Character performers are not ‘impersonators’ who mimic, say, an Elvis or a Michael Jackson. They are Mickey. Or Minnie. Or Donald. Or they are employees of a very large, very powerful corporation. They wear masks and costumes to resemble fictional characters and put in very ritualized appearances in public. Outside of the structured appearances they are not allowed to be the character they perform the rest of the time; they cannot post pictures of themselves as Mickey on their Facebook; they cannot walk down a street in Anaheim as Mickey Mouse. When they take off their masks, they smoke or put on make up or get on their cell phones. Still, being Mickey Mouse, even for those few, ritually regulated hours, is, apparently, a powerful and sometimes confusing feeling.
This interview was conducted at Mickey Mouse’s home, but because of Disney’s employee regulations, we cannot disclose the location or any other details regarding the performer.
THE BELIEVER: Who are you?
MICKEY MOUSE: I’ve been Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Piglet, Donald, Abu, Marie, but most of the time I’m just Mickey.
BLVR: What do you do?
MICKEY: I clock in on the wall clock; I go check in with the captain in my area. I check out my costume. You get all the different pieces, your head, your grey shirt, your black shorts, you get as many as you need because you’re probably gonna sweat a lot. You get his head, you get his feet, or his shoes, you get his pants and you have to get the right length too because there’s different lengths depending on your height. You get his vest front, you get his jacket, you get his bow, and you have to get your tennis shoes, that Velcro inside his shoes. You get socks, you get skullcaps - they’re white cloth skullcaps that you tie around the back that covers all your hair while it’s up in a ponytail in the costume. You have to get head gear which is a grey piece that snaps inside the head, and a chinstrap that straps your head in. Gloves, you have to get gloves and that’s a pain because they often have sharpie marks all over them from kids poking the gloves and you can’t get the ink out so it’s hard to find a clean pair of gloves.
You put that all in a big black bag and you carry it to your location or strap it on to a pulley and pull it there and if you forget a piece then you have to go back and get it.
My very first time I pulled on that costume, it was really very strange, because I’d grown up watching him myself and when I was little I didn’t consider that there was a person in there, it just didn’t cross my mind. When I put that costume on, it was just the strangest thing: I wasn’t me anymore. I’d look into the mirror: I was Mickey. I’d crossed some kind of line. I was the very first one who got my entire costume put together and on – and every one in the room, putting their costume on, just stopped and looked in the mirror and looked at me with my whole costume on. One of the guys who was putting Goofy on says, ‘Oh, it’s Mickey’ and it was just like a transformation, like you become who it is you are portraying. When you see yourself it’s really interesting, you become that person, you’re not you, you take on who they are and what they are, and you just become them. It’s kind of strange.
BLVR: So you become the icon and when people come to you and touch you or take pictures, who are they touching?
MICKEY: It’s Mickey. It’s whoever they think it is, for most people it’s Mickey. Some people do think that there is a person – it’s not quite as ingrained in their memory.
BLVR: What does it feel like for your hand to be Mickey’s hand?
MICKEY: I’m honored to have a chance to portray Mickey Mouse, to become him for a few hours a day. It’s hard to describe, but it just feels like a part of history almost. He began so long ago and has had such a long history and he’s been such a part of everyone’s lives and I get a chance to be that for somebody. It’s really exciting.
BLVR: So you feel special in that costume?
MICKEY: Yeah. It opens up a part of me… I’ve always been sort of an introvert and not very expressive. Trying to hide my feelings. But when I’m in that costume I get to express the true me, that flows out of a passion I’ve had for as long as I know, for Disney characters, and I get to be them and I get to act them and express myself the way they would, the way I normally wouldn’t because social constraints would tell me that I would be looked down upon if I did act that way.
BLVR: What way of acting is that?
MICKEY: Just like an animated character would act, everything over the top, every emotion over the top and everything just kind of crazy in a cartoon world. But since I don’t live in a cartoon world, I can’t act that way myself as a human being.
