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Entertainment & Arts

The Sunday Conversation: Hank Azaria

Hank Azaria, 47, drops the funny accents to play a guy who looks suspiciously like himself in the new NBC comedy “Free Agents,” based on the British series of the same name. Kathryn Hahn costars as his character’s coworker and the other half of an on-again, off-again couple.

How did this come about? Who went after whom?

[Executive producers] John Enbom, Karey Burke and Todd Holland said, “Do you want to do this?” I was very on the fence because of the schedule — it’s a very rough job. Half-hour one-camera shows, if you’re the lead in it? If you’re a supporting character, it’s an easy job. But the hours… And I lean more toward the cable sensibility, so this thing for me had two strikes against it to start.

But then I really love John Enbom and his show “Party Down,” and I really thought the script was terrific, and I really like John and Karey and Todd, and I thought it was worth a shot.

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Is it going to be hard to sustain a relationship that’s teetering on the edge of romance for a full series and hopefully then some?

We have challenges, for sure, but I honestly don’t think that is one of them, for two reasons: John Enbom, if you saw “Party Down,” happens to be extraordinarily good at writing a real version of a relationship that’s on again, off again, that feels believable. It’s almost a buddy comedy, believe it or not. These two, more than anything else, are best friends. They’re two people who are highly attracted to each other and love each other but can’t be with each other right now and yet are two feet from each other all day.

A lot of your previous funny roles such as Agador, the maid in “The Birdcage,” and Kahmunrah in one of the “Night at the Museum” films have involved funny voices and accents, but obviously, this is a different kind of funny — where the humor is mostly in the writing. Is that more or less of a challenge for you?

It’s both. Being funny with a funny voice is more my comfort zone, a broader character that I try to humanize, a kind of silly or wacky persona that I try to fill in. On the other hand, it’s much easier to be someone much closer to myself. I dress normally, I’m comfortable. There’s less energy involved than playing characters that are so out there and high strung, I’m physically exhausted by the end of the day. This is easier to do, but I have less practice at it.

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What are some of the differences between the British and the American version? I’m guessing there won’t be any scenes with you talking to a vicar about the ethics of being a godmother when you don’t believe in God.

Funny you say that, because that is up for debate. There’s a version of that script that exists, and it depends on how far we go with it. I think that’s less of a question of British versus American than it is cable versus network sensibility. Obviously, if we were doing this on Showtime, if you wanted to do that, you just would.

You mean discussions of the existence of God are taboo on network television?

No. It’s less about discussing the existence of God and more about how much you can focus on the genuine sadness of these characters. How funny is grieving, really? And that’s partly what we’re trying to balance. It was a challenge in the British series as well. How funny is it to watch people in that much pain? It’s a fine line between depressing and hilarious.

A quick “Simpsons” question: Who’s your favorite character of the ones you do?

My favorite character is Moe, because I feel he’s the most fleshed out. He feels like a dark alter ego to myself. He’s from New York, has a New York accent. He sounds like I grew up talking. I feel like I would be Moe if I weren’t so lucky.

Did you have to consciously lose your New York accent?

To an extent, but I’m such a mimic — consciously and unconsciously — that it just kind of left me without thinking about it.

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I gather your friends call you “the freakish mimic,” not just a mimic. Has it ever gotten you into trouble?

It’s led to some strange moments, I suppose. When I was young in L.A. and I couldn’t get into clubs or restaurants, I would call imitating celebrities and get a table, and it would work often. I was either Stallone or Mickey Rourke: “This is Sly. I may be late, but my buddy Hank will be there early.”

So who do you think is funny?

So many people. My ultimate is Peter Sellers — his ability to go broad and somehow humanize that and be hilarious at the same time. He was just relatable, real at the same time as insane. I find Ricky Gervais absolutely hilarious. Steve Martin is another hero of mine — he’s a genius. He has the perfect balance of being irreverent but yet respectful. And the Python guys — Monty Python [starring in “Spamalot” on Broadway] was a major event in my life. Being 12 years old and in the same year there was Monty Python on PBS and the premiere of “Saturday Night Live.” It changed my life.

I read that you were planning to do a documentary about fatherhood.

That’s true. I have it half-complete. I’m forever looking for financing to finish it. I love that project. I have a crazy story. I’ve been with my lovely sweetie, Katie [Wright], for about six years now, and the question was less do we get married, it was more do we have a kid? And we were both very torn about it. So I started shooting a documentary just asking famous and unfamous people, friends and strangers and experts, why did you want to be a dad? Was it what you thought?

A few weeks into shooting, my dog, Annie, who was 16 years old, started to die. And I started shooting that because in a way I was a parent to that dog. I kid you not, but the day the dog died, we found out we were pregnant. And that was all captured on film. So then the documentary changed to I’m going to be a father, I’m terrified, what do I do? We were going to have a kid, and we weren’t planning on that.

I haven’t shot in a couple of years, but I’d love to pick it up with what I’ve learned as a father. My son, Hal, is 2 years and 3 months. He’s still a tiny guy.

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