I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a singer and actress named Juliana Hansen whose career has intersected with Disney in a number of ways, most recently as the voice of Bonnie’s Kindergarten teacher Miss Wendy in Toy Story 4. Her voice can also be heard on the “Lost Chords” on a variety of Walt Disney Legacy Collection soundtracks, and Disneyland fans may have even seen her on stage in several of their shows. On top of that, she has often been in the company of Disney Legends like Richard Sherman and Hayley Mills!
If you’d like to listen to the interview, check out the latest episode of the Laughing Place Podcast. My conversation with Juliana Hansen starts 34-minutes and 45-seconds into the podcast. To read the interview instead, read below! And you can follow Juliana’s adventures on social media on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
Alex Reif: What initially caught the acting bug for you? When did that happen and what was that journey like?
Juliana Hansen: Sure. That's a great question. I grew up in a house with creative people. My mom was a dance teacher. I did not get the dancing gene. My dad was a musician and that's how he made his living for over 25 years. He and his brother had a band. And that kind of was how I got interested in performing and singing. I'd go to the dance studio with my mom and I would hear my dad and his brother and his band mates kind of playing through songs and set lists, and I learned how to sing harmony at a really young age. And then when I was about four years old, my sister who's 10 years older than me, decided that she wanted to do modeling. And so my parents sent her to this school and she kind of went through all these classes.
And then there was a big open call for an agent in San Francisco, where a bunch of agencies would show up and a bunch of young people would come and meet with everybody all at once and kind of essentially audition for a placement at an agency. And my sister went and she came out of the room and said to my mom, "I'm so sorry but I don't think I want to do this." She didn't like being the center of attention, she didn't like the spotlight, she didn't like them asking her things. And I said, "I want to go." And so my mom sent me in and I remember that they asked me to sing a song and they said, "Would you like to sing happy birthday?" And I said, "No, I don't think I like that song. I'd like to sing…" And I sang something along the lines of “You Made Me Love You” by Judy Garland or “Zing Went the Strings of my Heart,” something very obscure.
I just remember them being like, "Wow, how do you know that song?" And of all the agencies that were there, they chose to work with only two kids at that particular casting. And I was one of them. So I landed an agent and just started kind of going from there. I mean, I also grew up watching all the old Disney movie musicals like Mary Poppins and Summer Magic. Summer Magic was my all time favorite movie as a child. I also loved Pollyanna and I was obsessed with Annie. And from there I did my first musical and I did a lot of modeling. When I was seven, my parents decided that I should really be in LA if I wanted to really give the career thing a shot. So we came down here and I started doing commercials and voice work and that's when I first worked for Disney. And I did commercials for them and I did a voice over project with Tom Bosley. So that's kind of the short story of how I got into it all.
AR: You mentioned Summer Magic and I saw in your bio that you've worked quite a bit with Richard Sherman including bringing to life some of the “Lost Chords: for the Legacy Collection album releases. When you were young, did you know who he was or were you familiar? Were you aware that he wrote the songs that you loved so much from Summer Magic and Mary Poppins?
JH: I don't think I was aware of who Richard was until I was in high school and really started to pay attention to the behind the scenes part of musicals and Disney movies. As a kid, I mostly was focused on the performers in the movies, so I knew Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. But I guess it didn't even really occur to me to ask who wrote the songs. I just sort of must of thought that Julie made them up, I don't know. So I was familiar with his work and I could probably have sung you every word to a good number of songs that the Sherman brothers wrote but I didn't actually hear the name Richard Sherman or have him on my radar until a little later when I was going to school and really ingrained in musical theater as a career choice and a prospective kind of pathway for my life. So that's kind of … but I knew Hayley Mills, I knew Deborah Walley, I knew Burl Ives. I was really, really focused on the performers because that's what I wanted to do.
AR: They always say don't meet your heroes, but from everyone I know who's worked with Richard Sherman he's kind of the opposite of that. He's exactly what you expect. Did you find him to be kind of the same type of person you envisioned him to be from interviews?
