To mark the DVD and Blu-ray release of THE SMURFS in the UK on December 5, I recently caught up with star Hank Azaria to discuss his role as the villainous Gargamel in the film, as well as his past, future, and, of course, THE SIMPSONS.
Britgeek: What was it like wearing all the face makeup to play Gargamel?
Hank Azaria: It was fun on the level of being a character actor and a vocally-oriented character actor. It’s fun to turn into someone else, literally. It was challenging in that it almost became like a mask. You had to work it like a mask. I would do takes I thought were good and look at playback – which I don’t usually like to do because it makes me self-conscious – and then I’d realise it wasn’t big enough. You really need to be overly expressive working prosthetics like that. It almost became like puppeteer-ing your face in a weird way. The big eyebrows would cover any eyebrow expression so I had to really be aware that that expression is the only one that’s going to read as surprised enough. I took to looking at the playback to make sure it was almost animated right. It was weird.
BG: Did it affect your physical movements as well?
HA: The first couple of days I was kind of standing upright. I knew Gargamel was quite hunched over in the cartoon and I thought, I can’t do that, it will look stupid. Then I did it and looked [at playback] and, sure enough, it looked correct. A lot of what I thought was going to be too far was not far enough with this character.
BG: So you were trying to imitate the cartoon version of Gargamel?
HA: In some ways. You want to be true to the essence of the character. But one of the reasons I was psyched to do this was because the Smurfs were very popular in America in the ‘80s. I was a teenager, but being a very immature one, I watched them anyway. Really, I would watch them on Saturday mornings. I loved the Smurfs but I never liked Gargamel. I liked Paul Winchell [the voice of Gargamel] very much, but I thought it was like the only character he ever did that was not particularly funny. It was kind of one note. So I always wanted to retool him and make him funnier. To me, the idea that he’s basically married to a cat was funny and I thought that should be played up. I always thought, too, that he should be very angry. I actually attempted to play him, at first, as kind of laid back. Like, it would be funny if he was sarcastic rather than furious, but you cannot play Gargamel and not lose your mind when you see a Smurf. I tried it and the director was like, “What was that?” I thought he was used to seeing them, so why would he get so excited? [Raja] was like, “No, no, no. We need you to lose your mind when you see Smurfs.” He was right. There were times when he was just sarcastic underneath it. It was another colour. In the end, it started sounding a lot more like the Paul Winchell character than I thought it would.
BG: What is the essence of Gargamel?
HA: I guess if Smurf essence comes out a lovely iridescent blue, the Gargamel essence would come out some murky gray or black. It would certainly be evil and bitter to the taste. Very selfish. Very passionate though. You’ve got to give him that. He’s not a cold guy. It would be hot. Some kind of hot black liquid.
BG: Were you acting opposite an actual cat or a CG cat?
HA: I couldn’t decide which was worse: when the cat was there or when the cat was not. They had two cats that looked exactly alike. One was high energy and one was low energy. Depending on what the cat needed to do, they would trot out one or the other. Cats, as you may know from life, don’t care. They’re impossible to train, almost. The cat itself was fine, but to get the cat to jump up onto the table and look at you, there’d be a guy behind you clicking things and making noises. Your inclination is to turn around and look at that guy and be like, “What are you doing?” Then we would do stuff without the cat. I think there’s an actual cat but they would animate its face. We would do a version of both to see what would work better lately.
The weirdest animal story I ever experienced was when I did FRIENDS. Remember Schwimmer had that monkey, Marcel? It drove him crazy because he was married to the comic timing of that monkey. He used to really bum out about that. To get the monkey to do anything, they’d have to put food wherever they wanted the monkey to go, so you’re in a scene and there’d be his trainer saying, “Get in, Monk!” The monkey’s name was “Monk.” “Get it, Monk! Get it!” So you’re trying to concentrate while that’s going on. And he’s putting what look like nuts and berries around. At one point, I’m sitting on the couch and he puts stuff behind me so the monkey comes and eats it. We’re in the middle of shooting in front of an audience and the monkey’s beginning to throw up. And he does throw up behind me on the couch. I look down at the monkey puke, as you’ll do, and it’s moving. It’s moving. It was not nuts and berries, it was live grubs he was feeding the monkey that he would swallow whole, apparently. It was live, living monkey puke next to me. I was beginning to get insight as to why Schwimmer might not be thrilled working with the monkey.
BG: How do you feel about cats in real life?
