In April 2018, a group of fellow journalists and I visited the set of Artemis Fowl in England. The film, which arrives on Disney+ on June 12th, follows young Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) and his trusted guardian Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie) as they cross over into the world of faeries to rescue Artemis’ father (Colin Farrell).
During our visit, we got to talk with Josh Gad, who plays the thieving dwarf Mulch Diggums who becomes a partner to Artemis on his quest. Gad talked about reteaming with director Kenneth Branagh, the compliment he received from Judi Dench that made him want to cry and call his mother, having to wear a giant prosthetic jaw, how the Artemis Fowl series compares to Harry Potter, how they handled his digging scenes, and more.
Check out the full interview below, which starts off with us talking about the scene we’ve seen then film where Mulch is singing to a troll:
JOSH GAD: Yes, we had at one point Despacito. Which was a very different approach. Yesterday we did David Bowie’s Starman. But it felt like the troll responded best to Foreigner, so that’s what we stuck with. What a weird first scene for you guys.
Was the song your idea?
GAD: Well, initially they had Hush Little Baby in the script and it felt a little unspecific. And I started spit balling ideas with the writer and I said, “What if-” Because there’s this common refrain in the movie, where beings like Holly and Mulch listen to contraband human music. Which I thought is such a fun little detail, because you’re not allowed to listen to human music in the fairy world. And so, the idea that we see Mulch listening to human music in Haven City at the beginning. And then carry that into this and singing such a specific song to calm and relax a troll, just made me laugh so hard. Because it’s so absurd. That you have this giant beast and the one thing he’ll respond to, are the beautiful lyrics of this song. So yeah, it was something that just sort of… We all started spit balling and this is where we landed.
We heard that you improvise a lot in this movie-
GAD: I pretty much- Every take we do, Ken encourages me, sometimes with an empty brain, to throw stuff out there. And it’s so fun because Mulch is such a… He really is- He’s a loner. But he’s also, as you see, he cares. And he has a good heart. But to see him run the gambit of one minute, being very sneaky and a bit of a kleptomaniac. And then the next minute, using his persuasive behavior to calm a giant troll down, provides ample opportunity for improv and craziness.
To pick up your relationship with Ken off Murder on the Orient Express to this: Is it pretty much the same?
GAD: A little different, because now I wear the giant mustache. So he gets to see how it feels to talk to somebody with this on their face. No, really, truly, Kenneth Branagh is one- Sir Kenneth Branagh. Is one of the greatest directors I’ve ever worked with, because he understands what it is to be an actor. So he can communicate directly to you in a way that is very familiar. In a way that speaks to both your strengths and your weaknesses. And there’s an understanding there, a shared common ground, that makes the process really relatable and easy and familiar.
Having him strictly behind the camera on this one and not also as my scene partner, is a very strange feeling. Because I’m so used to him directing in front of the camera, which was completely different. But it’s just effortless for him. And he can juggle so many balls and spit ball so many things at you. So it’s really so fun.
How do you feel about Judi Dench saying that she’s learning from you?
GAD: Judi said that!?
She said she’s learning from Josh Gad. That’s what [inaudible] told us.
GAD: Can you give me a second while I cry and call my mother? Can you give me a second while I cry and call my 10-year-old self? I don’t even know what to say to that, I think she’s hitting on me. I think that’s what I’m taking from it. I’m obsessed with that woman. She is… I literally studied Dame Judi Dench in college. That was my training ground, that and Kenneth, were my training ground for Shakespeare.
So the idea that a woman, who I revere as one of the greatest actresses of all time. For her to say that about me, I have to laugh at it because, one, it’s not true. And two, it is the most incredible honor that I could ever be given. To have her spew that bullshit in front of me. Guys, not trying to win you over, but it’s… She’s amazing. I adore her.
Given you did study her work and Kenneth’s work, are you now amazed that you had two experiences with them.