JH: Yeah. I didn't ever really, again, I wasn't reading interviews about him. I was more performer-centric. When I was told I was going to be performing for him for the very first time, of course I was nervous and I thought, "Oh gosh, I want to make a good impression." But I never thought, "Is he going to be nice?" And, "What kind of person is he?" It was more of a, "Oh my God, I hope I do his songs justice." So the fact that he's the loveliest person in the industry was the total bonus for me getting to just meet the man who'd written sort of the soundtrack to my life. So I had no expectations going into it. I just had the pressure, self-inflicted pressure of wanting to please him and do a good job.
But I mean, as far as meeting your heroes is concerned, he is just one of the kindest, most humble people I've ever worked with. And he also has something that I think a lot of people probably start out with, but end up kind of losing along the way. And that is that he still has so much joy and passion in what he does. It hasn't been lost, none of it's been lost. This is amazing. And it's so refreshing because people way younger than him, even my own peers sometimes really, some of the love of it gets beaten out of them.
But Richard, I mean, he'll sit down unsolicited and play anything and he just loves it. He loves telling his story and he loves sharing his gifts and that's such a cool example to me. That's been something that I've really tried to keep at the forefront of my mind for all of my gigs, even my less fun gigs, like waiting tables at a singing restaurant. I think Richard's such a beautiful example of truly loving what you do and just being able to share that with other people, brings him so much joy. So he's A great example.
AR: And you've had quite a lot of Disney stops along your career. Growing up, how big of a role did Disney play in your interests or your tastes or your life?
JH: It was massive growing up. I mean it was really every animated Disney film that would come out. And then I went through periods of loving The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, the mega-musicals of the 90s, that was the majority of what I focused on and loved and was excited about in my life growing up. Disney movies in particular, I remember, I think it was a Aladdin, being old enough to really read the lyrics printed on the inside of the cassette tape that my mother bought me. Opening up the foldout little booklet that came with it and really memorizing. I think that was also one of the first times I put a composer to a song in my brain, thinking, "Oh Alan Menken wrote this. Okay, Alan Menken, I want to work with him. Lea Salonga, who's she? Brad Kane, cool. Really starting to obsess over the people that were creating the content.
But Disney played a huge role and when I moved down to LA and actually started working as a professional in voice work and radio jingles and TV commercials, I actually had a couple opportunities to work for Disney. One of which was I went into the studio in an ensemble singing session for Pocahontas with Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz. And I totally remember Steven Schwartz in his giant cowboy hat kind of helping lead the session. And I have, actually sitting on my coffee table because I want to take it to be framed, but I have original sheet music from that session signed by the two of them. And I remember after our session, Judy Kuhn arrived and I stayed to kind of listen to her through the door record “Colors of the Wind.”
So huge impression on my life and huge role models for me, her and Jody Benson and Paige O'Hara. And I mean, I ate up every single word of every song and every person's name involved with putting these soundtracks to the animated features together. And I just, that was all I wanted to do, at one point in my life, that was my highest goal. And it still is one of my highest goals. I want to be a princess in a Disney movie, so I'm getting closer. I was a teacher in a Pixar movie. So yeah, big, big influence for me.
AR: How did the audition process or the casting process, how did that work for Toy Story 4?
JH: Yes. So I kind of auditioned in ways that I didn't even know I was auditioning, over several years and then ended up getting a direct offer. I did not specifically audition for Miss Wendy. I performed with Richard at the Walt Disney Family Museum and I met Jonas Rivera and Pete Doctor there. And it was right around the time that they were winning their Oscar for Inside Out. And I spoke with them both pretty extensively at the end of the night and they were very complimentary about my singing and my performance with Richard. Jodi Benson also performed that evening, the Dapper Dans of Disneyland performed that evening. It was a really awesome group of people and a really fun event.
But so from there it was back to LA and I wrote little notes out to Pete and Jonas just saying I enjoyed meeting them and thanking them for their kind words about my performance. And I sent them each a copy of the photo that I'd taken with them and never really heard anything back. And then Inside Out happened, they won their Oscar and I sent them another note and I said, "I was jumping up and down in my living room. I'm so excited for you guys. Well deserved." And I actually heard back and that started sort of a little back and forth, every so often email exchange, where I would be able to keep Jonas kind of updated on my progress as a voice actor. I had just recorded an animation and commercial demo with Bill Farmer, the official voice of Goofy. And so I was able to tell him about that. And that I was shopping it around to some of the bigger agencies in town.
