Jonathan Freeman’s been a villain for 22 years, and this month he’s getting a new outlet for his evil. The actor, who’s best known as the voice of the sinister Jafar in Disney’s Aladdin—as well as a series of TV shows, video games and sequels that have kept the story popular—will take the stage to play the character, lending his face in addition to his prominent purr, when Aladdin opens on Broadway March 20.
DuJour sat down with Freeman to talk about animated scoundrels, working on stage and two decades of being a bad guy.
For a lot of people who grew up in the 1990s, you’re the ultimate voice of evil. How did that come to be?
I first became involved when I was a kid, because Disney villains fascinated me. Those were the most important characters to me, not the other stuff. They just got in the way of a villain’s story, frankly.
I started acting as a kid in Cleveland. I worked in several different theaters, so by the time I was in college I already had my equity card. When I moved to New York, I’d always have great auditions with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken for projects of theirs that I never got into. I remember an article saying there was this big wave of new motion pictures being done by Disney to revive the hand-drawn animated features and Howard and Alan were two of the composers that had been tacked. I was dying to get in on one; I didn’t care what.
Considering your interest in villains, how do you feel about the villain you got?
I was familiar with the story because one of the things that I did growing up was work in a children’s theatre. I knew all of the children’s classics. I was excited at the prospect of getting to play that part.
I was very clever: I thought to ask for a drawing, and what they sent me originally was this character with this long face and heavy, opiated, drug-addicted eyes. I think he probably had that crazy beard or some semblance of it—just that was enough for me to think about lowering my voice even more and smoothing it out. Since I’m a big fan I didn’t have to look too much, but Eleanor Audley, who was the voice of Maleficent, and Hans Conried, who’s the voice of Captain Hook—they had qualities that I probably stole.
What made you decide Jafar was a role you wanted to revisit when the stage show came about years later?
Because I’d done Beauty and the Beast with such dispatch after it came out. Such dispatch meaning whatever length of time that was, but it seemed really fast to me, and I managed to make it fly. I guess I had secretly hoped that they would do the same thing with Aladdin.
How has your work playing Jafar over the years informed the way you’re playing him on stage, live for the first time?
There are certain moments where my inclination is to turn my head quickly and I think, no, he would never do that. [Costume designer] Greg Barnes really helped with the costumes; he helped create this great cape for me that just floats that I can whip around. It really looks like it’s animated. Greg has built things into the costume that squish me in and lengthen me. The makeup, I think helps—the way the beard is built, and the hat gives me height. There are a lot of things I’d like to try to be more like Jafar.
What makes now the right time for Aladdin to come back?
There are kids born every year who grow up on it.
And they’re interested in seeing the show live, not on some back-of-the-car-seat DVD player?
There’s immediacy with any kind of live entertainment that you can’t get any other way.
What is it you think these lifelong fans of the story will be most excited by in the production?
I hope they’ll be excited to see some new things. It would be a shame if they were too dogmatic about reproducing the film. I think one of the reasons why The Lion King is so successful is because they deconstructed it and reimagined it in another way. The story is still good, the music is still good, the visuals are great, so there you are. I hope when people come see Aladdin, they have a similar feeling that they’re seeing something familiar but it will give them something new to take home.
First of all, there’s new music. Some of the music is old music that no one’s heard before, so that’s interesting right there. It’s like the Persian Room in Las Vegas 1948 presents Aladdin—the music, the magic, the mystery, it’s gorgeous. It’s color saturated, it’s sexy and still is this charming story. Who doesn’t like a story with something of a moral that makes you root for the good guys? I don’t mind being the gasoline to fuel the other part. I think it’s more interesting.
Do you think there’s more Jafar in you beyond this? If the show goes on for 10 years is this something that you’re going to stay interested in?
One of the reasons that I said yes to playing Jafar every time is purely selfish. I’m not that eager to just let go of it. I’d like to do it as long as I can here, but it’s no walk in the park; it’s a lot. It’s a lot of clothes, a lot of makeup, a lot of stomping around. That alone is a lot; you sort of have to put yourself in some weird, hypnotic state and just let it happen. The show itself is very energetic. I’d like to do this as long as they’ll let me, though they might get tired of me, too.