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April 23rd, 2014

Alan Cumming Interview, Smurfs 3D

Alan Cumming Interview, Smurfs 3DScotsman Alan Cumming has been known to ‘work blue’ and get a little risqué in his films, but bringing to life the new character of Gutsy Smurf in the upcoming The Smurfs movie is his first time being blue on screen in a role suitable for the whole family. Easily distinguished by his kilt, roguish sideburns, rugged good looks and Scottish accent, Gutsy has the bravado to take any risk. A gruff guy who Smurfs first and asks questions later, Gutsy is quick to jump headlong into adventure for his fellow Smurfs. Cumming was proud to be the Scottish Smurf and was even able to bring some Scottish slang to the part by single-handedly reintroducing the word ‘numpty’ (idiot) to the world lexicon.

MoviesOnline sat down recently with Cumming at a press conference in L.A. to talk about his role and what it was like lending his voice to a ginger-haired Scottish Smurf in a kilt. The award-winning actor told us why it required precision and discipline to get the voice of Gutsy just right, how his improvisation in some of the film’s scenes will provide jokes that the adults in the audience will appreciate, and what his fondest memories were of the Smurfs and other animated series he enjoyed watching while growing up in Scotland. Cumming also gave us an update on what we can expect in the next season of “The Good Wife.”

Q: When was the last time you saw Hank Azaria or any of your other co-stars since this whole process began?

AC: The last time I saw Hank he had just shaved his head to do it. I can’t remember when that was. It’d be a year and a half ago. It’s a very solitary sort of an experience being a voice. You don’t see anybody. I mean, sometimes you can do whole films when you’re actually in it, have quite a major role, and still never meet the people who are also in it. But this is more weird. I have not even ever met some of my Smurfy co-stars actually. I’ve never met Fred (Armisen). I’ve never met Jonathan (Winters). It’s a bit weird.

Q: Unlike the other five main Smurfs, Gutsy wasn’t really a mainstay of the 80s series. Was that freeing to be able to bring this character to life?

AC: Yeah, I think it was quite liberating in that there wasn’t a history that you could potentially screw up and damage people’s memories. And also, it was just this new thing. I think he was there as a function in the story to kind of jeer them all on and be a bit more of the backbone and allow Papa Smurf to be a bit more frail, I suppose. Yes, it was quite good for that and also I quite enjoyed the process over a year and half or so of going in at various times and you get to contribute. I think probably everybody did get to contribute lines and ideas, but I guess I got to more because he was new and there was no precedent.

Q: They gave him a kilt so did that determine your voice?

AC: Yes, somewhat. When I read the letter, the hilarious letter you get from your agent, you know – Project, Director, Producers, Shoot Dates, Role: Gutsy Smurf. I never thought I would see that. And then, I read it and I thought this is fun. I went to meet them for the first session and they showed me this picture of this ginger-haired guy in a kilt and I thought oh, alright, well that narrows it down.

Q: He seems very preoccupied with his giblets. I was wondering do you have to be careful…?

AC: I am very preoccupied with my giblets too. Aren’t you? All men love their giblets.

Q: Did you have to be careful with the Smurf euphemisms when you were improvising to not inadvertently say something that you might regret?

AC: Well yeah, there’s a few. I realize that the kind of bar which [determines when] what’s acceptable becomes non-acceptable, mine is higher than most people’s. It might be a cultural thing. When I started improvising away, I would hear them laughing on their headphones and they’d stop me and go “That’s hilarious but we’ll never be able to use it. Think of something else.” So yeah, it was quite funny ‘cause you know there’s also some hilarious…like the first time I saw the actual film on screen, not the whole film but the first time there was any footage, and we were then doing voices to picture, I emailed Neil and said “Oh Neil, we’re doing our first scene together.” And he said hello to everyone and then about a half hour later, I said “Oh my God, I’m tying you up. It’s like a bondage scene going on now.” So things like that. And also, I think that’s quite good about the film that there’s some adulty jokes that I think the parents and the adults in the audience will appreciate.

Q: How long did you have to practice to get the voice of Gutsy to your liking?

AC: You usually go in for a session for maybe half a day or maybe longer. I think the first day I came in with some ideas and they had some ideas and by the end of the first session we kind of got it. And then, sometimes new bits of the script would come in and you’d think oh that seems more…you need more voice dress-up or it needs to be higher here. But it’s quite interesting as an exercise because you have to be incredibly precise. You’re sort of creating the whole character by just your voice because then they copy your face for the facial expressions and stuff like that. Even though it’s just that you’re doing a voice, it’s quite a disciplined thing. I really enjoy it.

Q: What were some of the ideas that you brought to your character?