And when I signed with Abrams Artists, I was able to kind of send a note and say, "Guess what, today I signed with a great agency and I'm super excited to be working with them." And then I booked my first job with Disney XD [in Star Vs. the Forces of Evil] and so I got to reach out again and say, "Here's a little clip from the episode." And I just kind of kept bugging them in a very kind of genuinely excited way. Not expecting anything, not thinking that it was going to ever lead to Toy Story 4. Just to kind of have them in my corner, have people at that level who were cheerleaders for what I was doing at my level. And they were so gracious and so kind and so excited about the work I was doing. And so, just lovely to me throughout all of that. And then I remember one day getting an email from Jonas that said, "Would you please send your animation voiceover reel to me? I'd like to make sure that our casting people have it because you never know.".
And so I did, I sent it and that was totally thrilling that he even asked for it. Whether or not anything ever came of it, it was just very exciting to know that somebody at Pixar was going to hear me kind of do my thing. And Jonas and Pete are such … The cool thing about Pixar is they're such Disney fans themselves, they have such a deep love for the studio and the work the studio has done over the years. And for the old stuff as well, they are so, so excited about Richard and meeting Richard. The night of the Walt Disney Family Museum event was as exciting for them as it was for me to meet the two of them. Which is such a charming thing, I think about the people that work at Pixar. It's like there are no egos that take over and diminish anybody else's work that's come before. They are such fans first and foremost. And then they are creative geniuses who are now adding to the stories that have already been told.
And so where was I headed with that? It just felt very, very gracious of him to even ask me to send my reel, but there was also a bit of a genuine excitement. "Oh God, we met her working with Richard and she's a beautiful singer and she told us she wanted to do voiceover work and now she's doing it." A genuine excitement for the progress I had made, that was just so kind and so cool and so rare in this industry.
And it wasn't until maybe a year, maybe even a year-and-a-half after I sent my reel that I received a call from my agent who said, "You just got a direct offer for an animated feature film, Toy Story 4." And I was like, "What?" So it seemingly came out of nowhere, but the foundation had been laid for quite awhile. And I find more and more that I view, as one kind of rises towards the top in the entertainment industry, you find that a lot of it has to do with, do people like working with you? Do they believe in your talent? But also do they think you're a good person? Are you fun to be around? Are you trustworthy? Are you going to show up when you say you will?
So I think all of that came into play. I think they thought, "Her voice is great for this role and this is something we can do to give her a little boost. And we like her." And I think all of that is so important in this industry and any industry in life. But yeah, so that's how that all happened.
AR: Very cool. And did you do your recording down in LA or did they send you up to Pixar or where did you actually speak for your character?
JH: I had two sessions. I did one in studio B on the Disney lot down here, and then about a month-and-a-half later they brought me up to Pixar. There were kind of additional lines they needed, there had been some rewriting. So I had a second session at Pixar, which was really, really neat. They were both neat for very different reasons, but getting to tour Pixar was really cool and I got to meet the head animators for Buzz and Woody and just kind of get a real great idea of what they do there and how it all kind of comes together. I also got to see a private screening of the short film Bao, which was really exciting. And then to see that win the Oscar was really cool. So I feel like I got the best of both worlds. I got to kind of have the old time Disney Lot experience here and then kind of the more modern day Pixar experience as well.
AR: What's the coolest thing that you saw or that really stood out to you, that really wowed you when you were at Pixar?
JH: It really, it's the way the animators work and their level of skill. I mean, it goes far beyond animation. Talking to them about acting was, I mean, I wanted it to be like, "What am I even doing? You guys are so great." They have taken acting classes in order to become better animators, so they could speak to me like any other actor can. We spoke the same language in that way and then they apply that to the way that they animate and they're just such brilliant minds. They said that, I think it was Inside Out, there was some review that came out that said something about, don't quote me on this, but it was somewhere along the lines of like, "The acting was so great and the animation was great too."
Their whole point to me when they were telling the story was the acting is the animation. There are moments when these characters aren't speaking. And so the only "voice" they have in those moments are the expressions coming through their faces and the way that their eyes are conveying their emotions. And just like any good television or film actor has to do, these animators are having to do the same thing. And so they've all kind of taken classes to learn how to do that themselves in their own bodies, and then how does that translate to what they're putting on the screen. And I was just floored by that. It was so smart and it was so much more encompassing than I had ever really thought about when it came to animation. So I really enjoyed that.
