Grouchy, Gutsy, Brainy, Papa and Smurfette Smurf in 'The Smurfs.'
The very live cast talks about filming opposite imaginary blue folks, collecting their toys, and turning their language into a drinking game.
We should preface this by saying our visit to The Smurfs movie set in Astoria, Queens last summer did not involve interacting with any live Smurfs—they’re all CGI. In fact, we saw only one Smurf statuette. But as consolation we got to chat with stars Neil Patrick Harris (who plays the do-gooding husband and father-to-be Patrick Winslow) and Hank Azaria (in costume as the crazed sorcerer Gargamel), which we were pretty cool with, and we did get to watch Gargamel do a wacky song-and-dance sequence on a massive set that was an impressive replica of the small castle in Central Park. (They weren't allowed to film there.) Still, no Smurfs. Those little guys got off easy.
The Smurfs movie opens on July 29th, and it will chronicle their adventures to Manhattan with the evil sorcerer Gargamel in obsessive pursuit as he seeks to sap their essence and become more powerful. Thankfully the little blue guys meet up with Patrick Winslow and his wife. At least we hope that's a good thing, because gritty New York sure isn't happy Smurf Village! From what we can tell, this won't be an ironic ‘80s throwback, but a contemporary take on a 53-year-old Belgian creation. And the stars seemed happy with the work.
Fandango: Was it tricky dealing with the whole green screen aspect of filming?
Neil Patrick Harris: I thought there would be more green screen. I've always wanted to do one of those pictures where you stare at tennis balls on sticks while they're chasing you around, but this was not that. The technology is on actual sets. You rehearse with these gelatinous, jelly mold Smurfs that are on stands, they set them up in various positions so you know exactly where they will be and their exact height. Your rehearse it that way with voice-over people, then they move them away right before you shoot and look at where the eyes would be. So if I'm looking at the eyes here, I'd have to put a dot on the wall back there, so when I talk to them I have a point of focus. Only Hank really did the green screen stuff, which was in Smurf Village.
Fandango: You fit into that demographic of people who grew up with the Smurfs. Do you have a personal connection? Did you watch the Smurfs as a kid? Did you collect them?
Harris: I wasn't a big collector of the little figurines, but I watched it on Saturday mornings, for sure. I never dressed up as a Smurf for Halloween. I always liked Grouchy Smurf. He made me laugh because he had the funny voice. "I hate prisons! I hate fun!" That says a lot about my childhood.
Fandango: How big is a Smurf?
Harris: I think red delicious. I thought they would be smaller. I was assuming them to be the size of a G.I. Joe or something, but they're three apples tall.
Fandango: Is there any part of you that actually wanted to play one of the Smurfs?
Harris: Not really. I've done a lot of voiceover work, but you're so removed from the process because you just do little records in a little padded cell for a couple of hours, then you get to watch the movie a year later. But this was fun. It was a really weird, unique acting style because it's super storyboarded, and yet you have to match everything and deal with these points of focus all over the place. So when it was just a scene with Papa Smurf on the roof that was a little bit easier, whereas the scenes in the living room where the Smurfs are revealed and all over the place, that was tricky. You had to know that that dot's Clumsy there, then he moves across and that dot becomes Clumsy, and that dot is now Smurfette. It was tricky and highly technical, which I enjoyed.
Fandango: How much did you work with the rest of the human cast?
Harris: I barely see Hank through the whole movie. He's trying to track the Smurfs and me down. He's on our tail the entire time. Yesterday was my last day, and we had a scene together that was one shot. We had both individually filmed our own sides on different days, and we were like, "We should've acted a bit more in this movie together, you and I. It's nice to see you, Hank." Jayma is A-plus plus plus. She plays a very sweet, pregnant wife that has a lot to teach the Smurfs about humanity, motherhood and conquering your individual fears. You could either be too saccharine and simplistic and have it feel like a children's television show, or you could be a little too wink-wink nudgy-nudgy and not feel very grounded in legitimacy. She's really great.
Fandango: The Smurfs have a very interesting vocabulary. Is there any logic to when they swap out normal English words?
Harris: There's no real logic to when a Smurf word is filled in for another, but I suspect it will make a fine drinking game.
Fandango: Hank, everyone knows about Gargamel but we’ll ask you about his character here anyway.
Hank Azaria: He's Gargamel. What else can you say? He hates Smurfs, and he wants to conquer the world. He's a Virgo and loves water sports.
