Charlie Day Talks MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, Working with Pixar, PACIFIC RIM, Getting Through Writer’s Block, HORRIBLE BOSSES 2, and More

     June 20, 2013


As a fan of many of their movies, I’ve been wanting to go to Pixar, for some time now. And since you have to either work there, know someone who works there, or get an invite to go there, I jumped at the recent opportunity to make the trip to Emeryville, Calif. to do interviews for their latest feature film, Monsters University, and had a great time while I was there. The film follows Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal), who arrives at the campus with the dream of becoming a Scarer while James “Sulley” Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) feels like he doesn’t have to put in the time or work to succeed because he was born with his talent. When their journeys both prove to be a bit more complicated than they anticipated, they find help and friendship in the unlikeliest of places.

At the film’s press day, actor Charlie Day (who voices Art, Oozma Kappa’s most free-spirited and mysterious monster) spoke to Collider during a roundtable and 1-on-1 interview about how he came to be doing a Pixar animated feature, finding out what his character would look like, how exciting it was to record at Pixar, his character’s backstory, how much he stuck to the script, what he was like in college, and what scared him as a kid.  He also talked about his work in Pacific Rim and what a wild ride the film is, just how much fun he’s had making It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for so many seasons now, his trick to get over writer’s block, his comedic inspirations, doing a cameo for The Lego Movie, and the status of Horrible Bosses 2.  Check out what he had to say after the jump.

monsters-university-posterHow did you come to this?  Had you been actively seeking an animated feature?

CHARLIE DAY:  No!  I’ve always wanted to do it.  I always love hearing Tom Hanks, John Ratzenberger, Billy Crystal, John Goodman and all of these wonderful actors, doing such great performances.  I’m aware of what a good job Pixar does, making the animation.  They’re doing all the real work.  You build the performance with the expressiveness of the animation.  So, I’ve always wanted to do it, but I didn’t really know how to go about it.  Fortunately, they just asked me to be a part of one, and I’m really happy to be here.

How much did they tell you about the character?

DAY:  They didn’t give me a whole script.  They said, “Do you want to be in a Pixar movie?”  I think they understood the leverage that they had because I said yes, immediately.  I would just get pages.  I would come into the sound booth and have a few lines there.  I would have the scene, so I would read the scene.  They would describe what happened before and what’s going to happen after, and I would get the picture.  I knew the first movie, so I knew what they were talking about.  And then, Dan had opinions about this guy and what type of guy he was.  And (producer) Kori [Rae] would chime in and say, “Maybe he’s a little bit like this.”  We just tried different things, different ways, but kept slowly getting back to just the way that I sound.  It was just easy and fun.

Did you know, early on, what he would look like?

DAY:  I did.  The very first time I went to Pixar, they had a drawing and a little model of Art, and they had a few clips of him dancing and spinning around.  They had taken clips of lines from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and they animated Art to that, so I saw the big picture.  I saw what the character looked like, and that they wanted him to sound a lot like me.  All the heavy lifting was done, by the time I showed up. 

Is it freeing to play a character when you don’t really know what he is?

DAY:  That’s true.  You don’t have to worry about someone saying, “Hey, you don’t sound anything like an ostrich.”  It’s just a gift, for an actor, to be a part of something that’s being done at Pixar because you’re in such good hands.  There are so many talented people working within those walls and they’re just going to make you look good.

monsters-university-poster-artHow did you find the whole voice recording process?

DAY:  It was exciting for me because I had never been to Pixar.  The first time you go there, you realize that you’re in a very special place.  It’s a really amazing space.  All these animators have decorated their offices and built secret passage ways.  It brings out the little kid in you.  And then, the process is just fun.  You get to see a little bit more of the movie, each time you go in, and see where it’s going.  I was always excited about what I was going to see next.

Did you ever think about how Art might have ended up at Oozma Kappa?

DAY:  I have a suspicion that he’s not actually a student at that college.  He’s a drifter.  He might have gotten off the railroads and wandered into Oozma Kappa.

You have some of the funniest and most random lines in the film.  Was all of that scripted, was none of it scripted, or does it fall somewhere in between?