AR: And when you were at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, did you ever get the feeling you're on hallowed ground? I mean, you're in the place where Summer Magic was filmed and Mary Poppins. Did you feel that weight on your shoulders when you went in for those sessions?
JH: I didn't feel a weight. I just felt completely elated. I was just so, I was hyper aware of that. But I was also just so excited to be a part of it, to be joining history. I never felt afraid or like I was pressured to perform a certain way. We just had a good time and played and it was very in the moment. I just listened to what they said they needed and did my best to give it to them and was openhearted and kind of flexible and just had fun. I was very much aware of the past that was all around this.
And also when I left, I passed Dopey Drive which Richard has in his recent years written a song called “Dopey Drive and Mickey Avenue,” which is the intersection that occurs at the studio. And it's a beautiful song about what it was like to work there with Walt back in the day. And so to see that sign was such a thrill for me. I took a picture under it. That was kind of a cool moment where I was like, "Oh my gosh, the Sherman Brothers stood right here many times, and Walt himself stood right here and how cool is that?" So yeah.
AR: Yeah. And I think his office is the top floor of the corner of that old animation building, which is at that intersection to add a little more significance to it. I'm pretty sure that's his corner.
JH: I have been to Walt's office, now that's the animation building. We did not record in the animation building. We recorded on the other lot in studio B. So we recorded, let's see, on the Disney lot that is kind of opposite the hospital.
AR: With the ABC and Disney animation buildings?
JH” No, that's a little different. There's another building that was, and they're kind of on the same street, but they're sort of across the street from each other. I've been into Walt's office before, I actually had a really cool experience with Hayley Mills and Richard getting to tour Walt's office and Richard sat down and played some songs. He played “Feed the Birds” and he and Hayley did a duet of “Let's Get Together.” And that was super magical. But this was on a completely different lot where they have a lot of different sound stages and recording studios. So I'm not exactly sure what the differences in today's world, what they're each used for. But we weren't in the place where Walt's office is, half a block down.
AR: Well I know we're on the phone, but my jaw dropped when you said Hayley Mills, now knowing that Summer Magic was part of your gateway drug, did you just totally fan girl out? How did you compose yourself being in the presence of someone so iconic?
JH: I'm pretty good at composing myself, but I totally fan girled out the minute I dropped her off. So here's the story. I was producing an event, I produced it three years in a row at the Pasadena Playhouse called One Starry Night, an old time variety show, if you think of Ed Sullivan. We had all kinds of acts, magicians and comedians and dancers and Broadway performers and pop stars and a bunch of different acts. And we were raising money for the ALS Association and in the third year and we thought, wouldn't it be fun because Richard had participated a couple of years prior, we thought, wouldn't it be fun to bring Richard back and get Hayley Mills to fly out and be a part of it and maybe they could do something together and we could reunite them and that'll be really, really special. So it was a bit of a long shot, but I somehow obtained Hayley's email address and reached out to her and she responded about a week later and it was getting a little close to crunch time.
And she said if the offer still stood she would love to come out and be a part of it and all we had to do was fly her first class from the UK. Everybody just donated their time, which was lovely because we didn't have a lot of money to play with. And we were hiring a full orchestra to be on stage with our performers. Anyway, so I got to pick her up from the airport, drive her to her hotel, take her from the hotel to the venue the next day for rehearsal. And I completely geeked out after she left my car. So I was very composed and kind of had the face of the event on the whole time that she was with me. And then as soon as she got out of the car I called somebody, kind of freaked out on phone and just talked about what a great experience it was to meet my childhood hero.
Because she really was, I think probably my number one childhood hero, her and Jodi Benson. And so to spend time with her was lovely. And I remember when I picked her up, the first thing she said to me was, "You're just a girl." And she was amazed that I wasn't her age or something. So I was like, "Hey, I grew up watching your movies." And we've become friends, when she's in town now we see each other and I took her and her partner to Magic Castle and we keep in touch from time to time via email. I was in New York about a year ago or maybe a little longer now, she was doing a play while I was there and she got me tickets to come and see her show. So yeah, it turned into a really cool friendship. But my God, yeah, totally fan girled out but never in front of her.