BLVR: So when you’re inside the costume, are you inside the character or are you inside yourself?
MICKEY: I have to say both. I feel younger inside, because I feel like a true part of me is coming out, from when I was little. And then I’m part of the characters because that’s who I’m portraying, that’s who I’m embodying, is this character, but this character has been a part of me for so long as well that I sort of become the character as well as myself.
BLVR: How would it feel if you stood there without the costume and all these people were coming and hugging you and taking your picture and asking for your autograph and all this intimate physical contact?
MICKEY: That would be rather strange. Without that costume I would be wondering why. Like why are you doing this? But with the costume on, Mickey has a history and people know Mickey, Mickey has a family—everyone who comes into that room probably feels like they’re part of the family, and they know you, they know Mickey. If they came in and they didn’t know me and they started doing that then I’d feel kinda strange, like ‘hmm I don’t know you.’ But because I’m Mickey I feel like I already know them, because they know me, cause they look at me like ‘oh I know you! I’ve known you all my life!’ And so I feel the same way about them.
BLVR: You sweat a lot in there?
MICKEY: Yes, depending on the character and especially if you’re outdoors. Sometimes I come off with everything soaked…
BLVR: And somebody else wears that mask and costume again the next day?
MICKEY: They wash it.
MICKEY: They dry-clean all the costumes. Every day. And all the heads you spray. Once you get back in there, you take all your pieces apart and put them in certain bins and you take all the sweaty basics, the t-shirts and stuff, and you put them into one bin and then they wash all those and they dry clean all the other clothes, and you spray out the inside of your head and you spray the inside of your shoes.
BLVR: You do that?
MICKEY: I have to do that. We spray the inside of our heads and we spray the inside of our tennis shoes. So that they’re sanitary for the next day. Whenever you’re getting your head, they always put a sticker on there for each day, and if it’s been used that day already you don’t take that head because it’s been sprayed out and that stuff is, well, you’re not supposed to breathe it.
BLVR: So you never think, ‘I’m putting this on and I don’t know the last person who used it and sweated in there?’
MICKEY: No, because I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to sweat in it, so if someone else did, it doesn’t really matter. It’s been cleaned as far as I know. We’re all in this together. My sweat is your sweat…
BLVR: What are your rules? What to look out for, how to react, behave?
MICKEY: One of the first things you are told is to look out for… there are occasions when you’d be working outside or near one of their water parks and in the summer especially for women who were wearing bikini tops or not much on top, we had to make sure we didn’t put our arm around, so it wouldn’t be construed that we were doing something like untying their bathing suit. We always had to put our hand on top of their shoulders or the near shoulder so they can see our hands at all times. Because any guest could construe that your hand was somewhere else that it shouldn’t have been.
And then you also have to watch for people who are wearing shirts that have logos that Disney doesn’t want to be associated with, like say there is a woman on the shirt that’s not very clothed, or there is a logo for some kind of alcohol, you always have to cover that up somehow. There was a man who was wearing a shirt with a beer logo or a bottle of beer. I had to physically put my hand against the man’s chest where the logo was. From the picture you couldn’t tell that I was pressing on his chest but I had to cover that logo and make sure it was covered so that the picture wouldn’t reflect that we had any association with whatever alcohol that was.
And the only sound you’re aloud to make in the costume is a kissing sound, like smooch.
MICKEY: Because with all the different character performers no one can repeat those voices, it’s just hard to duplicate, so they don’t speak. The only other sound is, Pluto can make a licking sound cause he has a tongue. I’m not Pluto – but I can always do the kissing sound.
BLVR: Inadvertently or not, somehow, the innocence in Disney is also always on the border of perversion or sexualization.
MICKEY: Yeah, uhm…
BLVR: How many Mickeys are there?
