November 24th sees the release of Disney’s 50th full-length animated film Tangled, based loosely on the famous fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, and starring Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Ron Perlman, and a loaded cast of talented actors.
I had an opportunity to screen the film recently at the Disney AMC 12 at Disneyland in Anaheim, California — and sit down with cast members Zachary Levi (Chuck), Donna Murphy (The Fountain, The Nanny Diaries), as well as directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, to talk about the process of making an animated film, and a bit more.
Zachary Levi on the difference between being brought onto an animated film as opposed to live-action
Well, when my manager told me they were casting for a new Disney animated film, being a huge Dis-nerd, I was like, “Yes, please…whatever you can do, please get me into that.” I didn’t really think I had a chance, honestly. I mean, a lot of animated films these days have big A-list actors attached to them, so I didn’t expect to get the part. I came in, did my best, prepared a song — James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, and they seemed to like that. They gave me the music for Tangled and had me sing that — and a couple of days later they called and let me know I had the job. It was totally surreal. It’s dream-come-true stuff.
The process is very interesting. I think Mandy [Moore, who plays Rapunzel] and I thought we’d be in this big recording booth together saying our lines, but we only saw each other once for a bit when we did that short duet. Otherwise, I didn’t work with her once. I did all of my dialogue by myself, she did all of hers alone — as far as I know, Mandy and Donna have still yet to meet, which I think is sort of fascinating.
It all took the better part of a year, and we recorded dialogue months apart.
Levi on how it feels not being able to physically and visually play off of another actor
It’s totally weird, but the silver lining is you can sort of let go, act a fool — and you really want to sort of animate yourself in a way, because you sort of have to animate your voice. You don’t have to worry about what other people say or how they look at you, because you’re just animating the character in a booth, with your voice.
Levi on voice acting
In some ways it was definitely learning as you go, but my whole life I grew up on cartoons — I feel like I have a real understanding of them, and how the voice acting would work. I think I have a good grasp of it, but the directors are there — and they make sure you sort of go where you need to go tonally.
Levi on being a singer and his future as a musical artist
I sang a duet with Katherine McPhee about a year ago, and I recorded the song for Tangled before that. I’ve done musical theater, I’ve sung my whole life. Getting to do it and getting to record it professionally is something really interesting. If the opportunity presented itself, I’d love to do my own album, or project. I feel like people are really hesitant to accept actors as singers, as opposed to the other way around with singers transitioning to acting — but I hope that’s changing. I have a lot of fans on Twitter asking when I’ll have something come out on an album. I don’t know how that will look, or what it will be, but I’m definitely interested.
Donna Murphy on getting involved in Tangled and her character, mother Gothel
I was told about the project by my agent and manager, and I was asked to prepare a song unrelated to the film. I’d never done any animation, but I thought i would be a lot of fun — I have a five year old girl, and she watches a lot of Disney. I really liked the character, and felt like I could bring a lot to the character. They wanted her to be as funny as she was frightening; she’s smart and witty, and has some glamor to her — even though in the end she’s not a kind person.
Murphy on Disney heroines
The thing about the women in Disney movies is they’re willful, they are curious, and act on their instincts. They’re endearingly obstinate about certain things — they’re not just waiting for things to happen, they ask questions. Rapunzel is one of those characters — she realizes she’s in control and has the ability to create change. I think it’s very positive and has a good message. My daughter saw a copy of the film, and decided she wanted to grow long hair, so she can help people — it’s great that she saw that message in this film.
Murphy on acting in a booth as opposed to with other actors
At first it was hard, because I’m an actress that is reactive, and I like working against what another actor is doing on the stage, or on screen. Eventually though, I started treating Rapunzel as a voice that I heard in my own head, I would play her in my head against my character, almost like she was demanding something — and it then triggered a different response in how I would say my line. It was just using another layer of my imagination to create this character.
Nathan Greno and Byron Howard on helping through the process of working on an animated film, and chemistry between characters
Howard: It’s an interesting process when it comes to these movies, but it’s different when you do it in animation. We do an extensive audition process — it takes a separate skill set from normal acting. You’re placing yourself in an environment that doesn’t exist, acting with someone that isn’t there. Not everyone can do it, and it took a while to find them. When we did, it didn’t take a lot of coaching to get them ready to play their roles.
Greno: Hundreds of people auditioned for these parts. It’s a great compliment to us when people say the characters seemed to have great chemistry together, because none of these people are ever in the same room, and they’re doing scenes months apart. It should feel completely natural, it should never feel like they’ve been in a different room — and then of course the animators tie everyone together and really bring it home and connect the characters not only to each other, but the audience.
Greno on their involvement with the project from start to finish
We were there for everything; every step of the way. Every audition, every recording session, working with every department — we have a crew of five hundred people that worked on this film, and you have to be present; you always have to be there.
Howard on the Disney experience, and working with such a large group of people
It feels like a family; you make these relationships on these films. On our credits, we list production babies. Anyone that had a baby during production of Tangled, their child is listed in the credits. It’s things like that; it’s a real personal experience. You get to know each other extremely well. We’ve worked at Disney for fifteen years; there is a real sense of loyalty at the studio, and a real passion for making these films. It’s very much a big family.
Greno on Tangled and new Disney projects
Tangled is sort of the best of all worlds; the movie has such heart, so much humor, huge action — all of these things we look for when we see films. All of these elements, we’ll have in our future films — this is what we love. Nathan and I are going to continue working together, and we’re actually pitching a new project to John Lasseter — but we can’t really talk about it right now, but we’re really excited. It’s going to be a big roller coaster.
Keep an eye out for more FSR coverage of Tangled later this month, including my review of the film.