From director Rich Moore (The Simpsons, Futurama), the animated movie Wreck-It Ralph is an equal parts hilarious and adorable arcade adventure. For 30 years, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) has been stuck in the role of bad guy while the good-guy star of Fix-It Felix Jr. (voiced by Jack McBrayer) always gets to save the day. When Ralph leaves his game, he embarks on a hero’s journey that leads him to the candy-coated cart-racing game Sugar Rush, where he meets feisty misfit Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman), who not only becomes his first real friend, but who also gives him his chance to finally save the day. The voice cast also includes Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling, Ed O’Neill, Dennis Haysbert, Joe Lo Truglio and Adam Carolla.
At the film’s press day, Collider spoke to actor John C. Reilly, in both a 1-on-1 and a roundtable interview, about how he came to voice Ralph, getting to root for the underdog, his reaction when he saw the world of the movie come together, the challenge of setting the right tone for the character, his video game period, the most surprising thing about getting involved with the movie, and how much he’d like to do voice-over work again. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JOHN C. REILLY: I have to say, so many of these big changes of path, career wise, for me, just come out of the blue, and this one came totally out of the blue. I had worked with Phil Johnston before. We did Cedar Rapids together, and I really loved his writing. He was just like, “Oh, by the way, there’s this Disney movie that I’m working on and I think they’re going to come to you.” And then, our of the blue (director) Rich Moore contacted me and said, “Do you want to meet and talk about this?” I was a little hesitant at first, actually, ‘cause I’ve been offered a lot of animation, over the years, and it always just seemed like a drag. You go into this room by yourself and pretend other people are there, and you’re just this marionette for the animators who say, “Okay, just say these words.” I had heard that, a lot of the time, they don’t even give you a script. They just give you a page to read, and then tell you to go away. That just didn’t sound that fun. As easy as that sounds to do, as a day of work, it just didn’t sound very fun or inspiring, so I had always passed on it.
So, I told Rich that. I said, “It’s just always seemed like a drag.” He said, “Well, it would be a drag to make a movie like that, but that’s not how I want to make this movie. We can do this movie however we want. They’re giving me total freedom. So, if you want to work with the other actors in the room, then we can do that. It’s not technology impossible. We just have to isolate you a little bit, sound wise, but you can be there in the same room and be close to each other and look at each other.” I was like, “Well, that sounds good!” The rap for animated movies is that they’re done by committee and there are all these moving parts, and what the movie starts out as is often radically different from what it ends up as. I’m really careful about the things I choose to do, and I wanted to make sure that it didn’t seem like a dumb thing for me to do. I didn’t want it to end up being something cheesy that I wasn’t proud of. So, I said to Rich, “I just need to know what I’m signing on to. I don’t want to say yes to you, and then have the project change 180 degrees and find myself trapped in some kind of Disney hell.” He said, “No, we want you to give as much to the process as you want to give. You can come in and tell us what you think about the script, as the script develops.”
I already trusted Phil. I knew Phil had a lot of heart in his writing. So, they invited me to come in and do story meetings with them. They let me improvise and work with the other actors, when it came to recording. I went in and met with the animators and we did these big Q&As, where I would meet with the entire animation department. As a result of that, they got so inspired by talking to me and seeing me act it out that they actually filmed it. And then, I went back in and we did these motion studies where I would act out the character and I would give them what I was imagining in my head. So, I ended up being really intimately involved in the process and it ended up being something that all of us put a lot of heart into, for lack of a better word. It is a big Disney corporate worldwide release, but at the center of it is this little, small core of people that were really concerned with making a movie that meant something to them and had an emotional honesty to it. Hopefully, we accomplished that. People are loving it so, so far, so good!
Was having audiences root for the underdog part of the appeal of this?
REILLY: Some things that you would expect from the story are flipped a little bit, but it doesn’t have a cynicism or a post-modern take on it. It’s a true hero’s journey. I’m not a big fan of kids’ movies that have this knowing snarkiness to them or this post-modern take on storytelling. I think that sails right over the heads of most kids. There’s something to be said for a well-told fairy tale. There’s a reason that these mythic stories stay with us.
What was your reaction, when you finally got to see all of these video game worlds and the Game Central Station, and you saw how well it all came together?
REILLY: I was relieved ‘cause you never know. It’s a leap of faith, a lot of times. There’s a long part of the process where you’re recording the dialogue and you’re hoping that they’re getting it right and that it will look as good as it feels when you record the voice. I don’t think I even expected it to be as fleshed out as it is. Someone told me that there’s three times as many original animated characters in the movie than in any movie in Disney history. There’s so much more information, visually, than has ever been attempted in a movie. I think that’s really cool. People recognized how special it was and what a fertile, creative scenario it was to work in. There are very few limits in a video game world. You can make up the rules, as you go from game to game.
