Usually actors voicing animated characters are isolated alone in a booth, but the stars who voiced the creatures in Where the Wild Things Are found a totally different experience awaited them when writer/director Spike Jonze threw them together on a sound stage to act out the entire movie.
I spoke with three of them, Catherine O’Hara, who plays the sarcastic Judith, Forest Whitaker, as Judith’s modest and patient companion Ira, and Lauren Ambrose, who portrays KW, a free-spirit who needs time away from the other Wild Things.
Can you talk about the experience of doing the voices for this movie?
Catherine O’Hara: There were more cameras than actors and we improvised all day around the wonderful dialogue. Spike is an amazing and inventive director. He doesn’t take yes for an answer so he keeps working and playing and working with you until, well, I’m still thinking about Judith!
Forest Whitaker: The rehearsal part that we got to go through was really fun because it was kind of crazy and we were playing out the scenes, doing the dirt clods fights with bread. Hitting each other with Styrofoam and lying on top of each other. That was fun for me.
It was an all-encompassing experience, actively playing Ira and interacting with the other actors – fighting with them, laughing and running with them, hitting them with giant Styrofoam logs. It was a fun project and Spike was always so present, so enthused.
You weren’t wearing the monster outfits from the movie?
Whitaker: I wore a big belly, and they put mics on our heads.
Lauren Ambrose: They filmed our expressions as well. I haven’t seen the version with the faces done but I guess they’re reflective of our expressions.
Q: Can you talk a little about your characters?
Lauren Ambrose: I think K.W. is kind of an outsider, kind of shy and she and Carol, played by James Gandolfini, they have this crazy, tense relationship. It sort of evolved a little bit over time and shifted a little bit. It was all their imagination, which is so spectacular for me.
Spike filled in this very spare template. That’s why people are so interested in seeing this movie because how are they going to flesh it out? What are they going to do to make a story about imagination?
Catherine O’Hara: You say you were an outsider, but I think Judith was an outsider too. Ira and Judith are kind of a family unit but in a lot of ways they’re not. I felt Judith was like a kid having a bad day. She wants to be seen and wants to be liked and wants to fit in, but keeps saying the wrong thing.
Luckily, Judith has Ira who can kind of connect her. She probably wouldn’t have friends if it weren’t for Ira, because Ira keeps damage control and is so sweet and loving and open.
(To Forest) It’s probably not true from your point-of-view. But from Judith’s point-of- view, Ira’s so loving and open that she’s going to stay as close as she can to him. We’re all kind of different aspects of children and I tapped into my days as a child, and sadly, my days as an adult too, where I want to be liked and I want to fit in and I just kind of get in my own way.
Forest, what about you?
Forest Whitaker: Ira is trying to get a complete family unit. He’s trying to get order in his life. He puts holes in trees, which give him a purpose, and purpose is important. He’s doing his best to pull things together with his girl, his king and his community. To him, it’s all about trying to find some balance and order in his life.
Q: Were you the only one who got into a suit to get into character?
Forest Whitaker: I was the only one who wore a belly. I wanted to feel how my hands would go and I thought it would help me figure out how to speak and how to move and gesture. Catherine would rub my belly and touch me differently and our relationship shifted.
What do you think the message is of this film?
Lauren Ambrose: I always think it’s silly for adults to talk about the meaning of children’s books because it’s not for us. Kids are operating off a different planet and a different world. Maurice Sendak, who wrote and illustrated the book, really tapped into something deep and big about being a child, so I don’t know.
Catherine O’Hara: We are all wild and we just kind of mold each other, which is really sad. When you’re that wild you need some order in the world in order to survive, but the wildness is so open, pure and great too. The book is written so simply and the movie is as simply done as possible in this big fat world of movie-making.
I like it in the book when Sendak says, “And that night in Max’s room a forest grew.” There’s no explanation that he had to close his eyes and then he thought about this. It just happens and you go with it. It’s the way you think as a child. It’s just random and wild, open and free.