Literary sci-fi fans have waited 25 years to see The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy brought to film. Now they're only one week away. So meet three of the actors who are bringing some of fiction's most memorable characters to life.
Martin Freeman plays Arthur Dent, the hapless earthling who finds himself traveling the depths of space. Well known in Britain for The Office, most Americans won't recognize him as a star. That's the way Freeman wants it.
"I don't mind them knowing nothing about me to be honest," Freeman said. "I'd like them to think, 'Well, he wasn't sh*t. He wasn't awful.' I think that if we get away with having served the film, that's all right really. I mean, the star of the film is the film and I guess that the star of the film is Douglas Adams. If we've done him in any way proud I'll be quite happy. And if we've given people an hour and a half or whatever of laughs and thrills and hilarious consequences then good."
Arthur Dent spends the film in his bath robe (it was morning when he hitchhiked off Earth) pining for a woman who prefers the company of a flamboyant alien, doing very little to save the day. But Freeman didn't want to be just another lovable loser.
"I approached playing him with a bit of trepidation really because I'd grown up with the television series very much in my mind, with Simon Jones. I'm not like Simon Jones particularly either. I'm not the same sort of person. In my mind I thought, 'How can I do that?' I had to take that out. So I just kind of played Arthur the way that I saw him which was like there was a lot at stake here. His planet is about to be blown up and so I just played it as real and as funnily as possible all the while knowing that you're in a comedy. You've got to kind of know what you're in. So it's slightly heightened with humor."
Sam Rockwell has the showy part of Zaphod Bebblebrox, a two headed politician who gets our gang into all sorts of trouble. Rockwell originally read for the more mellow part of Ford Prefect, which eventually went to Mos Def. However, Rockwell's Zaphod reading secured him in the minds of the casting directors.
"They were looking at me for Ford and I kind of was doing this Gary Busey thing with Ford," Rockwell said. "They had talked about Ford being kind of like James Woods in Salvador, like a reporter. And Mos kind of went with that too with this sort of journalist in Iraq kind of thing."
When offered the role of Zaphod, Rockwell scrambled for ideas on his personality. He eventually came up with a cross between his impression of Vince Vaughn doing Elvis and Bill Clinton.
"My girlfriend at the time said, ‘You should do that Elvis Vince thing that you do sometimes.' Vince Vaughn imitates Elvis. And I said, ‘Well, yeah, but that's so weird. That's a party thing. That's a goof. I don't know if you can do that for an entire movie." So I went in there and I did this thing… and they went for it. I was really surprised. Then [director] Garth [Jennings] was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, do that. Maybe tone down the Elvis thing.' The southern accent, they're like, ‘That's good.' And then Garth had all these ideas. He was like, ‘Yeah, you could like have this gibberish thing, and then if your laser runs out, you could start making the sound, byew, byew, byew.' We were like two kids in there."
The politician side was inspired by the book. "What the book tells you about Zaphod is that you can't tell if he's a genius or a moron, and he's really likeable. He's got to be likeable. So we took from all these sort of American icons, Elvis, Bill Clinton, even George W. Bush. There's a certain reason why he's in office. Freddy Mercury a little bit. And we had to make this guy like he's like a rock star."
Zooey Deschanel plays Trillian, a platonic character in the book but part of a love triangle in the Hollywood version. But she says that's okay, because the story has changed in every incarnation.
"From the radio series to the book to the TV series it's all different all the time," she said. "That part of the tradition, having some things that have changed. Trillian, even though her character's not very fleshed out in the book, I felt that I played it as true as I could to the book. I certainly was different from the TV series Trillian. I tried to keep her essence alive, so to speak."
The BBC miniseries of Hitchhiker's Guide cast Trillian as more of a sex kitten. The Hollywood film sticks more to the other interpretations of Trillian. "Her intellect was one of the qualities that I really liked about her in the book and in the radio series. This was a very different style from the BBC series. That's a little more out there, off the wall quirky comedy. This we were really trying to ground in reality. If I was dressed like a cocktail waitress I don't think it would have worked. There's a reason for all the things that happen in this movie. The suit is something that's on the ship, so I'm wearing that suit but it's really supposed to be made for a man. There's really no rhyme or reason why she's wearing a leotard in the BBC show. It's funny. It's really funny. I think the show is hilarious and she's really good on it, but it's just very different form the way we approached it."
As director, Garth Jennings had the burden of pleasing the die hard fans while attracting a new audience. Quite a task for someone who came on board two years ago. "Two years and two weeks," Jennings corrected. "But Douglas had been making it for 20 years. So I feel that I am the new guy, really. Just came in at the end, the fixer."
