Director Peter Lepeniotis’ animated 3D comedy caper, The Nut Job, follows the adventures of Surly (voiced by Will Arnett), an enterprising but mischievous squirrel who’s banished from his park by a villainous raccoon (voiced by Liam Neeson) for destroying the winter food supply. To help his pals in the park survive the winter, he plans a heist of his town’s biggest nut shop and takes the ragtag crew he’s assembled on an action-packed adventure they’ll never forget. Opening January 17th, the film also features the voices of Katherine Heigl, Brendan Fraser, and Maya Rudolph.
At a recent press conference in Los Angeles, Arnett and Heigl talked about creating the voice for their animated characters, the recording process, collaborating with Lepeniotis and the animators, their favorite character in the movie, doing a small independent film compared to a big studio production, their children’s reaction to seeing their work on screen, when they first knew they wanted to become actors, their advice for parents whose children want to act, and the importance of teamwork, redemption and family. Heigl also revealed her upcoming feature comedy, Jenny’s Wedding. Hit the jump to read the interview.
WILL ARNETT: What I’m most proud about in this movie is that it does have a lot of great messages not the least of which is teamwork, that at the end of the day, you can’t always do it on your own and that you’ve got to rely on people that you trust and you love, and that together you can accomplish a lot. Another is redemption, that even if you make a mistake, you can go back and do the right thing, and that everybody has some good in them and they can be relied on. And also, family. My definition of family is just unconditional love. The people who rely on you and who love you, they are there, too.
KATHERINE HEIGL: What he said. (Laughs) Ditto!
There was a line in the film that really resonated with me. It’s “You’re not the boss of me.” I get that very often from my son and I’m like, “No! I am the boss of you.” Do your kids say that to you? And how do you handle it?
HEIGL: Never. (Laughs) When my daughter was three, I threw a big birthday party at the house. I cooked all the food and I made all the decorations myself. I took real pride in it. At the end of the night, she had been given so many gifts and got so much and everything was all over the place. She wouldn’t pick any of it up. And I was like, “Naleigh, you have to pick the toys up and put them away and be respectful of them” and she said (angrily), “I’m not picking up my toys, not now, not ever!” I was like, (meekly) “Okay.” (Laughs) So, the lesson is: if you refuse to [clean up], someone will do it.
ARNETT: I say to my kids all the time, and this is absolutely true, I always say, “Who’s the boss?” and they go, “You are.” And then, my 5-year-old who’s got a 2-year-old brother always says, “But I’m the boss of him, right?”
ARNETT: We did not get to be in the room together. We have not been in very many rooms together.
HEIGL: (Laughs) Just this one and the other one before it.
ARNETT: It’s an interesting process doing it. It’s really fun and it’s collaborative. The whole team who worked on this movie, from Peter (director Peter Lepeniotis), who came up with it and directed the film, to everybody, it was really a group effort that came together in pieces. It was a very collaborative effort and really hats off to the writers and Peter for having such a great idea and message at the heart of this film. Maybe next time we’ll all do it together in the room.
HEIGL: That’s your main message today. It’s teamwork all the way around.
ARNETT: Team work turns out to work perfectly great.
Do your children recognize your voice in this movie?
HEIGL: I think my daughter does, but I told her first. I wonder if I hadn’t said anything if she would have figured it out. I wish I had done that actually now. But yes, I told her. I explained it to her. I think she understands it. She’s actually more excited for me. She’s like, “Oh look, Mommy, you’re in a movie. Aren’t you excited?” She’s a good little girl. I’m very proud of her.
ARNETT: My kids are just happy to see a movie and they don’t really care that I’m in it. They’re like, “Whatever!” and I’m like, “But it’s my job!”
As a working parent, is it easier for you to do an animated family film where you don’t have to worry about make-up and wardrobe and you can just go to the studio as you are?
