If you've seen the poster art for DreamWorks' latest animated feature, "Shrek," you probably thought, "That's an odd title" and "What an ugly-looking green character with funny ears." And that is the moral of the story: Looks are only skin-deep.
"Shrek," the first computer-animated feature for the studio since 1998's "Antz," stars Mike Myers as the voice of the lovable ogre Shrek, Cameron Diaz as Princess Fiona, Eddie Murphy as the hyperactive sidekick Donkey and John Lithgow as snide Lord Farquaad. The film opened Wednesday in L.A. and New York and will be released nationwide Friday.
It is a contemporary morality play about an ogre who begrudgingly becomes a hero and discovers how to love others in the process. The film references (and pokes fun at) classic fairy tales, the kind that teach there is more to Shrek than his appearance. He happens to be a thoughtful ogre who nonetheless is angry about the way the world perceives him.
In a recent interview at Westwood's trendy W hotel, Diaz and Myers discussed their first animated film and their first project together. Both actors approached the roles as dramatic performances, seeing the film as a timely fable about modern society's obsession with looks. The stars recorded their voices to the animation off and on for nearly two years.
Question: How did you become involved with this project?
Myers: [DreamWorks executive] Jeffrey Katzenberg asked me [if] I would like to be in an animated fairy tale. He said that Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow would be in it and I said, "Yes, please." I asked him what it was about, and he said it was about an ogre who starts out unhappy with being an ogre and ends up accepting himself as an ogre.
Q: [To Myers] So you were among the last to sign on to the project?
Diaz: Well, I was told that you were going to do it! See how things happen? They called me up and asked if I wanted to be in an animated fairy tale and that the story was about an ogre and a princess and how they become accepting of themselves and one another and the beauty of that message. I said, "That sounds great. Who is doing it?" And they said, "Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and John Lithgow" and I said, "Please, can I do it?"
Q: How much input did you have with the characters?
Myers: It was extremely well-written [by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Joe Stillman and Roger S. H. Schulman]. I have written everything I've done for the most part. So, I just loved coming in and just micro-managing one part. And I thought the story was great. I would hear what John and Eddie and Cameron had done, and I thought they were brilliant. They really sparked me creatively.
Q: How does the process of taping and matching your voices to the animation work?
Diaz: There wasn't a script or anything. You come in and there is a storyboard. I learned how the acts sort of played out the first time I went in to work with them. Andrew [Adamson, co-director of the movie with Vicky Jenson] would stand with his retractable pointer stick and sort of act out each story point. I didn't even see the end of the story when I first started working on it. They had not finished the storyboards yet. The first time I read it, and then I just did it. After you watch it, you say, "Now I get it." I've seen the movie, and now I get the character and I understand what she was going through. And you kind of just say, "God, I wish I had known that before I did this!"
Q: That seems like a difficult way to get in character or to act if you don't know where you're going with the performance.
Diaz: Yes, it's a strange process. It happens over several years. You do a performance, then they animated over about two years, then you do another performance [in what amounts to looping dialogue that doesn't quite work], and they take that.
Q: So how do you become the character?
Myers: I had done Shrek as a Canadian [affecting a Canadian accent] like, "I'm an ogre, eh?" I'm very proud to be Canadian and everybody was very happy with how it turned out, but I knew I could give more to it. My mum is from Liverpool, England. She's a trained actress. When I was a kid she used to read fairy tales to me. The bookmobile would come by, and fairy tales would be in the back of the bookmobile. My mum would read all the different parts. So all children's books and fairy tales have English accents to me. Like, Curious George is from London, Babar is from Liverpool.
I realized I wasn't making that nice connection to the process and to Shrek because it was missing that Mum connection. Once I had made that connection--he's Scottish and had been living in Canada for like 20 years--once I'd made that connection, it all opened up for me in terms of my heart energy and warmth for me.
There was not one molecule of cynicism about this process. And I got inspired hearing Eddie and Cameron and John and how committed they were. I thought, "Wow, I've got to dig deeper." After a while I didn't feel I was doing a movie with Cameron Diaz, I thought I was doing a movie with Princess Fiona.
