The Disney/Pixar animated feature The Good Dinosaur shows what might have happened if the asteroid that forever changed life on Earth missed the planet completely and giant dinosaurs never became extinct. When an Apatosaurus named Arlo finds himself separated from his family and on an epic journey through a harsh and mysterious landscape, he must confront his fears and discover what he is truly capable of, with the help of an unlikely human friend named spot. Directed by Peter Sohn, the voice cast for the film includes Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Marcus Scribner, Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Steve Zahn, Anna Paquin and Sam Elliott.
At the film’s press day, Collider spoke to actor Jeffrey Wright for this exclusive interview about why he wanted to be a part of a Disney/Pixar movie, what makes it so gratifying, voicing Arlo’s wise Poppa, and working with a director as passionate as Peter Sohn. He also talked about his work in the HBO series Westworld, a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin, which is set to premiere in 2016, why he wanted to work with that creative team, and how it’s a pretty sexy place.
Collider: Had you been looking to do an animated Disney/Pixar movie, or did they come to you with this character?
JEFFREY WRIGHT: Out of the blue, I received this offer and invitation to be a part of this movie, The Good Dinosaur. I turned to my Pixar experts, my kids, and asked them what this could all be about. Of course, they flipped out and it was pretty obvious from their reaction that I was going to do this. I very much enjoy voice work and have done a few animated series and things, but I hadn’t been involved in a Pixar project. I was pretty thrilled at the opportunity, not only because the films have been so meaningful in my kids’ pop culture life, but obviously for me, as well, as a parent, they have a special place. Also, this story is so much about parenthood and family, and it’s particularly gratifying to do my part in breathing some life into the story.
Because these films evolve and change so much, at least you know you’re in good hands with Pixar, who has such a proven track record.
WRIGHT: That’s the key, trusting in the talents of everyone involved. From an animation perspective, it doesn’t get better than Pixar. You’re working so much in the blind because the huge circle of collaborators that’s required to pull off a film like this means that you are just one small arc in that large circle. The level of trust that you have to give into is significant. Peter Sohn led us through this process with such unbelievable clarity and passion and childlike joy, in making the movie, that the trust was earned, and then some.
Poppa has a warmth to him, but he’s also firm, and yet he’s not a dictator. Was it challenging to find that balance, to have him be authoritative, but not scary?
WRIGHT: Yeah, that was the balance that we had to find. Part of the lesson for him, as a father, is when is pushing going too far. He’s clearly concerned primarily for the well-being of his family, and particularly Arlo, and he’s concerned that Arlo develop into his full capacity. That’s what we all desire, as parents of children. And that line between being a nurturing parent and an over-bearing, damaging parent is one that’s very delicate. That was most interesting, to me, with that relationship because of the experiences that I’ve had. As much as we teach our kids, the process teaches us. If we’re being diligent, we’re learning from our strengths as parents, but also from the mistakes that we make, and he’s a good example of that. For that reason, parents and children watching this together will bring a lot of their own experiences to the table that will only enhance their enjoyment of the movie.
At what point in the process did you see what your character would look like, and what did you think of him when you saw him?
WRIGHT: Well, I saw stills, early on, when asked if I wanted to be a part of it. And then, while voicing it, I saw some of the animation because it wasn’t entirely completed or rendered. But, it was only after seeing the film in its completion that I became fully aware of the universe that we were inhabiting and my role within it. Prior to that, I saw it all through Peter Sohn’s imagination and his articulating the smallest but meaningful details about the character, and his intentions, and the dynamics with his family and his son, and details about the atmosphere they’re living within. Peter was just unbelievably comprehensive in his envisioning of this world. He was the encyclopedia that I read, in order to play my part. There was wonderful leadership, done with this infectious, joyous, childlike passion for the elements of the story and for the film.
I’ve seen some footage from HBO’s Westworld, which you’re also in, and it looks amazing. What attracted you to that show and made you want to be a part of it?
WRIGHT: What I’ve learned, in my career as an actor, is that you’re only as good as your collaborators. The process is many things, but it is wholly collaborative, particularly with something like Westworld, which is a 10-episode per season gig, and we’re just now on the 7th episode. But going into it, I just knew that Jonah Nolan and his wife, Lisa Joy, were going to be leading the creative team, and I knew that JJ Abrams was on board from a producorial standpoint, and I knew that Anthony Hopkins was involved and that we were going to be taking on a series on HBO. Just understanding the pedigree around it, and speaking to Jonah first about the shape of the story, was all I needed.
I can say that, if audiences are as excited and titillated and compelled by what they see as we are by what we’re doing, then we’re all going to have a really good time. I’ve not been a part of something that looks like this, that sounds like this, that explores the ideas that it’s exploring. It’s been a seriously gratifying and enjoyable experience, working on it. I’ve only had prior experience in long-form drama with Boardwalk Empire, and the key is great writing. With Boardwalk, I came in three-quarters of the way through the development of the series, and likewise with The Hunger Games. It was a different style of storytelling, but I came after the idea had been set into motion.
So, it was exciting for me to take the risk, at the beginning of trying to create something new, from the ground up. We’re having a blast, and we’re looking to blow some minds out there with this thing. As excited as I am to finish the work that we have remaining, I’m more excited for audiences to go on this little journey with us. I think they’re gonna have a ball.
What are your thoughts on everyone making a big deal about the sex and nudity in the show? Is that something you were expecting because of the content?
WRIGHT: Yeah. You know, it’s an exploration of many things. Desire is one of those. But I think people’s perceptions of what we’re doing are a little bit overblown based on some of these rumors that have come out. That said, Westworld is many things, including a pretty sexy place.
The Good Dinosaur opens in theaters on November 25th.