Like many children of the early 1980s, many of my afternoons were spent watching Smurfs, those little blue creatures which sprung from the mind of Peyo. I can still hear that "La la la la la la (repeat)" verse in my head to this day. I can't help it. Smurfs were an indelible part of my childhood, and, thanks to the magic of CGI and the wizards at Sony Pictures Animation, The Smurfs are coming to life once again, with a new 3D adventure hitting theaters on July 29. A few weeks ago, I headed down to the Sony Pictures Animation studios to catch an early glimpse of some footage from The Smurfs, and talk to some of the folks who brought this new CGI/live-action hybrid to life.
We kicked off this smurfy day with a footage presentation, which included the first five minutes or so of the movie. They do a really nice job of encompassing the scope of this Smurf village, which is apparently protected by some Matrix-y hologram thing in the Enchanted Forest. We then stumble through (quite literally) most of the village by following Clumsy Smurf (Anton Yelchin) as he inadvertently wreaks havoc upon several of The Smurfs' daily routines... including the Narrator Smurf. It couldn't come at a worse time either, as all of The Smurfs are busy preparing for the Harvest Festival. However, Clumsy Smurf isn't the only one throwing a monkey wrench into their plans: Gargamel (Hank Azaria) shows up, which causes the Smurfs to flee. Sadly, many of them follow Clumsy Smurf, who takes them down a path no Smurf is supposed to go, which leads them to a mysterious portal. With Gargamel and Azrael hot on their tail, this small group of Smurfs have no choice but to jump into the wormhole which takes them into the "real world" of New York City.
The next clip we were shown takes place at the home of Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace Winslow (Jayma Mays) a seemingly normal/adorable young couple living in New York City. Somehow, The Smurfs end up at their apartment, and all heck breaks loose, including a rather funny scene with the Smurfs tying up NPH. The next scene took place in the famed NYC toy store FAO Schwartz, where Patrick and Grace are helping the Smurfs try to find a "stargazer" i.e. telescope. The scene features Grouchy Smurf (George Lopez) falling for a stuffed blue M&M while the rest of the Smurfs and the Winslow's try to escape from Gargamel. The last scene we saw featured an innovative collaboration of Neil Patrick Harris and the Smurfs playing Rock Band. It starts off with a smurfy spin to Walk This Way by Run DMC and Aerosmith, and transitions into a rap/rock version of The Smurfs' theme song. They also play off the famous Marilyn Monroe skirt scene from The Seven Year Itch, this time with Smurfette (Katy Perry).
After the footage presentation we were able to speak with cast members Hank Azaria and Jayma Mays. Hank Azaria has a long history of portraying colorful characters, although mostly just their voices. For the past two decades, he has been lending his voice to several of The Simpsons characters, including Apu, Chief Wiggum, Moe, and my personal favorite, Comic Book Guy, just to name a few. He has been seen plenty in live-action roles as well, although his hilarious portrayal of Gargamel seems to be the first role which is essentially a hybrid of a live-action and animated character, and it's a lot of fun to watch. Jayma Mays has a long history of being absolutely adorable, from roles in Ugly Betty, Heroes, and the current Fox sensation, Glee. She provides the perfect, lovable contrast to Neil Patrick Harris' uptight Patrick as Grace in The Smurfs. Here's what they both had to say below.
Hank Azaria and Jayma Mays:
Can you talk about how you really get into a character, whether it's someone you are creating, or someone we all know as Gargamel?
Hank Azaria: I always start with the voice, and there was some debate on what kind voice this man should have. They always thought of him as this old, failed, Shakespearean actor. I had trouble energizing that, and I wanted him to be more sarcastic, like Eastern European. Then we settled on what you saw, which in the end, is very much like what Paul Winchell did in the cartoon. I saw him more laid-back, more mellow, but you can't play Gargamel and not be very upset about Smurfs, so, when you energize that, it can sound a lot like the cartoon.
Did you base the Gargamel character on any person in your life, perhaps, as you have done before?
Hank Azaria: No, but, I found in playing him that... I'm going to get in trouble for this, but there was a fair amount of my mother in there. Only that I remember her running and yelling and being upset at kids a lot. There is some of that in Gargamel. I related to my mother when she was upset with the kids.
How often do you discover a brand new voice? You've done so many voices throughout your career, how often does a fresh one come your way?
Hank Azaria: It's been years, honestly. The first 10 years of The Simpsons, it was once a week, then it became less and less. Honestly, I hit a point about five or six years ago, where every sound I can make has been used. I think I even played a fortune teller once in The Simpsons that sounded like Gargamel. Even ones that seem new to me, it's like, 'Oh, no, I've used that one.'
You get more of a chance to marry the physicality with the voice. Do you get physical when you're doing The Simpsons too?
Hank Azaria: Yes. You can't do it and not be physical, but not as much as this. I'm enjoying this new world. The prosthetics aren't that new, but the CGI world like they did in Alice in Wonderland or Avatar, to become a living cartoon, I like that whole idea. Once you create the voice, you can literally become a new character on film.
Can you both talk about working against nothing? How many takes did you typically do, like in those scenes at FAO Schwartz?
