If ugly had a name, it would be Gargamel. And if obsession had a face, it would look like Gargamel, the evil wizard who is consumed by all things Smurfs. A zero when it comes to magic and a negative 100 in the hygiene department, Gargamel is nevertheless always scheming up convoluted ways to capture the fabled Smurfs and drain them of their magical blue “essence” – the key ingredient in creating the most powerful spells! Gargamel will do anything to track down a Smurf, including chase them into New York City, all in order to become the most powerful wizard in the world.
MoviesOnline sat down recently at a press conference in Los Angeles with Tony Award nominee and four-time Emmy Award winner, Hank Azaria, to talk about his new movie, Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation’s hybrid live-action and animated family comedy, The Smurfs. Azaria, who has been one of the principal voice actors for more than 20 years on the animated television series, “The Simpsons,” revealed what it was like taking on the role of the wannabe wizard.
Bringing the Smurfs villain to life presented its own unique challenges. Azaria explained what he did to shorten his time in the make-up chair, how he perfected the voice for the role, and why acting opposite a cat with a mind of its own wasn’t always easy. He also talked fondly about some of the early voiceover artists who inspired him, compared what it’s like working in live action versus voiceover performing, and discussed his starring role opposite Kathryn Hahn in the new NBC show, “Free Agents,” a romantic comedy based on the UK series of the same name which starts in September.
HA: I’ll answer any questions by the way, not just Smurfs. Any science or religion questions.
Q: State capitals? Are you good at that?
HA: I used to be when I was 12.
Q: Politics? Can you talk about politics then?
HA: Yeah, I really want to get into politics.
Q: Good! You want to talk about the Debt Ceiling?
HA: Yeah, I actually have a lot to offer on that. Somebody asked me yesterday what kind of Smurf would Obama or Sarah Palin be. Can you think of a more dangerous question? I’m promoting a Smurfs movie. I certainly want to alienate over one half of the population by whatever I say.
Q: When I first saw the picture they released of you as Gargamel, I thought wow that is what Gargamel would look like in real life.
HA: With me with the make-up or just like a photo of me?
Q: You in the full make-up and costume.
HA: Okay, good.
Q: Was that the first test they did or did it evolve over time?
HA: They tweaked the nose once and that was it. It pretty much was what it was right from the beginning. They designed it and I couldn’t deny that yeah, that looks like Gargamel. I shaved my head, not because I’m so dedicated, but just to save half an hour in the make-up chair every day. It’s easier to just be bald. I was always curious what I’d look like bald, but then the problem with that plan is in 5 seconds you say okay, that’s what I look like bald, and then you have to live with it for 4 months.
Q: How hard was it to perfect the voice of Gargamel?
HA: It was a little bit of a journey. I’m very vocally driven and that’s always the first thing I try to find is what is the voice. There was some debate over it. The Smurfs are, not just here, but a serious worldwide thing. They’re considered sacred in Europe. There were corporate executives and representatives from foreign countries that would come over to the house and go “Let’s hear what you’ve got now.” Not really, but almost. We narrowed it down to two or three and then I felt like he should, when I read the script, I kept hearing like, I’m old enough to remember the cheesy cartoons from the 70s, even before Smurfs, where for some reason every villain in a cartoon sounded like this [using the voice and accent of a classic cartoon villain]. I don’t know why and it was usually very poorly acted and horrible, and that, I thought, would be fun to do some sort of version of that. But, in the end, it ended up sounding pretty similar to what Paul Winchell did in the American cartoon. But I didn’t set out to sound that way. I liked the Smurfs in the 80s. You certainly couldn’t avoid them. I was a little old for them but I was very mature and watched it anyway. I didn’t love Gargamel though. I thought he was a rather one note, almost annoying character and I was psyched to reinvent him a little bit with a sense of humor. It means a man who lives alone with a cat. I figured let’s play that up. He’s married to a cat essentially was my idea.
Q: How was acting with that cat? Was it difficult?
HA: I couldn’t decide which was harder – when the cat was there or wasn’t there. Those were my choices. There were times when I went, “Can we get the cat out and just pretend he’s there?” and then there were times when I went, “Can we just bring the cat in?” In the movie, there’s – you know how these things are – sometimes it’s the cat with an animated face, sometimes there’s no cat, sometimes the cat is real but the tail is animated. They did every combination of things. Cats are not like working with dogs or chimps which is hard enough. They really don’t care. They’re like, “Yeah, I got up the last time. I’m not going to do it this time and I don’t care if you care.” But the hardest with the cat was licking my face and in order to get the cat to do that, how would you guess they got the cat to do that, to lick my face?
Q: What did you put on your face?
