So why, one might ask Hank Azaria, did star Ben Stiller and director Shawn Levy think the actor was perfect for the muscular, reanimated, ancient Egyptian bent on world domination in “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”?
“It’s kind of my niche -- semi-naked, accented freak,” Azaria says with a smile, trying not to move too much. He perches on a railing on the wooden deck of his rustic Beverly Hills home, seemingly impervious to the occasional gnat, as a photographer snaps away.
“Actually, at first I was thrilled to be thought of but a little worried: Often the villain in these kinds of movies is the one not-funny guy. But then I read the script and I thought he was the funniest guy in the movie. So I was really happy. Which is a rarity.
“I had 15 seconds of happiness. Usually you’re terrified or bored.”
Azaria confesses he wasn’t able to break up his pal Stiller during filming but instead was victimized himself by Christopher Guest (who acts the living borscht out of Ivan the Terrible with just his wild eyes): “As part of his weird Russian accent, he would replace consonants in a way that was just ridiculous. Instead of saying, ‘I was a great secretary of state,’ he would say, ‘I was a great secretary of staaab,’ ” he says, pouring on a Russian accent of his own. “Things like that, no sense. ‘Now listen-p, I have to go to the museub.’ Some of it actually got into the movie. Really killed me.”
The malevolent, mellifluous mummy isn’t the only ancient figure Azaria embodies this summer -- he also plays Abraham in Harold Ramis’ sacrilegious slacker comedy, “Year One.” The roles are, one might say, millenniums apart, but Azaria admits, “To be honest, I’ve just recycled two iconic movie characters.”
In “Museum,” his Kahmunrah has the amber-honeyed lisp of Jeremy Irons with a bee-stung tongue, but the actor is actually channeling someone else quite specific.
“At the last minute, I said, ‘Let me try a little Boris Karloff.’ Never thinking it would be usable, really, but it just made everybody laugh,” he says. “I liked it because he actually did play the Mummy; it was fun to imagine if he had been around, how would he do it? Because he’s from another era, his attempting to be scary in a kind of antiquated way was kind of sweet and right for a villain in a children’s movie.
“And it was fun to talk like this. It was fun on lines like, ‘I was dead.’ Which was scary 50 years ago: ‘I was dead,’ ” he says, laughing. “It’s not scary now.”
He was impressed by director Shawn Levy’s ability to organize (his “admirable analness”), which freed the actors’ creativity.
“He remembers everything you’ve done. A lot of times in the movie, you’re talking to someone who isn’t there. For example, I had a lot of scenes with the miniature Owen Wilson and we shot my scenes first. And we’d ad-lib a lot. [Levy] records every single variation and picks the 10 best -- he has those all as lines he delivers off-camera to Owen, all the variations. And he knows what’s funny when he hears it. So you can just relax and know whatever you do that’s good will get in the movie.”
As to Abraham in “Year One,” the actor confesses he and Ramis had in mind George C. Scott’s turn in John Huston’s “The Bible.” Azaria barks cheerfully with the forceful enthusiasm of the late Scott’s most famous screen personas:
“I mean, think about it! It’s George C. Scott! That’s all it is, my friend! Instant character!”
“Maybe these impressions aren’t as good as I think they are. To me they sound exactly like it but maybe they’re just sort of similar. It’s so old it’s new, sort of thing. That’s what I’m hoping, anyway.”
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
Where you’ve seen him
Romantically challenged bartender Moe Szyslak may get no love on “The Simpsons,” but for voicing him (and a host of other characters including Apu, Chief Wiggum and Comic Book Guy), Hank Azaria has carted home three Emmys. Azaria is still wanted in three states for the scenes he stole from Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in “The Birdcage” and he won another Emmy for his dramatic turn in “Tuesdays With Morrie.” He wishes, however, that two of his movies, “Quiz Show” and “Shattered Glass,” had reached more people (“It’s less about my performance in them; I just think they’re really good movies”) and that his short-lived but multiply nominated Showtime series “Huff” “had gotten more exposure.”