DAY:  I’m almost positive that all of it was scripted.  I don’t recall doing any improvisation.  Every now and then, (director) Dan [Scanlon] would say, “Try something in a different way,” but he had really strong opinions about what he wanted and I rarely disagreed with his ideas.  He’s a really funny guy, and he just had such funny things for me to say.  I had to do nothing.

Were there many different variations of lines that didn’t get used?

DAY:  No, not for me.  I’m sure, with Billy and John, there was so much back-and-forth banter that some of it didn’t make its way into the movie.  But I just went in, every not and then, and had a little random joke or opinion.  If they had cut that stuff out, I wouldn’t be in the movie.  There were some different variations, but there was always one great one, and those are the ones that they picked. 

With his line, “I don’t want to go back to jail!,” did you ever think about what Art might have been in jail for?

DAY:  I didn’t.  What’s great about it is that you don’t even know.  I’m not even sure the character would know.  He strikes me as the type of guy who would just suddenly realize he’s in prison.

monsters-university-concept-art-terry-terriDo you feel a certain sense of ownership of the character, when it comes to the plush dolls and the merchandise?

DAY:  Oh, I’m not above a little bit of pride.  I feel ownership of the guy.  I certainly don’t feel ownership of how he was created, but I feel ownership of his voice.  It just brings out the little kid in me.  It makes me want to have a doll, and it makes me want to play with toys. 

Most people can identify with the idea of the misfits and underdogs triumphing.  Did you relate to that theme?

DAY:  Yeah, I think that appeals to almost everyone.  I think everyone feels like an underdog, at some point in their life.  Even the best-looking people and the most athletic probably have a phase in their life – a year or two – where they’re awkward or they have braces.  Everyone has a time.  With some of us, unfortunately, it lasts for many, many years.  But, everyone knows what it’s like to feel like the underdog.  Everyone wants to be accepted.  Ultimately, everybody wants to be loved.  I think people will relate to that aspect of the story.  I was the world’s smallest man, covered in freckles with a squeaky, scratchy voice.  And I still am, but I’ve learned to love myself.  That’s the lesson.

What was your time in college like?

DAY:  Well I went to college to be a jock and to play on the baseball team.  And then, I got cut and realized that that was it for that.  I was really small.  The other guys were really big, on that team.  I was a bit of a theater nerd, and I was an art history major.  I was a decent student, but I probably partied a little bit too much.  I don’t know.  I experimented with things, and with ways of thought.  It was a great experience for me.  I think I became a more well-rounded person, which hopefully is the goal of college.  I even learned something or other, but I forgot most of it.

Is there any advice that you’d like to give your college self, if you could go back?

DAY: I’d say, “Charlie, you’re in school.  Don’t be shy.  Just go right after the girls.  Be incredibly aggressive.  It’s gonna end, so don’t worry about getting shot down.  Speak up.”  I didn’t speak up.

What scared you, as a kid?

DAY:  Girls.  Priests.  I went to Catholic School.  Everything.  Homework.  Dogs.  Bullies.  Monsters.  Choking.  Anything that is terrifying.

Did you sleep with your closet closed?

DAY:  I didn’t have a closet.  I had a dresser drawer.  My sister had the closet.

pacific-rim-charlie-dayHave you gotten to see a rough cut of Pacific Rim?

DAY:  Yeah, I saw a cut with most of the special effects done, but not all of them.  It was riveting!  It’s another Guillermo [del Toro] explosion of creativity.  I really couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I was a part of it.  It’s just such a wild ride.  I think people are really going to enjoy it. 

Who do you play in the film?

DAY:  I play a scientist.  I play Dr. Newton Geiszler.  It was wonderful to be given a character who can actually read.  It was fun to get to do something that wasn’t just pure comedy.  He is an expert on the big monsters, and he’s trying to stop them using his brains, whereas the guys and the robots are using their brawn and their brains.  He’s a cantankerous little guy, but he ends up being braver than he knows he’s capable of being.  It’s a nice part in the movie.

Between It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Monsters University and Pacific Rim, your roles couldn’t be more varied.

DAY:  I’m all over the map!  I just am happy to be doing what I’m doing.  The fact that such interesting, talented people have asked me to come work with them, it’s not wasted on me, how lucky I am. 

How do you feel about expanding your audience with a Disney movie for kids?

