Finding Dory’s Ed O’Neill: ‘I Thought It Was A Cameo’

The great comic actor talks playing an octopus, how he prepared for it, and a very important anniversary…

You know and love Ed O’Neill as Jay Pritchett, the patriarch of Modern Family, but if you’re of a certain generation you also know and love him as Al Bundy, the head of the very rude and crude family at the heart of the classic sitcom Married…with Children. He’s also been in movies like The Bone Collector and The Spanish Prisoner. But now you’ll hear him as the voice of Hank the mimic octopus in Finding Dory, director Andrew Stanton’s long-awaited sequel to Pixar’s classic 2003 effort, Finding Nemo.

O’Neill’s Hank, at once gruff and charming, is the focus of several of the movie’s best sight gags and joins a colorful cast that includes returning stars Ellen DeGeneres (Dory) and Albert Brooks (Marlin), along with new members Idris Elba, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Kaitlin Olson, Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton. Hank and Dory – who Dory meets at the Marine Life Institute where she goes in search of her parents – make a terrific team, and if there are more movies starring these characters in the future, you can bet that Hank will be part of them (despite the enormous challenges in animating an octopus).

We sat down with O’Neill, who’s more charming than gruff in real life, recently in Los Angeles to discuss Hank, Pixar, mimic octopi and an upcoming anniversary.

Den of Geek: Did you do any sort of preparation for this?

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Ed O’Neill: I found my parking space in the lot. And I got there and I walked in. I think I had a piece of fruit and then went it and started recording. I Googled mimic octopus once just to see what they were, because they told me they shapeshift and change color and all this stuff. And it’s amazing. The people who did the research are the animation guys. What a job they did, huh? Jesus Christ! I couldn’t believe it!

But for my end, it’s just my voice coming out of an octopus. You don’t have to do a lot of research for that.

Did you interact with any of the other actors?

No. None of us do. I think Ty Burrell did with Kaitlin, because they were almost a team. Ellen and I worked different days. The tricky part for me in this is keeping your energy levels up and moving, but yet trying to modulate a bit so it’s not all the same frenetic yelling the whole time. That would get very tiring quick. So it was a bit challenging…You keep in the back of your mind, “OK. I have to change up here.” But yet, you have to maintain an energy level that is tricky.

Do you feel like you are unconsciously putting out more energy because you can’t use really any other part of your body?

That’s the thing you have to be careful of. It’s almost like a singer. You don’t want to over-sing. Because you are not being seen, you have to trust that your experience and your intention will come through. Because you have to know what it is you are trying to accomplish in a scene. And then once you get down with, “OK. We have to get out of this place. We have to get in that one,” then there’s a lot of different ways you can try to make that happen. And you keep that in your mind always: “What am I trying to do?”

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And that’s it. And then, of course you have the luxury of doing it again, and again, and again, and again. So you are tired when you leave there after a four-hour session alone. It’s like you are a young boy in a sandbox by yourself and you are playing make believe, which can be very fun.

How did Andrew pitch this character to you initially?

My manager called and just told me that they wanted me to do this role of an octopus for this sequel to Finding Nemo. I said, “Fine. Send the script over.” He said, “There’s no script”…I said, “Well, what is it?” “It’s an octopus. It’s Pixar!” I said, “I’ll do it. It’s a cameo. I’ll do a day. It won’t hurt me.” So I thought it was a cameo. And then it just kept going and going, and I said, “This can’t be a cameo. And all my scenes are with Dory. What’s going on? Either that or they are rewriting or every time I do four hours they don’t like it and we’re redoing it!” It was like Groundhog Day, for Christ sake!

No one ever told me it was a major role. Ever. Finally, I figured it out, which doesn’t speak well of me. It should have happened way before it did. But I finally went to Andrew after a session and I said, “This is not a cameo.” He said, “What?” “A cameo.” “Ed! You are kidding!” I said, “Nobody told me a thing.” “No. this is one of the starring roles.” “Well why wasn’t I told?” “I don’t know…” They didn’t know.

But my guess is that the octopus became a separate meeting at one point in time where they said the animation now has become so wonderful that we have to write this octopus in. That’s a guess.

I read that they spent like six months alone on him because they had never done an octopus before and it was so difficult. Did they show you any of the…?

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Yeah. And I was like, “Wow. How are they doing this?” You start watching it and you go, “How do they do this?” It’s so well made. It’s so well made. And there’s so many levels you can enjoy them on. So they’re doing amazing work.

Is it weird to see your voice come out of a mouth of an anthropomorphic animal?

I’m sure that it should be. It’s not. It should be. But I’ve been doing this so long…not just this, but seeing my voice and image coming around and talking and moving and climbing, getting older. It doesn’t anymore.

How did you figure out the voice? Because it kind of starts out, when you first meet him he is kind of gruff, cantankerous…then he becomes this very gentle soul.

It starts out with a bit of royalty and then it starts to become feeling responsible. It’s a slow progression to a real friend, which is really nice. And the caring; the caring for others, which he had lost way back. The characters are well drawn out by the writers. And then, of course, you are along for the ride. I always say just don’t get in the way of it. It’s good. Just don’t get in the way of it.

You are starting Season 8 of Modern Family. What keeps it fresh at this point?

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Well, the writers are great. Really, I could say that’s all there is. As actors, of course we like to think that everything we do is fully invested. I always use this analogy of Jack Dempsey, the great fighter, when they said, “Do you have to be mad at somebody to fight well?” He said, “No. everybody gets the same thing.” [laughs] So when you want to pride yourself on something, you’ll say, “Ok. I’m a professional. That means everything I do, I do to the best of my ability.” And, for the most part I think that’s true. I’m sure I’ve phone in a few things. But I think, for the most part, it’s true.

People ask about Dory, “Were you concerned that this touches so many children and families that you would add a little more care?” And I said, “No. everybody gets the same thing.” But you want it to work. If you’re a pro that’s what you do. And hope for the best.

I don’t know if anyone has asked you this because we’re still a bit far out from it, but next April is the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Married…with Children.

Oh my god.

April 5th, 1987.

Was that when it started?… It’s like, “My god, 30 years.”

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How do you feel about it looking back?

I loved doing it. It was a great job. We had so many laughs, even when we were doing it in rehearsal, fall on the floor laughs. It was great. It was a wonderful time. I never regretted doing it. I was always happy for it.

Finding Dory opens in theaters Friday (June 17).