If you are making an animated film and you need a voice full of authority and gravity, look no further than Jeffrey Wright. The Washington D.C.-born actor provides the voice of Poppa, the head of an intelligent family of dinosaurs, in the new Pixar film, The Good Dinosaur. The movie is set on an Earth where that asteroid missed 65 million years ago and the dinosaurs continued to thrive. When we meet Poppa and his brood – which includes Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), the title reptile who grows up very fast in the movie’s emotional plotline – they live and farm on a little plot of land where Poppa and Momma (Frances McDormand) do their best to bring their children up right…until tragedy strikes.
Wright brings compassion and sensitivity to his role, and it’s surprising to note that this is only his second voiceover part after working on the English-language version of the French film Ernest and Celestine. Then again, Wright has been super busy these last few years on the live-action front: sci-fi and Y/A fans know him as Beetee in The Hunger Games series, and he appeared as Felix Leiter in the first two James Bond films of the Daniel Craig era, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. His other recent credits include Only Lovers Left Alive, The Ides of March, Source Code, A Single Shot and many more.
He’s also got a major role in the upcoming HBO series Westworld, spearheaded by Jonathan Nolan (Interstellar, Person of Interest), and Den of Geek spoke with him about that, The Good Dinosaur and more in our recent interview.
Den of Geek: How do you prepare differently for a voiceover role as opposed to a live action one?
Jeffrey Wright: Well, you rely much more heavily on your director because most of the other elements you can’t see, you can’t touch, you haven’t experienced. So you have to trust in the vision that’s articulated by, in this case, (director) Peter Sohn. So we’re, in many regards, just in the dark and dependent on him to guide us. He was just kind of extraordinary in his clarity and also in his passion for this story and the process of making it. That was what I relied on in this process.
I’ve talked to actors who do voiceovers in other animated roles and they say sometimes if they see what the character looks like and they see maybe what he’s wearing or various other things, that gives them sort of a handle on the character. But when you are talking about a nonhuman character, is it a little more of a challenge that way?
Well, I just dug deep into my inner Apatosaurus. [laughs] I guess I was obviously trying to make sure that the voice had the type of heft and scale that would be appropriate in this case for Poppa. But beyond that, I was really drawing on the most human stuff and focused on the same things I think that audiences will focus on, and that’s their experiences as parents or experiences as children of parents. That’s what I was kind of referencing and bringing to the table as I worked on this. Those are the elements that resonant throughout this story.
In that way, we actors, filmmakers, we meet the audience and bring layers of our family history to the table and kind of celebrate all that together in this. It’s a really, I think, a wonderfully vivid experience of reflection about those things for the audience. It’s universal, compelling stuff in that way.
Did you get to interact with anybody else or were you alone for your recording sessions the whole time?
I was alone except with Peter Sohn and the multiple myriad characters running around in his head. So he was playing all of the other roles that my character interacted with. Again, he was just so enthusiastic and, in the best way, childlike in his passion for this film and for the themes of the film and the journeys of these characters that I just got swept up in his energy.
I loved dinosaurs as a kid. My daughter loves dinosaurs. Jurassic World is the biggest movie of the year. We have this endless fascination with these creatures. Why do you think that is?
You know, we’re drawn to myths. And that’s where dinosaurs exist now in many respects. They are mythic in scale. They are mystic in their mystery. I think we’re drawn to that. I think we’ll, as well, after watching this film will be drawn to their farming talents as well [laughs] and their ranch hand skills. I don’t know. I just think it’s the largeness of their presence that is somehow compelling to us. I don’t know if I can answer that question any better.
You are just finishing a very successful run with The Hunger Games, with the last film also out now. Any thoughts as you look back on that series, now that it’s winding down?
Well, it’s been just a thrill to be a part of the energy that fans bring to the series and their — I can’t say it any other way — deep personal relationship with the characters and with the themes of the books and of the movies. That’s just been really gratifying. And, as well, to have come into the series in the second film with a lot of speculation swirling about, but to have the fans latch on to Beetee and really take him into this really very precious place where they hold their passion about these films. So it’s been really wonderful.
I hope I speak for a lot of fans when I say I miss Felix Leiter. I’d love to see you jump back into the James Bond series. Would you be interested in returning to that role?
Absolutely. I was a huge Bond fan before I became a part of the franchise. I was a huge Jack Lord fan as Felix. If they call me, I’ll be right there.
You are also involved with Westworld. What can you tell us about that? Your character is in charge of creating the robots, if I’m not mistaken.
Yeah. I play the head programmer of the park who is a protégé of Anthony Hopkins, who is kind of the grandfather, Walt Disney-type creator and programmer responsible for the founding of the park. We’re about three-quarters of the way through filming of the first season. We are still, every day, every week, having our jaws hit the floor with the writing that we’re being given and with the style and this epic breadth of the production that we’re all a part of. I can just say we’re having a ball working on this stuff. I think it’s going to be really…it’s going to explore ideas that audiences don’t often explore and do it in a way that’s cinematically going to knock some socks off.
If audiences have as good a time as we’re having, it’s going to be a unique thrill for folks. As excited as we are about the work that we’re doing now, I’m even more excited for folks to begin to take it in and go on the journey with us.
Anything those Nolan boys do I’m very excited about.
Yeah. Well this is Jonah and his wife, Lisa Joy, leading the writing team here. They’re seriously creative, brilliant minds at work. I can tell you that. I can’t tell you too much more.
The Good Dinosaur is out in theaters this Wednesday (November 25).