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Ellen: Just keep swimming

FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2016 file photo, host Ellen DeGeneres appears during a taping of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," in Burbank, Calif. DeGeneres voices the character of Dory in the Disney Pixar animated feature, "Finding Dory." (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2016 file photo, host Ellen DeGeneres appears during a taping of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," in Burbank, Calif. DeGeneres voices the character of Dory in the Disney Pixar animated feature, "Finding Dory." (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File) AP

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 canceled. 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.

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.

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.

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