Benjamin Bratt turns in a fantastic performance in his first animated feature, Despicable Me 2 directed by Chris Meledandri. In the eagerly anticipated summer sequel, he voices two sides of the same character: Eduardo, the charming owner of the popular Salsa & Salsa restaurant whose larger-than-life personality is dwarfed only by the size of his waistline, and El Macho, the most ruthless, dangerous and macho super-villain who ever villained. Bratt’s character stands out among a host of new and outrageously funny characters in the hilarious comedy adventure opening July 3rd.
At the film’s recent press day, Bratt talked about replacing Al Pacino in the dual role, how he developed the voice for the character, what appealed to him about the first film and drew him to the sequel, how he found the role exciting, challenging and emancipating in a way he’d never experienced as a performer, why he’s now cool in the eyes of his kids, what it’s been like to go from drama to comedy to voicing characters in an animated film, how Modern Family helped expand the comedic possibilities of his career, his thoughts on the meaning of being manly, and his new film, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, that’s coming out this fall. Hit the jump to read the rest of the interview:
Question: Your voice was great in the film. You had to do two different sides of the same character. How did you perfect that shift and change in your voice?
Benjamin Bratt: It was a really interesting set of circumstances that I happened upon when I first came into the picture. As most of you know, Al Pacino was originally cast to voice both Eduardo and El Macho, and as such, he laid down his performance, which to my mind was brilliant, and the animators animated the character based on what he did. After they mutually departed ways, and they needed to have an actor to come in and refine the soul of the character, I was met with these very strict parameters that I had to follow. One was a problem of math. In terms of timing, I simply had to get the wording within that verbal parenthetical just to make the words fit into the mouth. The second more challenging issue for me, of course, was to make it feel organic, like it came from an organic place. Our initial approach was to replicate what Al Pacino did, but of course, we found that to be impossible. It was a waste of two days trying to mimic essentially what he had done because no one can out-Al Pacino Al Pacino, and no one should dare try. So I simply used what he did as an inspiration and as a guide for what I needed to do, which was to find something within me and my own personal recollections to bring to it. Now mind you, that character, as you saw, is all over the map physically and a man of girth with little hair, and yet still full of life and zest and exuberance, and expansive in every imaginable way. The challenge for me was to find that in myself and make it feel real.
It’s unusual to see you in a comedy role and particularly one that’s aimed at kids. For you, was part of the reason that you wanted to do this for your kids? Have they seen the film yet and what did they think?
Bratt: My kids dig it, but I would beg to respectfully disagree with you, that I think the film is in truth aimed at everyone. As it happens, I was a huge fan of the first film, and I went and saw that film with my wife as a date movie. I didn’t even bring my kids to that film. Subsequent to that, they have become huge fans of the first, watching it over and over again on DVD. That’s really the beauty of the first film and what happens with the second one. You have this alchemy that exists with the balance of this acerbic, subversive humor, which is very adult sometimes in nature, balanced with these adorable Minions and a real tenderness, a real heart at the end of the day. It sounds kind of corny, but it’s a fact. What I found so appealing about the first one is, that at the heart of your story, you have a man who aspires to be the most diabolical person in the world. He aspires to be the most well thought of villain in the world. We discover over the course of that movie, as he does himself, that there might be a warm, beating heart in there, and he discovers he’s actually a good dad. The sequel picks up with those themes still intact, and yet he’s now on the other side of the equation. He’s retired from a world of villainy and is devoting himself to being a parent, and yet when this massive act of villainy occurs, he’s pulled back into a world of crime, albeit this time on the side of good. He misses it, but he’s drawn back into it this time in another way.
Can talk a little bit about having the opportunity to work in an animated film like this? Is this a great way to go wild as well as keep your acting chops sharp? And what was the process like working in that booth?
Bratt: I think all actors are on the constant search for a real challenge just to keep things interesting. I’ve been doing this for more than 25 years now, and as most of you know, I’ve done a lot of different kinds of things. Yes, this was a challenge unlike any I’ve ever met, not just because of the set of circumstances I initially spoke to, but for me, on camera, I’ve always been told less is more. And so, part of my aspiration as a film actor is to bring subtlety to everything I do – honesty but subtlety. This is a completely different animal here, and so I’m inside a studio in a recording booth, and I’m being as large and as loud and as proud and as exuberant and as zestful as I can be, and I’m being told it ain’t enough. (laughs) And so, the challenge for me was to go beyond what I already understood my limits to be as a performer. I don’t have that objective third eye, and yet Chris Renaud, one of the directors who was there — Pierre Coffin remained in France — and Chris Meledandri, the producer, they were there to be that third eye for me and the inspiration to push me beyond what I thought was possible.
But I will add that it was emancipating in a way I’d never experienced as a performer, not even on stage. I mean, you can live out loud and proud on stage, too, and I’ve had the opportunities to do so over the course of years, but nothing like this, and to be able to play a dual role, someone who although clearly in the throes of middle age and with an expanding waistline and everything else still sees himself and comports himself as a man who is debonair and dashing and uber charming and light on his feet. Like a lot of us middle-aged guys, he still thinks of himself as someone in his twenties. He lives that way, and that’s appealing regardless of how he looks. But then to jump from that into something with more menace, if you will, was not only challenging, but it was really exciting to do.