HA: Cat food. It’s fun.
Q: Was emerging dramatically from the smoke always a dream of yours as an actor?
HA: Kinda yeah. But I wish I could claim ownership of that. I did. Like that whole married to the cat arguing thing was my contribution but that smoke act was written right into the script. It made me pretty happy. I thought it was funny.
Q: Well you do stop in the middle of a chase to go back.
HA: Yeah, I liked that. It seems like something I would come up with but that was them.
Q: When you did Night at the Museum 2, you were the villain but you also did some voices for the characters. Was there ever any talk of you doing a voice for this?
HA: Yes, I offered my Smurfy services if they wanted, but they said no. They were happy to find stunt casting. Like Wolfgang Puck is Baker Smurf. I got a kick out of that. You don’t even realize like every Smurf is somebody kind of intense that they found to do it. I was like really? Wolfgang Puck? Alright! I would have done it for free. Whatever.
Q: Do you have a preference between live action and voice over performing?
HA: It depends on how fat I feel that morning. If I’d prefer to be off camera, then it’s nice to go in and do voices. I like to go back and forth. It’s fun, in a lazy way, to just do vocal performing. You don’t have to memorize anything. It doesn’t matter how you look. Take is cheap as we like to say so you just do a bunch of takes. Then, you know, there’s the desire to get on camera. Usually when I finish, but then a job like this which was kind of a living cartoon, I was literally banged up by the end of this. There’s so much physical…nothing serious, but a week didn’t go by that I didn’t get a cut or a bruise. I was exhausted. I sprained something. From doing the evil laugh, I had to do it so much that. [Let’s out an evil laugh] That thing. I did it so hard one day that my stomach muscles cramped in the middle of doing it. So I was actually like “HahahahahOW!” That’s how that take went.
Q: I understand your teeth flew across the room?
HA: They did. They wedged those buck teeth up in there and one time I yelled too loud which was a lot as Gargamel. Do you know that I actually attempted to play Gargamel at first kind of laid back? I didn’t want him to be like the cartoon. I wanted him to be more sarcastic than furious. I wanted him to express anger in different ways. There’s some of that but you can’t. It’s ridiculous the idea of playing Gargamel and not flipping out at Smurfs. You can’t do it. When I tried, the director was like “Hmm. I need a lot more energy from you when you see the Smurf.” “My idea is more like he…” “No, that’s not going to happen.” But he was right. He was like “We need a really good evil laugh here.” I was like “You know, that’s so clichéd. That’s just what you would expect from Gargamel.” And he was like, “Yeah, so you have to do it.” And so, I was like, “Alright” and then that’s what came out.
Q: Was it good, bad or indifferent working with animated characters?
HA: All of the above. It’s weird. You know, it’s easy to scream and chase things that aren’t there. It’s hard to play subtle conversational scenes with things that aren’t there. But there’s always somebody reading off camera. You know those things where… It’s really cool like [demonstrates] if this is a Smurf you’re playing the scene with, they have a million little Smurf dolls and they put them there so you rehearse with the Smurf doll which is insane enough. Then his eyes are here. So then they take the Smurf doll away but his eyes were here so they have to put a mark where his eyes were like on some object behind. So you’re playing to these little dots like all over the place where Smurf eyeballs are supposed to be and it gets like a dance that you’re doing. It looks like it’s here and then it’s there and then they do that, then that makes you angry, and it’s like a weird dance. But like anything, once you learn it, then you put some feeling behind it. That’s our job. It’s to pretend things. Actors say that’s so weird, but isn’t that our job? To imagine things and pretend they’re real?
Q: You talked about shortcuts that they would take with make-up. How long was the process ultimately? And did the costume smell as funky as it looked?
HA: I’m so glad I looked like I smelled. That’s great. The first time they did the make-up it took over 4 hours. They got it down to a consistent 1 hour and 45 minutes. Not that I was timing them, but their record was 1:37. The prosthetics now are so incredibly light weight. You barely know you have them on. The nose would get a little annoying. But look, you couldn’t tell you had ears on. They’re amazing these people. They create these things that look a certain way but they’re built to be so comfortable and lightweight, if you complain enough, which I do. That’s the first thing you think about. We were shooting this in the summer in Manhattan. I didn’t want to be in a big wool dress for a lot of reasons.
Q: You do so many great characters on The Simpsons. Do you have a sense when you’re doing a new voice that it could be someone who recurs like a Disco Stu?
HA: No, that just happens. You do a character that has one or two lines in an episode, and if it cracks the writers up, then they bring him back. Almost all the characters I ended up doing started out as just toss off things. They weren’t meant to be steady characters. After 23 years, they search for storylines. Like, that guy was funny once, let’s make a story about him. So we need a lot of play. But I’m never aware of it, like this will be iconic or this will catch on.
