Zach Woods on ‘The LEGO Ninjago Movie’, Improvising, and Working with Spielberg on ‘The Post’
High school can be really tough for a typical teenager, but when you’re a half-human, half-robot who is the super-cool Ice Ninja and you can blast a glacial stream from a giant Ice Tank, and yet you can’t tell anyone about it or get the glory for it, things get really weird. In The LEGO Ninjago Movie, Zane (voiced by Silicon Valley star Zach Woods) just wants to fit in and be seen as a genuine teenager, but that’s hard to do when one of your best friends (voiced by Dave Franco) is the son of the evil warlord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), aka The Worst Guy Ever.
While at the LEGOLAND California Resort for the film’s press junket, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with actor Zach Woods to talk about why he wanted to be a part of The LEGO Ninjago Movie, playing with LEGOs as a kid, finding Zane’s voice, how much fun he had improvising with his co-stars, how mortifying it can be to spend all day grunting, what he’s most jealous of with his character, and what he’d want his own power and mech to be, if he were a secret ninja. He also talked about why Silicon Valley is the best and most fun job to have, and the experience of working with Steven Spielberg on The Post.
Collider: What sold you on the idea of The LEGO Ninjago Movie and made you want to sign on?
ZACH WOODS: It was the previous LEGO movies. I remember seeing the first LEGO movie, almost skeptically. People were like, “You should really see it!” And I was like, “A LEGO movie?!” And then, I was like, “This is really good!” It was also a little transgressive and it had some bite to it. I was like, “Wow, this is a cool movie!” It’s interesting, it gives you a longer leash. I also always thought the casting of those movies was really cool. They get really interesting people. So, I was really flattered when they asked me. They also told me who else was doing it, and I was like, “That’s cool! That’s a group I want to be a part of!”
And then, you find that you don’t actually get to work with any of your castmates.
WOODS: Exactly! You then retreat into a cavernous booth and talk to yourself like a psychotic person with headphones on.
Are you somebody who played with LEGOs, as a kid?
WOODS: Yeah, I played with LEGOs. We had LEGOs, Lincoln Logs and Playmobil, and they all occupied the same space. I guess that’s fairly common. I’m saying this, as if it’s a bizarre phenomenon that we had a toy chest. But, I liked LEGOs. I liked them a lot, but structurally, I think I was a more sensitive boy. I was more interested in the interior lives of the LEGOs. I didn’t want to build forts and stuff, but I liked assigning overwrought emotions to tiny LEGO men.
Who is Zane and how does he fit into the city of Ninjago?
WOODS: Zane is a robot who wants to pass as a conventional teenager. He’s incredibly defensive about wanting to be treated like a real teen. It’s your standard robot who wants to be a teen, in a fictionalized ninja world. You know, that old trope.
How did you figure out the way you wanted to voice Zane?
WOODS: It’s not a stretch for me to play somebody who’s repressed and robotic. I basically just had to be myself. No. I think I gravitate towards characters who are slight outsiders. It’s fun to play a character that wants so badly to be included in the normal activities of teenage life, but lacks the literal hardware to do it.
How challenging is it for Zane to be a hero, but not be able to tell anyone or get the credit for being the Ice Ninja?
WOODS: That’s true! I bet that would be galling. Especially at a time when everybody is trumpeting their achievements from their phones, what do these poor ninjas do? How do they prop up their self-esteem? Well, I’d like to think that there are rich spiritual rewards to their heroism that they reap. I’m scared now that, if you write that in print, you won’t be able to hear that I’m being sarcastic and that it sounds like I’m saying that these LEGOs have rich spiritual rewards. But, maybe they do? Who am I to condescend to these LEGOs?
How did you find the voice recording experience for this?