AR: So you're friends with Richard Sherman, you're friends with Hayley Mills, you mentioned Jodi Benson and since there's a pattern here, I just have to know, are you friends with Jodi Benson?
JH: I am not friends with Jodi. I performed with her at the same event that I met Jonas and Pete at. I actually stayed at the same hotel and the car picked us up together and took us to the venue and we got invited to Ron Miller's house for dinner, with Richard and Elizabeth [Sherman] and Don Hahn. And that was very exciting. So I sat next to Jodi in a car heading to perform in the same show as her. And of course spoke to her, but we're not friends. We're not in touch to this day. I am just a super fan and continue to be. I remember sitting in the backseat of the car with her just thinking, "I'm sitting next to Ariel, I'm sitting next to Ariel." Just flipping out over that. But yeah, no, we had a little chat, but we're not buddies.
AR: Aw, okay. Well you got to meet her and she was lovely and that's good.
JH: I got a photo and I got to meet her. I could say I performed in the same show. So that's kind of cool.
AR: Great. And before we wrap it up, I know you've spent some time at the happiest place on earth. I know you've mentioned Aladdin being a source of inspiration. I believe you even got to perform in that show at California Adventure. Also, Pocahontas is part of your journey and you've kind of reprised that. Can you talk a little bit about being a performer at the happiest place on earth?
JH: Absolutely. So in 2013 I was hired to play Jasmine in Aladdin: The Musical Spectacular at the Hyperion theater in California Adventure. I was full time there, so four days a week, four shows a day, for three years. And that was magical. I mean, getting to fly on the carpet, which we all joke as being the best ride in the park and getting to do meet and greets with special needs children, VIP families and stuff like that was really cool. But for me, the biggest thrill, getting to do Mickey and the Magical Map because I'm over on the Disneyland side and yes I've gotten to be friends with Pocahontas and I am a Head Map Maker. So there was a bit of full circle there, which I haven't ever actually connected that dot before. So great job.
But for me the biggest excitement about that is that as a child going to the park with my family, I lived to see shows at that theater, that same stage that I'm out performing on, that's all I wanted to do. And I'd go to the park and my dad would film the shows and I'd go back home and watch them and learn all the songs. And so to now be performing on that stage has an added layer of excitement and thrill for me. And it's also really neat to look out into the audience and see the kids just so excited about the show, and the colored streamers shoot out at the end and they run and collect as many as they can. And I was that kid collecting and saving leaves in the Spirit of Pocahontas show or streamers that would shoot in other shows.
So that is a really neat thing. And no matter what I do in my career, getting to come back to my roots with Disney and perform that show from time to time is just always a joyful thing for me. I just love it so much. And I've had a couple of kids that I know through friends and stuff say to me after the show that they want to do that when they grow up. And that's kind of a neat thing to know that we're inspiring people the way that I was so inspired on that very same stage.
AR: Very cool. And I have one final question. It's kind of a hypothetical, knowing that you're a singer, if you were recording your own Disney album, I want to know what is the opening track, what is the closing track and one track that you must have in between? A Disney cover album.
JH: Oh wow. Great question. I would say the closing track is a hundred percent “Feed the Birds.”
AR: Good one.
JH: Maybe we'd bookend that with the Mary Poppins stuff. Maybe I'd open with “A Spoonful of Sugar.” I love that song and I love the kind of philosophy behind it. And since Richard is so important in my life, I feel like not only does that song kind of embody my outlook on life, but it ties in my special connection with Richard. So those for sure. I would love to include, I mean, one of the things that I did with Walt Disney Records, the Lost Chords. I did a lot of tracks for Cinderella that never made it into the movie. So I would absolutely include one of those. Maybe even do a little mash-up to tie into “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” because I love that song. I'm pretty old school when it comes to Disney, although I love the new stuff, I'm super passionate about the older stuff. And I'd have to put in, “You've Got a Friend in Me.”
AR: Oh yeah.
AR: Duh! Makes sense. Well thank you so much for your time and sharing all of your really cool Disney experiences.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.