The Smurfs make their first 3D trip to the big screen in Columbia Pictures’/Sony Pictures Animation’s hybrid live-action and animated family comedy, The Smurfs. When the evil wizard Gargamel chases the Smurfs out of their village in the Enchanted Forest, they’re forced through a portal, out of their world and into ours, landing in the middle of New York’s Central Park and then into the lives of Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) and his wife, Grace (Jayma Mays). Just three apples high and stuck in the Big Apple, the Smurfs must find a way to get back to their village before Gargamel tracks them down.
MoviesOnline sat down with Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays to talk about the movie and what it meant to be a part of the enormously popular franchise first created by Belgian artist Pierre “Peyo” Culliford in 1958. They told us about the technical challenges of interacting with the little blue creatures, what it was like working opposite Hank Azaria and Sofia Vergara, and why the Smurfs continue to have such a cross-generational appeal. Neil also discussed rocking out with the Smurfs to Run DMZ and Jayma revealed why the Smurfs became an indelible part of her childhood thanks to her mom who was and still is a rabid fan.
Q: Neil, after years of cultivating the Barney Stinson persona, the NPA persona, how was it to shift gears and be in a family friendly comedy?
NPH: I spend 6-1/2 to 7 months a year playing chew-on-the-scenery Barney Stinson, so I look for a role that’s different in some way from him during my off time. Smurfs just seemed like a great way to represent a young father-to-be guy in a marriage. It worked in conflict and I was really interested in the technical CG side of things. I’d never done a movie that I thought would be so physical and yet so precise, so I was kind of intrigued by all of that.
Q: You’ve done a lot of voice animation in the past. Was it different and interesting for you to get on the other side of it?
NPH: Yeah, very. By the time we were actually acting in it, they had done all of their homework. They spent a year and a half figuring out exactly what the Smurf would look like, what the skin tone would look like, whether it was shiny or matte, and exactly how tall and round, and the eyes. They had these little gelatinous kind of puppet things that would sort of sit there. We would act alongside those and then there were two voiceover actors who were in another room who did voices. They would switch off and do the voices in our ear wigs that were in our ears. It was wildly awkward for the crew to watch us film because they’d take the little puppets away and we’d have to look at little dots that were our eye lines with dots all over the place and then they’d only hear half of the scene. We’d be reacting “That’s outrageous!” “Smurfettes, look over here.” It was fun and it was daunting.
JM: There were strings even to open up things, to open up the cupboards and to move bowls as if the Smurfs are doing it. It was a little poltergeisty at times. In the kitchen especially, things were swirling.
NPH: You’re right. It was oddly low tech considering that the Smurf technology was so high. You’d be holding this thing with all these monofilament lines running down your back.
JM: And a guy lying on his back below you pulling the strings.
Q: What would you do if Smurfs actually invaded your house in real life?
JM: I’d probably be very similar to Grace. I’d be like, “This is great! This isn’t weird at all that there are little blue men in my house.”
NPH: I’d probably tase them and keep them in a small box and quickly find a reality show or some way to profit from it and travel around like the Warner Bros. cartoon with the frog — [singing] “Hello, my baby. Hello, my honey.” — and open up the thing and see if they do anything.
JM: It would be your monkey in a box.
NPH: Exactly. “Perform, Smurfs!” I’d be Gargamel apparently.
Q: Neil, earlier this morning you Tweeted that it was your twins’ 9-month birthday.
NPH: Yes, 9-month birthday, a stalwart’s day.
Q: You said it was dope?
NPH: Dope! I did say it was dope.
Q: After 9 months, if you could give them Smurfs names, what would the twins’ names be?
NPH: Great question! I think Gideon would be like Stout Smurf because he’s always “Grrrr!” He’s like a tank. Maybe Tanker Smurf. And Harper’s just like Beautiful Smurf. She’s just an eye batter right now. She’s wanting to hug and smile and get a smile back. She’s very girlie.
JM: She’s smitten.
NPH: She’s Smitten Smurf.
Q: What’s been your favorite part of being a father to your twins?
