Meet The Woman Who Speaks For Snow White

Sitting on the floor of her home in the Hollywood Hills, Katie Von Till is painting her nails light-pink as she tells me what it’s like to be one of four women in history to voice Disney’s first princess, Snow White. Adriana Caselotti, who first brought the character to animated life in the original 1937 Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was reportedly barred from future roles to prevent her iconic voice from being associated with other characters. Von Till is a working actress whose Snow White gig is among several jobs she juggles — but one she takes very seriously. If you hear Snow White speaking these days — whether it’s on an episode of the Disney Channel's animated series Sofia the First, or in a commercial for Disney theme parks or talking toys — it’s Von Till doing the talking. Since 2011, she has been the one and only actress to voice the beloved black-haired maiden who befriends seven petite men. And she doesn’t just show up to a recording booth and go on autopilot: To keep Caselotti’s 70-year legacy alive, Von Till matches the late actress’ indelible voice. “The Snow White that I hear is the same Snow White my mother heard when she was a kid,” says Von Till, a Northern California native who got her start in local theater as a child. “When you’re voice-matching someone, it’s not an impression. You are that person. You’re that character. It should be seamless.” For Von Till, who has appeared in sketches on Conan and done guest work on a handful of sitcoms, there is a certain surreality about being responsible for such a beloved Disney character in the modern age. Her email signature, for instance, reads, “Voice of Disney's Snow White — No, seriously. I am!” As we sit in her living room that overlooks Los Angeles and Universal Studios (you can see the Hogwarts Castle peeking out in the distance), Von Till walks me through what it’s like to be a real-life Disney princess, the feminism of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and how she continues to perfect the voice that will one day be passed on to another woman like herself.
Did you have any special connection to Snow White as a child?
“My favorite princess growing up was Sleeping Beauty, but as an adult I became a performer at Tokyo Disneyland, where I sang as the Little Mermaid and Pocahontas in a stage show. One of my favorite things to do when I had free time was visit Snow White’s Grotto. It’s a fountain and a wishing well, and every 15 minutes or so, ‘I’m Wishing’ plays, and the sound of her singing comes from the fountain, and the wishing well echoes it. It’s so charming and delightful. I loved listening to it.” How does one become the voice of Snow White?
“I wanted to be a Disney princess when I grew up, but…it didn’t occur to me that of course they would need someone to continue to voice these roles. When the audition came around, they were auditioning for a few other voices as well, and I worked and worked at those, listened and practiced, but it never felt right. With Snow White, I listened to her once, stepped into my booth — which was a closet at the time — laid down one track, and sent that in. One take. That was really rare for me.”
Photo: Courtesy of Joanna DeGeneres.
Katie Von Till
What does the job entail, exactly?
“When I first booked the job, the casting directors congratulated me, then they were like, ‘Look, you’re not Cinderella. You’re not going to be in the studio every couple of weeks, but you’ll be in here about once a quarter.’ And they were right. I’m in three or four times a year, doing things for the parks, or talking toys, or video games, or guest appearances on animated shows like Sofia the First, things like that. Commercials, radio, any time her animated self makes an appearance and they need her voice, that’s me.” It must be pretty bizarre to hear your voice coming from a toy.
“Yeah! I have a castle in the garage that’s a Fisher Price toy called the Disney Princess Songs Palace. What’s really fun is to go over to my friends’ houses and hear my friends’ kids play with a toy with my voice on it. Some of the kids get it and understand that it’s me, and some of the kids just absolutely don’t. But it’s neat.” What was your reaction when you found out you got the part?
“I mean, you dream of that kind of thing — of being a Disney princess. That’s every little girl’s dream, whether you’re a performer or not. And I know there’s some backlash these days from parents about princesses, but I grew up on Disney and I’m a feminist. I had no illusions that I was going to eat a poison apple and be rescued by true love’s first kiss. I played with all kinds of dolls and Barbies, and I didn’t grow up thinking I need a man. People are like, ‘Oh, we’re telling these girls they can grow up to be princesses.’ Well guess what, they can! Because I did.”

When you break down the story, Snow White did have to go out on her own and make it in the forest, even if it meant working for seven dwarfs.
“Yeah, she’s a brave girl. And what’s wrong with cleaning and tidying up? She made people’s lives better. She just has a great outlook on life. Everything is with a smile and a song. It’s her motto. And that’s wonderful advice. I’m not saying we should be delusional or anything like that, but if you can approach life with some positivity, what’s wrong with that? “The whole thing that happened with her and the hag and the apple, it’s like, yeah, she should have trusted her instincts a little more, but at the same time, what a wonderful quality to think the best of people. But she’s not an idiot! She ran when she had to run! She knew she needed help and asked for shelter from the animals.”

I know there’s some backlash these days from parents about princesses, but I grew up on Disney and I’m a feminist. I had no illusions that I was going to eat a poison apple and be rescued by true love’s first kiss.

Katie Von Till

You’ve really thought this through. So by now you feel an affinity with the character?
“I mean, she’s my girl.”

How do you make sure you’re always matching the original voice?
“When I got the role, the woman who was retiring, Carolyn Gardner, sent me a note welcoming me and ‘passing the crown,’ so to speak. It was so lovely and kind and generous of her to welcome me into the fold, and we’ve never even met. It’s like being a part of history. It’s real-life movie magic, and it’s an honor and a privilege. Do I work hard? Absolutely. I keep a recording of her in my car that I listen to at least once a week.”

What goes into matching the voice, do you have a specific process?
“She has this sort of 1930s lilt, and a sort of pouty mechanism that really affects the way your instrument is shaped, which affects the sound. She sounds a little bit like Minnie Mouse, who is voiced by the wonderful Russi Taylor. I’ve seen interviews with Adriana, so I think about her and the way she talked: the way she formed her words, the shape of her mouth, the size of her teeth. I know that sounds crazy, but I think about the mechanics of it. And I think about Shirley Temple, who was considered for the role of Snow White back in the day. She had that signature pout. I also watch the movie from time to time, and I think about the animation. I take it really seriously, because I want to have this job for a long time. My goal would be to do it for 25 years.”
Do you ever hear or see other, off-brand Snow Whites, and think, Oh that’s way off?
“Yeah, occasionally. I remember once being in a casting-director workshop and a girl put on her résumé that she could sound like Snow White. I was so offended by it, and I wasn’t even Snow White at the time. I was very new to voice-matching. But I heard this girl do her Snow White impression and I thought, Oh honey, Snow White is more than just fast vibrato.”

Do you ever dress up like her?
“No, I never have. There’s something about, I don’t know, it just wouldn’t be good enough. I’m particular about her, too. I think she needs to look a certain way.”

Do you ever break out the voice at parties?
“Sometimes, but she’s very soft-spoken, so it’s hard for me to do it in public places like a party or at a restaurant. If it’s a small group conversation somewhere private, yeah I’ll say a few words. My only thing is I can’t be videotaped — you never want to break the illusion. I would also never compromise Snow White by saying something she wouldn’t say. Snow White doesn’t live in the modern world. Snow White doesn’t know what a cellphone is. Snow White lives in her place and time. When people ask me to say things as her, I just say a quote from the movie. I’m not going to do Snow White grocery shopping, or Snow White at a yoga class. I keep it really real. And I’m protective of her.”

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