A lot of actors can’t stand watching themselves on screen. When you’re doing animation, can you listen to yourself and still enjoy the movie and the character and not pay too much attention to yourself?
Bratt: That’s a great question. I find that most of us actors can’t stand ourselves in any form. I watched the finished film two days ago by myself in anticipation of these press conferences, and I found everyone else hysterical and every other part of the movie really enjoyable except for what I did because I was too self-aware. I was wondering if I measured up to or had fulfilled what Al had initially done. Again, he’s one of my heroes, and so I don’t know if I’ll ever believe that I equaled what he did, but I will say that whatever I felt while watching it, the overriding feeling was one of pride. The movie is magical. It succeeds on every level and achieves whatever goal the filmmakers wanted to. It’s just that good, and I’m really proud and honored to be a part of it. And listen, I’m finally cool in the eyes of my kids. I’ve never been cool in the eyes of my kids before, and now I’m the cat’s meow.
You’ve been known as more of a dramatic actor. How do you go from something like La Mission to comedy, and especially an animated feature where the method is completely different? Where do you pull from to go from drama to comedy?
Bratt: I’ve always felt that acting is acting at the end of the day, so whether you’re doing comedy or heavy drama or anything else in between, you always have to bring a semblance of honesty to it. It’s all make believe. We accept the premise that it’s all made up. It’s all pretend. And yet, you have to find a place that feels real to you so that it comes off as something organic and real and therefore believable. My approach to comedy doesn’t really change. There’s a considerable amount of technique involved in this forum, and given the circumstances, more than I had anticipated. But at the end of the day, I am a performer who relies almost entirely, after the technique is put aside, on instincts.
Is there a difference when you’re portraying a Latino or is it the same as any other character?
Bratt: It’s just another character. I think it’s quite obvious to everyone, and no matter what your native tongue is, no matter what part of the world you’re from, if your native tongue is distorted with an accent, somehow that’s always funny. Peter Sellers, Andy Kaufman, you name any comedian who’s ever done an outrageous accent, somehow it’s funny. I don’t know where Steve Carell pulled that accent from. I don’t know what region of the world. All I know is it’s hysterical. It’s part of the mangling of our mother tongue, in this case English, that is cause for hilarity. In a similar way, Eduardo and the way he speaks provides ample opportunity to have a laugh at how he at times distorts the words.
You were talking about trying to find the organic nature of your character. Did you put a lot of thought into a back story or think about those things when you were developing your character?
Bratt: Well you’re actually onto something there. I fancy, and this is my own theory, it’s not necessarily shared by the producers or the director, that Gru and Eduardo are brothers from another mother. They’re parallel in their wants and desires. If you think about it, they both are world class villains. They both have or have had desires of world domination, and they’re both exceedingly good parents. They’re both capable of demonstrating a real tender side, and that was part of the fun in playing this character. On the one hand, it’s really fun to play someone who’s one-dimensionally evil and bad, but to have that side combined with a side that’s really tender and loving, like when he sees that his son and Gru’s elder daughter are uniting romantically possibly, it’s “Ah, young love.” He’s really moved by it. As far as the background goes, the process was too short to get into all of that. My main objective was just to be able to acquit myself without embarrassing myself too bad. You don’t want to fail on this platform on an international level and do a bad job, so I hoped you liked it.
It seems like you’re right in the thick of this great act in your career that’s about comedy and I feel like it started with Modern Family. Did that kind of crack open the comedic possibilities, not just for you but for Hollywood to see you as a comedian?
Bratt: I’ve largely been seen as a dramatic actor, and I can’t answer for the producers, but they did cite my work on Modern Family, and I have a feeling that it was part of the influence in choosing me. There was no audition process to be had. They just came to me and asked if we could accomplish this thing together. I’m excited about this turn. Again, we always want to mix it up. Just like in life, whatever your passions are, it’s nice to mix things up and to have a varied palette to choose from. It’s a hoot to be a part of something like this, and actually to be considered funny when for the most part you’ve never been considered funny is a real reward. I love doing voiceover work. I’ve got Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 coming out. It’s the sequel: Revenge of the Leftovers. (laughs) That comes out in the fall. I hope you’re right that I’m onto something new, a new tack if you will, in what I do for a living.
El Macho obviously has some interesting ideas on what it means to be manly. I mean, the hairy chest and the sharks with rockets. I’m curious, what are the traits in your mind that are truly manly macho qualities?
Bratt: First of all, I believe there’s a huge distinction between un macho and a real man. I don’t think you have to be one to be another. I think a real man can cry, and it’s fine for a real man to cry, but un macho would never cry. That said, body hair is optional. I’ve been essentially hairless my whole life, and yet I think I’m macho sometimes. You’ll have to ask my wife. But, to me, I’ve always seen macho as a pejorative. It seems to me it’s hyper-masculinity, almost an aggressive kind of masculinity. There’s almost a domination aspect to it that’s put me off. But, in this case, it’s pure fun. I mean, it’s a perfect handle for a man like El Macho. How did he meet his death? Riding on the back of a shark with 250 pounds of dynamite strapped to his chest into the mouth of a live volcano. That is definitively macho and he survived. He survived! If that ain’t macho, I don’t know what is.