Will Arnett Talks Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

We chat with Will Arnett about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, the appeal of motion-capture suits, and Donald Trump.

Will Arnett has played his fair share of recurring characters. Starring in cult shows as varied as Arrested Development and BoJack Horseman, not to mention building a burgeoning franchise with The Lego Batman Movie, the actor knows something about revisiting a persona. Yet with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Arnett is reprising his first live-action movie role, and with that comes a few unique responsibilities.

Merely Megan Fox’s cameraman/sidekick in 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Arnett’s Vernon has moved up in the world with this week’s superhero sequel. As the title suggests, the Ninja Turtles are doing what martial arts superstars do and remaining watchful from the wings, leaving all the credit for saving New York to Vern. And this onscreen anti-hero takes to the cherry gig with aplomb. Enjoying courtside seats to the Knicks, the ritziest parties every night, and the key to the city, Arnett’s anti-hero literally gets to steal the Turtles’ thunder every day… before they need his help again.

Having first lived in New York City when he was studying acting at only 20, the perks of playing his adopted hometown’s hero (if only on the big screen) were very much on Arnett’s mind when we sat down to chat about TMNT: Out of the Shadows. The discussion also included what it is like to continue working with actors in motion-capture suits—and whether he wants to eventually don one of those outfits himself—as well as whether his Lego Batman alter-ego has yet to assess Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. We even made time to consider how the Big Apple’s Donald Trump would react to an alien invasion similar to the one in this movie.

So, this is your first live-action sequel where you play a returning character. How is it coming back to the set and revisiting a guy like Vernon?

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Will Arnett: Yeah, first of all, I was excited when we started talking about what this movie was going to be, and the idea that it was going to be more fun, more intense, in a great way, like in a fun way, more action, and bring in some of the other characters from the Turtles canon. That to me was a great way to start. Then, when the idea was floated that Vernon takes credit for saving the city, because the Turtles can’t—which is really at the core of the story, that they’re not accepted and they sort of can’t reveal themselves in the daylight, and that Vern sort of helps them service that by taking credit—that to me was an interesting thing to be able to go and play.

It was just something to do; it was kind of different within a movie like this that gave me a little something. And then the idea that he redeems himself in the end, and gets back onboard and helps everybody. I was psyched, I was psyched that that was what I got to do.

Speaking of taking credit, what was it like playing the messiah of New York for a day in the city?

[Laughs] That was cool! The idea of thinking about that after having lived here for over 20 years, and when I first moved here as a young man and being broke and really struggling, to then come back and play that character is really, really cool. Being courtside at the Knicks? I mean, even now that was kind of cool! Just to go to a game courtside of the Knicks is cool, but to go and shoot during the actual game, to shoot a movie that was such a thrill, and to be sort of playing that part of the guy everybody’s like celebrating, it was a neat thrill.

Did you have to insist no blue screen? We’re going to Madison Square Garden.

Yeah! I’m glad that they really worked it out and that we got to do it. It gave it that urgency. I think if we faked it, you’d kind of know. In giving it that urgency of actually being there and saying we rehearsed it and stuff, and said, “Look, we’re going to have four or five TV timeouts we can work with, and wearing an earpiece during the game, and then they’re like, “Alright a timeout’s coming in about the next 30 seconds. So, get ready.” And because the director can’t be there, [he says], “Action” and giving you directions through your earpiece. It was cool.

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I feel like a character like Vernon if he was really alive today, he’d be pals with Donald Trump.

He might be. [Laughs] He might very well be! Yeah, you know looking back, we should have gotten a cameo out of Trump. That would’ve been hilarious. Especially now, right? Imagine if we had that foresight.

I think people would love to see how he’d react to an alien invasion.

[Laughs] I have a pretty good idea! He’d be like, “I guess build a wall to the sky?” Maybe? “Like you know the Technodrome is there. We’re going to build a wall and get the Canadians to pay for it!”

The out-there stuff in this movie seems about as believable as anything else he says.

That’s true, that’s totally true.

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Has your relationship evolved riffing off of Megan or any other members of the cast?

Yeah, you know what, we had a lot of fun. You know, Megan and I—this is actually our third film together and our second Turtles film. We did Jonah Hex about seven years ago to very little fanfare. But Megan and I, we have a pretty good rapport. When we’re working together it’s great, and when we’re just on set with each other, we play pretty hard. And I think that when other people came in—like Stephen [Amell] didn’t realize how hard we goofed around with each other and made fun of each other. And we were able to pick right back up and had a good time.

In addition to Megan you have, for example, Noel Fisher, who is in this very elaborate motion capture body suit. First, what is it like interacting with another performer dressed like that?

