Zootopia: Jason Bateman On The Challenges Of Voice Acting For The First Time

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By now it's no secret that Walt Disney Animation has a hit on it's hands with Zootopia which stands to take home $70 million dollars opening weekend. The latest installment in an historic run of animated films, features top notch voice talent including Jason Bateman who is voice acting for the very first time.

Earlier this month ComicBook.com had the opportunity to head out to Disney's Animal Kingdom and chat with the Zootopia star about how he got the gig, working as a voice actor for the first time and what the experience was like for him.

The family-friendly picture about Officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) attempting to solve a missing persons case, that turns into something much bigger and at one point, was something completely different.

I can't believe this is your first voice job.

Jason Bateman: Yeah, and it's sneaky tough. You know, my wife is a voice actor, and she gets stuff all the time. I've never been able to book stuff. There's definitely a specific and subtle thing that one needs to do, and I've tried to learn how to do it for a long time. The directors were really helpful.

We heard that your character was originally the lead character, and it got switched up. Were you on the project at that time, or did you find out as you were going along?

Jason: Yeah. You know, it's a really interesting thing, because they didn't say anything to me about the switch. I started to kind of sniff it out in the scenes a bit. At one point I said to them, because we started redoing some stuff from the beginning of the movie, and it was clear that the perspective had switched. We start with Judy's character and we follow her journey, this optimistic and enthusiastic character going to the big city to make it. I said to them, "it seems like you guys have done a bit of a pivot here and you're going to follow a brighter end to the movie than starting with the guy who hates Zootopia and is very reluctant to admit that anything can come out of here.”

They said, “Yeah." They explained the obvious reason why one would want to do that. I felt like an idiot for not thinking of it earlier. Of course, that's why they get the big bucks. It's a neat process, what they do. They really are open and honest about what's working, what's not working, what is the best path to communicate the things that they want to say and get the plot points across. It's a big family endeavor over there.

It still works as both their stories. You start out, and you're leaning a lot toward Judy and you're kind of suspicious of Fox. Then the second half, it flips, where Judy's doubting herself and you understand Nicks back story and this feeling of empathy. Were you excited to bring that story to the screen?

Jason: Yeah. It's a fun structure, right? The fact that she's the inside out kind of character and I'm the outside in kind of character. She's all hard and I'm all shell, and then those things kind of cross. I usually end up playing these prickly characters or these ethically challenged characters, and it's always fun to identify the scene or the sequence, or sometimes it's just the line, where you can expose that soft, chewy center for this audience that this character's trying to hide. You can kind of crack it and break it through a little bit, and it become very compelling for an audience. Like, "oh, I know something about that character that he thinks he's hiding from me, and certainly the characters in the movie it's hidden from, but I, the audience ... I'm starting to feel empathy for this 'bad guy'," in quotes. That's a fun thing to do, as an actor.

Being your first voice over job, what was the biggest challenge that you faced?

Jason: You know, just trying to figure out how much or how little to do with my part of the process. Do I just read these lines and speak into the microphone? Is that enough? Like you're just leaving a message for somebody? Am I supposed to talk like ... How much of it are you supposed to do, and how much are you supposed to just trust will be finished later? You just defer to the directors. You just say, "I'm your soldier. Tell me what you need from me." Those guys obviously know exactly what they're doing, and I'm just a part of what they're putting together and working on every day for years. I go in there once every few months for a couple of hours. Just do your part and leave the rest up to them.

Did they want something specific, or was it like, "give us a range, and let's do these lines 100 different ways"?

Jason: It's pretty straight forward. You can kind of get a sense of what the scene's trying to accomplish, what your color in that scene might be. You read that through a couple of times. They record that, where Rich or Byron will play the other character, and you make sure you don't overlap. Then we go and record each line individually about 10 or 20 times, and you just run the gamut of ways in which to read that line. In there, they will really guide you and say, "maybe he's a little bit more paranoid on that line," or, "maybe he's a little bit disinterested on that line. Give us 3 like that." Then you give them a sliding scale of 3 versions of disinterested. Some are fast, some are slow, then they say, "great." Then they take that, they take so many takes of each line, and they go off and they cook it all together. They pick the one they want that's going to fit with what Jennifer did last week in that scene that I didn't hear. It's a stunning amount of work that these guys go through to pick the best version of everything.

Did they let you improv at all?

Jason: Yeah, there was lots of room to make stuff up. We would work together on that, and we'd be making each other laugh all the time. I forget how much of that, that's in the movie was written, versus made up, but it was certainly a group effort in there. We didn't need to make anything up, because they did a lot of great work with the writers on putting it all together. Maybe they just wanted to hear some different words, because they were tired of hearing the ones that were written.

How long into the process until you met Ginnifer for the first time?

Jason: I think we'd done a handful of sections before she and I had our first one, then we only had 2, I think. She was doing her show up in Vancouver. There were only a couple of times when we were in the same room together. Otherwise, you just imagine the way she's going to do it, and like I said, they had to blend those performances together.

That's amazing, because the interplay drives the movie. That's what makes it work.

Jason: Yeah, I never heard any of her playback, and I don't think she ever heard any of my playback. You just do your path. Sometimes I'd read a scene, and I'd say, "hey Judy. Good to see you today!" Then you'd just pause while she would be saying her line, and then I say my next line. You pause, and then you just leave room for it, and they pick the one that slides in there best. They edit. They generate pauses. They generate overlap. These guys are amazing.

You should do live action movies like that. Maybe it'd be more fun.

Jason: It'd be easier to schedule.

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So did you guys go see Zootopia this weekend? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!