I also think it’s a cool time at Disney, with the Pixar people coming in and John Lasseter running the show. I thought it was going to feel a little bit uncomfortable, being in this corporate environment, every time I went to Disney, but I ended up loving it. There was a feeling of creativity in that building. There are all these art nerds in there, who are really good at what they do. They come up with crazy ideas and try to be creative. Watching the process of this movie come alive, there were so many times I would go in and get to see sketches for where they were at. I thought, “This could be an art show, right here. I would go to a gallery, just to see this.” And that was just rough sketches people had made to get inspired about the movie. It was just a really cool place to go. And it was the longest job I’ve ever had, which was another comforting aspect of it. Most acting jobs don’t last nearly as long as that did.
Which came first, the sketch of the character or the voice?
REILLY: The way these animation movies work is that it’s really fluid, in the beginning. There was a script that was actually pretty different from what it ended up being, and then the animators make all these crazy stream-of-consciousness sketches. At one point, I was a monster with a single horn coming out of my head and orange skin. At another point, that same horned monster had my hair Photoshopped on top of it, which looked weird. But, the process of making the movie was really collaborative. It was a process of me becoming the character, and the character becoming me. More and more of my own expressions seeped into the character, and then my own facial gestures. It was this synthesis that happened over time.
What were the challenges of setting the right tone for your character?
REILLY: It was a challenge, in the beginning, for how wrong-headed he is. Really feeling for the character, playing the character myself, I wanted people to know that he means well and has a big heart. But, he had to start out in a place that’s a little bit dysfunctional, in order to find the path of the hero, later on in the movie. The other challenge, when you’re doing animation, that you overcome quickly when you’re doing live-action, is that you don’t really have to memorize anything. There’s always the challenge of making it sound like you’re really speaking instead of reading. When you do a live-action movie, that just goes away once you memorize the dialogue. So, there were a couple of challenges there, but in general, it was a dream job.
What do you think it is about Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) that Ralph identifies with and leads them to form such a strong friendship?
REILLY: Well, that is the turning point in the hero’s journey, for him. That’s when he starts to realize that there’s something outside of himself and he starts to feel empathy. In that scene, when they’re in the Mentos cave, he sees that she lives in garbage and is just this poor little marginalized, misfit girl, it’s almost like he’s seeing himself, for the first time, from the outside, at the same time that he’s getting away from himself and feeling compassion for someone else. That’s a really cool moment in the movie. And she’s a powerful little girl. He’s so used to being the top dog in his game and just having everyone be afraid of him and getting his way, most of the time, other than people not liking him. This little girl comes up and has such a quick wit and she’s so determined that that’s part of the admiration he has for her. And then, they’re both selfish, at the beginning of the story. They’re both very selfishly determined to get what they need. The only reason that they hook up is because they might be able to help the other one do that.
How much improvisation did you get to do?
REILLY: We did a lot. We used the Will Ferrell model. The way that Will and I worked together on Talladega Nights and Step Brothers was a comedy democracy, where the funniest idea, in the moment, wins. You do the written material a few times, until you feel like you’ve done that and it’s starting to feel flat, and then, you just throw everything out the widow and see what happens. So, we did that. How much of that ended up in the movie, I don’t know. I know for a fact that a certain amount of it did. When you do that, it also ends up giving you a certain sense of ownership about the material that you didn’t come up with. If you feel the freedom to change things however you want, in the moment, you feel less constrained when you’re doing the material that was written for you.
With you and Sarah Silverman both being known for having a more adult sense of humor, when you were working together and doing some of the improv, was there anything that definitely couldn’t make the cut?
REILLY: Yeah, but you’ll never, ever hear it. It’s gone into the Disney vault, deep underground. I would say that Sarah, for sure, is pretty R-rated in her stand-up. Am I known for R-rated humor? I don’t know. I feel like I’m a little more harmlessly goofy than that, in the comedy stuff that I’ve done. But, there were a few things. What surprised me about Sarah’s work in this was how sweet and sentimental she is, as a person. She’s into musical theater. She really channeled that little girl, so easily. And then, with the dramatic scenes that we did, I was really impressed. I was like, “You should do this more often, Sarah! It turns out that you do have a heart.” She’s just a smart aleck.
Did you ever go through a video game period?
REILLY: Yeah, I was the test audience for Space Invaders. When those games came out, I was of an age where my quarters were the ones they wanted. I remember when it went from pinball machines to Space Invaders, in the bowling alley where I used to hang out. It was like, “What?! You can manipulate the TV!” We’re so used to computers and being able to interact with media like we do now that people forget that, at that time, that was outrageous. Even to control that sound effect was like getting to be in Star Wars, which also came out around the same time. So, I went through all those games. I can’t say I play a lot of them now, though. There are just not enough hours in the day.
What’s the most surprising thing about being involved with this movie?
REILLY: Lately, the surprising thing is having little kids recognize me, just by my voice. They’re like, “You’re Ralph!,” and then they start quoting lines from the trailer. It’s bizarre, how aware kids are. Even little kids have the trailer memorized.
Now that you’ve seen how successful the finished product can be, would you like to do voice-over work again?
REILLY: Yeah. Honestly, if I could make a living doing this, I could do only this, and then maybe do theater in my spare time. I would do it again, in a heartbeat, especially with someone like Rich, where I really felt like I was a part of a team.
Wreck-It Ralph opens in theaters on November 2nd.