"Finding Dory" isn't just about a little blue fish looking for a home. The long-awaited sequel to "Finding Nemo" also reflects the journey of the woman behind the gills, Ellen DeGeneres.
Like Dory, DeGeneres had been feeling a little lost 13 years ago, when she first voiced the happy little fish with short-term memory issues. DeGeneres had publicly come out as gay a few years earlier, and had the title character on her namesake sitcom do the same.
It was a cultural flash point; then the show was cancelled. About the same time, DeGeneres' three-year relationship with Anne Heche suffered a painful ending.
"For a while, I didn't imagine that I would have anything again," DeGeneres said in a recent interview, her blue eyes bright and direct. "So then I just kept swimming." She returned to the standup circuit and started over. Soon, DeGeneres was launching her daytime talk show .
"Just keep swimming" is Dory's motto. The little fish may not always know where she is or what she's doing there, but she can keep moving forward.
"It was weird that (writer-director Andrew Stanton) was writing that at the same time that I was really wondering what was going to happen to me," DeGeneres said.
Now her Emmy-winning show is in its 13th season. She's a CoverGirl spokeswoman; she hosted the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys twice each; and introduced her own lifestyle brand, ED, last year. Everyone knows what happened to DeGeneres: she became an A-list star.
She had been lobbying on her talk show for a sequel to "Nemo" for years, but she was still shocked when the call came in — especially when Stanton said Dory was the main character.
"That's a day I'll never forget," DeGeneres said.
"Finding Dory" introduces the blue tang fish as a baby, long before she meets her clownfish pals Marlin and Nemo. Little Dory's doting parents are helping their daughter develop skills for dealing with her memory troubles when an undertow whisks her out to sea. Dory quickly forgets why she's in the open ocean, and just keeps swimming until she makes new friends.
Along the way, she discovers that what she thought were liabilities are actually strengths. Her spontaneous way of approaching challenges inspires her fish friends to ask themselves, "What would Dory do?"
The role represents DeGeneres' first major acting gig since "Nemo." She spent three years recording Dory's vocals alone in a sound booth — the same one where "Nemo" taped a decade earlier.
"She walked in and we picked up exactly where we had left off," Stanton said.
Like when she agreed to host the Oscars a second time, DeGeneres was ready for a challenge when Stanton called. Could she move audiences with nothing more than her voice?
"This is, to me, harder than acting with your body and our facial expressions," she said. "It's challenging to act with only your voice."
In a scene where Dory cries, DeGeneres says she shed real tears.
"I love being able to express myself in different ways and be emotional and not just be funny all the time," she said.
The 58-year-old entertainer is also expressing herself through her latest passion, her ED brand of clothing, apparel and home decor. On this day, she is sporting yet-to-be-released sneakers from the collection that say "love" on the sides. Her black-and-white floral blouse is from ED, too. She's expanding the line to include jeans, menswear, furniture and pet items.
All of these things — the talk show, the brand, "Finding Dory" — seemed impossible when the "Ellen" sitcom was cancelled in 1998.
"To launch my talk show at the same time "Nemo" was coming out, and then to end up where the sequel is now about Dory — I've got so many good things going on," said DeGeneres, who married actress Portia Di Rossi in 2008.
"It's really weird timing that Dory is looking for her home and I'm in a place where I am home," DeGeneres added. "I feel really, really amazed that I was able to come back to this point."