Whether you know him best for his voice work on “The Simpsons” or recognize him from shows like “Huff” or “Mad About You” and films like “Along Came Polly” and “Love And Other Drugs”, there’s no denying the talent that is Hank Azaria. In “The Smurfs”, the multitalented thesp plays Gargamel, the arch-nemesis of the titular blew crew. Alicia Malone caught up with the amiable actor in Los Angeles.
So did you have someone voicing the cat to make it easier for you to perform opposite..?
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 ‘no animals were harmed during the making of this movie’, right?
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!” [Laughs]
Have you ever struggled to find a voice? How did you find Gargamels?
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.
Did you ever worry he sounded a bit too much like one of your other characters?
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. 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.”
Did you interact with the humans
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.
How was it on your end acting with dolls?
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.
Do you get to see Gargamel out of his robe?
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
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.
Any improv’ing? What about the Cat Attack Spell?
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.
Did you change your performance to fit the 3D?
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.
Did you mean to sound like Paul Winchell when you were voicing Gargamel?
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
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.
Did you watch “The Smurfs” growing up?
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.
Is it a challenge getting the cat and dog to act opposite CGI things?
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.
Maybe a cartoon cat next time?
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.
Did you get to work with Sofia Vergara?
I did work with Sofía, I did a few scenes with Sofía yeah. She was fun to listen to and look at.