As with all Liveaction/CGI animation hybrids, the human component is just as important as the animation. The humans are usually used as an anchor. And for Raja Gosnell’s The Smurfs, he’s got a good roster of talent to bring the little blue guys to the big screen. We got a chance to talk to stars Jayma Mays and Hank Azaria about their work on the film, and it’s a fun, playful chat. Check it out…
We heard that you had voice actors on set to help play the Smurfs. How much did that help?
Jayma Mays: That helped me a lot. We had two, a lovely girl and guy that did different voices for the characters. It’s helpful when you’re looking at a bunch of stickers and you don’t know which sticker belongs to whom. Even if the lines are being read you’re not sure if that’s Grumpy, “who is that who’s speaking to me?” It helped put you in the right mindset, better than an old ninety-year-old man reading behind you that you don’t know.
Hank Azaria: Please don’t refer to me in that way.
JM: (Laughs) A ninety-year-old man.
HA: Don’t say that.
Did you have somebody playing the cat, doing little cat voices for you?
HA: We had a real cat, two real cats depending on what the activity was and no cats sometimes. We tried everything. Sometimes it’s a combination of CGI and cat, sometimes it’s just CG cat but I was mostly with the cat.
And of course none of them were hurt during the making since we see you smack one with a purse.
JM: Oh no no, I hurt them. (Laughs)
HA: I really tried my best to hurt the cat. They’re incredibly pliable animals. A lot of it has been cut but I would really throw him a lot. You don’t see the scene anymore, but I acquire a robe and I get it just by haggling with a guy then saying “Ah, screw it” and just throwing the cat in his face and running off with the robe saying “Cat Attack Spell!” But the cat, they sort of enjoy it. They go “woo!”
You do so many voices, have you ever struggled to find a voice? How did you find Gargamel?
HA: Yes is the answer. I had an idea in mind – a character like this to me, the voice is the first thing. We really went back and forth over what would be the proper voice. I thought I started a little higher, kind of like I wanted the stock villain voice in cartoons when I was growing up. And I liked that but they wanted a more of a failed Shakespearian actor. I found that to be too low-energy. You’ve got to go all energized and it sounded a lot like the original cartoon voice which I could’ve just started with, but I just had to do my own weird process and go all the way around.
Do you ever get worried like “Oh this is getting a little too much like Professor Frink on The Simpsons or your other famous characters?
HA: Occasionally yes, I worried that Gargamel was sounding too much like Moe. We were shooting in New York so if you take Gargamel and you give him a New York accent he sounds like Moe. I would have to watch it sometimes. Frink never entered this one. (Laughs)
But then you have so many characters.
HA: On “The Simpsons” we have to worry about that a lot. I’d do a character and then I’m like “Ah, that sounds too much like Cletus.” “Ah yeah it does, okay I’ll try again.”
How much does Gargamel get to interact with the actual actors that are not the Smurfs?
HA: Not much. We had two or three whole scene lists together. Mostly I’m with the cat and the Smurfs. They let me out occasionally with the general public.
JM: That’s because I requested to not have any scenes with him. I only wanted to work with stickers the entire time.
HA: You’re really good with the stickers.
JM: Thank you, I am.
And then Neil Patrick Harris.
JM: No, I requested to stay away from him as well. (Laughs)
He’s completely CGI?
HA: But that’s true in general, did you know that? Even in the Tonys he was digitally created.
How was it, on your end as actors, acting with little dolls, and stickers where the Smurfs would be?
HA: Animation recording is wall-to-wall imagining the whole thing, not specifically looking anywhere, but I’m sort of used to it because of that. I’ve done a couple of movies like this but it is a little weird. When you get the whole thing – because you have to start talking then he runs up there, then you’re looking at him over there, then he jumps and then you have dialogue married to all of that. So you sort of get it all right, then you’re all proud of yourself thinking those looks were all correct. Yes, the acting completely sucked so now actually do it if you’re really engaged. Usually it’d take a two-step process like that, sort of knowing what’s happening and then you actually try to find your way around.
Sort of sounds like dance choreography.
HA: Very similar.
How was the makeup chair?
