A Tony Award nominee and four-time Emmy Award winner, Hank Azaria is a multifaceted performer in film, television, stage as well as an accomplished voice over artist, working for over 20 years on the phenomenally successful animated series The Simpsons.
In his new movie The Smurfs he plays the Gargamel, and evil wizard who is consumed by the Smurfs, always scheming up convoluted ways to capture the fabled creatures and draining them of their ‘essence’ – the key ingredient in creating the most powerful spells.
Can you tell us a little more about Gargamel?
Gargamel’s very theatrical – not only does he want to be a great wizard, he wants to be worshipped and considered a genius. I think he just hates the Smurfs – they’re such a happy family and he’s so alone with only his cat. He’s driven by just plain-old hate. He’s a pretty juicy character on so many levels.
Did you look back at the cartoon series from years ago to try to capture the character from that?
In some ways you want to be true to the essence of it. But one of the reasons I was psyched to do this was the Smurfs got very popular in America in the Eighties. I was a teenager, but I watched them anyway, and I never liked Gargamel. I loved Paul Winchell very much, he did the voice, but I thought it was the one character he ever did that was not particularly funny. It was kind of one-note. So I always wanted to retool him and make him funnier.
To me, the idea that he’s basically married to a cat was funny and should be played up. I always thought too that he should be very angry and I actually tried to play Gargamel at first as kind of laid back. I thought it would be funnier if he was sarcastic rather than furious. But you cannot play Gargamel and not lose your mind when you see a Smurf.
What was it like working under all that latex?
It was fun on the level of a vocally oriented character actor. It was fun to turn into somebody else literally. It was challenging in that it almost became like a mask, so you had to work it like a mask. I would do takes which I thought were good, and I’d look at playback, which I don’t usually like to do, because it makes me self-conscious, and it wasn’t big enough. You really need to be overly expressive working in prosthetics like that. It almost became puppeteering your own face in a weird way
Were you able to see how the scenes were going to go with the Smurfs before you acted with them?
Very much so. We knew what Smurfs looked like but we also had very realistic life-size Smurf dolls that you would rehearse with that were bendable like Gumby, and you know where they’re going to be. It was very storyboarded, almost to a comic-book level. There wasn’t much left to chance. That said, there was room to play around within that. There’s so much money that goes into specific shots. How many CG shots per film are negotiated and figured out, so you’re not going to be frivolous about adding them. It’s all worked out like a math project.
Why do you think The Simpsons has had such a long life on TV?
Yeah, it’s unfathomable, and it comes in cycles. You get used to it and then five years later, you think, ‘God we’re still here,’ and then you get used to it again and you get freaked out again. Whoever would have thought? Someone asked me, ‘Did you ever imagine that the show would last 23 years?’ When we started Fox was a fledgling network, you didn’t think the network was going to last let alone the show. So it’s completely surreal, but you can’t always be aware of that or you wouldn’t be able to do the job.
Are the any characters you play on The Simpsons that you hope they’ll kill off at this point?
Meaning, do I get sick of any of the characters? No, some hurt. Like Duff Man is always screaming. I have to save him till the end of the day because it blows my voice out. I got a little tired of being Bumble Bee Man for a while too. It’s such a cliché, that’s why he was funny, he’s like a parody of being a cliché, a stereotype, but I wasn’t sad when we had a lot less Bumble Bee Man.
Who is your favorite character to play?
Prof Frink. I was a Jerry Lewis fanatic as a kid, so to be able to recreate that character [was wonderful]. Kids don’t know that’s Jerry Lewis, it’s astonishing to me. It’s such an obvious imitation, but some things are so old they’re new.
At my urging we did a Halloween show several years ago where Jerry Lewis played Prof Frink’s father. When we flew to Las Vegas to record with him, it was one of the happiest days of my life. He was very sweet. I basically drove him crazy quoting all his movies to him to the point where he was like, ‘Okay, enough already.’ He was really nice though.