NPH: Oh, just the constant change. Before babies, I worked very hard to make sure I understood my surroundings and figured out where I fit in the world, whether it was at work or whether it was in a social situation. And with kids, you just can’t. The rule is you can’t really do that because they dictate and they change so much so you just have to go with the flow more and be present and not have big expectations and be amused all the time.
Q: Have they had any major firsts recently?
NPH: No, not yet. We’re waiting for them to crawl.
JM: Didn’t one of them get locked up in jail? First lock-up?
NPH: Yeah. One of them got locked in jail last week. No, they’re pretty great but no big announcements.
Q: Were you guys fans of the Smurfs cartoons back in the 80s?
NPH: I was. I wasn’t a rabid collector of figurines or whatnot but Saturday morning cartoons with overly sugared cereals was kind of the norm back in the 80s.
JM: I had a different experience. I was forced to watch the Smurfs as a child. My mom was a big, big fan of them and was a rabid collector. So every Saturday morning I would come down and she would sit me in front of the television and say “You’re gonna watch the Smurfs.” So, just to spite her, I would always say Gargamel was my favorite. That was so evil to say that to my mother. But I think we really loved them. They were definitely in the house – sheets, cups, the whole thing. Oh my gosh, my mom’s not crazy. I make her sound crazy every time I say that. She is quite normal, I promise.
Q: Jayma, I’ve been wondering since I saw the trailers, did you stand in a frame with the camera pointed at the ground or did you let some high paid foot double do that work for you?
JM: That’s all my feet there. I do my own feet work. That was in the contract.
NPH: We had to sit around for hours and hours at a time for every single shot because it’s all very highly technical. So even if it was your hands or your shoulder or a foot, that was all part of the deal.
JM: There was always a fun foot shot now that I think about it.
NPH: You had to do weird little close-ups of high four. You’d have to just be a shot of the end table and nothing and a weird focus point. You and I would go [imitates her hitting herself in the face] like so many times.
JM: [inaudible] hits Smurfette in the face.
NPH: You hit her hand. You actually touched her hand.
JM: Too much force.
NPH: Now you knocked her over. Do it again.
JM: It was a little technical.
Q: Neil, was it awkward for you when you had to interact with the Smurfs, like in that hugging scene?
NPH: Yeah, it made you feel a little insecure because you were just trusting the animators. But I watched a lot of the other types of movies that were similar to this in style and it seems that the more you’re committed to it then the better the result was. So there were certain scenes that were no doubt very strange. That group hug was weird. But we filmed our scene first. We filmed our stuff first and then they would animate later and then they would add the voices later. So we were the first pass. We didn’t have to match every single … nothing had been done yet or set yet. If I decided in one take that one of them was crawling up and I brought them back down, I could just play around if I wanted to and the animators would animate towards it, so it was weirdly freeing I guess in that sense.
JM: It was like watching you have a fit that day. There were strings pulling his shirt and everything to show the movement of the Smurfs poking around.
NPH: And like six crew members right outside of frame pulling on the filament so my shirt kept going like this while I’m actively hugging nothing. (chuckles) What’d you do today, dad?
Q: Jayma, Neil got to rock out with the Smurfs. If you got a chance to do a song in a rock band with the Smurfs, what would it be?
JM: I would probably go back to my roots and do something where I win. Smurf Miner’s Daughter?
NPH: Oh, look at you! Nice! Smurf Miner’s Daughter. I love that answer.
Q: Are there any funny stories about Sophia?
NPH: Sophia’s hilarious. My only concern, since it’s a family movie, is that not only will adults be amused by it and certainly amused by her, but that kids will be watching it. I had no idea that they would be able to understand the words that she was saying while we were filming because we’re doing our scenes and she’s walking and talking (imitates talking like Sophia). What?! I’m in this scene and I don’t know what you just said. Are they going to do subtitles? But no, it worked out good. She’s just her own force of nature so that was the only thing I kept laughing at. How are kids going to know what you’re saying in some of these scenes? I’m a big fan. She’s really good with the improv because of her Modern Family, the last year and a half of that. They work in a very go-with-the-flow style. If we screwed up or if something got bumped or if we wanted to ad lib, she was right on track all the time with that which is always fun to play with or against.
Q: Neil, when are you going back to work on How I Met Your Mother and how long do we have to wait until we find out who your bride is?