GAD: I pinch myself every day, mainly to try to see if the beard is on. But I do, I’m so… It’s such a dream come true to work with your idols. And these two are at the very top of my Mount Rushmore of idols. When you’re in a scene with Judi Dench, you keep saying to yourself, “Don’t screw this up.” And when you’re being directed by Kenneth Branagh, you keep saying to yourself, “Just keep him happy, don’t mess this up.” You don’t want to pull the wool- You don’t want him to be like, “Oh, I made a mistake.” And so for me, every time that I’m in there, I’m always striving to do my best work. And to get compliments like that is amazing.
Is that what drew you to do this film? To be with Kenneth Branagh again?
GAD: There were a number of things that drew me to the project. Frankly, I’d always wanted to play in a world like this. A high-concept fantasy world. I just think it’s such a fun environment to be free and be imaginative. I read the Eoin Colfer book and I fell in love with it. And so, for me to play a character that is so unique and so familiar to so many readers, that was such a thrill. But obviously to get together with the gang again, was one of my primary motivations.
It’s such a fun playground. Very different than Orient Express. Because one, we didn’t have trolls or goblins in Orient Express. Although that’s on the director’s cut, I believe. But the idea that all of this is practical. So much of the movie has practical effects, as you saw. There’s a giant puppet created by the War Horse guys, which I think is the coolest thing ever. And so to be able to interact with something like that, it’s so fun as an actor.
Did you change your mind in any way when they showed you the giant jaw that you had to wear?
GAD: Oh, that giant jaw was- It reminds me of Beetlejuice. No, it’s great. Definitely not something I’m going to show my kids for a little while because, “Daddy what’s going on?” But it’s pretty amazing. That effect is going to be incredible.
How heavy is it wearing that jaw?
GAD: Not as heavy as wearing Chewbacca on my body every day. I have a lot of leather and hair on my body. There’s actually hair… You guys can see. There’s here inside of my…
In your ears.
GAD: So it’s a process. Every day it’s a two hour process to get into this. And a one hour process to get out of this. And a half an hour process of crying myself to sleep, reminding myself that I have to do it again tomorrow.
We saw that giant prosthetic. The costume designer told us about a Mulch’s butt flab. And we know how it plays out in the book, have you already filmed Mulch living up to his last name? What was that like?
GAD: Oh yes. It’s a little different in the movie, because we wanted to make it a vulnerability for Mulch. This idea that he’s not necessarily very proud of it. Is something that once again adds comedic fodder, but also grounds him a little bit. And so he is a little bit ashamed of it. We shot that… Literally, we shot that. And it was everything that we hoped for. I got an amazing compliment from Eoin, who came up to me and is like, “It’s everything I imagined.” And I was like, “That’s probably the first and last time anybody will tell me that about that thing that I did there was great.”
How do you guys actually film the digging scene?
GAD: So the actual digging sequence itself- We just shot the beginning of it. The actual digging sequence itself, is going to be a rigged effect, where I’m in some sort of- They haven’t quite told me specifically, because I think they’re afraid of what I might think of it. But I’m in some sort of device, that is going to essentially spin me. In front of a green screen.
And so the effect of the wind and me going really fast, will be created with that. Practical effects again. And then digitally they’ll make it look like it’s underground.
What inspires your character- Because he comes in to steal stuff and then turns around and joins Artemis and everyone.
GAD: So that was very important to me. One of the things that I love so much about the book, is Mulch very much is a loner. He’s like a dwarfed version of Han Solo. But what’s so wonderful about- I think where the writer’s taken the character in this version, is much like Holly and much like Artemis and much like all of our main characters. He’s an outsider, looking for a way to fit in. So our version of Mulch is, he’s a giant dwarf. Meaning he doesn’t belong. And that’s something that I think is very personal to him. And something that again, he’s searching for his place. And I think when he finds this ragtag group, he identifies them as similar to him, in a way that draws him. But even when he’s being drawn in, he always has one foot out the door still. And that’s the fun, that’s the beauty of the character. Is you’re not quite sure what side he’s on and what he’s really playing at. But it always seems like he’s one step ahead.
