Ed Helms never imagined that one day he would be inside a booth, voicing a character from one of his favorite childhood books, “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss. In a recent interview with the actor, he told us that he would have been satisfied just playing one of those cute, bear-like barbaloots, and that he was completely ‘blown away’ when he was offered the part of the Once-ler in Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. He also talked about some of his voicing techniques, and gave us his opinion on the movie’s environmental message. Check out what he had to say below…
You had to voice the old Once-ler and the young Once-ler. Was it difficult for you to switch up your voice?
Ed Helms: The hard part is finding the voice. Over time, it was kind of an evolution working with [director] Chris Renaud, and he kind of pushed me and pulled me and shaped the old Once-ler. And then the hard part was actually, each time I came in for a recording session, which might a month apart, [was] re-getting there again.
Did you do any type of body movements to adjust the voices?
Helms: I didn’t even realize it until they pointed it out, but I was doing these physical things for the old Once-ler. But the young Once-ler was a bit more, a bit closer to just my natural intonation and speaking voice. That was a matter of thinking through ahead of time where he was in the story, because you’re kind of picking up lines all over. When you go into a recording session, they’re like, “Okay, do this, and then we need that, and then this is changing so we’re doing that,” so you kind of have to just keep your eye on the ball.
Is the older Once-ler what the older Ed Helms will sound like, and did you draw inspiration from you father or anyone you know?
Helms: It’s exactly what the old Ed Helms is going to sound like. I don’t know that I drew inspiration from specific places. I saw artwork for what the old Once-ler would look like when he came out of the Lurkum at the end, and I thought about what he had been through. He’s really overwhelmed with regret and so much so that he’s kind of banished himself off in this place. I sort of felt like he had a lot of venom, but that there was a kind of mushy core, and age and a little bit of wisdom – those were all things that just kind of mixed up in the effort to find that voice.
Was there a little Mr. Burns in there?
Helms: Not consciously. Did you hear that?
A little bit.
Helms: I certainly worship The Simpsons. If there is any hint of it, it’s fitting homage.
What do you think of the film’s environmental themes?
Helms: I think that the movie is obviously about trees, which is a very specific environmental reference. If you want to assign a message or a lesson to this movie, it’s really just about being a responsible person and being responsible to your community and wherever you live and not going down the greed rabbit hole, just staying aware of your values and avoiding excess. That, I think, is a much more universal take-away from this thing than any particular specific thing about saving trees or saving fish, birds or whatever. That’s a very handy metaphor that Dr. Seuss uses in this story. I think it’s a little bit bigger than that because that to me is something that people can dispute the value of an environmental message, you can’t dispute a message that’s about being a good person. And I think that that’s where Dr. Seuss is a genius.
When you were reading The Lorax as a kid, did you ever imagine one day you’d be the voice of the Once-ler?
Helms: Of course not. How could you think that? I remember watching the TV special as a kid too, and just loving it, but also not really thinking that’s there’s people behind this process or that there might be some guy talking into a microphone to be the Once-ler. Since I’ve become a working actor, the idea of being in a big animated movie has held a lot of appeal, and has always been something that excited me as an idea, so when I heard about this particular story being on Illumination’s docket, I kind of hunted it down. I told Chris Meledandri, at gun point, that he had to put me in the movie. Even if it was just like a barbaloot or any little part, and then they came back and offered the Once-ler. I was blown away.
Did you know from the beginning that you would be singing? How did you approach that?
Helms: I don’t think that when I first read this script it was clear that the Once-ler would be singing. And I don’t even know how much it was thought to have big musical numbers even, or in the early incarnation. But certainly I love to put that out there, and John Powell, the composer who just knocked it out of the park in my opinion, gave me some great opportunities to do that. I just wish I had gotten to sing on that Thneedville song in the beginning because I love that so much.
Is there a difference to your singing voice when you’re singing in character?
Helms: I’d say that there’s that montage where the Once-ler is kind of going down the rabbit hole, the ‘How Bad Can I Be?’ song. That’s really about being in character. Thankfully, I didn’t have to sing as the old Once-ler because that might’ve just destroyed my vocal cords in perpetuity. But I don’t know, it’s not a very complicated thing.
There’s no picture of the Once-ler in the book, is there?
Helms: No, you never see the Once-ler in the book.
How did you picture him in your mind? Did he come out anything like you thought he would?
Helms: I think that what they’ve done with the Once-ler, but at the young version, which was a bold move to create this character. They’ve made the young Once-ler very sort of simple, I think, kind of generic in a good way just because of what he represents, being something of an ‘every man’. And then the old Once-ler, that’s really where the artistry of these character designers and animators came in. That is just such a cool character because, in silhouette, it looks menacing and creepy and weird, and then you see [him when] he comes out into the light and he’s sweet and endearing looking. That was really, really cool!
It feels like the Once-ler just wants to be accepted by his family. Do you feel like there was a resolution for the Once-ler in the end?
Helms: I think that being accepted by his family is sort of just one part of it. He also really just wants to be self-fulfilled, he wants to be the best that he can be and really realize all of his potential. And he sort of sees this Thneed business as the ultimate way to prove his worth. But he loses sight, obviously, and he pays a very brutal price for it, which is having banished himself to the Lurkum out in the middle of this wasteland that he created. There’s a tremendous amount of self-loathing wrapped up in the Once-ler at that stage in his life. So I think when the Lorax, who’s trying desperately to teach him a lesson the whole time, and it took abject devastation for the Once-ler to actually appreciate it, when he finally sees this opportunity for redemption, that little hug with the Lorax at the end, it was like, I got so misty. It’s really poignant. It’s a hopeful message for all of us, no matter what kind of terrible circumstances we wind up in. There’s a kernel of goodness that you can latch onto and hopefully bring out.
This is sort of the Once-ler’s story. The Lorax is on the title, but the Once-ler is the driving force here, wouldn’t you say?
Helms: Well, yeah, I think that you look at the source material and it’s very simple. I don’t know how many pages are in the initial book. It’s a quick read as an adult, you just thumb right through it, it’s not a complicated story on the surface, but it is a complicated story. The layers going on there, the arc of the Once-ler, are fairly complex. I just think that the guys here did just an incredible job looking at the source material and then just fitting in things that make sense. As they built around it, they didn’t corrupt what was initially there. They just sort of added a lot of supporting information and material that was at times moving and at times hilarious, and certainly all visually mind-blowing. So yeah, that’s cool.
The Once-ler knits and says it’s not an unmanly thing to do at all. What unmanly thing do you do?
Helms: Um, I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, I just watched the half-time show [laughs].
Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax hits theaters Friday, March 2, 2012.