Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco) is a sweet kid with good intentions, but to the citizens of Ninjago, he’ll only ever be the son of the evil warlord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), The Worst Guy Ever. In The LEGO Ninjago Movie, while Garmadon attacks the city and wrecks the homes and business of everyone there, the teenaged Lloyd secretly works to protect the city and stop Garmadon’s destruction as the Green Ninja, along with his five loyal ninja friends (voiced by Michael Peña, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, Abbi Jacobson and Zach Woods).
While at the LEGOLAND California Resort for the film’s press junket, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with actor Dave Franco to talk about why he wanted to be a part of The LEGO Ninjago Movie, the fun of getting to work with his voice co-stars, the awkward day of recording “effort noises,” the emotional family story at the film’s core, why he has a soft spot for the cat, what he’d want his own personal superpower and mech to be, and why this was the most emotionally challenging role he’s ever played. He also talked about the acclaim they’ve been getting for The Disaster Artist, which is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Tommy Wiseau film The Room, directed by his brother, James Franco.
Collider: What sold you on The LEGO Ninjago Movie and made you want to be a part of it?
DAVE FRANCO: The cat was the biggest draw for me. I’m a huge cat guy! I’m the weird cat guy. I was on board immediately, based on the fact that the other LEGO movies were so well done. The creative team behind those movies pull off an incredible balancing act where the movies appeal, equally, to young kids and my friends in their 30s, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off. So, when they asked me to not only be a part of it, but to be the main protagonist, I was so excited, to the point where, every single time I went into the recording booth, I expected to get fired, just ‘cause I couldn’t believe it was true. Even to this point, with the movie finished, I feel like they’re somehow going to replace me with Zac Efron’s voice. The main thing is that I was a huge fan of the original LEGO movie, and the LEGO Batman movie since. I was just happy to be along for the ride. I could never envision a world like this, so it’s really fun to just be a part of this bigger universe that I just could never dream up myself.
Did you have a conversation, similar to the one you have in the movie, where they tell you, “You’re a powerful ninja,” and you say, “What’s my power?,” and they say, “Green!”?
FRANCO: The funny thing is that there’s a Ninjago TV show, and our director (Charlie Bean) reached out to the creators of the show and asked, “What’s Lloyd’s elemental power?,” and they didn’t know. They said, “It’s green!” The guys that created Ninjago did not create an element for Lloyd, so we decided to make that a huge joke in our movie and to just play into that. It says a lot about the character and the fact that he’s trying to figure out who he is and what his place is in the world.
They entice you with a great cast of voice co-stars on projects like this, but then you typically realize that you don’t actually get to work with any of them. What was it like to actually get to have some recording sessions with your co-stars for this?
FRANCO: Justin Theroux and I were in the recording booth together, a handful of times, which was really important. When you’re in the booth together, you can improvise and play off of each other’s energy and find things that aren’t on the page. Some of my favorite scenes in the movie came from those sessions when I was in the room with Justin. For example, the scene where my arm falls off and Justin is trying to find objects to shove into my arm socket, that entire back-and-forth was improvised. Justin is just so naturally funny that he makes me seem funnier than I naturally am, and I would say the same for the rest of the cast. There’s so many incredible comedic talents in this, and there was only one day where all of us were in the room together. At one point, I just remember sitting down and watching all of them, as a fan. Zach Woods, Kumail [Nanjiani] and Fred [Armisen] are geniuses. Just to watch them improvise with each other was inspiring. The thing is, when you have 10 comedians recording at the same time, everyone is talking over each other. I didn’t think any of the recordings would be usable, but they somehow found a way. The scene where we’re carrying Garmadon in the cage and everyone is asking him about his arms, that was 100% improvised and is maybe the funniest scene in the movie.
Did you have a particular strange day, in the voice recording process?
FRANCO: Yeah, probably. There’s always the day where you do the effort noises, so there’s a lot of grunts, huffing and puffing, pretending like you’re hopping over things, pretending like you’re getting hit, and pretending like you’re kicking. If any of that was recorded, it’s some of the silliest stuff I’ll ever do, as an actor, but it’s fun and liberating, in a way, ‘cause no one can see me. I videotape myself doing it sometimes, to send to my friends just to remind us how ridiculous our jobs are.
I can’t believe there isn’t a compilation video of everyone’s day recording noises and sounds!
FRANCO: I can’t believe there isn’t a complication of that either! I’m gonna make that happen, and I’m gonna give you credit.
Could you imagine any other world where you’d end up with Justin Theroux and Olivia Munn playing your parents?
FRANCO: No! That would be a very strange movie, if it was not animated, but I’m happy that there is a world that that did happen. I respect both of them a lot. They both brought so much humor and heart to the movie. The two of them, and everyone else involved, is a good actor, on top of being very funny. It’s really important to be not just funny because there’s so much heart in these LEGO movies and you want the emotions to feel real.
At its core, this is really just a father-son story and a family story.
FRANCO: Yeah, definitely! I think maybe even more than the other LEGO movies, which I absolutely love, it really leans into the emotions and has scenes that are just heart-wrenching and that are devoid of any jokes.
If you were a part of your own secret ninja group of warriors that save the day, what would you want your power or ability to be and what would your own personal mech look like?
FRANCO: Wow! Strangely enough, my mech would probably be a giant cat, which could have been useful in this particular movie. The robot cat vs. the real cat might have been a fun dynamic. And my power would be disarming even the most cold-hearted people who can’t resist the charm of a sweet little kitten.
How many cats do you have?
FRANCO: I have two cats. It’s something that I probably talk about too often in interviews. I didn’t initially know that the cat was the villain. When I found out, I went home and me and my wife (Alison Brie) just danced around the house, celebrating. At that point, we immediately decided that Ninjago was our favorite movie, of all time, even though we were only half-way through recording it.
How challenging is it for Lloyd to be a ninja hero, but not be able to tell anyone, especially when everyone in the city of Ninjago hates him for who his dad is?
FRANCO: It’s particularly hard for Lloyd because, during the day, he’s a tortured high school kid and everyone hates him because of the fact his dad is so awful. But then, at night, he becomes the Green Ninja and he protects everyone from Garmadon, yet he doesn’t get any of the glory because no one knows he’s the Green Ninja. It’s this really tragic, Shakespearean character. It’s weirdly one of the most complex characters I’ve played in my career, which is strange to say because it’s an animated movie. I felt a lot of emotions while playing Lloyd.
Did it make you want to find a live-action role that gives you that same range of emotion?
FRANCO: I’m always trying to find that role that will allow me to stretch and play a lot of different sides, but it’s hard. To be frank, as an actor, I read maybe a hundred scripts a year and I really strongly respond to probably two, but every other actor in town responds to those two scripts, as well. It’s hard to land those roles that are really good because they’re coveted. That’s why I try to create for myself, and that’s why I’ve been doing things outside of acting, like writing and producing. I try to not have to depend on other people so much.