HA: I have lived with several cats. I don’t dislike cats, but I prefer dogs. Girlfriends have had cats and then you end up becoming the “daddy” to the cat. That’s the case right now. I live with a cat named Oobie. He’s an Italian cat. My girlfriend lived in Rome for three years and this Roman street kitten befriended her and she brought him home and that was ten years ago. I like cats. No cats were harmed in the making of the film, but originally there was a running gag where I just throw that cat everywhere.
The way I get my magical robe – it all got cut out, but I find a street guy pushing a garment rack and I haggle with him for one of the robes on there. He doesn’t even speak English and thinks I’m insane, so I ended up going, “Cat attack spell.” I pick up the cat and throw it into his face, grab the robe and run. I toss the cat a lot. Cats are great because they’ll always land on their feet but they seem to enjoy it.
BG: Were there any on-set mishaps with this movie?
HA: They shoved teeth into my face to make Gargamel-mouth. If I screamed, and I was loud enough, the vibration would dislodge them and they’d sail out. That happened a lot. With the physical comedy stuff, there was a stuntman for the really hard stuff, but still, you can’t avoid the banging and bumping and falling. We do that thing where I’m running after the cab and it stops short and I run into the back of it and go down.
To sell the sound - which I don’t know why I was worried about since obviously they’d add that in post - I smacked my hand against the windshield and pretended it was my head. I had a ring on and I did it so hard the first time that it actually shattered the whole windshield. I was rather impressed with myself that the impact was that hard. It makes you realise you’re actually doing kind of dangerous stuff. By the way, if you asked me to do that right now, go run full speed and stop yourself on a car as it stops short, I’d say no. But if you say “Action” before that, I’ll go do it. I have no idea why.
BG: With most of your voice work, you’re able to create your characters from the ground up, but in this case, you had Paul Winchell’s work preceding you. Did you study what he did?
HA: I started from the ground up, but ended up close to something he did. There was a very stock cartoon villain from the ‘70s cartoons that always sounded like this, “You now have twelve seconds to comply.” I thought that would be so bad and cliche that it’s almost good. I started with it higher but it was hard to vocally sustain that screaming during the course of a day. It just got lower and more gravelly and a little more tired.
The writers had the image of Gargamel as almost kind of a failed Shakespearean actor. Someone nearly not as good as he thought he was, as a magician and as a persona. They saw him more as a John Gielgud-ian thing. I didn’t think that was energetic enough. I had just done a British villain and didn’t feel like doing that again. But I had that theatrical, taking-yourself-too-seriously thing in mind for his character. That’s where he ended up.
BG: Did you wear a skullcap or shave your head for this role?
HA: I shaved it. Not because I’m method, but to save me a half hour in the makeup chair every morning. Then they’d have to put the weird hair around it.
BG: How long did the makeup process take?
HA: The first time we did it in over four hours. They got it down to an hour forty-five. The record was an hour thirty-seven. Not like I was timing them or anything. That’s not horrible.
BG: Did you see what the Smurfs would look like before shooting?
HA: We knew what the Smurfs looked like. Also they had very lifelike, realistic Smurf dolls that were bendable, like Gumbi. You’d know where they were going to be. It was very storyboarded, almost to a comic book level. They would X off the exact shot you just got, so there wasn’t much left to chance. So much money goes into the specific shots. They count how many CGI shots per film are negotiated and figured out so you’re not going to be frivolous about adding them. It’s all worked out, like a math project.
BG: Did you have a lot of direction in this movie or did the director just turn you loose?
HA: It was both. I like to improvise a lot, but because of the reasons I just said, you can’t just… it’s not like an indie where you can say, “Hey, let’s do another one and keep the camera rolling and keep playing around with it.” First of all, if you’re improvising with Papa Smurf, he’s not gonna roll with it. You’re going to have to figure out what his responses are. It becomes a big to-do.
I had a couple ideas I wanted to work into the script and I worked with the writers on those things so that we had a structured idea. I wrote in alternates. I like to have choices of lines. You don’t know what’s going to work, especially with something like this where it’s going to be animated later. Who knows what’s going to be funny. You like to give them choices. The alternates were written right in. We would budget for time. I’d have seven variations I want to try. With a thing like this, you should go in prepared.
BG: Were you encouraged to go over the top?
HA: That’s how he directed me. Left to my own devices, I would have been in fear of looking silly, which I probably should have abandoned a long time ago. I would have pulled it back. He was always pushing me and he was right. Usually the passionate, more frenetic one was the right way to go.