HA: You know, it was about an hour forty-five for me in the chair, but you know, I’m not giving away any secrets, but women in Hollywood, I think that’s par for the course. Glamour makeup is about that long, yeah?
JM: Yeah, totally. That’s pretty fast actually.
HA: The first time I did it was like three and a half hours. I think their record was like an hour thirty-seven – not that I was timing it or anything. But I’m used to ten minutes. I don’t look any handsomer than this.
Do we get to see Gargamel out of his robe?
HA: His robe? Do you want to get out of here? (Laughs) Not in this one, no. (In Gargamel voice) How dare you, my good man. What are you saying? No, you see him in some rather intimate, private moments that I won’t reveal because they’re disgusting.
With the cat.
HA: No! But my idea for the characters was that they’re married, so that’s essentially what I was playing was that they were a married couple. It didn’t make it into the movie either, but I did say at one point to the cat “Why did I ever marry you?” So I can understand why they cut it.
That and throwing your wife into stores. I’m starting to feel a little worried for the cat here between that and throwing him around.
HA: (Laughs) It was a really abusive relationship.
So Raja (Gosnell) and Jordan (Kerner) were talking about how you had a very, very “wicked” humor. That’s what they kept on saying, “Wicked, wicked, wicked.”
HA: As Gargamel or in real life?
Gargamel. Was there any small amount of improv or anything like that with making up the spells like “Cat Attack Spell”?
HA: I think “Cat Attack Spell” was my own creation. I like very much what I wrote and I wanted a couple of different points of view. I wanted to play that it was a married couple who was bickering a lot with the cat. Instead of making evil pronouncements to nothing, which always annoyed me about the old Gargamel. It’s like “Who are you talking to dude?” The cat’s there, maybe the cat’s listening, I don’t know. So it would have to be more like personally involved with the cat and not get along with him particularly well, for the cat to be considerably smarter than him. We sort of re-worked the dialogue for a lot of that and then I wanted him to be sarcastic instead of just angry and evil. I want him to be kind of observational sometimes and laid back. And so then we came up with some different alternate — I’m a big believer of alternates, especially for a character like this where you don’t really know what’s going to work. It’s almost like working a Kabuki mask. I don’t really like looking at the monitor either but I would look at takes a lot because I would do a take that I thought was good then realize that I’ve got fairly heavy prosthetics on and my face didn’t really match what I was doing and I had to almost work it more than you would normally.
So were you both able to improvise? Could you improvise and then they would change the Smurfs voices afterwards to fit what you’ve done?
HA: Some of that happened with me. You can’t improvise per-say as nothing’s coming back, Papa wouldn’t roll with it.
JM: Papa Smurf was like the most free of them all.
HA: You had a better experience than I did. There was some tension on the set between me and Papa.
JM: I always think it’s harder to do that when there are six Smurfs in the scene and they’re all over the place. They have the areas that they have to be for that part so it’s harder to improvise when you have all that going on because your brain is so focused on that sometimes just to remember where they are and remember the lines as they are is just kind of good enough.
HA: Yeah, most of that came with me talking to the cat. I had a lot of alternate ways to go. I try to not leave it too much to chance and come up with a bunch of alternate lines beforehand and basically took Raja and Jordan to let me keep trying them. That’s how I usually work.
Did you guys change your performance at all for 3D? Do you think about that?
JM: I like to do this a lot. (Sticks out her hand) I didn’t really think about it for the most part. I had a big pregnant belly so I tried not to face that right at the camera. (Laughs)
HA: No, only at times where I technically — like at the beginning of the movie I’m playing with the Smurf marionettes. The little wires? 3D doesn’t like the little wires, it can’t compute them. So I had to keep them out of, hold them below and like some of my best takes were when by accident I’d hold the wire up high and it was unusable in the 3D version which annoyed me. But other than that no, it’s just some technical things.
You mentioned some different versions of Gargamel’s voice, was there an intention not to sound like Paul Winchell?
HA: There was at first because I love Paul Winchell, he’s a huge hero of mine and I always felt like Gargamel wasn’t his greatest creation. I was disappointed with it because he wasn’t allowed to be funny, it was kind of one-note and I loved the original vocal Gargamel in the Smurfs. And I really wanted to make it different and I did all of these things to make it different and then in the end I found myself vocally very much back where it began.
