Toy Story 4 took Tim Allen by surprise. As the irreplaceable voice of Buzz Lightyear, the spaceman action figure who once upon a time believed himself to be an actual spaceman, Allen has time and again been struck by the subtle maturity and sophistication of the Toy Story movies. Yet the fourth film still revealed new layers when he returned to begin voicing early animatic sequences—much to the Pixar filmmakers’ relief.
Often lighthearted and ever self-deprecating during a Toy Story 4 press conference in Disney World, Allen became something approaching earnest when discussing what impact that film’s overarching story had on him.
“I read through it and then the end was mercurial,” Allen says. “It was so bold, and I wrestle with loss in my family and loss in my life, and I’m an old philosophy major in college, and… it’s the losing and gaining, it’s like this sadness. Number four was like a daughter getting married, perhaps. It’s great sadness because she’s leaving, but great sadness because she’s also gained something. And that’s what this is about, and I told Tom the same thing. He hadn’t read it, and I had finished it. I had a real tough time.”
Yet Josh Cooley, while sitting only a few chairs away from Allen, reveals that the star’s visible melancholy about the ending is exactly what they needed to know they were headed in the right direction. After all, they were following up Toy Story 3’s tearjerker of a conclusion.
“We actually used your reaction a little bit as inspiration,” Cooley says. “When we met and recorded it and watched you through the ending, your reaction was like our first reaction, because we realized we had thrown the ball pretty far with going to that ending and we were hesitant, even at Pixar. We were going, ‘Can we do this? Should we do it?’ And then you read it, and we were talking to you and we saw you, we saw him recoil back like, ‘Oh man, okay, yeah.’ We could tell it hit you and we thought, ‘Oh, if we can get Tim Allen, our Buzz Lightyear himself, to sit back and ponder it, maybe we have something there.”
To which Allen retorted, much more in character, “Well, it’s good to know my pain is a prop you use to prop up other people’s misery.”
Allen of course is hardly anything but miserable after playing Buzz Lightyear for so many years. Happily dominating a press conference stage that also included Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks, he is like a king holding court—one reveling in the comfort that comes with playing Buzz for a quarter-century.
Says Allen, “He’s always been wonderfully ignorant about who he was, that he was a toy. But his transition has always been, ‘Okay, that was a terrible moment for me, let’s regroup.’ And Buzz got to be the same—his core has always been this little authentic soft-hearted [guy].” It’s an affinity that Allen feels has made him more possessive of Buzz as the years have passed.
“I love working with other actors, but doing voiceovers, it’s all about the director,” says Allen. “They bring it out of you, try to get it this way. And boy, they do honor the process when these guys let you just go and find who Buzz is…. [but] I got to a point where, I can’t believe I’m saying this, where I’ll go, ‘Buzz wouldn’t say that.’ I mean, I’m telling the people that created this character that ‘no, Buzz doesn’t get that excited and he won’t say that.”
However, this is the exact process that Pixar savors—actors who can become their characters. And they do to this day, hence casting Canadian action star Keanu Reeves as a toy based on the ultimate Canadian daredevil in the Toy Story universe. (As Reeves points out, “The Maple Leaf Crew” was the mostly Canadian group of animators who worked on Duke). It’s a marriage of personality and character; of talent and a spaceman with a little light that blinks; of Pixar and the performers who make their movies soar out of this world.
Toy Story 4 opens on June 21.