AC: Well I liked the fact that you have to try and show bluster or make people think bluster when actually there hasn’t been anything to make them think that it’s not just all bluster – you know, things like that. So I tried to do things that would show he had a little bit of a chink in his armor. Mostly, it would be things like ad libs and lines and that word “numpty” that I just thought was the funniest old Scottish word that he says a lot. I really enjoyed bringing back that word into the lexicon.

Q: You actually play a blue person at least three other times. Which one of those characters was your favorite?

AC: Well obviously they’re so colored as it were by the experience of doing them. Like the Nightcrawler, I really liked that film but I hated the process of doing it because it was just so arduous getting all that shit on my face all the time and the same for The Great Gazoo. I obviously enjoyed The Great Gazoo, but that was an arduous process too. Actually my favorite blue person in terms of my comfort was this because I didn’t have to be blue. I just had to sound blue. I did another mini-series years ago that I thought “That sounds like fun! Oh God, it’s blue.” It was a very quick blue. It was sort of a TV knock out, knock them off kind of blue.

Q: Any plans to play a blue person again?

AC: Life is long and I never say never. Hopefully, I might expand my palette.

Q: How big were the Smurfs when you were growing up?

AC: Huge. I mean, huge because they originated in Europe. But the thing that’s hilarious and nobody in America knows or knew is that they were pop stars. I actually remember the Smurfs more for them singing songs and being on the charts. Maybe I was a little bit older. They were on TV and cartoons. I remember the merchandising and I remember them having all these hits. They had loads of hits. And it was kind of weird. There was a guy who was like Papa Smurf. There was some old bloke and then there were all these people dressed as Smurfs singing these songs on the equivalent of – well it was Top of the Pops then, but that’d be the equivalent of something on MTV. It was nuts. I’m sure there are dance remixes of the Smurfs songs out there somewhere.

Q: They actually went as far as to have people play the Smurfs. They might have been the singers.

AC: Yeah, I think they probably were. But it was crazy. It was like Halloween. People dressed for the Smurfs for Halloween on stage. There were those novelty songs that were really catchy to the point of being annoying and they just kept churning them out. So, in this film when we had to sing the song, I sang a different one. It wasn’t the one I remember because I was remembering the one that was a Top 10 hit. The same lyrics with “La, La, La, La.”

Q: Speaking of songs, what’s your favorite Katy Perry song?

AC: I’m slightly obsessed with “Fireworks.” I was on a cruise with my mom recently and there was a club I went to a couple times and I met these kids and the DJ played something and the dance floor just cleared and he was like “Oh my God, what have I done?” And I said “Put on Katy Perry ‘Fireworks’ and you’ll be back on the air in a second.” And it’s true. I think it’s such a good builder. Lyrically, it’s not such a stretch, but I think it’s an amazing structure of a song. I love builders.

Q: When it comes to your preparation for a character, does it differ between voiceover work and live action?

AC: Yes. They are totally different processes. [In live action,] there are many more facets too. You’re obviously going to show your face and your body and so there are things like that. Actually, when you’re acting like this, you are all animated. You don’t just sit there doing your nails. I’m really not all that big on preparation. I just look at it, learn my lines, feel cognizant of all the things that are going on in the story, and then just do it, unless there’s something about my character that I’ve got to know how to do. Like learn the Morris Code or something. Mostly I’m just quite an instinctive person. I think it’s better. In a way, with something like this, it’s much more like telling a story, a little bitty childlike thing, and I think that’s the best way to approach acting is to try and remember what it was like to be a child and just be someone else and really mean it.

Q: Neil Patrick Harris’s character gets to be skeptical about all the fantastical elements of the Smurfs. Are there any burning, unanswered questions regarding the creatures for you or has it already been answered?

AC: Why do they not take more berries? Do you know? Well, yes, I think why’s there only one girl? And how do they breed? Things like that keep me up at night. And also, I was thinking, actually this is really a sci fi film. They’re aliens from another planet and they’ve come to Earth and it’s actually a sci-fi film masquerading as a family crowd pleaser.

Q: Don’t they say storks bring them?

AC: I think they do. Yes, Smurf Storks. That’s right. Yeah, but we all know that that’s not true.

Q: What’s fun for you about doing things like The Smurfs, X-Men, Flintstones and even Bond that are a part of people’s pop cultural memories and trying to renew them or bring them back to life? What do you dig about that as far as that goes?

AC: I just really like the fact that I am a part of those at all. It’s fun to be part of a popular cultural phenomenon, especially if it’s no one that you actually knew from the other side. That’s really nuts. It’s all part of this thing where my life has… I mean, I don’t go around thinking wow all the time, but when I think about it, my life is so different than what I thought it was going to be in many, many ways – even just where I live. And so, I love that part of just being a part of something that everyone can relate to, that everyone knows. When I was in the James Bond film, I thought (whispers) “I’m in a James Bond film! Can you imagine?!” It’s kind of like that sort of feeling. It’s fun and also it’s good to be in things where I’ve got a niece and nephews and a lot of godchildren and to be part of these things for them is an amazing thing. That you have an in with the Smurfs is kind of cool.

