‘Just keep swimming’ might be a mantra invented for her upbeat
character but it’s one Ellen DeGeneres calls upon during rough seas, too.
The chat show host talks about Finding Dory, the meaning of family and why she doesn’t believe in regrets.
She’s long campaigned for a sequel to the Oscar-winning Finding Nemo, but even Ellen DeGeneres – who voiced blue tang Dory in the 2003 underwater animation – never imagined that when it did eventually happen, she’d be the main character.
“It really just became content for my show,” the 58-year-old says of her 13-year-long crusade, which she made no secret of on her popular syndicated talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show. “Every sequel that came out for every other movie, it was just like, ‘Oh my God, are you kidding me?’ And then it just became a running joke.”
After a pause, teasing, she adds: “He ruined it,” referring to director and Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton. “My joke is over, because he did make a sequel. Now I have no more jokes.”
But if anyone can anticipate their voice being heard, it’s multi-Emmy-winning DeGeneres, who has a collective total of 120million social media followers.
That’s not always been the case, though. Before landing her hit talk show, now in its 13th season, just a few months after Finding Nemo opened in cinemas, the Louisiana-born host, comedian, actress and writer hadn’t worked in three years.
“I had no job offers at the time,” she recalls, quick to credit Stanton for giving her a valuable platform with Pixar – the animation studios behind hits Inside Out, Toy Story and WALL-E.
Finding Nemo, she says, “certainly saved my life in many ways”.
“And just the confidence Andrew had in me,” she adds. “I don’t know if he was even aware of my situation because he’s so emerged in his world; he probably didn’t realise I wasn’t working and that I wasn’t desirable.
“If he knew I wasn’t desirable, he may not have asked for me,” she teases. “People would have said, ‘Why do you want her?”’
Far from just good timing, DeGeneres shone as the upbeat, friendly blue fish, who captured the audience’s heart with her short-term memory loss and quirky lines (‘Just keep swimming’), and deserves to take centre sea in its 3D computer-animated follow-up (in cinemas now).
A tale of self-acceptance, the movie catches up with Dory one year on, and finds her living happily in the reef with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence). The tide turns, however, when she suddenly remembers she has a family, and embarks on a life-changing adventure across the ocean in a bid to find them.
Enlisting the help of her friends and three of California’s prestigious Marine Life Institute’s (MLI) most intriguing residents – Hank (Ed O’Neill), a cantankerous octopus who frequently gives employees the slip; Bailey (Ty Burrell), a beluga whale convinced his biological sonar skills are on the fritz; and near-sighted whale shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) – Dory discovers the magic within flaws, friendships and family.
“It’s amazing to me that Dory has resonated with people so much,” muses DeGeneres of the film-makers’ decision to focus on Dory’s past.
“Dory was such a big part of Finding Nemo that it makes sense people might wonder about her journey. We want to see how it worked out for her.”
And while family is a central theme, the comedian is keen to stress that the story is not limited to ancestry.
“The story is the journey of, ‘Where are her parents?’, what happened to her and how she got separated from them. She’s looking as any child would do, but it’s not about a mother and a father, it’s not about blood relations, it’s about who makes you feel good, and who gets you and supports you for all of who you are.
“That to me is what family and what home is,” concludes DeGeneres, who married her long-time girlfriend, actress Portia de Rossi, in 2008.
The presenter – who looks younger than her years with her elfin blonde crop and preppy blue and white shirt, trousers and white hi-tops combo – is similarly reflective when it comes to the film’s message.
“I think it’s important that this supposed disability that she has is her strength,” she enthuses. “We all have to look for whatever it is about us that we feel is our disability, whether it’s physical or mental, and look at it as what makes us special.”
It’s this, she states, that makes Dory so relatable. “She’s so optimistic. She doesn’t really worry about the past or try and analyse the future, and it doesn’t paralyse her to make decisions.
“She’s spontaneous, she’s non-judgemental, and no matter what mood somebody else is in, it doesn’t impact her and she doesn’t take it personally.
“It’s what I say on my show every day: be kind to one another. That’s what Dory does,” she explains, adding that the character’s ‘Just keep swimming’ mantra is one she’s applied in her own life too.
Stand-up comic, presenter, actress, producer, author and designer (she launched a lifestyle brand, ED by Ellen, selling clothes and home decor, among all else, in 2015), DeGeneres certainly has her head above water when it comes to her flourishing career. But is there anything she would rather forget?
“No, it seems corny and cliched, but every single thing that has happened has either been a beautiful blessing or a lesson, so I look at everything as a guide post,” she says with a smile.
“And even the most horrible things – supposedly horrible things or embarrassing things are character forming. I’m grateful because it made a more compassionate person, and I am happy for everything that’s happened.”