MICKEY: Well, if you count all the parks in Florida, there are at least 20 Mickeys working at any given part of the day. And in Mickey’s Toontown, the hub for Mickey, there’s four rooms and then there’s two Mickeys to each room, so there’s eight Mickeys. One goes on and the other’s waiting back here, and they switch and each room switches and it’s very complicated. I don’t know how the character attendants do it but they switch us out without the guests seeing that there are several Mickeys back there. In Animal Kingdom, there’s three for each character. You go on for 20 minutes, you come off, the other two Mickeys take their shift…
MICKEY: Yeah and they have to always be careful to not have two characters in the same spot – say there’s a parade going by and you’re working in a restaurant and in the restaurant there’s a window. You can’t have Mickey walking around in the restaurant there and him on a float coming by. So we had to go down a stairwell and hide while the parade went by and when it was over we could come back out again.
BLVR: You’re not doing this for the money?
MICKEY: Oh no, no. Disney does not pay well. I was working as an intern to begin with and I was paid minimum wage, then as a character performer I got a raise of 18 cents. And now when I go back, it will probably be maybe 8 or 9 dollars an hour. So it’s not for the money.
BLVR: You do it for…
MICKEY: For the people and for myself. Fulfilling my own dream as well as fulfilling others’ dreams.
BLVR: Are there any pierced, tattooed, punkish cast members?
MICKEY: Pretty much all clean cut. I don’t think I ever ran into anybody who had anything strange because they usually won’t hire you. Even if you are going to be a character performer, you outwardly still have to meet their guidelines, even if you are going to be covered in a costume. I might have seen one guy with longer hair but usually they make you cut it. They just seem to be pretty much all the same style. There might have been one girl who had her hair dyed. It’s just Disney, this whole Disney thing. They call it the Disney look. They even give you a book on it. They give you this book called ‘The Disney Look’. It has all the character heights in it. There’s guidelines on men’s facial hair, on their haircuts. With women, you can’t have highlights, you can’t dye your hair an unnatural color, you can’t cut it too short. There’s certain kind of sunglasses you have to wear, they can’t be too big, they have to be small, you have to be able to see your eyes through them…
Here are the tip sheets: “Don’t sit in a character costume, don’t eat, drink, smoke or chew gum in a costume, don’t wear make up, jewelry, cologne while in costume, never wear any costume pieces except basics to the cafeteria or restroom – place character heads on head stump, head hangers or head stacks… avoid using inappropriate greetings such as Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, ‘get well soon’, or ‘sorry I missed you.’”
‘Get well soon’ is prohibited because it’s supposed to be a happy place; you’re not supposed to get sick. You can autograph certain things, but you can’t autograph: flags, currency, non-Disney logos, corporate symbols or promotional materials, skin, passports, licenses, birth certificates, newspapers, sales receipts. Once Mickey Mouse signed a sales receipt or a receipt at a restaurant and Mickey had to pay the bill, so the dinner was on Disney and they always make a point to remind us of that.
You cannot have your picture taken in front of a trashcan, and a restroom. “Avoid posing with gestures that could be misinterpreted, including peace, victory signs, ok signals and gang related hand movements. You’re never to hold children, babies or personal belongings.”
BLVR: How can a peace sign be misinterpreted?
MICKEY: It could be because of different cultures. Even cast members don’t point with one finger because it can be misinterpreted, you point with 2 fingers. It’s called ‘The Disney Point.’
Tips for a Disney villain – cause you’re mean but you can’t be mean: “Never be rude, mean, discourteous or frightening. Not all actions seen in a movie are appropriate for guest contact, never demand demeaning interactions – making the guest bow down, have guests kiss someone’s hand, make guests beg or say please – instead welcome guest admiration, never mishandle, throw or destroy guest property.”
Villains don’t appear very often…
caraballo-farman is a two person team composed of Abou Farman and Leonor Caraballo, working in new media, video, installation and photography since 2001. Their work has been supported by several foundations and art centers, including New York Foundation For the Arts Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Canada Council for The Arts, Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, and Art Omi. caraballo-farman work has exhibited around the world at venues such as the Tate Modern, PS1, Whitney ISP, Artists Space, Museo del Barrio, LAXART, Havana Biennial, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.