Q: Are there any good stories coming up for your characters?
HA: Yeah, I never remember anymore. We just did another Moe story. Because there have literally been almost 500 and I don’t ever memorize them because we’re just reading them. They don’t really stay in my brain until I see them aired, and even then, I tend to forget them. I know we have a few. There’s a pretty good Professor Frink story coming up too. I did a big Frink episode where he invents something. I’m being very vague. I never remember.
Q: Well it’s good, no spoilers.
HA: Yeah, you won’t get them from me because I barely know what’s going on.
Q: What was it like for you as somebody who always had an ear for the voices behind animated characters because you got into the business meeting some of these people that you see in the credits on the Saturday morning cartoons and hearing their stories of being working voice actors?
HA: The truth is I’ve never been asked that before. I did idolize these people. Mel Blanc was seriously my hero. But I never met those icons. I never met him or Daws Butler or Don Messick or Paul Winchell. I never met those guys. I wish I did. I’ve worked with people who are big like Tress MacNeille who does a lot of Simpson voices. She’s like an animation goddess. She’s incredible. And, of course, Nancy Cartwright. I met a lot of iconic TV actors I grew up worshipping. It was a little sad. Sometimes, as a young actor, you’re in a waiting room to do like a four-line part on whatever was the series 25 years ago, and there’s guys kind of on the way down in the same waiting room and it was very bittersweet. I would get a little depressed actually that guys I idolized in the 70s on TV were now reading for a seven-line part. So it was often a rather sad thing. But I never met the animation gods. I wish I did.
Q: Are you working on any new voices for The Simpsons?
HA: I just do that on an as needed basis, but honestly, I think several years ago, I think I tapped out. There’s no voice I haven’t at least done like a line or two on the show. Gargamel, for example, like in Season 2 or 3 of The Simpsons in the Halloween episode, The Monkey’s Paw episode, remember that one where the guy who sold the Monkey’s Paw to Homer [assumes accent] spoke like this. Basically, I brushed that off and made it Gargamel. There’s no sound I’ve made that they haven’t used on the show. That took years. Like the first 10 or 15 years, I always had a new … I haven’t done this before, I haven’t done that before. Then I was done after awhile. They used me up.
Q: I should have said new character. It can be a similar voice but…
HA: No, I don’t really know. I don’t cook those up with them. I find out about them when I get the script. Have I done a new voice? Again, this is me being annoying. I think I have and I don’t remember exactly. Chazz Busby is the latest new running character. He’s a choreographer, like a Bob Fosse choreographer. [imitating Bob Fosse’s voice] “Talks like this! He’s kind of tough talking. But he’s a choreographer. Your shit stinks, my friend.” [normal voice] He’s that kind of guy. That’s like the latest one I can recall catching on in the writer’s room.
Q: Do you see voice acting and physical acting as different creative disciplines? Do you have to do different things with your voice or is the technology of recording sufficient that you don’t have to make those kinds of adjustments?
HA: They’re like the same and when you record animation and you’re just a voice, you really have to put your whole body into it or it’s not acted properly which freaks people out a little bit. Great actors come into The Simpsons and they’re quite self-conscious recording at first because they don’t realize that you’re kind of just play pretending full on and just your voice comes out, because it will be too low energy if you don’t do that. And then, maybe why I don’t find it so weird to work with like pretending a Smurf is there is because in animation you’re pretending the whole thing is going on, so you do that all the time. So maybe I’m more used to that. And you’re often not reading with other cast members. You sort of realize that all you need to do is offer choices. Like I’ll do Simpsons recordings and I’ll just make sure I do five different good line readings of what Moe is saying and then they’ll choose in editing what works best. Film acting is sort of the same way. DeNiro works that way a lot. He’ll just give you five different ones almost arbitrarily, and editing, the camera likes that so in a sense they’re similar. Obviously, there’s no expression in animation recording. If you go like that [makes an expression], the mic doesn’t care.
Q: This being sort of a live action cartoon, do you feel the need to do the same kind of preparation of a character to humanize him or do you just play to, as the director was saying, the expectations that people have of this character and not worry about the reaction?
HA: You have to do both. In fact, you have to take any acting role, even animation wise, but definitely if you’re on camera, you have to, even if it’s as frivolous as Gargamel and the Smurfs. You have to find a real emotional throughline and motor for it or it’s not believable. Almost arguably, and especially with a character like this, you’re going so out there that if it’s not connected to something personal, it’s just going to seem like screaming for no reason. That said, it did sneak up on me a bit. I just took care of the exterior and then went “Wait! Why does he hate Smurfs so much?” I actually had to sit and ponder that one day. Like what’s the deal? Why would I actually… you see them and they’re so cute and it’s you doing it, so you think why would I? How would I find myself hating these little creatures so much? And then I came up with a little story and it did make it easier. That said, if you just commit to losing your mind whenever you see them, that’ll probably work too.