Q: Will they recognize your voice in this?

AC: Yeah, I think some of the older ones will. And also, next week at the premiere, I’m taking my goddaughter and her sister so they’re kind of primed. And another little niece is having a Smurfs birthday party next week, unprompted by me actually, but she’s quite excited.

Q: Will you appear and do your voice?

AC: Yes and I’ll be in my costume. No, I’m going to send her a poster to have in the background. Yeah, the brownie points. I mean, over the years I’ve done things like the Spy Kids movies and the X-Men thing. I can’t remember. A lot of kids’ films. It’s really been lovely to share that with kids and also the way that kids approach you is so much nicer than the way adults do. You don’t have to deal with a lot of adults’ weird shit about what it takes for them to come up and actually say something nice to someone they admire. Kids aren’t like that. They just come and say something bizarre and heartfelt. I really like that. And also, I meet young people, like adults, and they’re “Oh wow, I really love your films” and I go “Oh thanks so much” and then the other one says “I grew up watching you.” And I’m like “F*ck you!” It’s quite nice what you get now that they’re adults. As kids, they had a sort of magical experience with films that you were in and now they come back to you as adults. It’s quite a nice thing. I really like it. I guess that’s getting old but I’m glad I did all those kids’ films a long time ago.

Q: Has there been any talk of bringing you back into the X-Men world even as a cameo in the First Class series?

AC: No.

Q: Are you putting in an appearance in Spy Kids 4?

AC: No, I’m not. We were trying to make that happen. We were trying to bring people back, and with the dates with “The Good Wife,” it just didn’t work out. I was sad because I was in all the other three and I felt “Ahhh.” I loved that experience so much. I also loved going back to Texas and seeing everybody every time I did another one. It was a really great experience and I made really great friends and Ermahn (make-up artist Ermahn Ospina), a man over there who’s been grooming me to this day, we met on Spy Kids. And, you know, it just didn’t work out with the dates. But that’s show biz. Life goes on. Nobody died.

Q: Most people aren’t aware that you have as heavy an accent as you do. This is one character where you actually do approximate that and use your real accent. After working so long in both animated and live action films, is it kind of a relief to play a character that’s closer to your voice?

AC: It’s quite good to do. In every accent I do, I’m very conscious of it and getting it right. Obviously, it was less of a worry doing this one. I mean, even now, still, I don’t think people in America have that good of an ear. They see you and think different things and they see you on a talk show talking and blah, blah, blah. And then, they meet you and they’ll say “I didn’t know you had an accent.” And I go “Well so do you.” And they go, “No, I don’t have an accent.” I go “You have an American accent. But didn’t you say you just saw me on the Jimmy Fallon Show last week?” “Yes, but you weren’t talking like this there.” And I’m like, “I was.” You know, it’s just really funny. I don’t know why. It’s kind of weird. I’m still surprised that people are shocked. Also, when you are not American, everything that is written about you is prefixed by the word Scottish so that should be a clue.

Q: Kids are into and exposed to more brash characters these days. Do you think that Smurfs being as good as they are can be iconic to today’s children?

AC: I hope so. They have quite a nice message. I’m saying yes to you because they’re these amorphic shapes and they look a bit babyish. They look like babies, but they’ve got their adult concerns and things. I think that’s probably why we like them. They’ve got a slight babyishness but they’re actually not googoo gaga. And then also, the other reason why I think they’re popular and it’s not quite why kids will like them, but they never age, especially here in Hollywood. There’s no wrinkles. They’re relatively skinny. Their fashion sense is not dated. But the biggest thing is they look like they’re airbrushed all the time. That’s why I think they’ll be huge.

Q: Is there something people love like the Smurfs from your childhood that you’d love to see revived and be a part of?

AC: A Smurfy aspect, you mean?

Q: Is there another cartoon that you grew up on that you loved particularly?

AC: When I was a little boy, there was a thing called “Hector’s House” which was a stop animation thing in Britain about a dog and I loved that. I remember that. I think they re-released it recently on a DVD. It was one of those (posh British accent) “Here comes Hector. He’s going to his house.” Things like that. I used to love that because when that was done I had to go to bed. It was on at twenty to seven or like 6:30 after the news. That was a thing they did in Britain. They had a little cartoon and you could watch the cartoon and then you’d go to bed. I liked that one and there’s another one called “Mary, Mungo and Midge” that was really bad animation I liked where their faces wouldn’t move and their eyes would go like that [imitates the characters]. It was about a girl that lived in a tower block called Mary and she had a dog called Mungo and she had a mouse called Midge. And the mouse sat on the dog’s nose. It was good and it was also because I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Scotland and she lived in a big tower block and you saw the elevator coming down and she got in the lift and went “Diddly, diddly, diddly.” I thought that was so glamorous to be able to have an elevator. So yeah, I don’t know. That would be terrible if they made that into a real thing. But I tended to like rather sedate cartoons. I don’t know whether that’s just the time I grew up in and what was on TV in Scotland, but it was all that kind of animation.

