It’s no small feat to stand out in a cast that includes legendary comedians like Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried, or iconic songs by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice. But Jonathan Freeman’s performance as the wicked Jafar in Aladdin has stood the test of time, and has even given the actor the unprecedented opportunity to recreate his role in the film’s hit stage adaptation; in which he currently stars on Broadway. We chatted with Freeman recently about voicing one of Disney’s most memorable villains, and some of the heretofore unseen Jafar that fans can savor on the new Aladdin Blu-ray…
Nerdist: Few people can claim to have portrayed such an iconic Disney villain as Jafar, especially in so many different mediums. After all these years, what has the experience been like for you?
Jonathan Freeman: It’s very flattering. We’ve been together a long time, Jafar and me. I think it’s very unusual that it happened even. It’s hard for me to believe that it did. Because it was just something that I auditioned for. It was a job that I wanted, and I got it and we did the work. You never know how these things will turn out. So yeah, it’s very unusual.
N: How did you develop the character?
JF: I just approached it the way I approach everything that I work on as an actor. Whether it’s for the theater, film, or television. You start with the text. I had an advantage, because they sent me, for my first audition, a preliminary drawing. Which is not the Andreas Dejah character that we know. But they sent me a preliminary drawing; and there were many different Jafars. A lot of different animators went to work on trying to create something. Then they had to choose the idea of what they wanted. They sent me a drawing of what they thought would be interesting. And there were certain aspects to the drawing that were similar to the drawing that you know. That had to do with the way I developed his voice. He has a very long face and big heavy eyelids, big heavy opiated eyes. So you figured he was a very smooth talker, but probably psychotic. That’s how I started. I tried to find something that I thought would be suitable; and it worked.
N: Did you have a chance to perform opposite some of the cast?
JF: Yes, in the very beginning. Which I think is a good idea, because it gives you a sense of the person’s personality and what you’re working with and what you’re working against, and how to set up a relationship with that character. I had a couple of sessions with everybody, with Scott Weinger and Robin [Williams] and Linda Larkin. I had a lot of sessions with Gilbert Gottfried, because we did a lot of our work together. A lot of our scenes together. So it was much easier when we were in the studio. Because the relationship was more fully formed by working together like that. It’s very helpful to do that, because there are a lot of times doing an animated feature where you’re working either just with a reader or just independently going line to line to line. Just giving them the same line as many times as you can think of a way to do it, or trying to do the line the way they’re asking you to do it. So it’s sort of a great privilege to be able to have time in the studio with the other actors.
N: What was it like working with Gilbert Gottfried? Your characters’ personalities are very much the opposite.
JF: Yes. Gilbert was fantastic. Once they brought Gilbert onto the project, that actually made my work easier. Because he could be the crazy screaming psychotic character most of the time and I could smooth my character out more. I think Jafar is at his best/his worst when he is being very superficial and slimy and duplicitous. So I do think that it helped Jafar to have an Iago that was Gilbert. He’s a lovely guy to work with. He would hate it if I told you that he was a very nice man with a lovely wife and a couple of nice kids. He’s just a great guy, and hilarious, as we all know.
N: Do you have a favorite line in the film?
JF: Well, there’s a lot of them. There’s so many of them. I haven’t rewatched the film. I’m waiting to see the new Blu-ray. And I’m doing it eight times a week on Broadway right now. It’s a different script with some of the same lines. The lines from the movie that I remember, that are in the show, that I love… One of them is “My most abject and humble apologies, your majesty.” I think it’s a wonderful line. There are a few others that I can’t pull out of thin air right now. I like all of those sorts of bowing, scraping, slimy, duplicitous lines of his. I think he’s at his most compelling when he’s doing those kinds of lines.
N: You’re probably the only major Disney star to date who’s taken their character from an animated film to the stage. Has that given you an opportunity to do some things differently?
JF: It has been unusual experience. I think I’m the only person to have voiced a character to take it to any other medium. We started work on this about six years ago as sort of a pilot project in Seattle. Just to see if it was stage-worthy. Then the whole thing developed after that. It is unusual, and I had second and third thoughts about whether or not I should even be doing it. Not because I didn’t want to do it. I thought, “Except for Alan Menken, there isn’t going to be anybody in the room who had worked on the film.” I didn’t know, after twenty-three years, how much more I would have to bring to the character; and everybody in the room would have all new stuff, if you know what I mean. So I was a little bit nervous about whether I should even be doing it. But Casey Nicholaw, who’s the director, assured me it was the right thing to do, and it’s what they wanted to do. I think I slowly dipped my toe in the water and got in carefully. It was very flattering that they wanted me to do it, but it was nerve-racking I guess for me to think that I was gonna be recreating this character in this fashion; and knowing that I would want to make myself sound and try to look as much like that character as I think audiences expect him to look. Because it’s a whole different beast with an action movie.
Now it’s a musical comedy, and the adaptation is great. The addition of songs that were cut from the movie or songs that are brand-new that have been added by Alan and Chad Beguelin are fantastic. The new plot is fantastic. There are no animals, so there’s no monkey, there’s no bird. There’s an Iago, but he’s not a bird. It’s the same, but it’s different. I guess that made me a little nervous and scared, but I’m glad I did it. It’s been very successful.
N: And you have your own musical number now.
JF: In the making of the movie there was “Humiliate the Boy”, “My Time Has Come”, “Master of the Lamp”… Then there was a song called “My Finest Hour”, which I think they’re putting on the Blu-ray that’s in storyboard form I guess. Then once we went to work on the show, they put “Why Me?” back in, then they took that out. Then they wrote a song called “Running the Show”, they took that out. Now there’s a song called “Diamond in the Rough”, which is a really nice song. At the end of the movie I have a “Prince Ali” reprise, I sing with a different take on it, which is kind of nice. But he’s had no full song of his own until now.
N: So audiences have something to look forward to if they’ve seen the film but haven’t seen the the play?
JF: Yeah. If they’re looking for new stuff, there’s a lot of new stuff in the show. And there’s this old song that they’d written called “My Finest Hour”, that Alan Menken did with Tim Rice as the lyricist. It’s interesting. There’s a lot of stuff that people know about that’s no longer there. And a lot of stuff that people have never heard of that’s there. It’s kind of great.
Photo credits: Disney