Well, it’s weird. You’ve got to get over the fact that he’s wearing like a gray leotard and he’s got cameras pointed at his eyes, and lights and dots all over his face. But you know, Noel is such a funny guy and he brings a great kind of spark and immediacy to his performance. He’s got that thing that every sort of performer but especially a comedic performer wants: that element of surprise. You don’t know what he’s going to do next and that gives the scene some urgency, and I love working with him. I love working with actors like him, but with him. Despite the fact that he’s in this bizarro get up that you never quite get used to, he’s so good at embodying Mikey that you’re right there with him.

But in that kind of technology where do you keep the eye-line?

That part’s difficult. He’s got these sort of sticks and wires or whatever with ping pong balls on top. So, you’ve got to maintain that eye-line up there. But then as you start to goof around, you end up going down to his eyes, because it’s just human nature; you want to look the other person in the eye. And that gets sometimes tricky. You’re in the middle of a take, and you’re like, “Oh God, did I screw up? Was I looking at his eyes?”

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Would you like yourself to do the motion-capture one day?

No. [Laughs]

That was very quick.

Yeah, that was a quick answer. Would I do it? Sure—I guess so. Is it something that I want to actively go and do? No, I mean the closest I’d get to that is doing the animation stuff that I do, which is not really motion-capture. But when I’m in the booth, I get pretty physical. I’m always on my feet, and I’m always moving around. So maybe I could do it.

Related to that, everyone in this movie seems to be mutating. In fact, I’m pretty sure Tyler [Perry] is coming back for another one to fly around. What kind of animal do you think Vern could become?

Well, I don’t know what Vern would mutate into, but I was thinking—we’ve been asked the question of what would you be. What would your dormant animal be. And I think that I would be a lab, a Labrador Retriever, like a black lab. And that’s basically because I’d want to live indoors, sleep 18 hours a day, and have other people feed me. That’d be rad.

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Doing a movie like this, I feel you have to walk a precarious line as a comedic actor, because you have to both be funny, provide humor and jokes, but you also have to participate in the stunt work and the action scenes. How do you walk that delicate line?

You know, I think with something like this you try to find humor in the character, you try to find little things while always trying to tell the story, always try to be driving the story forward, keep that in mind, and find out what is funny about my character in that situation, and what strikes me as being funny in a [scene] like that, but also keep it within the realm of the story. So make sure that it doesn’t stick out, that you’re not operating at a different volume.

Were you able to improv at all on this one?

You know, we certainly did some improv and came up with some stuff, but I’m really happy with what the writers did. They did a great job, so I didn’t want to take away from what those guys did. I was a happy soldier.

With this, you also had more stunts. Did you request more stunts or did you enjoy getting in on some of the action?

You know on the first one, we actually had a bunch of stunts, we had some stuff, especially in that chase scene down the mountain and all that, very difficult stuff, and Megan and I had this fight scene that we shot over the course of a week downtown with the Foot Clan. And it was really intricate and really tough, and it did not make the film. So, I was bummed about that, because the filmmakers thought that we looked like we were too good at fighting. And of course, you know it’s choreographed, but I was psyched. I was like, “Man, I look like a badass” fighting 12 dudes or something.

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This go-round, I had a few things to do physically, especially at the end of the movie, as we’re going to save the day, and I sort of jump off some shipping containers and get flipped by [Brittany Ishibashi], and we had really great stunt guys. I ended up doing a couple of those scenes myself. I wouldn’t want to do too much, because the next day, after you get flipped for like your fourth time, you’re like, “No I’m good.”

What do you think the appeal is all these years later for a franchise as out there as the Ninja Turtles?

I think I’ve got really great universal appeal, and it’s got a sort of evergreen quality to the story. The message is simple: four brothers that each have their own exceptional talent. The leader, the rebellious brawny one, the free-spirited jokester, and the scholar, technophile. Each one of them can do that thing really, really well, but can only get so far on their own. And it’s only when they work together through harmony that they can conquer at all. And that’s something people can relate to, and they can relate to [not forgetting] these are teenagers and going through the difficulties of that.

They’re fun and they’ve got sort of a great youthful spirit, but they’re going through something that’s tough, but if they stick together it’s all good. And I think no matter who you are, or where you are, that resonates.

I wanted to ask you real quick about Lego Batman. How’s that project coming along?

It’s coming along great. I’m really excited for people to be able to see it. I was very happy to see the reaction worldwide to the first two teaser trailers, and we’ve done some great stuff that I’m so excited for people to see. You know Joker is amazing; Zach Galifianakis as Joker and Michael Cera as Robin are amazing, and Ralph Fiennes as Alfred, and the list goes on. We have an incredible cast and a great group of people. The writers have done an amazing job, so I’m excited.

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I think people who are fans of Batman, people who are fans of The Lego Movie, people who are fans of Lego Batman, will be satisfied by the direction we’ve gone into. We really dig deep into what makes Batman tick.

On a related note, have you seen Batman v Superman, yet?

I haven’t seen it. I want to.

There might be some good opportunities for jokes in there. Will, thank you.

Yeah, you too. Good to see you.