Q: Are there any interesting back stories to some of the voices you’ve done over the years, that maybe you’d do at 14 and then all of a sudden you became Comic Book Guy or something like that?
HA: Yeah, tons. Part of being able to do voices, which I think is just an innate thing, you can either do it or you can’t. It’s like liking cilantro, I think, is genetic. You can either do it or you cannot. Then, if you spend your whole life practicing it, it becomes really second nature. Part of being able to do it is being able to hear voices very distinctly. Like I always can tell, like in a car commercial or something, I always know, even if it’s a minor actor, not a very famous actor, or if it’s someone I spoke to before, I can pick them out right away. I’ve always had that kind of ear growing up and I would amuse myself by imitating people, either to them or behind their back. Many people, that became like a stable of characters once I realized that that’s a lot of acting that you just base certain characters on certain people. I ran into a guy who I went to college with that became the voice of Snake on The Simpsons [imitating him] “Yo, what’s up dude?” I saw him recently and I had said publicly that it was him and he was like “Hey, man. I heard I was that guy.” He sounded nothing like the character of Snake, but then we realized as we were talking that he only sounds that way when he’s really wasted and it was only in college that I ever saw him totally wasted. [imitating Snake] “No man, I sound that way wasted. I do.”
Q: Gargamel was obsessed with Smurfs. What’s your personal obsession?
HA: Poker. I love poker. Like one of those golfers who attempt…it’s like a lifelong…. It’s like 15 minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. I’ll never be great at poker but I’ll never stop trying to get better. Yeah, I love poker.
Q: When you win or lose at poker, do you break out into any voices?
HA: Often. I very rarely do that in life anymore. But, at the poker table, a lot of poker is patience in waiting for a good hand and I often break into silliness at the card table just to pass the time, and then I get requests. You’ve got sort of a captive audience if you sit down at a card table with strangers. It usually takes them half an hour to realize you’re that guy from The Simpsons and then another hour to work up the nerve to ask you to start doing voices. It usually ends up that way. And it helps with hands sometimes too. If I’m not sure of a card, I’m like [assumes Moe’s voice] “If I were Moe, what would I do? Help me out, buddy. You’re not trying to bluff me, are you?” Sometimes people feel amused and will tell you, “I’m bluffing you, buddy.” “Alright, thanks a lot. Moe appreciates it.”
Q: Do you have anything on the live action front that we should be on the lookout for?
HA: I’ve got a series starting for NBC in the Fall. It’s called Free Agents where I’m actually me talking like myself. It’s a lovely departure for me. It starts September 14th. It’s with Kathryn Hahn. Do you know Kathryn Hahn? She’s awesome. It’s a pretty dark romantic comedy. John Enbom. Have you seen Party Down? The guy who wrote all those wrote these and he’s great. They’re really funny.
Q: What got you back into doing a live action series?
HA: I had kind of sworn off network TV a long time ago. It didn’t seem to go well for me except when I just came in and guested it – apart from animated. But John (Enbom), the script, and the producers and the director, it was all such good people and I liked the script so much that I was like I don’t think I can turn this down. The schedule of shooting network stuff is one of the reasons I don’t. I prefer cable because you get a little more creative freedom and they only do 13, so it’s a more livable schedule. This one you have to fall more in line with certain creative restrictions. There’s 22 of them in success, neither of which thrilled me, but this thing was so good I was like alright, it’s worth taking a shot at.
Q: You’ve done so many different voices in your live action and in your animated work. Do you ever feel like you get lost in your own voice?
HA: In the midst of some takes or acting in it, yes, in a good way. Like any actor would tell you that they kind of get lost in a scene sometimes. I mean, never to like a psychotic level where you can’t tell the difference anymore. When I was first acting, or studying acting, Michael Moriarty, a great actor, he used to teach and a lot of his big thing was self-hypnosis. He saw acting as almost a self-hypnosis. You convince yourself that you’re literally in a different circumstance than you are and that the imaginary becomes real. I was forever thinking that in order to be a good actor you had to do that. I kept waiting for the day when like I guess I had a psychotic break and I could believe I really was wherever I was in the scene. That never occurred, I can say happily. That said, you get caught up, but no, I never got confused for a second, like “Wait, what’s my real voice?” or anything like that. Thank goodness.
The Smurfs opens in theaters on July 29th.