It’s a very iconic voice.
HA: It is, and I felt in my head that it was more Eastern European and then I kind of moved off of that. Then it was more mellow and then I kind of had to amp it up and so I ended up back I think where he was but hopefully a little more three dimensionally.
What are your memories of “The Smurfs”? Did you watch it, did you have to go back?
JM: I had to watch it, my mother was a big fans of the Smurfs so she always made me watch it on Saturday mornings, but despite my mother I said since the age of five that Gargamel was my favorite. Just to get back at her.
HA: Gargamel will take what he can get, it’s fine. You know I was a little too old for “The Smurfs” but I knew what they were and I kept — you know like, I don’t know if you relate to this, but music from the eighties, I grew up then and I didn’t love a lot of it. But now when I hear it I adore it because it’s nostalgic and I feel that way about The Smurfs as well. I was really surprised at how much my heart was warmed seeing them on the screen being their individual personalities.
Kind of like REO Speedwagon.
HA: Yes. It was moving. I think they lend themselves well to the CGI treatment and it was really fun to see them being their Smurf-y selves in their village there.
When seeing the completed footage, does it feel like you were actually there considering that you were acting with stickers? Or is it just like a whole new experience?
JM: It’s nice to see it brought to life. Yeah, I haven’t seen the whole film put together but what I have seen, yeah it was really exciting to see something finally there. They could have put anything in there, if they wanted. It could’ve been a horror film for all I know.
HA: It’s cool. You only feel that when you see the finished — you see something even two-thirds animated and you’re still aware that they’re in different worlds. When they get all of that lighting and shading it’s kind of wild to see that all happen.
JM: They really are beautiful little Smurfs. They’re so cuddly and I’m in love.
Was it even more challenging to work with a cat and a dog who have to act with imaginary things? Is that a challenge to get the animals to be playing against things that were going to be put in CGI?
HA: In a word yes, because the cat rarely did what you wanted it to do. I would look forward to the take that was just “I’m not with the cat, great!” Well with the CGI, if you’re supposed to look at them there but if you do that and that’s the take they like, they’re going to animate something that justifies that no problem. With the cat, nuh-uh.
Go for an animated cat next time?
HA: No, because I like the fact that the cat looked real. It’s funnier if you believe the cat is real rather than just animated. So the takes that work with the cat were worth it but they were hard.
JM: I keep saying I’ll play the cat next time. (Laughs)
We’ve talked so much about the real, grounded story for your (Jamya Mays) and Neil’s (Patrick Harris) characters as parents and all that. It’s very much for the adults in the audience.
JM: I think it’s a really nice story for the two of them. We’re both about to become parents and I think Neil’s character, Patrick, which gets so confusing between Neil Patrick and Patrick. Patrick, Patrick. He’s more apprehensive about becoming a father, nervous about what chaos that might bring into his world. He has things just so and his career path is just so. It’s nice that these creatures come into their world. Even though they’re little blue men, it’s a trial run at being parents and seeing what it’s like having little creatures running around the house. I think it’s a good thing for Grace because she’s testing out her mothering abilities and seeing how that works. So it’s a lovely, sweet story between the two of them and growing up to become parents.
And because your character’s pregnant, you necessarily didn’t get to do as much of the physical comedy?
JM: No, no, that probably wouldn’t be right. (Laughs) No, I’m very — Grace for me is a very grounded role, probably more so than any other character that I’ve done before. She’s got her head on straight and that typically isn’t me. (Laughs) So yeah, I’m a little bit less on the physical side of things in this film.
Do you get to have fun with it? Do you get to put a little bit of english on the ball?
JM: We had a lot of fun together. In the same way that you had that married idea with the cat, we wanted to have a 1950’s couples banter going on and we were able to do that some and have fun with that and create good chemistry. But he was wonderful to work with.
Did any of you get to interact with Sofía Vergara?
Hank Azaria: I did work with Sofía, I did a few scenes with Sofía yeah. She was fun to listen to and look at.
The Smurfs opens July 29.