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Will Arnett on the pressure of starring in 'The Lego Batman Movie' and the precious instrument that is his voice

Will Arnett on the pressure of starring in 'The Lego Batman Movie' and the precious instrument that is his voice
Actor Will Arnett, who is voicing the Dark Knight in "The Lego Batman Movie," at the Montage in Beverly Hills. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

"Ask me anything," Will Arnett said, folding his arms behind his head and reclining on a couch as if he were in a therapist's office.

He said it, but it was unclear how much he meant it. Because about a year ago, right before the release of his Netflix show "Flaked" — a show heavily based on his own experiences as a recovering alcoholic — he said too much during an interview. In a Hollywood Reporter cover story, Arnett revealed that during the making of the program, he'd slipped up and briefly started drinking again.

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"And then the Daily Mail put out a headline that said, 'Arnett hit the bottle!' Which makes it sound like I was living under a bridge because I was drinking rosé," said the 46-year-old, who has since recommitted himself to his sobriety. "It's made me a little bit more guarded. Because the truth is, as an actor, you are your own business, which is so [messed] up."

Not that the admission seems to have damaged his business. Despite middling reviews, Netflix decided to renew "Flaked" for a second season, which will premiere later this year. That's also when the fourth season of "BoJack Horseman" will debut on the streaming service, the animated series on which Arnett voices an anthropomorphic horse who struggles with depression and substance abuse in the wake of his fading sitcom fame. Arnett is  currently producing a reboot of the classic game show "The Gong Show" for ABC while simultaneously flying back and forth to Wales, where he's shooting a family film called "Show Dogs" with Natasha Lyonne.

Will Arnett, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Cera and Rosario Dawson voice characters in "The Lego Batman Movie."

And then there's "The Lego Batman Movie," out this weekend, a spinoff of the hit 2014 animated comedy that has Arnett's Dark Knight questioning why a superhero who seemingly has everything is still so unhappy.

Between the "Lego" movies and "BoJack," Arnett's voice has become integral to his success in the movie business. Which isn't exactly a surprise: When he was in his twenties, trying to make it in New York, Arnett became a top-earning voice-over actor almost by accident. After starring in an "off, off Broadway play," he managed to land an agent at William Morris, who suggested Arnett had a sound that might work well on radio.

He was 23, and within a month, he'd landed a gig voicing a commercial for Harvard Community Health Plan in Boston. Soon, he was collecting checks from Evian, Boston Market, Lays Potato Chips, Hershey's and Lockheed Martin. He tried to take the jobs seriously, attempting to emulate famous voice-over artists like Hal Riney — though sometimes there wasn't much to mine creatively.

"I did a lot of corporate spots — stuff that played during golf," he recalled early Tuesday from the couch, oddly the only piece of furniture in a massive hotel ballroom where he'd been doing press for "Batman." "It was a thing I was going to do just to pay the rent, and then, all of a sudden, I started making real money — like, executive money. It was crazy, but it wasn't scratching the itch in terms of wanting to be an actor."

Though he acknowledges that reading corporate ad copy is hardly "rocket science or high art," he does believe his years in the sound booth are a major reason he's landed parts like "Batman" and "BoJack." He's able to modulate his EQ — "sort of like equalizing your voice" — by switching up his tempo and adjusting his cadence.

"One of the first things you notice about him is that he has a gorgeous voice," said Michael Cera, who plays Robin to Arnett's Dark Night in "Batman" and has been friends with him since they met on the set of "Arrested Development" 15 years ago. "But whenever he's in front of a microphone, he's able to step on the gas a little. He's definitely affecting his voice. It's sort of like sandpaper on Velcro or something."

Arnett first heard about Warner Bros.' plan to make the "Batman" movie on the night "The Lego Movie" opened in theaters. The filmmaking team — directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, producer Dan Lin, studio exec Greg Silverman — had gone out for a celebratory dinner, and every 30 minutes, someone would share an excited update on the positive box-office receipts. That's when Silverman, Warner's then-head of production, said: "Congrats. The movie's doing great. How would you feel about making the 'Lego Batman' movie?"

According to Chris McKay, who directed the spinoff, the vision was this: Batman would follow a long cinematic tradition of narcissistic, self-involved leading men as seen in films like "Jerry Maguire," "About a Boy" and "Scrooged." The filmmaker wanted to show the superhero as both vain but lonely — a character who only earns sympathy after he realizes he needs the help of others. Though he was nervous about sounding "too actor-y," Arnett acknowledged that he spent a fair amount of time considering Batman's motivations and experiences before taking on the role.

"Lego Batman doesn't know that he is an animated character — and by that, I mean, I approached him as a character I'm playing with an inner life," he said. "I'm not just talking in that voice."

While Arnett was ready to tackle the creative challenge, his schedule proved challenging for production. "I had to deal with the logistics all the time," recalled McKay. "He was working on the 'Ninja Turtles' sequel and 'Flaked' and 'BoJack' and that movie in Wales. And on top of that, he's also got kids. It was a lot. But he's just a hard worker, is what it boils down to. He'll stay as late as you want — until obviously, at a certain point, his voice gives out."

Indeed, Arnett said his biggest struggle these days is figuring out how to devote enough time to both his children and his career. He has two sons under 10 with ex-wife Amy Poehler, and he coaches their Little League team.

"I look at everything I do as taking me away from spending time with my kids," he said, tucking himself deeper into his jean jacket. "I don't want to be the guy who works all the time."

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One day recently, while watching a cut of "Flaked" on his computer, his 6-year-old walked in the room and Arnett had to slam his screen down. (Depending on the episode, the boy could have seen his dad in bed with a topless woman, or swigging wine from a water bottle.) So he's started to think more about making things that he can share with his sons. When he was sent the script for "Show Dogs" — which would take him out of the country for many weeks — he ran it by his kids before accepting the role.

"I pitched them the premise and they were like, 'The dog is your police partner? That sounds really cool! You should do it!'" he said. "Now, if it doesn't work, I'm gonna be like, 'You guys are taking me in a terrible direction.'"

Part of the reason he's trying to be more private, he said, is also for them. He doesn't want them to have to answer to bullies at school. And someday, when they're old enough, "I can talk to them and say, 'Here's what I was going through.'"

As for his career, beyond keeping his boys in mind, he joked that he's "too dumb to have a plan." He's open to playing a leading man who isn't animated — or doesn't have animated turtles by his side — but acknowledged that he doesn't "know if that's in the cards for me."

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McKay disagrees.

"He's, like, a real actor," the director said. "And I guess what I'm trying to say when I say that is that he's not just a comic presence. I think there's a live-action movie role that is going to be able to use his charm, his charisma, his roguishness. His potential still has yet to be tapped."

Follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA

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