Below,’ you really get to explore how Prince Eric feels finally breaking out of the castle walls and all of his royal responsibilities,” Phillips says. “He finally feels free out on the ocean exploring uncharted waters. I love that because when I heard that song for the first time, I realized that he was going through the same thing that Ariel is. She’s stuck in a royal castle of her own, confined by royal protocol, dreaming about a life elsewhere, exploring the land up above. Meanwhile, Prince Eric is right above her on a ship exploring life on the sea.”

Phillips ended up gaining a deeper appreciation for how Prince Eric and Ariel fall in love thanks to The Little Mermaid Live! “It’s interesting that the story starts at a place where they’re ready to explore the unknown and the other and they find love in the other,” he adds. “It’s such a cool message for right now in particular, where there’s a lot of vilification of the other.”

And that strikes a chord with Phillips, who crafted his directorial debut film around that same issue. Along with his older brother Parker Phillips, the actor co-wrote, directed, and stars in the modern Western The Bygone as Kip Summer, a cowboy in North Dakota who meets a Native American woman right before she gets thrown into the underground world of trafficking.

“What I studied in college is U.S. history but I focused on Native American studies for my thesis, which focused on indigenous resistance to colonialism, specifically related to violence against Native women and the origins of that and how Native women have rallied across the centuries to combat it, even today with current legislative efforts going on,” Phillips says. “It’s something I had zero knowledge of and I was blown away by how pervasive it was. It was an issue I felt pretty strongly about — it really spoke to me.”

During his time writing his thesis, Phillips became inspired to write the script for The Bygone (out Nov. 12 on VOD). “One of the strongest microcosms that shows how these battles are still going on is in the North Dakota oil boom that happened recently because of fracking. With that oil boom came an influx of all-male workers to this one area where there wasn’t a lot of law enforcement and created a market for trafficking,” he says. “In those areas, the most vulnerable populations were once again Native women. They’re the most marginalized subdivision in the U.S. It reminded me of what I learned went down in the Gold Rush, so I thought, ‘Wow, how far have we really come as a country if we’re still going through the same patterns?'”

Because Phillips and his brother wanted to “do a modern-day Western that is relevant” for their first feature together, it was a no-brainer for him to use everything he had learned while writing his thesis to create a narrative about which he cared deeply. “We’re turning some Western stereotypes on their head,” Phillips says. “Predominantly instead of having a damsel in distress we wanted to have a powerful female Native heroine and went from there.”

And since Phillips knew that “there are very few people who know a lot about this issue,” he wanted to raise up as many voices as he could.

“When you find someone who does know about this, particularly in Indian country or somewhere in the Native community, they’re super passionate about it and a lot of them dedicate their lives to it and to combat it,” he says. “I met a lot of cool people doing this and one of them ended up in the film — Irene Bedard. She’s most well-known for voicing Pocahontas and she testified in front of congress about these issues. She’s been personally touched by this issue of violence targeting Native women. It was therapeutic for her to help tell a story that nobody really hears outside of Indian country.”

But before Phillips releases The Bygone, he’s going to have to face his toughest critic yet. “I have an 8-year-old niece Stella and she basically told me that if I messed up Prince Eric, she’d kill me,” he says with a laugh. “So I’m definitely far more nervous about what Stella thinks about my performance than I am about anyone or anything else. She’s going to be in the audience — she will be there with my mom. We’ll see how it goes and we’ll see how she likes it.”

The Little Mermaid Live! airs Tuesday, Nov. 5 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.

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