Q: How does the specificity of this kind of performance compare to working on Eyes Wide Shut with Stanley Kubrick or is it all the same?

AC: I never thought I’d be asked a question comparing and contrasting the Smurfs to Stanley Kubrick but both are very detail oriented experiences. Of course, you had to be very precise and specific, and also with both, I was encouraged to push the limits of campness in various ways. And both were experiences, for what they are, that took longer than what you would [imagine]. I could read all these lines in an hour but it took [much longer to shoot]. Actually I probably worked on The Smurfs about the same length of time as I worked on Eyes Wide Shut. Like a week. It’s quite a high ratio of shot film to edited film.

Q: How did working with Stanley Kubrick live up to your expectations?

AC: There were lots of stories about him. When I went to do that, they’d been shooting the film for nearly a year already. There’s all these horror stories about Stanley being this absolutely crazy, angry, weird person and he wasn’t at all. My experience with him wasn’t at all like that. I’d meet people who actually had a hard time with him on the set, but mine wasn’t like that. I loved him. He was hilarious, really hilarious. I think it was because I stood up to him on the first day. I went on the set and it was one of these things where of course I wanted to be in a Stanley Kubrick film. Who wouldn’t? Everyone knew this was probably going to be his last film. So I got this little part and they kept moving the dates and moving and moving and I said “Ahhh, alright.” And they’d said, “You’ve got to come tomorrow!” and I’d say “Alright” and then they’d say, “Oh no, you’re not. Come back in a month.” Things like that. So I was getting a bit like “C’mon people!” I’d auditioned like six times for it and it’s not King Lear. You know what I mean? And I never met Stanley. It was always his producers. I would audition and I would do the scene in an American accent. So anyway, I got to the first day and I’d met Tom Cruise before and he was very nice. It’s a weird thing coming on a set when you’re the new boy and they’ve been doing it for a year and you don’t know where the loos are and nobody tells you. So they said “Alan, it’s time to go on the set now.” So I went to the set that was a big room like this and there’s Stanley Kubrick and Tom Cruise, and Tom went “Hey Alan, how are you doing? This is Stanley.” And I went, “Hi Stanley, how are you? I’m Alan.” And he went [imitating Kubrick’s voice] “You’re not American!” and I was like “I know. I’m Scottish.” And he went “You were American on the tapes.” And I went, “Yes, that’s because I’m an actor, Stanley.” That was like 6 o’clock in the morning and I was like “Fuck you, old man.” It was so early and I’ve been auditioning for this a million times. So anyway, I just said that to him, “That’s because I’m an actor, Stanley,” like that, and there was a little moment and I thought “Ooops!” But then, after that, he really respected me. I mean, he got it then and I think he quite liked the fact that I had stood up to him and we got on really well after that. In a funny way, I think people who are perceived as quite scary, it’s often because people treat them with kid gloves. And so, when people do that, when people are pulling back like that, you tend to go a bit like that. So I think that’s what happened. I really did like him and I thought he was really lovely. It was a really great time and I kept in touch with him afterwards. His nephew was the stills guy on the film as well who I knew so we would send messages back and forth. But yeah, it was a really amazing experience to be in it, and I think to be the only man on screen to have cruised Tom Cruise is also something like that — an iconic mark.

Q: Is “The Good Wife” coming back? Are you still working on that?

AC: Yeah, Thursday I go back and start shooting on that. So yeah, it’s back on Sundays now at 9 o’clock. It moved to Sunday night. I love it. It’s great and I just got the new script for the opening episode of the season. It’s really juicy. That’s a great thing for me. I really enjoy that character and again it’s something very, very removed from what I’m for and I love sort of immersing myself in characters that I feel I have no right to. I really like him and I really love the writing for him. It’s such good writing. I mean really good. I think it’s a really great time for television in America right now. There are all these really great shows and very diverse genres and things and I’m very, very happy to be on it. I kind of went on it thinking what the hell. I was only supposed to do a couple of episodes and here I still am one and a half seasons later. Now he joins the firm. They’re building my office in this new episode. So that’s quite fun, I suppose. I live in New York and it shoots in New York so it doesn’t get much better. You’re shooting a really great show at home and with nice people. Something’s bound to go wrong.

The Smurfs opens in theaters on July 29th.




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