From show creator Brad Neely, the Adult Swim animated series China, IL is set in the worst college in America. Centered around brothers Steve and Frank Smith, who teach in the history department, their TA Pony Merks (voiced by Greta Gerwig), a lovable idiot named Baby Cakes (voiced by Neely) and a variety of students and professors, it is a reverse Animal House where the teachers are crazy and the students just want to learn.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Greta Gerwig talked about how she got approached to do this show totally out of the blue, how she found the voice for Pony Merks, how challenging she found it to only have her voice to work with, how surreal it is to hear her voice coming out of a character that looks nothing like her, what a bummer it is that she doesn’t get to actually do some of the stuff in live-action that’s in the scripts, and that she records two or three episodes every couple of months. She also talked about the animated movie, Flawed Dogs, that she’s working on with Noah Baumbach, how different the process is to make an animated feature, and that she would like to try directing one of her own scripts, at some point. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
GRETA GERWIG: I was approached about doing it. It’s one of the only things I’ve been contacted about, totally out of the blue. It was really cool. It was exciting. Brad Neely was doing his own shorts, and they were just on YouTube, so I went on YouTube and I watched all of the little The Professor Brothers things that he had made. I loved them. I thought they were so crazy and funny. So, I said yes. He had seen a movie I was in and he liked my voice, and I was so touched by that. There was something so nice and sweet about that.
Had you thought about doing animation, before this?
GERWIG: I certainly wasn’t opposed to it, but I didn’t know that it was possible. I didn’t know enough about doing it. This just came out of the blue.
When you had been asked to do this, were you approached with a specific character, or did the character develop after you agreed to do it?
GERWIG: They approached me with the character of Pony, the Mexican T.A. I said, “Do you want me to do an accent?” And they said, “No, just do it in your voice.” They wanted me to just do what I was doing, but the character was already written.
Was she someone you immediately identified with, or did you have to find her a little bit?
GERWIG: Yeah, I did have to find her a little bit. I actually went through an interesting thing. I’m distanced from the creative process. I come in and record my piece, and then I go away. I read the scripts, but I just don’t know how it’s going to fit, necessarily. I remember there was a time where I hadn’t pre-planned it. I had read the scripts, but I hadn’t prepared how I was going to do it. And I was going through a phase where I was going to really attack my life and I was like, “I’m gonna really prep the shit out of this and make it really awesome. And then, I’m gonna go in and everybody at Adult Swim is gonna be blown away because I’m gonna be so committed.” What was funny was that the episode I recorded like that, I had to re-record the whole thing ‘cause Brad was like, “That’s not Pony. Pony has a lazy voice.” So, I had to tap back into that. The super-prepared version wasn’t who the character was. That was someone else. The meandering, lazy was what was actually wanted and right for it. I don’t know what lesson I learned from that. I guess don’t fix it, if it’s not broken.
Once you did find who she was, as far as how she would sound, did you take naturally to only having your voice to bring a character to life, and not having any physicality or mannerisms to fall back on, or was that a bit of a challenge?
GERWIG: I think it’s a challenge. I so rely on my face and my body when I’m acting. And I felt like I was more worried about it then they were. I was worried that it would really flatten out, or something, but apparently, it was okay.
Do you find it surreal to hear your voice coming out of a character that looks nothing like you?
GERWIG: Yes, it is very surreal. It is nice, once you can get over the surreal-ness, because you don’t have any of the usual actor hang-ups of feeling like your face is disgusting, or something.
Because the characters on this show get to do some crazy things, are you ever disappointed that it’s not live-action?
GERWIG: Yeah, it’s always a bummer. Who wouldn’t want to do all those things, in real life? It would take a lot more time though, that’s for sure. It’s so funny when we’re recording because I’ll do episodes, and then they’ll need me to do pick-ups and I’ll do pick-ups for a bunch of episodes. I’ll say something like, “Is this the one with the time machine where they go back and kill Ronald Regan?” It’s total absurdity. It’s great, but it’s crazy. I don’t know how they would even do it live-action. It’s pretty full-on.
What is the recording process like for this show? Do you do a number of episodes at once?
Do you know which project you’re going to be working on next?
GERWIG: I wrote another movie with Noah Baumbach that he directed, and we’re finishing it up right now. And I’m writing a film. I think I’m more writing right now than acting, so you can expect more stuff from me.
Do you enjoy writing, or is that something you find very challenging?
GERWIG: Writing is really hard, but I love doing it. I love doing it when it’s going well, and I hate doing it when it’s not. It’s incredibly difficult, but there’s nothing that’s more satisfying for me than the process of authoring something. I’ve never directed something, so I don’t know if when you write and direct something that it’s the ultimate, but it’s satisfying. I love hearing actors say words I’ve written. It’s great.
Do you think you’ll ever try the writing/directing thing, or will you just still to the writing/acting thing?
GERWIG: I think I will probably want to do the writing/directing thing, but I also think I probably shouldn’t talk about it too much because talk is cheap.
Aren’t you also working on an animated feature, called Flawed Dogs, with Noah Baumbach?
Did that develop out of how much you’ve enjoyed doing the animated TV series?
GERWIG: I certainly got more excited about it because of working on the show. The possibilities for animation are endless, which makes it both terrifying and thrilling. It’s very different from the show. It’s almost like you’re in a constant state of editing and re-editing when you’re working on it ‘cause you’re writing the script, but then you see things come to life in animation, in a different way, and some things might not work as well as you’d thought they’d work. You’re always massaging it. It’s not the same thing as capturing something live-action. You get it, and then you get it again, and then you get it another way, and you tweak this and you tweak that. You go over it and over it and over it again. It’s a lot. Once you get it, it’s gone through so many iterations.
You and Noah are quite familiar with working together, but does working on animation change your process, at all?
GERWIG: Not so far. The movie itself is different. It’s more the nature of the movie, as opposed to the fact that it’s animation. It’s also early in the process. In some ways, we’re still figuring out what it is. When he worked on Madagascar 3, he never stopped writing it. So, as this movie keeps going, I think it will be interesting to see what happens to that process. As screenwriters, when we’ve written together for the movies we’ve done, we write the script and get it as perfect as we can, and then we shoot the script that we wrote, but that’s not true in animation. You keep rewriting as you’re going, and trying different things, and then the actors are improvising. It will be interesting to see how it shakes down, but I don’t know ‘cause it’s such a long process.
China, IL airs on Sunday nights on Adult Swim.