Size may matter to the star of “Godzilla” (opening today)--but for co-star Hank Azaria, making a lot out of a little is a way of life.
The 34-year-old native New Yorker has become one of Hollywood’s busiest character actors, since sashaying to a Gloria Estefan beat as Robin Williams’ Guatemalan housekeeper in “The Birdcage.” For a decade, he’s given voice to “The Simpsons’ ” Springfield residents, from Moe the Bartender to convenience store clerk Apu, and soon he’ll be seen in a dramatic role--as ‘30s composer Mark Blitzstein, in Tim Robbins’ “The Cradle Will Rock.”
Azaria’s real-life status as Helen Hunt’s fiance may sometimes overshadow his work in the public eye (their relationship is the one subject that makes the easygoing Azaria turn guarded). But that semi-anonymity is bound to change with his “Godzilla” role as Animal, a gonzo New York cameraman who helps Matthew Broderick’s scientist slow down the Big Lizard.
Question: You used to joke that people on the street recognized you but thought you were their pool guy.
Answer: That still happens! Maybe after “Godzilla,” it won’t. I think you’re in big trouble with the law if you don’t see “Godzilla"--some citizenship penalty.
I’m so used to melding into every character I play. Even people in the business think the guy who did “Birdcage,” “Quiz Show” and “Great Expectations” are three different actors--which in a way makes me proud, but in another way is very frustrating. It’s the curse and blessing of the character actor. So I’ve stopped concerning myself with that. I’m very happy I get to keep working--it’s an insanely fortunate thing.
Q: Did Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin create the “Godzilla” role with you in mind?
A: No. They originally pictured, I think, an Indian. Then they wanted it to be a very New York character dealing with Godzilla. I used to know Dean because he was an actor, I’d see him on auditions. One day I ran into him at a restaurant. He’s a big “Simpsons” fan, and he said, “You know, we’re doing ‘Godzilla,’ there’s a part in it for you. . . .” I figured, I’ll either get killed in the first 10 minutes or it’ll be three scenes. . . . Nobody offers a good part in a restaurant.
I sort of forgot about it and a month and a half later the script arrived, and I couldn’t believe it was a starring role! I don’t think Roland knew who I was, so Dean showed him some of my work, and I met with them. Knowing that these kinds of movies can be arduous, I also wanted to make sure I’d be free to have fun, and they were great.
Q: Did Harry Shearer’s involvement come out of your being cast?
A: Dean is such a huge “Simpsons” fan I think he wanted us all in it. He put [Bart Simpson voice artist] Nancy Cartwright in as Harry’s secretary. Dean wanted all three of us on screen together at one point, and to have “The Simpsons” on television. But Roland looked at him like, this movie isn’t about creating a “Simpsons” reunion, we have other things to accomplish!
Q: You’ve said doing “The Simpsons” helped you deal with your imaginary “Godzilla” star.
A: We record “The Simpsons” before it’s animated, like a radio play. It’s all in your head. So I was slightly prepared for an invisible co-star. But even for me it got bizarre. When the main relationship in your life for five months is an imaginary 20-story lizard . . . you have some odd dreams in your fourth month!
Q: Any you’d care to share?
Q: One special effect was real--the day the set got hit with a tornado.
A: Oh my God--one of the first days I shot. I got to the set in Jersey City, I was there not five minutes at this beautiful spot on the river, looking across at the Manhattan skyline--and a twister blew up real quick, came right down the street we’re shooting on, knocked down part of the set and took out a brick wall where I was supposed to shoot! But I saw it as a good omen for the picture. It was like God going, “This’ll be fun! Can you use this?” I called Helen and said, “I think your action movie just attacked my action movie!” [laughs]
Q: You’ve said finding the tone of the film drove you crazy. People are wondering what the tone is. . . .
A: In a way, so am I. You want to believe things are actually happening, but you want to have fun with it. But you don’t want camp because you have that already in the old movies. So you put yourself in the situation and see if anything funny would come out. The first couple months of that, no problem; then you’re exhausted.
