For a little character, Maurice LaMarche has big shoes to fill in Walt Disney Animation’s Zootopia, where he plays the diminutive but powerful mob-like boss known as Mr. Big. For Canadian actor and comedian LaMarche, the role was not only a fun opportunity, but also a chance to step into a big role, no pun intended.
LaMarche has voiced some well-known animated roles over the years, including a number of parts in Futurama, and he voiced The Brain in Pinky and the Brain, but there is something to be said about appearing in a Disney film.
Recently, I chatted with LaMarche about the part, the cinematic inspiration for the role, and also found out what his son thought of the part. Read the interview below to find out what he had to say about the experience. Scroll down to the very bottom to hear LaMarche doing two of his classic roles.
Zootopia is available now on Digital HD, Blu-ray, and Disney Movies Anywhere.
Andrew Powell: Where did you find the voice for Mr. Big because obviously you’ve done numerous voices over the years, but he’s a bit different?
Maurice LaMarch: “In the case of Mr. Big, he’s purely from The Godfather.”
Andrew: I thought so. I didn’t want to say that right away, but…
LaMarch: “Rich Moore and Byron Howard and Jared Bush definitely knew they wanted to do a complete send-up of Coppola’s Godfather with this and Rich knows all the voices I can do because we worked together on The Critic where I even played [Marlon] Brando in an episode and so he called me in for this knowing that I could pull this off and I went in thinking I would do maybe a Robert DeNiro, a Goodfellas kind of thing but it was a very specific thing they wanted here and I’m so glad that we went with it because it’s so funny.”
Andrew: It’s especially funny though because you even take it naturally higher than the real Godfather. It’s also a little more quiet.
LaMarch: “The funny part of this is we recorded it in real time but they had to pitch it up a little bit because he’s so tiny that such a deep voice wouldn’t sound right coming out of him, so they did a little pitch shift. A little electronic thing with him, so he sounds like I might if I could do the voice under the helium balloon here… [doing the voice of Mr. Big] ‘I have to, honey. Daddy has to.’
“It’s the only voice that if people stop me and go, ‘Oh, you were Mr. Big. Do the voice,’ I have to say, ‘I can’t really do it for you right now. Let me get this helium tank.’ So they electronically heliumized it.”
Andrew: It’s very cool though. The effect certainly makes that character just perfect for that moment when, of course, you’re expecting maybe a bigger character.
LaMarch: “Yes, it’s absolutely shocking in all the good, right ways.”
Andrew: After all the different shows you’ve done, what’s it like working on one of these bigger Disney films compared to, say, doing a TV series?
LaMarch: “Obviously, we had a lot of fun making this. I was recorded separately, as most of the characters were, I believe, but they always had Nick [Jason Bateman] and Judy’s [Ginnifer Goodwin] takes on tape for me so I knew what I was interplaying with. So they’d play back what Jason and Ginnifer had done and then I’d respond to that. In feature films, of course, everyone’s got very busy schedules, the big stars, so we can’t all get in the studio at the same time, but we still had a lot of fun.”
“In television animation, I think there’s almost a bit of a looser sort of a feel to it. If they’re five minutes late from their last session, well, that’s the way it goes and there’s coffee out in front and yakkity schmakkity and then we go in and we play as a whole cast, and onto the next thing. That’s really the only difference is maybe it’s a little more informal, a little more casual, but definitely with this film, there was a comedic precision of knowing exactly with Rich and Byron, knowing exactly what they wanted. So that’s it and it just felt like there was a little more weight to it. This was going to be a big, big release and so I did my best to bring my best game for those guys.”
Andrew: When you’re doing these roles, I haven’t seen a shot of you playing the part, but is there a physical side to the work? Something that gets you into playing each part?
LaMarch: “Very much so. Yeah, first of all there were three cameras on me at any given time. Tiny little cameras. They weren’t distracting but they shot me from three angles and definitely they wanted as much physicalization as possible. That’s the other thing I was going to say in answer to your last question is that we did it a whole bunch of times until it was perfect. We had the luxury of that kind of time and concentration so very much they wanted me very much to get physically into the character, so I did.”