Fandango: How did you develop the voice? It sounds like a combination between a lot of things we've heard you do.
Azaria: To me, this voice is your classic cartoon villain voice. It's the one I remembered as a kid. I didn't aim for it to be similar to the Paul Winchell, American Gargamel, but it is, especially when I yell, "Smurfs!" At first I tried to back off all that. I wanted to make him more sarcastic than rageful, which we do in a lot of places to give it another color, but you can't play Gargamel and not scream, especially over [background noise on set]. We really do have the noisiest sets ever. I'll be looping half the film. I really will.
Fandango: You have Gargamel's classic look: patched up frock, bald head, hunched back. Have you found your prosthetic nose to be a hindrance at all? Have you accidentally damaged at all in any way?
Azaria: No, this thing? We've done some gags of mushing it around, and it really stays. It's incredible how tight it's on there.
Fandango: Do you miss having hair?
Azaria: Yeah, I do. My hair is receding, so now I can pretend it's not [after having been bald]. "Normally my hairline is fantastic!" So in a way it makes you look a little younger.
Fandango: Did you develop any kind of back story for Gargamel?
Azaria: We talked about this. I sort of see him as aspiring to be one of these wonderful sorcerers you see in Harry Potter, sort of Hogwarts-graduates-made-good. In the cartoon it varied. He wanted Smurfs for three reasons that switched. Sometimes he wanted to eat them, sometimes he wanted to just kill them because he hated them, and sometimes he wanted to extract their essence for his magical purposes. So we have chosen the latter. It's like he broke off from the Academy. They laughed at him at the Academy. "Smurfs are not the way to be a great wizard." "No, they are the way! I'm telling you, they're magical. If you can capture their essence, you will be the most powerful sorcerer in the world." He spent years literally chasing this dream down, and he can't find the Smurfs. That's why he's so crazed to get them, to prove them all wrong. It does work. Once he gets even a little drop of essence in his secret compartment ring, his magic is very powerful.
Fandango: Can you talk about how you got the role?
Azaria: I was in the middle of a Hawaiian vacation, they phoned up and asked if I was interested in this. Honestly, I was too old for the Smurfs. I knew what they were, but I wasn't a huge fan. I also thought Gargamel was annoying. Then I read it, and I thought they were trying to do some funny things with it, especially with his relationship with the cat [Azrael]. It occurred to me that they're like married, so we could play it like they're essentially this bickering married couple, and they thought it was a great idea. That takes care of a lot. Instead of these making evil pronouncements to nothing, like villains do a lot, he is always saying them to the cat and arguing with the cat over them.
Fandango: Are there real cats used in the movie? Are there CGI cats? Does the cat have its own personality?
Azaria: Yes to all. There are four real cats that are Azrael. Occasionally it's the real cat with CGI elements. Sometimes it's completely CGI, depending upon what he needs to do. Cats aren't like dogs. They can't do a lot of stuff. They can hit a mark, stop and look where you want them to look and kind of meow on cue, but other than that if you want them to do sophisticated stuff you have to draw that.
Fandango: Can you talk about this whole song-and-dance scene that you're shooting now?
Azaria: This is a crazy thing they added at the end of the movie. Gargamel now has this song that he sings about loving to hate him that is probably going to play over the end credits, and it ends up being his own dream. He has big dreams, but they never quite make it, so this is the musical expression of that. There were two other songs in the movie. There's a sweet lullaby Papa sings that I also sing a verse of, and there's this other weird, little number that I do that is actually taken from the old Belgian version that Gargamel used to sing.
Fandango: The sense of humor here seems to be more innocent than sardonic or ironic. Is it refreshing to do something like that?
Azaria: It pretty much is, although I definitely tried to make him [that way]. As far as I knew, Gargamel was never sarcastic. I tried to put a lot of that in as an expression of anger. Like, "Great, thank you, that's wonderful." I thought that would be a better way to play him sometimes. Basically it's physical comedy, and hopefully it's genuinely funny. That is what we we're really trying to do, not just Saturday morning cartoons from 30 years ago. There are definitely times I feel like the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, especially when I'm really getting evil with the Smurfs. At one point I even sniff them out, and that definitely reminded me of the Child Catcher, but hopefully this is funnier than that. That's the thing with something like this -- you want to mostly be funny, but at times you want to scare the 9 year olds. But not generally terrify them! It's a tough balancing act.
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