ARNETT: I pretty much choose anything I do in life based on whether or not I can work in my PJs. Certainly one of the perks of doing an animated film is that you don’t have to go and get ready and wear wardrobe and you just show up in whatever you’re wearing. It’s easier as a parent certainly. It’s much better in that it’s not as much of a demand in terms of time so you can still take your kids to school and do all that stuff. But the real perk is that you get to play so many different characters, and animators can create worlds that otherwise you might not be able to create in a live action film. And they’re so beautiful, too. Some of the artwork is so incredible.
Is that a consideration when you’re choosing a role? Is that something you’re both thinking about as working parents?
HEIGL: I think if you’re lucky enough to be able to do that, yes, but it’s not always possible though. I recently went and did a film in Cleveland. It was just a three-week shoot, 18 days, but I couldn’t bring my family. It’s the first time I haven’t been with them.
HEIGL: Usually they always come with me for the whole shoot. We have a home and set up camp wherever we are, and I feel good because I’ve got my family with me. So it was really hard. I didn’t love it but I didn’t really have a choice. If I wanted to be a part of that project, which I very much wanted to be, I had to make that decision. Sometimes I just have to sit down and explain to my kids that mommy has to go to work. It’s not always ideal.
ARNETT: For me, certainly, having kids changed everything about my life. Retroactively now I work backwards. I’m lucky enough to work on a TV show. Last couple of years I had a couple of different shows. But certainly more so now, my schedule with my family is first and foremost and everything else is secondary to that. That’s it.
Will, you’ve done a lot of animation and voiceover work and have a very specific voice. Can you talk about creating the voice for Surly and what exactly you wanted to do with that character and that voice?
ARNETT: The voice for Surly is, of course, very close to my own voice, but it’s informed a lot by this story, by the arc and the animation and working with the whole creative team on The Nut Job in finding what really works. Surly is a rough-around-the-edges guy. He’s a loner. He’s looking out for himself so we wanted to give him a bit of a street feel. I wanted to keep him close to me but also have that rough-around-the-edges kind of thing, which you might not think when you look at me, but certainly at least in this world I can do it.
Do you see your gestures when you’re doing voiceover? Is the physical comedy timed with your performance?
ARNETT: You’re not watching it as you’re doing it. You’re not watching it happen.
HEIGL: Do you mean do we see ourselves in the character, like in our facial expressions?
When you’re doing the voiceover, usually in animation they film you so they can put your facial expression in your animated character. Do you see that in your character?
ARNETT: They always have a camera on us. When we’re recording, there’s usually a video camera recording us, but they don’t necessarily use our characteristics. Early on, they might take some of that information to inform how they might want our characters to react to something, but they don’t just take that and stick it in.
So you don’t see yourself at all when you’re working in animation?
ARNETT: Not really. (to Katherine) When you look at Andie, do you see yourself?
HEIGL: No. I really like her lady eyes because the animators gave her very feminine eyes, but they’re not mine. They don’t look like mine, but I like them very much.
ARNETT: They really captured my dufus smile.
HEIGL: Yeah, they really caught that.
When you were in the movie, you said something in Spanish like, “Dios mio.”
ARNETT: That’s right. Dios mio! I wanted to connect with my fans in all communities. If I hadn’t said that, you and I would not be talking right now. Buenas Dias! (Laughter)
Which character is played by Gabriel Iglesias?
HEIGL: He’s Jimmy, the Groundhog.
What’s your favorite character from the movie?
ARNETT: Great question! (to Katherine) What would you say?
HEIGL: Well mine, of course. I think Surly is my favorite character. I do. He was a lot of fun. He’s fun to watch and I like watching him learn his lesson.
ARNETT: And Precious!
HEIGL: I do love Precious. I forgot about Precious.
ARNETT: Remember Precious, the dog?
HEIGL: Precious was really fun and she exists in real life, too. She’s amazing.
ARNETT: That’s true.
How did you feel when the director told you that you were the character that everyone hates?
ARNETT: Well, about the same way I feel right now hearing you ask me that. It’s pretty crummy. No, I liked it. I’ll tell you why I liked it. It’s because it was my job to tell the story of a guy who everybody thought was maybe a bad guy, and it turns out that he ended up doing the right thing and that he was a good guy and that he was able to see the good in himself. He didn’t see himself as being good, but his friends saw something good in him that he couldn’t see. It was important for me to help tell that story.