A fan of the books himself, Jennings could not imagine taking on the project had Adams not left behind most of a script before he passed away. "Douglas had completely attacked it as a new genre. He'd done the radio series one way, the TV series another way, and you can see what he'd done with the script is already approach this differently, for a movie. And I thought, as long as we stick to his guidelines, and the spirit to this material, and we make something that celebrates Hitchhiker's rather than gets bogged down with absolutely every word, I think that was the main thing."
Still, Jennings had fun with some anti-Adams ideas. "I guess it would be like if Arthur Dent had burst through the door to save Trillian with a laser gun and shot the place to pieces and said, ‘Give me the girl!' And actually we did shoot that as a DVD extra."
Jennings also called in Jim Henson's Creature Shop for many of the film's aliens, so that he would not have to rely on CGI. "I've done music videos with them in the past and I really loved the way they work. And part of the reason why we did the job is that we felt it was a good time to make something that was more about being inventive than being flashy. CG stuff is brilliant, it's the best tool you can have, but it is a tool. Hitchhiker's was never about showing off, or competing with the other things. It was very much its own thing. We wanted to make something that was very funny and very inventive. It just seemed like to have real Vogons, to actually have them there on set, was going to be a much better way of doing it. And I just personally love having the thing in front of me on the set. We only did four days of blue-screen at the end, which is the planet factory sequence."
The actors appreciated having real creatures to work with too. Deschanel said, "As an actor it's a million times better to be able to react to something real as opposed to a piece of tape or somebody that's reading the lines like ‘Blah, blah, blah,' because that's sort of what ends up happening. You wind up staring at a piece of tape and the script supervisor is reading the lines from behind the camera and you're looking at this piece of tape and you're pretending. It's really disconcerting. It's not real. It's disconcerting for actors. It's not that it can't be done; it's not the ideal situation."
Rockwell got to riff with some of the puppeteers. "These puppeteers are actually really good actors these guys. One of my friends used to be a puppeteer, animatronics guy, my friend Leif Tilden I met doing some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so I knew some of these guys from Turtles too. They're really good, these puppeteers, so that was very helpful. Instead of looking at a blue screen, you're looking at this giant Muppet and there's an actor, there's a guy, a puppeteer who's improvising. This one guy could improvise. He was doing like a lady Vogon and Mos [Def] and I were ad libbing wit the puppeteer. He was better than we were that day, we were so tired. We were like, ‘Wow, this guy's pretty good. Give him a one man show.'"
As the actor involved with the green screen planet building scene, Freeman felt the burden of imagining major scenes. "That was a whole week of me and Bill Nighy in that cage pretending that there was all this stuff going on and Garth [Jennings] shouting directions as we were doing it," Freeman said. "'Okay, you're seeing this. You're seeing sea being made. You're seeing forests come up.' So there's always the risk that you can feel very hammy doing that. It's potentially the worst acting in the world because it could just be amateur night."
Ultimately, technical aspects of the film were easy compared to capturing the intellectual tone of Douglas Adams. "It was more the case of trying to get the pacing right," Jennings said. "Allowing us to dip in and out of the Guidebook, or go and watch a whale fall out of the sky while coming to terms with his existence and yet still feel like we're going somewhere. It was important that if we're going to see this as a movie, then all these wonderful things can happen, but if there's no real sense of us moving along, then it becomes very, very tiresome and you don't get to enjoy it as much. It's not as thrilling. So it was really just making sure that we had the pace right. It was a tricky balance. Because what makes Hitchhiker's unique is that it doesn't really follow a normal storyline. It does like to tell you a bit about Babelfish for a minute. I liked that about it. I'm pleased with the balance. I think it's all right."
The guidebook of the title is described in text in the book, but the movie includes animated sequences for the guide entries. Jennings called in some old friends for the animated segments, a studio named Shynola.
"They're four guys that make these extraordinary music videos and commercials. We didn't just want people that could animate, we wanted people that could take it and run with it. We just worked on hundreds of different designs, and realized that we wanted it to not compete with the Matrix style of technology, or not to try to outdo anything that's currently available because it would just date immediately. So we decided that instead of the Guide being an amazing new Nokia phone, it should be more like a Swiss army knife, that's universal and classic and will last forever. The same went for the animation. The idea of ‘Don't Panic,' this book just telling you, ‘don't panic,' it just seemed like something simple and colorful and basic should be used as the color pallet and the design. Then the humor should come from what's being said. Then our animators, of course, had a field day designing the parties and having the scientists underneath banging on the ceiling, and milking a cow, and finding out that the cow is really rather enjoying it. They took that simplicity and always added another thing on top of it. I used to love getting their storyboards in."
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy opens Friday.
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