Born in New York, 49-year-old Hank Azaria is best known as the voice behind Simpsons characters Moe Szyslack, Chief Whiggum, shopkeeper Apu and Comic Book Guy. Having worked on the hugely successful show since 1989, Azaria has also appeared in a number of movies including Pretty Woman, where he had an acclaimed role as a police detective, gangster classic Heat and Simon Pegg comedy Run Fatboy Run. A polymath, Azaria can count comedy, stage acting (he appeared as several characters in Spamalot – the stage production of Monty Python and the Holy Grail), writing and even directing under his long list of achievements. Yet it is his work as a mimic and a voice actor for which he is best known. Here he gives Time Out the lowdown on returning to play the voice of the evil wizard Gargamel in the animated sequel to The Smurfs.
Apart from the fact that it is an existing and popular property, why do you think that The Smurfs was such a hit?
Two things, I guess. First, it is hard to tell how much we just didn’t mess it up on the first one. The appeal of the Smurfs was so large that no matter what got thrown out there, it might have been okay. How much we did right, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I do know that the first movie had genuine heart and we felt that it had a sweet message. And
secondly, the Smurfs were really well done. They looked beautiful [the animated characters].
He was on set and was only one year old when we were shooting the first movie and he was just barely two at the premiere. I had him on my lap thinking he would probably only stand 20 minutes of the film, being so young, but he was happy throughout the whole movie. He couldn’t catch story at that point.
As you say, Gargamel is arch and evil but there’s also some pathos there. How do you try to bring out our sympathy for the character?
You look at a guy who lives with a cat and that is his primary relationship. He talks to a cat. He is either out of his mind or extraordinarily lonely or both, at least one. And we made this justifiable obsession with Smurfs that felt human and real to me —which is that in our Smurf universe he probably went to some kind of Harry Potter wizard academy, always insisting that capturing smurfs and extracting their essence was the way to be the most powerful wizard. He was probably laughed at for that and then he has spent his life trying to prove that he was correct. He is in rags. It has ruined his life but he is caught in an obsession and he can’t let it go, so I related to that and I could see how you could get caught up in that.
What inspired your voice for Gargamel?
There was a generic evil voice from cartoons in America in the 1970s. It was almost so bad it was good. I thought it was so stupidly on the nose that it just felt like that would work. Then it got a little raspier as time went on and it just felt right to me.
What are some of the great comedic moments for you in The Smurfs 2?
There is a nice gag and I laugh despite myself. I was really unsure of it at script level. I thought, ‘I don’t know, guys.’ Gargamel is in the streets of New York and a cabbie yells at him. He gets annoyed with the cab driver, lifts the cab off the ground with his magic wand and calls the guy a moron as he is walking away. But, of course, he forgets that he has left it up there and the cab falls and flattens him. It is pretty funny. Most of Gargamel’s funny moments are fairly slapstick. And really the married relationship with the cat. He’s continually bickering with the cat, which I find amusing.
It was your idea to really amplify the relationship between Gargamel and his cat, right?
That was something I am proud of — one, because I thought it was funny and two, he was always making these evil pronouncements, which I thought was really generically evil in a bad way. That is sort of clichéd and boring but if he is talking to the cat then that’s funny — that they have this back and forth and he is at least making these evil pronouncements to someone in particular. And then if they actually argue over the semantics or whatever it is they are talking about, then that was amusing to me.
What do you enjoy most about playing Gargamel?
It’s fun to be that nakedly mean to everyone you see and that openly frustrated.
What sort of reaction do you get from ordinary people when they see you in character on the streets?
On the first day we were out in the streets of Manhattan on the first film and I was dressed as Gargamel. I was a little nervous to be interracting with the Manhattan public as Gargamel and especially because we would get into makeup on Forty-Fifth Street, say, and the set would be on Forty- Second, so I’d just have to walk three blocks as Gargamel to the set. Being in New York, nobody noticed. Nobody said anything, except for one guy who just walked by me and very casually, as if it happened every day, just went, ‘Whassup, Gargamel?’ So that’s pretty much the only feedback I’ve gotten.
The Smurfs 2 is released UAE wide on August 8. The premier is on August 3.