BG: You got your start in the theatre and now have this huge career in film and television. Did you ever imagine all this success and will you ever go back to the theatre?
HA: I always would like to do theatre. The realities of these things are never what you imagined them to be. A couple of times I had the experience of making a movie that felt like what I had dreamed it would be. Usually they’re just kind of really hard work and disillusioning and the same with Broadway. Spamalot was sort of a magical experience. A once-in-a-lifetime thing. It’s really hard work. Eight shows a week are mind-numbing. The amount of energy that goes into it. On the other hand, just being able to do what you love is such an amazing gift. That never gets tiring.
BG: Did you ever imagine THE SIMPSONS would have such longevity?
HA: It’s unfathomable. It comes in cycles. You get used to it. Then five years later, you’re like, “God, we’re still here?” Then you get used to it again. Then you get freaked out again. Who would have ever thought? When we started, Fox was a fledgling network. You didn’t think they’d last, let alone the show. It’s completely surreal. But you can’t always be aware of that or you wouldn’t be able to do the job. On the other hand, it’s so routine at this point.
BG: Were you aware of the impact THE SIMPSONS was having on culture?
HA: You get aware of that in moments. Again, when you live inside it you don’t think about it. Like, if you think about it while you’re trying to record, you’ll freeze up on the microphone. When I went back to Tufts, my college, like ten years ago, and THE SIMPSONS was like twelve or thirteen years at that point… that’s what really freaked me out: to see a whole college student body that grew up with it.
BG: Did you study acting at Tufts?
HA: They’re not a conservatory, but they had a really lovely theatre program. Oliver Platt and I were there at the same time. We did a lot of productions together. He actually inspired me a lot. As great as he is now, he was that good back then. Most of us weren’t. I had to learn a lot more. He was always great.
BG. Were you as diversified back then as you are now?
HA: I was always comfortable doing voices and imitating everything. Much to my chagrin, I discovered that good acting actually involves being yourself in front of people - even if you’re playing another character - and revealing yourself emotionally, which I hated. I had to really learn to do it. I really got serious about acting at Tufts. I did a lot of shows there. I played Astroff in Uncle Vanya when I was eighteen years old. I didn’t bring a lot of emotional depth to the role, as you might imagine.
BG: Are there any characters from THE SIMPSONS you play that you wish they’d kill off?
HA: Meaning do I ever get sick of playing any of the characters? Some hurt. Like Duffman is really… he’s always screaming. I have to save him for the end of the day because it blows my voice off. There are days when I have a lot of Duffman and I’m like, “Oh God, this is actually really going to hurt to scream like him for half an hour.”
I got a little tired of being Bumblebee Man. It’s such a cliche. It was funny. That’s why he was funny. He was a parody of a cliche. A stereotype. I wasn’t sad when we had a lot less Bumblebee Man.
BG: Who is your favourite?
HA: Professor Frink. I was a Jerry Lewis fanatic as a kid. Kids don’t know that it’s Jerry Lewis. It’s astonishing to me. It’s such an obvious imitation but some things are so old they’re new. At my urging we did a Halloween show several years ago where Jerry Lewis played Professor Frink’s father. When we flew to Vegas to record with him, it was one of the happiest days of my life. He was very sweet. I basically drove him crazy quoting all his movies to him to the point where he was like, “Enough already.” He was really nice though.
BG: Are you in a position now to pick and choose projects?
HA: THE SIMPSONS has afforded me to pick and choose. In this economy you can take nothing for granted. You have to look at dollars more seriously the last few years. I have, anyway. If it weren’t for THE SIMPSONS I probably would have ended up on some other television show that I would have been less happy doing. You try and build a career and you do stuff because you think it would be commercially successful. You can’t just pick jobs purely because you love them.
BG: Is it true your director, Raja Gosnell, threw eggs at you on set?
HA: Oh, yes. Even when the scene didn’t call for it. [Laughs] That was not my favourite day on the set either. Think about it. This is your job and it doesn’t happen in twelve minutes. You have to spend about two to three hours where the task for that day is to wing an egg into your face and have it splat correctly. There’s no way to fake that without actually taking an egg and doing it. The prop guy did it at first and missed a bunch. Raja had a very specific idea in mind of how he wanted the egg to hit so he was standing there. Then he missed a bunch. Then, worst than that, two or three grazed me, because you did get hit with an egg but it’s unusable. Finally, bull’s eye.
Many thanks to Hank for his time!
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