When Finding Nemo came out in 2003, it was Dory, the plucky, forgetful blue fish, who taught us all, in the face of adversity, to "just keep swimming."
Ellen DeGeneres, who voiced Dory, says she was "flattered and honored and awed" to have her legacy tied to such a determined and positive little fish.
Dory came along during a particularly tough time for DeGeneres — "I hadn't worked for three years," she tells NPR's Kelly McEvers.
DeGeneres came out publicly as a lesbian in 1997. She had been starring in the sitcom Ellen, and her TV character came out, too. But ratings dropped, and the show was canceled.
"I was being made fun of for three years," DeGeneres says. "I was being attacked for being gay, and nobody would hire me, and so I was out of money. It was not even the money — I mean, that's important but — it was just ... all of a sudden not being validated as a comedian or as an intelligent woman just because I shared an aspect of my life."
DeGeneres talks with McEvers about how she got through that difficult time, and about the new film Finding Dory, in which her character is no longer a sidekick.
On her experience coming out
It just validated what everybody's fear was. It's like, you just stay quiet, you have a career, and you'll be fine. I just didn't want to stay quiet, and it turned me into a political lightning rod. I just never wanted to be political. I wanted to let go of shame and let go of any kind of heaviness I was carrying around.
On enduring difficult times
Nobody wants bad things to happen to them, but ... I look [back] at that now and especially that low point, and ... I am nothing but grateful for it. Because it gave me layers that I wouldn't have had.
I know what it feels like to be made fun of, I know what it feels like to be beaten up, I know what it feels like to have everything and then lose everything and then slowly try to build back up. ... So I have compassion for people, and I want to be a champion for victims of bullying or victims of some type of judgment or hate.
On how Finding Nemo found her
I had no idea how big of a deal it would be. I wasn't as familiar with all the Pixar films and what a cool thing this was going to be. But [writer and director] Andrew [Stanton] called and I did know who he was. ... He said, "I wrote this part with you in mind — there's a fish, and she has short-term memory loss. I heard your voice."
I think he heard my stand-up, because I tend to do these rambling stories where I start in one place and then I end up way, way, out and never am talking about what I start to talk about. And so he heard that, and that's Dory. ...
On the definition of family and home
I think family is different for everybody. I think the traditional family obviously still exists, but it's not the only family. I think traditional family — that definition is changing, and I think, more and more, there are a lot of divorces, there are a lot of single moms raising kids, a lot of single dads raising kids, and a lot of adoptions. ...
What does family mean? ... What is home? The most important thing for me is home is knowing who you are. ... And sometimes people don't know who they are until they go home, whatever that home is. I think that journey to [Dory's] home ... everybody can relate to what that means to try to find out where you came from, what happened to you, how'd you get there.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Pixar's iconic forgetful fish is back. But this time, Dory isn't just a sidekick to Nemo. She's the main character.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FINDING DORY")
ELLEN DEGENERES: (As Dory) Wait; wait; wait; no - I know where my parents are. They're in - what's it called? - the place, soap and lotion?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Open ocean.
DEGENERES: (As Dory) Open ocean.
MCEVERS: The new movie "Finding Dory" is a lot like the old movie "Finding Nemo," but this time it follows Dory, the little blue fish with short-term memory loss, and her friends across the ocean to a marine rehabilitation center so Dory can reunite with her family. Ellen DeGeneres is Dory, who is famous for this.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FINDING NEMO")
DEGENERES: (As Dory) When life gets you down, you know what you've got to do?
ALBERT BROOKS: (As Marlin) I don't want to know what you've got to do.
DEGENERES: (As Dory) Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim.
I'm just really, like, flattered and honored and in awe that that's part of my legacy as a human being, that I'm attached to this character that has such a positive attitude in life.
MCEVERS: That character first came to Ellen DeGeneres at a tough time in her life.
DEGENERES: I hadn't worked for three years.
MCEVERS: DeGeneres had come out publicly as a lesbian in 1997. She had been starring in the sitcom "Ellen," and her TV character came out, too. But ratings dropped, and the show was canceled.