Jayma Mays: Oh, FAO Schwartz was a few long nights. We were shooting those in the middle of the night. I found it really tricky and challenging in a way that my brain hasn't been challenged before. First, I was actually alone, and I did feel like I was going crazy. There are just stickers and things that we were working with. I enjoyed the challenge, but it was really, really hard. There weren't any more takes than normal, but if there were, it was more about getting the technical part right and making sure you're looking where they Smurf is going be. It can be tricky when there can be six Smurfs running around the room, and you don't know where they are. It's tricky.
How is this character different than any other you've played before?
Jayma Mays: I'd say she's my most grounded character, besides the fact she talks to little blue creatures. I've never really played a really motherly role before, and, for me, Grace Winslow is ready to be a mother, and it just so happens that these little blue creatures come into her life right before she's about to have a baby. I don't know that I've played someone so grounded before.
Jayma Mays: Right. I think he's a little apprehensive about becoming a father, he's a little nervous about that. All of these little creatures coming into his world, makes him realize that he's about to have the same thing. He needs to be a father and be parental and he needs to be OK with things not going the same every day, with things being out of order a bit. It's a nice story for Patrick and Grace Winslow, learning how they're going to become parents.
Is there room for you to go off script at all? Obviously you can't improv with a dot, but maybe in your takes with Neil Patrick Harris?
Jayma Mays: I feel like there was less improv.
Hank Azaria: First of all, it is insane playing to nothing, but after years of animation work, there's nothing there either. I'm kind of used to that, where you imagine a scene and do it. This had the added thing where it was right there. You can't really improvise because there's no one there to work from. I guess you can, but you'd be literally insane at that point. I came up with a lot of little alternate lines I would try. You just throw them out there and see what works. I do that a lot when I play characters as big as this, because you never know what's going to be funny. There is one that comes to mind where I have Papa Smurf and I'm about to do bad things to him. I have a two-year-old son, and I boop his nose a lot, and I booped Papa Smurf's nose. I don't think it made it into the movie though.
How large did the original Saturday morning Smurfs loom in your pop culture experience?
Jayma Mays: My mom loved Smurfs, so she would make me watch every Saturday morning (Laughs). Just to make her angry, I would always say that Gargamel was my favorite. That was my experience.
Hank Azaria: I had the opposite experience. I was a little too old for Smurfs. I mean, I was an animation fan and I was aware of them, but I didn't particularly love them. I particularly found Gargamel lacking as a character. I did. I was actually kind of annoyed by the animated Gargamel. It's ironic that I am playing him, and I wanted to make it a more pleasant experience for the viewer here.
What more did you want from him in the cartoon?
Hank Azaria: I found him to be too one-note. I wanted him to have a little more dimension. It was a man who lives with his cat. I wondered about that. Why are we just accepting that this man exists this way? He's always yelling. My goal with Gargamel, actually, was to not yell, to play him completely underneath it, but you can't really do that. I tried to give him that other side though.
Can you talk about the collaborations in developing your characters in those initial meetings? How much collaboration was there as far as informing the character, changing dialogue?
Hank Azaria: For me, there was a fair amount of that. I had a very specific take on a couple of ways I thought Gargamel could be funny throughout the script. They liked those ideas, so I sat with the writers for awhile and tried to infuse that, particularly with the "married" relationship between Gargamel and Azreal. I wanted them to be like an old married couple who were bickering a lot. Then it was more about fitting the voice I had.
Could you talk about your thoughts about Paul Winchell, who was one of the greats in animation?
Hank Azaria: I didn't like Gargamel, but I loved literally everything else he did. As a kid, he was one of my heroes. Of course, as a child, you don't know who he is, but I could always recognize his voice. I had an ear like that, where I could always recognize if one guy was doing multiple voices. I knew that Mel Blanc was doing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. I particularly liked Knucklehead, that ventriloquist dummy he had, I loved that when I was a kid. He was hilarious, but it felt, with Gargamel, that he wasn't allowed to be funny. He was so funny in everything else he did, and Gargamel was just this straight villain.
Can you talk about how the scenes with Azrael played out? Did they have an actual cat there that they animated over?
Hank Azaria: All of that. There was a real cat, there was a semi-fake cat, there was no cat, there was the suggestion of a cat...
Jayma Mays:... I played the cat...
Hank Azaria: Yes, it was all of the above. Usually, we would try a take with the real cat, and then try a take with nothing.
Can you talk about working with Neil Patrick Harris and sharing these imaginary Smurfs in your scenes?
Jayma Mays: I think we had a good time laughing at ourselves. 'Where are you looking?' I think that's the thing we said the most, 'Which one are you looking at?' He was wonderful. I've been a big fan of his for a really long time, which is why I was so excited. It was great. We had a lot of fun together. I got the feeling that he hadn't really done anything like this either, working with all these little animated things working around. I think we had fun with the technical side, because it can get a little laborious after awhile. It is quite technical, marking out where the smurf is, and it takes time to get it right.
How many answering machine messages have you done as various characters?
Hank Azaria: Moe usually does the messages. At least once a month.