WOODS: We improvised a lot. It was fun to improvise. It’s always fun to improvise. What’s weird is that when you’re recording, you’re by yourself, for the most part. We had one day where we recorded with other people, and then, after that, they started grouping us more. That was so fun! I did a lot of stuff with Kumail [Nanjiani], which was nice ‘cause we’re on a show together and we have really good chemistry. The days that you record by yourself, you feel like a crazy person because you’re saying the same line, 10 different ways, or they ask you for 10 different grunting sounds and you just feel like such a schmuck. It’s crazy! When there’s other people there, it tethers you to something, in a nice way.
Are the days where you just have to make various sounds the most embarrassing?
WOODS: It’s so weird, and it’s so embarrassing. And they’d have me do these robot noises, which I’m not very good at. I’d do these robot noises, and people would double over laughing. And they were definitely laughing at me, and not with me. They were not good robot sounds.
So then, you hope that’s never on the behind-the-scenes on the Blu-ray?
WOODS: Oh, yeah! I would rather a sex tape make its way out than a video of me doing all of the different grunt sounds. I’m not eager for a sex tape to leak, but in terms of personal humiliation, I’d feel less vulnerable to be in a Kim Kardashian situation than seeing myself grunting in a booth.
What can Zane do, as The Ice Ninja, that makes you the most jealous?
WOODS: I’d like to be able to do complex math in my head. Any kind of adversity and I become very anxious, but if you’re a robot, you have good equilibrium. I wish I was cooler under pressure, like a robot. And the AC in my car doesn’t work very well, so it would be good to have command of the element of ice.
What makes Zane’s mech the coolest one of the group?
WOODS: It’s basically a souped up Zamboni. It’s what they use to smooth over ice rinks, but with a slightly weaponized component. So, I think it’s practical and it can be used recreationally, and it’s lethal. Everyone loves the Zamboni! It looks fun! I think I would like driving the Zamboni. In my head, Zane is secretly friends with Nancy Kerrigan and Oksana Baiul, and all of the glorious figure skaters of the past.
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?
WOODS: My power would be the power of apology. I would just apologize emphatically and freely. And my mech might just be a phone to send apologetic emails from.
It sounds like you have some things to work out.
WOODS: I guess so! I never knew! You’ve plumbed the depths of my soul.
When you’re responsible for bringing life and personality to a LEGO figure, does it make you look at or think about LEGOs any differently?
WOODS: Yeah. We went to Comic-Con and there were people dressed up as the characters. There’s a whole canon of Ninjago history that I didn’t even know about until the process of making the movie had started. Especially at Comic-Con, I realized that people really, really care about this, and I hope they like it because it’s meaningful to them. It did actually change my feelings about it.
This movie has two villains, with Garmadon, who is supposed to be The Worst Guy Ever, and a cat, who’s destroying Ninjago just by being there. No other movie could pull off a cat, just being his cat self, as a villain.
WOODS: I’m so glad that finally there’s a movie that depicts cats in the unflattering light that they truly deserve. They’re stand-offish, cruel creatures, and I’m glad finally someone had the courage to take them down in a movie. They don’t need us, at all. If there was an epidemic that started decimating the human population, cats could give a shit.
You’ve been so great on Silicon Valley!
WOODS: Oh, thanks! That’s so nice!
What’s it been like to be a part of that show, working with that cast and creative team?
WOODS: It’s the best! It is the best job. It is so fun. I just want it to go on, forever. Everyone is so sweet to each other. It’s not competitive or macho. The writing is really great. The guys who run the show are incredibly collaborative and open to feedback. It’s truly an amazing job! It is as fun as hopefully it looks.
You also worked with Steven Spielberg on The Post, about the Washington Post’s role in exposing the Pentagon Papers. What was that experience like?
WOODS: That was fun. That was really cool. I was really excited to meet him. He was really, really nice. He was so gracious. It’s interesting, he’s such an institution. His name is synonymous with Hollywood. You sometimes meet people who revel in their own mythology, and he doesn’t feel like that, at all. He’s very approachable, accessible and sweet. Even if he wasn’t, I’d have to say that because the man runs everything. But he is like that, so it’s easy. He seems genuinely curious and passionate, and it’s infectious.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie is out in theaters on September 22nd.