We saw you attached to the big ratchet in a scene earlier.
GAD: Yeah. Oh, you guys saw that. Good. So I’ll have witnesses in my lawsuit.
You were talking about the big spinning thing, I’ve talked to some actors who are like, “Oh yeah, I love that kind of stunt work” And some actors are like, “Well, I feel the opposite of that.”
GAD: So there’s Tom Cruise and then there’s me. That’s the high end of stuntmen. And then I’m here. And then everybody else is in between. I enjoy it. I don’t have what you might call, a stunt body. Although I have a lot of padding. I enjoy a challenge. That was much crazier than I expected it to be. Just because you literally- I don’t even know if you guys can tell from the footage, but your body leaves the ground. So you’re being shot like a bullet backwards. So it’s a thrill, but it’s also like, “Oh my God, what have I done? I never said goodbye to my kids before they woke up.” So you’re terrified, but it’s fun. It’s the beauty of what we get to do. Tomorrow or Monday, I have to hang off the chandelier. So it’s another thing off the checklist.
I’ve got, Josh Gad does his own stunts.
GAD: That’s right. Thank you. It’s going to be a great article.
The comparisons to Harry Potter are obvious; can you talk about how it’s different in your mind to Harry Potter? Or how it’s actually similar as well?
GAD: I’m obsessed with Harry Potter. I grew up with the books, I grew up with the movies. There hasn’t been a Harry Potter in a long time. A new Harry Potter. This feels like the answer to that. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me, who tell me how important the Artemis Fowl books were to them as a kid. In many ways, I think Artemis is almost the antithesis to Harry. Whereas Harry is an empty vessel, who’s going on this journey of discovery. And there’s an innocence, that along the way becomes a little bit darkened by his experiences. Artemis starts, almost at the end of Harry’s journey. And Artemis is wise beyond his years, doesn’t have the magical abilities of Harry. So has to compensate for it with an intellect that allows him to tap into magic. And at the same time, he’s very manipulative. And he uses that manipulation in order to amass this incredible plot. The writer once described this book as, “Die Hard with fairies.” Well, the Alan Rickman character, in many ways, is Artemis Fowl himself.
And that’s what’s so unique about this world. Is when do you get to see a kid, who is essentially an anti-hero in many ways? And we’re all trying to be one step ahead of him. But he has an uncanny ability to outsmart even the wisest amongst us. Which is why, when Mulch comes in, it’s such a fun loophole. Because he doesn’t expect them to throw something like this at them. So it’s really fun. And I think that again, it speaks to a crowd and an audience that is desperately longing for something to fill that void.
So speaking of how there are some changes between the book and the movie. You are a giant dwarf, how big are the regular dwarves? And how does that play into the complex that Mulch has?
GAD: Well, that was just it. We wanted to really, really, really create a world in which Mulch so desperately wanted to belong, to people who are regular, normal dwarf size. And so, we have a lot of scenes where Mulch is interacting with people who are smaller than him. But we’re flipping them on its head, because rather than them wanting to be bigger, Mulch wants to be one of them. And that adds this… It grounds the character in a way that gives him pathos. And it’s almost unexpected. Because, throughout his entire journey, unlike the book, he has this desperate need. And it’s the one thing he can’t do, he can’t be small. And so that kills him a little bit, because he feels like he doesn’t belong. He doesn’t fit in anywhere. So that is something that we’re really not using for comedic effect, but we’re using for an emotional journey.
Are you doing that size comparison with forced perspective or with tennis balls or like—How are we seeing the difference between you and regular size dwarves?
GAD: I don’t know yet because we haven’t shot it. So that’s a Ken question. But I imagine it’s going to be a mixture of everything, I imagine.