Hank Azaria is best known for his multi-character work on The Simpsons, and for his live-action comedic performance in The Birdcage. Working at Kaufman Astoria studios was a return home for Azaria, who was born and raised in Queens, New York. I've had the chance to see some impressive sets, but nothing prepared me for the duplicate of Belvedere Castle on the main stage in Kaufman Astoria. Belvedere Castle, for you New York neophytes, is a beautiful castle south of the Great Lawn in Central Park.
The climactic scene and dance number in The Smurfs take place at the castle. Obviously, you can't hang cranes and wreck the real thing, so the genius crew replicated the castle exactly as it stands on set. The detail is amazing. Everything from the trees, to the grass, looks like it has been plucked right out of the park. It's only when you touch the set, and see that it is wood and plaster, doe it feel fake.
Director Raja Gosnell was shooting a massive dance sequence with Hank Azaria and about thirty dancers. We had seen glimpses of Hank Azaria as Gargamel on the monitors, but this was our first time seeing him up close. They absolutely nailed it. He looks and sounds exactly like the cartoon character. The scene we were observing was most likely a song and dance number to run with the credits. I won't ruin what they were doing, but it was pretty damn funny.
We observed them filming for an hour or so before the Sony publicity team could wrangle Hank Azaria away for a quick interview. The guy must be in tremendous shape to have done repeated high-energy takes and then race over to spend a few minutes with us. Now I won't call anyone out, but quite a few actors can't interrupt their method to spend time with a bunch of journalists. Hank was pumped to see us, and probably enjoyed the bit of a break as well. The only thing that sucked was that the crew took this time to do some work and there was literally a chainsaw going off the entire time we had with Hank.
Here are some choice excerpts from our interview:
Gargamel had a very distinctive voice. How does your Gargamel sound?
Hank Azaria: [growls] I didn't mean it to sound like the cartoon character voiced by Paul Winchell. But it is...especially when I yell, SMURFS! I actually at first, tried to back off that, make him more sarcastic, you know, give him another color. But you can't play Gargamel and not scream.
[Chainsaws and hammering are continuously loud in the background]
Hank Azaria: This is one of the noisiest sets ever. I know I'll be looping half the film. Everything has these great contraptions.
[Starts ringing hands]
Hank Azaria: You really can't help be like a Scrooge and scream, mu ah ah ah ah! [Evil laugh]
So how does your throat feel at the end of the day after all that shrieking?
Hank Azaria: It's okay, although it's hard in the action scenes when you're running, screaming at Smurfs a lot. I've gotten pretty thrashed.
Do you have a vocal technique that warms up your voice?
Hank Azaria: Not really, from years of doing Moe on The Simpsons, Gargamel is not too far from that.
Did you develop any kind of back story for Gargamel? Why is he chasing The Smurfs?
Hank Azaria: We talked about this with the writers. I sort of see him as aspiring to be one of those wonderful wizards you see in Harry Potter, like a Hogwarts graduate. In the cartoon there were three reasons that constantly switched. Sometimes he wanted to eat them, and then he just wanted to kill them because he hated them so much, and finally he wanted to extract their essence for magical purposes. We have chosen the latter. It's kind of like he broke off from the academy, where they're saying Smurfs aren't the way to be a great wizard...
[Screams in Gargamel voice]
Hank Azaria: But Smurfs are the way I'm telling you! If you can only capture them! So he spends years chasing this dream down to find The Smurfs. And he can never get them, that's why he's so crazed. But...it does work...once he gets even a little drop of Smurf essence in his magic ring...his secret compartment ring...his magic is very powerful.
Can you talk about how you were cast as Gargamel?
Hank Azaria: I was actually in the middle of a Hawaiian vacation. Then they called up to see if I was interested. Honestly, I'm a little too old to have watched The Smurfs. I knew what they were, but I wasn't particularly a fan and thought that Gargamel was kind of annoying as a character. Then I read the script and saw they were really trying to do different things with the character.
What's different about the character?
Hank Azaria: Well, the relationship with the cat - Azrael, they're like married. So I said if we can play it that way, where they are essentially a bickering married couple, I would do it. They said that was a great idea. And that takes care of a lot. Because of just making these evil pronouncements to nothing that villains do a lot, he's saying them to the cat, or he's arguing with the cat.
Are you a cat person in real life?
Hank Azaria: I live with one now. [Laughs] My lovely girlfriend came with a cat.
Does the cat in the movie have a personality? Is it an actual character?
Hank Azaria: Yes to all. There are four real cats that play Azrael. Sometimes it's a real cat with a CGI element; sometimes it's totally CGI depending on what the cat wants to do. Cats aren't like dogs. They can't really do a lot of stuff. They can hit a mark and stop. They can look where you want them to look. They can kind of meow on cue. Other than that, if you want them to do something sophisticated; you really have to draw that.
Does the CGI cat become anthropomorphized? Give more human expressions?
Hank Azaria: That's a very good question. We are wondering that ourselves. There's a few places in the script where he laughs, or rolls his eyes, raises an eyebrow. We're wondering if that's going to stay in. It'll depend on if it seems funnier to have him do that, or just act like a house cat. For the most part, the gags that I set up, he's just a cat. He sort of just looks at you in this deadpan cat way, but when he meows, I know what he means. [Laughs]
In a way, you're doing a lot of audio work like you do on The Simpsons. But here you're out of the booth...
Hank Azaria: It is. It's like working a mask. I normally don't like to see playback of tapes, but in this job I found I kind of had to. It's like doing Kabuki. You can't just show up and honestly react. You have to see it and work on it. I'm used to doing just vocals. So vocally I'd be fine, but then my face didn't match too well. I had to sort of animate myself in the shot.
How do you feel about the make-up?
Hank Azaria: It takes about an hour and a half. We've been shooting for three months. In the last two days, I finally hit the wall where I was just like, I can't take it anymore. It was literally torture. The people who do it are so sweet. We have a good time in there, but it is hard. It's like Chinese water torture. It's wet, cold, hard, gets in your eyes. I am not going to miss it.
The Smurfs was released July 29th, 2011 and stars Hank Azaria, Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays, Sofía Vergara, Tim Gunn, Madison McKinley, Meg Phillips, Julie Chang. The film is directed by Raja Gosnell.