Also, being a character actor I don’t think I ever worked five months on a thing. I had a sprinter’s mentality--go in, try to steal every scene you’re in, get out. You need a marathoner’s mentality, literally. The first day we did a running down the alley scene, I’d sprint. I’d go to Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno, “You guys are so slow. Move it!” They’d say, “Trust me, we’re going fast enough for the camera and slow enough that we can run four months from now.” And they were right.
Q: When did you discover your skill for doing voices?
A: I could mimic everyone from the time I was a child. I loved Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn . . . then when I got old enough to realize it was all the same guy, Mel Blanc, I lost my mind. I watched everything. My heroes were George Carlin, Steve Martin, Peter Sellers, Pacino, De Niro. But it wasn’t until college that I started taking acting seriously.
Q: Didn’t a psychic friend tell you to move from New York to Los Angeles?
A: That’s true. My sister Stephanie had a close friend who was a psychic. She said, “You’re going to move to L.A. and work out there.”
I didn’t move right then, but it stuck in my head.
Q: What was your first L.A. acting job?
A: One line on a Peter Boyle sitcom 12 years ago, “Joe Bash.” I flew myself out from New York because it got me my SAG card. I played a cop; my one line was “Yeah.” I made the mistake of telling everyone I knew I was in it and of course they cut it. I was totally humiliated. After that I would never tell people I was in anything.
Q: What was the first job you did in L.A. to pay the rent?
A: I bartended for a catering company for two or three years. . . .
Q: Little knowing it was research for a “Simpsons” character.
A: True. But I didn’t need that experience to . . . [voice splinters into the razor-blade sharpness of Moe] . . . loin how ta talk like dis. Moe was easier to do when I smoked.
Q: Do any convenience store workers know you’re the voice of Apu?
A: [in clipped Indian tenor] It would be teddible if dey found out dat it was me! To me Apu is quite a good guy, a positive figure.
Q: And Chief Wiggum?
A: [in Edward G. Robinson rasp] Yeahhh? What about ‘im? . . . Wiggum started off much more David Brinkley. Most of my voices are just bad celebrity impressions. Moe is a bastardized Pacino. And Lou the cop . . . [Stallone-esque baritone] “Hey, chief. How ya doin’?”
Q: Does “The Simpsons” give you a sense of security?
A: It’s great fun--and I can be choosy and not have to take money jobs. And now it’s a lot of money.
Q: Any war stories from the negotiations with Fox?
A: No, it was overblown. Our contracts were up, we wanted a lot of money . . . and I admit, it’s a lot of money [a reported $50,000 per episode]. But the show’s been on 10 years and we get no piece of syndication or merchandising. We don’t get as much as on-camera people do in the 10th year of a show. I think it’s fair what we got.
Q: I’m guessing “The Birdcage” was a turning point in terms of exposure--in every sense, given the thong.
A: Yes. Everybody saw my tushie.
Q: Who inspired your performance?
A: Most of it was the Puerto Rican street queens I’d see growing up in New York. I worked up two versions of the character and ran them by a good friend, a makeup artist who’ll occasionally get into drag. He helped me pick the one that seemed most real. And once I had the dialect I realized it sounded like my grandmother. She was a sweet, maternal woman, the most nurturing person, and it really helped me get the mind-set of playing nursemaid to those guys.
Q: You just finished “The Cradle Will Rock,” you’re in David Kelley’s film “Mystery Alaska.” . . . How tough is it for you and Helen to find time to be together?
A: You know, we keep this stuff personal. It’s just so precious to us, no words ever seem to do it justice. But we’re really happy. And like any two busy people, we have to make time.
Q: Any good Oscar stories from last March?
A: Just the best one of all, that she won [best actress]. It was a thrilling, thrilling moment.
Q: What went through your mind?
A: Utter shock and joy. I don’t think I have any other moment that I can say comes close to that. I wonder if it’s even better to have it happen to someone you love than yourself, it’s such a proud feeling. One of the happiest moments of my life.