Diaz: Yes, it's weird how the process is, huh? I mean I know what Mike Myers looks like, but it's just that you are watching Shrek, Donkey, and it's Princess Fiona who is relating to them. It becomes their little story.
Myers: In a weird way, it locks you into the character even more. After a stressful day, I got to spend two hours with Princess Fiona and Donkey and Lord Farquaad. It did remind me of when the bookmobile would come by and I would go sit on the furry cube of the children's section. At first I was lost, but over time you know [what to do] in the movie.
Q: Do you think this movie will catch on with a diverse audience in terms of age?
Myers: In Britain they have these things called the Pantomimes at Christmas. They have these Christmas shows--it's kind of like a big party. A pretty girl will play the young lead male, an older established comedian will play the witch. There is a lot of cross-dressing and gender-bending. There are a lot of jokes that are torn from today's headlines set against Rumpelstiltskin or something like that. There are jokes for the parents and jokes for the kids. The parents are laughing at the jokes that are more topical, and the little kids are looking at the lead character and saying [in his best English accent], "Look out behind you! Look out behind you!" There is a lot of this in the movie. Eddie is so hilarious as the donkey that he gives a contemporary touch to the fairy tale.
Q: It does seem like you played the part very straight--as a dramatic role.
Myers: I did approach it as a dramatic role. The message of the movie is so great and it's so important. I was in Toronto and a 9-year-old kid was eating a hot dog and she said, "Oh, I have to go exercise for an hour now to work this off." I thought we are in a time right now where a handful of people are deciding what is normal, what is pretty and what is an appropriate body image. . . . I just don't remember that as a kid. I know I'm a boy and it's different for girls, but I just don't remember girls saying, "Oh, I have to go work out" at such a young age.
Diaz: I think body image is something that has always been there for girls. I mean, women have been corseted for half their existence. But now it's so global and the media is at us at all ends from television to radio, [dictating] what sort of image is OK and what perfect is and what you should aspire to be. I mean, even myself.
Q: But you are kind of the model for these girls:
Diaz: Only because I polish up nicely. I'm not saying, "You have to look this way." If any girl puts on makeup or puts something on that she feels good in, then she will be as beautiful as she can be.
Myers: If I may, I think Cameron is very, very good-looking. . . .
Q: And thin.
Myers: But that is not the issue. The issue with Cameron is how incredibly charming in herself she is. With "Charlie's Angels," what struck me--and I loved it, I've seen it four times--was how each of the characters was their own person and made no apologies for who they are. That they are all really good-looking is nice, but what I came away with in the movie is not that you are supposed to be good-looking but that you have to be yourself. They were this really great gal team making no apologies or excuses for who they are.
Diaz: Exactly, it's not like I've ever said you have to look like me, or this is the ideal woman.
Q: It's more like the media imposes it.
Myers: That's true
Diaz: Certainly. But, truth be known, I appreciate what you said, Mike, in that beauty comes from within. I mean, someone said to me today, "But you've got to know that being beautiful makes it so much easier to be in the world." And I think that what makes it easier to be in this world is being a kind, patient person, because when you are patient you can put up with the ignorance of everyone else.
Truth be known, I've wished my entire life I could be 15 pounds heavier. Believe me, I've tried. I eat like a cow, but I don't put the weight on. This is who I am, and so I have to accept this is who I am and I'm OK with that. It's about accepting who you are.
Q: And you've played roles where beauty is not an issue, like in "Being John Malkovich."
Diaz: Yeah. To me, I look at Lotte [her character in that film] and I really loved her. I liked her so much I wanted to be her more than I wanted to be myself. It was a relief when I could be in her skin.
The people you work with in this business, some are really good-looking; others are just incredibly charming. Whatever you are watching on the screen, what you are seeing is not just the looks of people.
There are a billion people in Los Angeles who are good-looking. If all it took was for you to be handsome or gorgeous to be on the screen and make a living at it, then everybody would be successful. But it's what you have inside, it's what you emote, that is what film really sees.