There are lots of great films from Pixar, DreamWorks and Disney, but this is a small Korean production. How does this small independent movie compare to the big studio animated films?
HEIGL: It’s definitely competitive. I think they did a beautiful job with the animation. It’s really current and up to speed with all those big movies, too. I got involved because I had worked with the producer (Mike Karz) before (on New Year’s Eve) and they approached me about doing it. I’d always wanted to voice an animated character and so I went ahead and did it.
ARNETT: I agree.
Will, was working on The Nut Job different from other animated films you’ve worked on, especially with so many animal characters and actors voicing them?
ARNETT: It is different. Each time you do it, it’s informed by the story and the character and what you’re doing. Like I said before, this character was a little rough around the edges, and then, with Horton Hears a Who!, for instance, Vlad was a vulture and he’s sort of Russian. And then, I’ve played monsters before and robots. Each time there’s something different. I try to get informed by the surroundings and the story. I wish that I had more time to work with the director because it’d be kind of fun. It’s an interesting process to do. Unfortunately, in animated films, you don’t get to do it that often and I think it’s probably worth doing some times.
Katherine, this is the first time you’ve done an animated voice. What was the experience like for you playing the sassy squirrel, Andie?
HEIGL: Thankfully, Peter was on top of telling me exactly what my character was supposed to be doing in the moment. But yes, it’s weird. It’s very strange. You’re standing in front of a microphone with a head set on and jumping around and going “Umphh!” and doing all these weird things whenever your character is experiencing something. And then you watch it in playback because they do video you, which I didn’t realize, and it’s really embarrassing.
HEIGL: Well I started as a child actor when I was nine. My mother often says that she could never have done it if I had been the youngest, if she had other small children she had to cart around New York City for my auditions and go-sees (modeling auditions) and stuff. It’s really hard. I was always very grateful that she did because I just gravitated towards it. It just sort of happened accidentally. I didn’t really pursue it. When I did my first movie, I was 11, and I just knew, “This is for me. I love this.” I never went back to modeling again. (Laughs)
What would your advice be to parents whose children want to act? Would you let your children go into acting?
HEIGL: I wouldn’t. Honestly, I wouldn’t. It’s so hard and it requires so much of a time commitment. I’d have to give up my own career to do that. It’s a full time job. My mother had to protect me always and protect my interests and make sure that other people’s agendas didn’t compromise me or hurt me in any way. It’s a business. So there are always people pushing for longer hours or more work and you’re a kid. That’s a lot to ask a small person. And I had to keep up with my studies. My mother wouldn’t let me do it if I wasn’t on top of my school work. But the good news about (being a child actor) is that there is an on-set tutor so you do three hours the whole day instead of seven. You have to in those three hours get all your work done so you actually focus better. You’re forced to really focus and do the work and get it done. I did better academically when I had the one-on-one attention (from the tutor) and I didn’t get distracted like I did in school.
ARNETT: Boy, I still don’t know. I guess when I was a kid I did have the idea that I wanted to do it. I was in some school productions. But it wasn’t really until I moved to New York when I was 20. I did have some of the experiences of being a kid and doing it. It was very tough. It takes a lot of guts. The truth is there’s a lot of rejection. As you know, I had a lot of rejection early on in my career. [Inaudible] and I worked together. She was an assistant in my first manager’s office over 20 years ago and that’s the truth. So, even then as a young man, it was very difficult. I think you have to be sure that you’re not good at anything else, and if you’re totally sure, then good luck.
Will, why did the Raccoon hate you?
ARNETT: You know why the Raccoon hates me? It’s because it turns out the raccoon is not a great guy. And so, in the story sometimes things aren’t what you think in life. The raccoon seems to be the good guy, and Surly, the squirrel, seems to be the bad guy, but it turns out the opposite is true. So there’s another lesson. Guys, this thing is chock full of lessons. Let’s get them out there.
Katherine, I understand you’re working on a new movie that’s a comedy?
HEIGL: It’s called Jenny’s Wedding. I am Jenny.