NPH: (to Jayma) We go back the same day you go back. You’re August 1? August 8th.
JM: Yeah, the first week of August.
NPH: We’re the second week of August. I can’t answer the latter question. I don’t know. I didn’t know I was the groom until like three episodes before. I keep prying them for information, but they fear that I’ll someday be sitting at a big rectangular table around a bunch of people asking the same questions and say something that I’m not supposed to. I suspect they won’t answer those questions for a little while seeing as we’ve got a two season pick-up instead of one. So I think they’re writing for a 44-episode kind of arc. But I don’t know. We’ve been on this show for six years already and the point of the show isn’t really to answer specific questions so much as to see how the whole story plays out.
Q: Who’s better at magic, you or Gargamel?
NPH: Gargamel. He’s got a wand for f*ck’s sake!
Q: Would it be weird hanging out with Hank as Hank in the Gargamel costume?
NPH: That was a little strange.
JM: Yeah, because he such became the character.
NPH: He’s like Peter Sellers. He just dives into the character and he’s gone. But then you’d see him sitting in the director’s chair in the corner on his cell phone texting. It was a little disarming. It seemed out of context.
Q: Were you surprised the first day working with him and seeing oh God, this is where Hank’s going with this?
NPH: I trusted him from the get. I mean, there were a lot of names that were sort of in the ether being thrown around as potential Gargamels. I felt that all of them to some degree were going to do their own celebrity version of Gargamel, their take on Gargamel. When I heard that Hank was in the mix, my fingers were supercrossed. And then, when he got it, I just trusted him because everything I’ve seen him in he does strange, interesting voices and strange, interesting facial tics. He’s so committed and so subtle and his sense of humor is wicked funny and he’s just a cool guy. So I was pleased as punch.
JM: I know. I thought he was amazing. I thought it was really fun to watch him on set. We didn’t have a lot of stuff together. I think I had one scene with him in FAO Schwarz where I had to see him and then get scared and run. But it was just amazing. He basically changed. His voice changed. He had the prosthetics on and he shaved his head for the whole thing. I do find that fascinating and he’s just so creative. It was really fun to watch.
Q: The movie is good at bringing up questions that we’ve always had like how are the Smurfs named and stuff like that. Do either of you have burning Smurf questions that are still out there?
JM: Burning Smurf questions?
NPH: Who’s shaggin’ Smurfette really? They always kind of all go “Ooooh!” and then they pass out, but I want to know what’s going on late at night at Smurf Village. Does she get passed from Smurf to Smurf. Is she a one-Smurf girl?
JM: I don’t think she is.
NPH: Is Papa involved? Does this seem right? It doesn’t seem right at all.
Q: She was very excited to have a girlfriend in the movie.
NPH: Yes, that’s true. So she could…you know…swing the other way. You never know.
Q: If you two could play Smurfs yourselves, what personalities would you be?
JM: I get anxiety when I get that question. Maybe I’d be Anxiety Smurf. She’s running around frazzled all the time.
NPH: I’d be Snuff Smurf and I’d end the suffrage of all fine Smurfs everywhere. That’s kind of a dark answer. I’ll say Magical Smurf because I like magic.
Q: Neil, to us it seems like you made a seamless transition from when we saw you as a young actor to your work now. How did you navigate that so seamlessly?
NPH: Wow, thank you. I don’t know. I don’t really have an answer to that. I’ve been very fortunate to go from interesting chapter to interesting chapter. I’ve always enjoyed the process and always enjoyed working more really than the end result of what it achieves. I’m more interested in doing the work. I guess maybe that’s the difference. I don’t really know. I’ve been very fortunate. I guess I’ve done more different types of things. I did theater for a little while and then I went to TV for some time and then went and did awkward television movies for a while. Maybe the diversification is good. It’s a hard question for me to answer.
Q: What’s it like for both of you to be part of something that’s so enduring?
JM: Well I was really excited at first obviously because I grew up in a Smurfs household. But I did get a little apprehensive after a while because once I was cast and that kind of news was out so many people started coming up and saying that they were big Smurfs fans and they had 500 figurines left in their basement and crazy things like that. So I did get a little nervous before we started filming and wanted to make sure we were doing this franchise justice.