DAY:  It’s great!  I can suck them into my world, before I corrupt them later in their lives.  I don’t know.  It doesn’t really matter to me whether the 7-year-olds are big fans of my work.  I’m happy just to be working at all.  I do think it will be nice to have a movie that my son can watch, pretty soon.  Although, if he really wants to watch Sunny, I don’t think I’d have a problem with it.

its-always-sunny-in-philadelphia-posterHow do you get through a day of filming Sunny?  How much of it is improv?

DAY:  We work really hard on the scripts and we try to really come up with air tight dialogue that sounds improvised, so that, if we can’t think of something funnier on the day, it will hold up.  When we start filming, we do scenes pretty much as scripted, and then we play around with it.  Sometimes you really discover funnier new things, but sometimes you just go off on a silly tangent.  But, we laugh a lot.  We’ve had a lot of fun making it.  You try not to laugh too much ‘cause there’s always someone there who’s really gonna laugh.  But, it’s a joy to make that show.  Usually when we’re laughing really hard, the crew is laughing with us.  We’ve been fortunate enough to do the show at FX for nine years, and on our own for 10 years.  It’s a really wonderful thing to go back to.  It’s hard work, but it’s wonderful to do it.

Has FX ever censored you?

DAY:  In Season 1, we had an episode about molestation, where one of the characters thinks that I was molested, and then is jealous that the guy wanted to molest me and not him.  It was about a Catholic Priest, and they were like, “You know, we’ve been having a little trouble with the Catholic League,” so they made us make it a gym teacher.  That’s about the extent of them holding us back.  I’m happy that they don’t.  It’s been a great place to work.

Have you ever censored yourself?

DAY:  Absolutely!  If we find that the humor ever seems malicious, then we realize that we have to change something.  It’s never in bad taste, if the jokes are on the characters and there’s a lesson to be learned and we’re saying, “This is deplorable behavior.”  If it doesn’t seem like we’re saying that, then we have to come back from that line, a little bit.

vDo you find it harder to write or act?

DAY:  For me, it’s harder to write.  I imagine, for some people, that’s not the case, but for me, writing is like pulling your hair out.  You have nothing, and you can’t think of anything, but you have to think of something.  And it takes months to do it.  When you’re acting, you trust that you’ve answered all those questions and you’ve done all that hard work.  And then, you can really just kick back and have some fun and try to make something good.

Do you have a trick to get over writer’s block?

DAY:  Collaborating.  I’ve never written anything that wasn’t somewhat of a collaboration.  I don’t know how people do it on their own.  Sometimes even hearing a bad idea is a great way to get to a good idea.  With the television series, there have been a lot of talented people involved.

Who are your comedic inspirations?

DAY:  Woody Allen.  I think Woody Allen has struck an incredible balance of how to do something funny and something poignant.  But, that’s a long list.  Peter Sellers.  Bill Murray.  Lorne Michaels.  It’s amazing what he did, from a producing standpoint.  I love Billy Crystal.  I could go on and on and on, all day.  There are a lot of funny people out there.

What TV shows and movies are you looking forward to sharing with your son?

DAY:  I’d like to sit down and watch Goonies with him, when he’s old enough.  And I wouldn’t mind if he’s into Loony Tunes.

Would you like to do more animation now?

DAY:  Yeah.  I’m friends with Chris Miller and Phil Lord, who did 21 Jump Street.  They did this Lego movie, and I went in for one day and said a couple of lines for them.  But, I don’t know.  I’m available, so let me know if you’ve got something.

What’s the status of Horrible Bosses 2?

DAY:  We’re close.  They’re doing a new version of the script.  We just want to make sure that there’s a story that’s worth the audience’s time.  The first one was really fun and great.  Jason [Bateman], Jason [Sudeikis] and myself, and Jennifer [Aniston], Kevin [Spacey], Jamie [Foxx] and Colin [Farrell], all had so much fun working together that we really would like to have a chance to do it again, but we also want to make sure that we’re not wasting people’s time.  So, hopefully, within the next week or so, we’ll get a version of this movie that’s worth starting to really put together.  Honestly, the chemistry of the people is so good that you just need an entertaining story, and we’ll make it funny.

Monsters University opens in theaters on June 21st.

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