DEGENERES: I was being made fun of for three years. I was being attacked for being gay, and nobody would hire me. And so it was just all of a sudden I'm being validated as a comedian or as an intelligent woman just because I shared an aspect of my life, you know? It just validated what everybody's fear was - is like, you to stay quiet. You have a career, and you'll be fine.
And I just didn't want to stay quiet, and it turned me into a political lightning rod. And I just never wanted to be political. I just wanted to be - I wanted to let go of shame and let go of any kind of heaviness I was carrying around.
MCEVERS: Right. And then "Finding Nemo" came along. How did that happen?
DEGENERES: You know, I had no idea how big of a deal it would be. But Andrew called, and I didn't know who he was.
DEGENERES: Stanton. And he said, I wrote this part with you in mind. There's a fish, and she has short-term memory loss. I think he heard my standup because I tend to do these rambling stories where I start one place and then I end up way, way out. And so he heard that and just - he just said, that's Dory; that's who that is. So that was kind of my first working gig in a long time.
And then shortly after that, I started getting offers for talk shows after someone saw me on "Saturday Night Live." And then I - right the first year that my talk show launched is when "Nemo" came out. So it was just a coincidence that the timing was both of those things because I had been working on that for three years.
MCEVERS: Oh, wow, nice.
DEGENERES: So that was the beginning 13 years ago of all good things.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FINDING DORY")
DEGENERES: (As Dory) Guys, where are you?
BROOKS: (As Marlin) Dory...
DEGENERES: (As Dory) Hello?
BROOKS: (As Marlin) Dory...
DEGENERES: (As Dory) Oh, where did you go?
BROOKS: (As Marlin) You were the one to go.
DEGENERES: (As Dory) My parents - I remembered them.
HAYDEN ROLENCE: (As Nemo) What? What did you remember?
DEGENERES: (As Dory) I remember them - my mom, my dad. I have a family. They don't know where I am. Let's go. We have to go.
BROOKS: (As Marlin) Dory, no, no - this is crazy.
MCEVERS: The thing about Nemo and about other - Disney, frankly - and, you know, kids characters, is Nemo had this physical impediment. He had this fin. He wasn't a good swimmer, and so his father put a lot of restrictions on him. Dory has this short-term memory loss, and her parents go about it in a really totally different way.
MCEVERS: They try to celebrate her differences...
MCEVERS: ...As opposed to Nemo's dad, who...
DEGENERES: Right. Well, he comes from a fearful place, you know? He comes from fear, and it's his own - if you don't understand something and you don't believe in yourself and you don't think you can do it, then you're not going to believe your kid can. And you become overprotective, and you don't let your kids do anything. And you don't let them experience anything. That's his flaw, is lots of fear.
MCEVERS: Right, and so Dory's parents are like the antidote to that.
MCEVERS: And that's probably not a bad message for parents these days.
DEGENERES: Yeah - a happily married couple that don't think anything's wrong. They just want to make sure that she's ready for the world.
MCEVERS: There is also this kind of underlying message in the film. Family is great, but you also can make your own family in this world. Does that have - I don't know. Is that something that resonates with you personally? Is that something...
MCEVERS: ...You feel like is important for people to know?
DEGENERES: Yeah. I think family is different for everybody. I think the traditional family still exists, but it's not the only family. I think that that definition is changing. There are a lot of divorces. There are a lot of single moms, a lot of single dads raising kids. So more and more people are like, what does family mean, and what is home?
And you know, the most important thing for me is, home is knowing who you are. No one can make you feel at home until you know who you are. And sometimes people don't know who they are until they go home, whatever that home is. So everybody can relate to what that means, to try to find out where you came from. What happened to you? How'd you get there, you know?
MCEVERS: Yeah, that's such a Dory - yeah, for Dory, it's not necessarily a physical space...
MCEVERS: It's a place where there are people who...
DEGENERES: Yeah, she - all of a sudden, she gains lots of strength from - and she still has a disability but, you know, as the tag says, it's an unforgettable journey she probably won't remember.
DEGENERES: But it's, you know - but she gains a lot of strength.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MCEVERS: That's Ellen DeGeneres. Her new movie "Finding Dory" is in theaters this weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.