“At one point we even experimented with a little bit of cotton batting on the cheeks, a la what Brando did when he played Don Corleone, but it interfered. They knew when they would be shifting the voice up that it would subtract from the clarity. We dispensed with that part of it, but I just jutted my jaw out a little bit more. The way he was in the movie and what not. So, yeah, there’s very much a physicalization aspect to the character. We took our time until it was perfect.”
Andrew: Do you do that routinely for some of your characters, that you find those tics that make the character work?
LaMarch: “They just come. I kind of work from the inside out so I’m always surprised when people tell me because I’m not watching myself, ‘Oh, wow, your whole body changes. When you do The Brain, your eyebrows become quite furrowed and you take on an almost Orson Wellsian weight to you, and the seriousness.'”
“My days in stand-up comedy, of course, I physicalized the impressions more but it’s carried over into the recording studio. It helps me but I don’t start out going, ‘Hmm, I’m going to pull this face.’ I just start out feeling like the character and then it sort of goes and ends up on my face.”
Andrew: It’s so funny. I just think of Anthony Daniels talking about doing C3PO and he says that he doesn’t even need the outfit. When he gets into the voice, his whole body changes to C3PO. It sounds kind of similar I guess.
LaMarch: “Yeah, yeah, absolutely. That tickles me that whole idea of Anthony Daniels standing there in just his casual clothes doing those robotic motions, but I’ll bet he does that…”
Andrew: He does. It’s amazing to see it in person. That’s why I’d like to see you do The Brain. I have to admit I’d be curious to see that personification.
LaMarch: “Maybe one day, you’ll get to, but nonetheless, it’s always a lot of fun. Just doing voices is fun. You’ve got to find your playful place when you do voices and that I’m very grateful for. To get a chance to do something for a living that lets me play and laugh and make others laugh is just the greatest. It’s not work. Work is that thing you go to so you can relax on the weekend and have money for groceries. This is fun and they just happen to throw money at me, so I’m very, very blessed in that way. Hashtag blessed. There you go.”
Andrew: Do you have a favorite character after all the roles you’ve done?
LaMarch: “Mr. Big. That’s not just because Disney’s listening.”
“You know it’s like asking any dad to pick their favorite kid. You love them all. They all have different meanings for you, different parts of you they touch but I do love Mr. Big. He’s been so much fun. I can’t believe the recognition that I’ve gotten for it. The scope of how greatly the film has touched so many people, young and old alike. It’s a great picture for little kids. It’s a fantastic picture for adults. There are so many levels to the film and so many messages within it and a fantastic mystery that nobody sees coming, or solution. I’m so honored to be a part of this film, it’s amazing.”
“My own son, who is twenty-one years old and for his entire life has avoided watching anything I’m on because he knew from an early age, he said, ‘Dad, when I hear your voice, it takes me out of it. It’s no longer fun. I’m hearing your job.’ So he’s never really watched anything I’m in. [But] he has gone with his friends to see this movie five times and he said, ‘I just love the film, Dad. It’s so great.’ He didn’t need to do that.”
Andrew: That’s amazing. I totally agree–I love the film. I have to admit though that, from all your work, I do love The Brain, but I also love what you do with Kif [from Futurama]. I always thought that Kif was such a unique character, especially when I knew you were doing the part.
LaMarch: “Thank you my friend. First of all, as The Brain I’ll say to you that when I take over the world, you shall be spared. As Lieutenant Kif Kroker I’ll just say, ‘Save me. Captain Brannigan wants me to shave his armpits. Oh.’
Andrew: Thank you very much for the time. It’s really a pleasure. I hope that there’s a sequel and that you’re in it as well.
LaMarch: [In the voice of Mr. Big] “Listen, if there’s a sequel, I also promise not to ice you unless it’s your birthday cake. How about that?”
Andrew: Sounds excellent. Thank you very much.