Eddie Redmayne, in the guise of Aardman’s newest hero Dug, is the lead voice in Early Man. And he’s clearly thrilled about it, admitting that he’d work with Aardman pretty much whatever the material.
As we sat down for a chat about the film, I couldn’t help but recall that on the way to the posh hotel where the interview took place, I’d walked past a big DFS, with a picture of Dug apparently flogging sofas. It proved an inspiration…
There’s only one place to start, clearly. When you set out on your acting career, did you ever dream of voicing a character who would end up in the window of DFS?
[Laughs] And the ad is playing endlessly on various radio stations! My wife was like, what’s the connection between sofas and Early Man?
I looked really hard in the film for a sofa, and couldn’t spot a single one….
I mean, that’s good product placement isn’t it? I wonder if we get a free sofa?!
I’ll put it out there, although I’d suggest one of us has much better odds than the other!
I make no apologies for this, as I’d be the world’s worst gossip columnist. I don’t know if you’ve got children or not, nor am I trying to pry into your private life. But what I am curious about is the audience that Early Man plays to. A Fantastic Beasts film, for instance, I’d imagine kids will see that as much by themselves as with their parents. But Early Man is a full-on family film, and not in a surrogate babysitter kind of way, that’s engaging different generations. Is that audience particularly important to you?
Do you know? What a wonderful, intricate question, and I’m really embarrassed to say that I don’t think about the audience when I choose a job. I tend to react to a script and go on an instinct, and whether I find it entertaining. Is it a film I’d be interested in seeing? I’m an old fan of Aardman’s from everything, so it was a bit a of a no-brainer. But their capacity to be so inclusive, audience-wise, is a wonderful thing. It’s a rare, special thing a family film where every generation can take something from it. It’s one of the things I enjoy seeing.
They’re also the films that last.
Yeah. And they don’t date. Also, all of Aardman’s films, if you look back… and I recently went down a Creature Comforts YouTube wormhole!… they’re still as contemporary and fantastic as ever. Because they have their own unique visual vocabulary, which is not trying to be anyone else’s. It’s entirely true to them.
Presumably going back to what you just said, for something to engage you, there still has to be a story in there somewhere? If Aardman asked me for a job, I’d be there tomorrow. But realistically, you still have to commit to a story somewhere.
Genuinely, with Aardman, I’d be there! But I just laughed when I read the script. A lot. And also, the past few films I’ve done, generally the scripts don’t make me laugh massively. This was just so refreshing. I suppose Dug is the straight guy, but one of the wonderful things about making the film for me, the first session I could go there and Nick [Park] and I were working on what his voice might be. Then Nick records an “eh?”, “uh?”, and then I’d come back a week or two later, and they’d have animated it and Dug would be really funny!
You say that, but your films in the past may not have been funny on the page, but to make serious stuff work, don’t you need levity? My eldest, for instance, watched The Theory Of Everything at age 11. If that film didn’t have lightness in it somewhere, would he have found the way in that he did?
That’s also the character of Stephen Hawking. He’s got a formidable sense of humour!
I don’t read press notes very often, but the ones for this film are interesting. Apparently Gina Yashere used to work as an elevator engineer for Otis!
That’s great, that’s great!
But you do talk in these about recording lines with Nick Park, and you make him sound like David Fincher. That you’re doing 60 to 70 takes in some instances to get a line right? Appreciating that Nick Park is not a difficult man to be in the company of, that’s still a lot, even in animation.
Were you driving that as much as him?
Yeah. I’m the sort of actor who dreams of working with one of those directors who makes you do 8000 takes! The more options you give, firstly you get rid of self-consciousness and find something truer. That’s what I’ve heard from friends who have worked with Fincher, you do so many takes there comes a point where you’re so frustrated, part of his technique rids you of any overthought.
The thing with Nick is that you work on a specific line, and you do it 20 times, 30 times, and he always has this face of optimism! Yeah, yeah, yeah! And you know that he’s constantly optimistic and generous, and spirited, but you know when you’ve got it. Normally it’s at a point where you go “Nick, will you do it?” And he does it, and it always sounds so much better!
The way Nick Park casts people is fascinating, too.
[Laughs] What did he say? How did he cast me?
You got the job off the back of the 2008 film Black Death. Did you know that?
I knew that from this morning, and I found it totally riveting.
And he cast Tom Hiddleston off the back of impressions he saw him do on The Graham Norton Show.
I mean, Black Death, it’s a fun film but I’d not sure I’d call it your finest. But how do you feel, knowing that’s the one?
Firstly, what’s interesting is that every film you do, you put everything into. So, weirdly those films that very few people have seen – the fact that he’s even seen Black Death means a great deal! The other thing is that it also makes total sense to me. What he’s looking for is so unique. I must go and ask him what it was, though! My memory of that film was being in swamps in Germany being beaten up by Sean Bean.
I think we’ve all dreamed of that, to be honest.
What you were saying about 60, 70 takes and how you like to work. There’s a fascinating biography of Jim Henson that was written, that dissects his working relationship with Frank Oz. And it posits that Oz was the perfectionist, whilst Henson was happy when things were right. Where are you on the scale: does it have to be right, or does it have to be perfect? Where are you on the Henson-Oz scale?
It’s a fascinating use of language. As an actor, I think, you have to understand that your notion of right or perfect is 99% of the time not right or perfect! What I like to do on a film, though, for one’s own sense of satisfaction or worth, you want to make sure you’ve got something. Your version of right or perfect. My dream being directed is that you do a scene, and you get to the point where the director is happy and says got it. Now play. You’ve given them their version of right, to yourself your own version of right. But then you’re given the confidence and freedom to go and do something completely off the wall. Or try a new idea. Or something that’ll either sink or swim.
Actors who tend to do ingenious work are those who are able to be playful in an environment where, even if you’ve had lots of takes already.
That’s how Branagh directs, isn’t it? Certainly when he was working entirely with celluloid, if he ever had any film left in the can, he’d let people go leftfield.
Is that true? I didn’t know that.
It is! One of the things we try and do with our website is try and talk to people who are having a tough time. Inevitably, given your profile, words from you will have 50 times the impact of ours. I wonder, then. What would you say to someone then, reading this, who’s in a tough place, perhaps doesn’t feel anyone is believing in them, and can’t see a way out of it? Is there something?
One of the things that was interesting about playing the character of Dug was that he was 15. He has all of that lack of cynical view on the world. Hurdles are put in front of him, but he doesn’t see them as hurdles. I feel that the formidable cliché of living your dream… as we get older, we chip away at the idea that they can be reality. But what playing Dug did, and Nick’s lack of cynicism, was really make me believe in that.
And then there’s what Jo Rowling said when we were making Fantastic Beasts: she said that worrying means you suffer twice. I say that as a massive worrier! But that feeling that pre-emptively worrying about something is going to help you solve it. You’re going to have to cope with the moment when it comes, so why pre-empt it.
One more thing: do you have a favourite Jason Staham film?
Favourite Jason Statham? One of the Transporters…?
Er, the first one.
It’s a cop out, but a really good cop out. Eddie Redmayne, thank you very much!
Early Man is in UK cinemas from January 26th.