NPH: Yeah, there are a lot of rabid Smurf fans that are anxious to see the movie and to know what’s happening. I was most concerned to make sure it wasn’t just a kids’ movie. I really wanted to make sure that if we were going to be a part of it that the dialogue was smarter and the lessons learned were appropriate and not just sort of a pandery children’s flick. So we worked hard script-wise and hard dialogue scenes to make sure that it didn’t feel real cut and pasted, that it made sense not only for families that watch it but for people who loved the Smurfs in the 80s and are now on a date and think it would be a cool movie to see or parents and kids themselves would enjoy it on another level. So the irreverence of the song being annoying and I think Hank’s comedy and stuff sort of allows a different demographic to appreciate it at the same time.
Q: Speaking of songs, do you know why they went with the Run-DMC song?
NPH: While we were doing it, Raja kept asking me what songs would be good. That’s a whole other world. They have to figure out the song that’s the right tempo, that provides the right musical breaks, that then gets approved by the band, that then gets approved by the studio to pay the amount of money that it costs for the song. Apparently, that was the one that they went with.
Q: Were you a Run-DMC fan when you were growing up?
NPH: Yeah, sure. That was one of the main videos I remember on MTV that played all the time. They smashed through the wall and everything. I thought that was cool. That scene I was probably the most concerned about in filming because in these types of movies there tends to be a big musical number for no reason at all. Suddenly all the bears in the park start dancing the Macarena and you’re wondering what in the world am I watching. Suddenly I feared that this was going to be that moment so I wanted it to be less choreographed. It was originally thought of as a more choreographed number where Patrick and the Smurfs bond by dance which made me panic, because I felt like if you’re going to be playing this game, you actually have to play the game. The game involves staring at the screen. It involves hitting buttons that match the buttons as they’re going down the thing. So I didn’t want it to just turn into some fantastical scene where we’re all just laughing and playing because that wouldn’t make any sense. We had some back and forths about that and I think it turned out well. It seemed a little weirdly Darren Aronofsky when you’re watching it. They had that camera that was jarring in the front of it so it was kinda cool.
Q: How are your real life Rock Band skills?
NPH: Pretty good. Terrible at the drums. That’s a tough one. But I’m good at the bass. I’m good with the whammy bar. I represent.
JM: I’m not good at all. I don’t ever play. I’m lame.
NPH: I don’t ever play either. Frankly, that’s the more truthful answer. I love technology. I buy all of the stuff when they come out first. I bought the Connect and never connected it. They sit in the box and then they collect dust and I finally end up giving them to someone because there’s a new technology that’s just come out. So I’m a fan and not really a player.
Q: Jayma, since your mom’s such a fanatic Smurf fan, when she found out that you were going to be in this film, did she freak out? Did she get to go to the set?
JM: She totally freaked out. I wouldn’t let her come to set. I was way too scared. She’s actually coming to the premiere. My parents wanted to dress up as Smurfs. (to Neil) I didn’t tell you this. “We want to dress up as Smurfs.”
NPH: For the premiere?
JM: I said “Mom, please don’t do that.” My husband’s like “Yes, please do that!” I picked out a dress for her.
NPH: Is it blue?
Q: Most Americans know the Smurfs from the Saturday morning cartoon, but there’s this whole history and legacy in Europe. Were you guys blown away by that aspect as you discovered it making this movie?
JM: I was. I don’t think I was aware how big the Smurfs were worldwide. Yeah, I was absolutely blown away by that.
NPH: Yeah, These Peyo childrens’ books from the 50s are great and they’re really classic and sweet and more earnest. I, like you, thought it was a Hanna Barbera produced Captain Caveman type cartoon that was on in the morning. The global element of the Smurfs caught me by surprise for sure. Jordan (Kerner) is very intent on the movie being based on the original books and less about the comics. That was a cool reference point.
Q: If you could Smurf any word, what would it be?
NPH: Smurfsta! I don’t know! I think I could be the whitest person I’ve ever met. So when I drop mad skill words with a ‘z’, Smurf Off.
Q: Well this interview has been dope.
NPH: I concur.
The Smurfs opens in theaters on July 29th.