Jeff Garlin on Board with WALL-E
by Paul Fischer
Film Monthly Home
Short Takes (Archived)
Small Screen Monthly
Behind the Scenes
New on DVD
Books on Film
What's Hot at the Movies This Week
Jeff Garlin is a funny guy, a talented writer and filmmaker best known as the sometimes frustrated best friend of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. He is also one of the few voices to be heard in the new Pixar animated film, WALL-E, voicing the role of an unusually heroic ship’s captain in a galaxy not too far away, in this story of two robots who fall in love amidst impossible odds. Garlin talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: The last time we spoke, you were actually surprised that I knew you were a voice in WALL-E.
Jeff Garlin: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
PF: How hard was it for you to kind of keep this film under wraps?
JG: Well, I was told I had no choice. [laughs] So that’s what I did.
PF: When you take on a voice in an animated film, do you do it for the kid within you? Do you do it for your children, for your—I mean, what is the main rationale for you in taking on a job like this?
JG: Well, to be honest, I think it’s the kid in me, it’s my kids, it’s being employed, it’s doing quality work. I think there’s 100 million reasons why you say yes.
PF: What surprised you the most about the process of doing this?
JG: What surprised me the most? That it was harder work than I thought.
JG: Because when you perform in this, you’re really performing. It’s not as easy as just—you know, you’re alone in a room. I’m actually in a studio with the director, and you’re really acting out everything you’re saying.
PF: How much—I mean, you know, you speak to so many actors who provided voices in animated films. And a lot of the time, they comment about how much the character—these characters develop over time. With a character like this guy, was there a sense of development at all?
JG: No. There was no—it was just—it was my voice, and just, I became the guy instantly.
PF: What did they show you before you started doing the recordings?
JG: Just a drawing.
PF: And did you think to yourself, “This guy looks a little bit like me?”
PF: [laughs] You have to rely totally on your imagination.
JG: Totally. Well, actually, I have to have my imagination imagining what it is that Andrew Stanton is using his imagination to tell me.
PF: What was difficult about doing that? Or was it difficult?
JG: No, I wouldn’t say it’s difficult. I have a good imagination. So that wasn’t difficult, per se. Not much in show business is difficult, except for perseverance. And perseverance just means, keep moving forward when nothing else is going on.
PF: What do you draw within you to persevere as much as you do, to find the kind of roles that you take on?
JG: I couldn’t tell you.
JG: Yeah. I have no idea what it is within me. And I know it comes from a healthy place, not an unhealthy place. Because I don’t need—I need to be employed, I need to be creative. But I don’t need accolades. I enjoy accolades, you know what I mean? But I don’t need it. I mean, you know, we had a premiere the other night, and they had the red carpet. And the red carpet makes you want to throw up.
JG: Why? Nobody asked me anything interesting.
PF: Really? So, what are the most boring things you get asked?
JG: Can you do an impression of WALL-E? What’s your favorite part of the movie? Do you think that the message of ecology is a good one for kids? You know, come on.
PF: Well, you have to get through the day, right?
JG: Yeah, it’s part of my job.
PF: When you began, Jeff, was it purely comedy, or was it performing that impassioned you?
JG: Comedy, comedy, comedy.
PF: And where did that come from?
JG: I was the funniest kid in the school. And I had a passion for comedy. You know, George Carlin passed away last night. I’m very sad about that. My wife just called me about 20 minutes ago to tell me, and I’m hit pretty hard by that. I mean, he and Saturday Night Live—and he hosted the first Saturday Night Live. But there was a whole era of comedy in the ’70s that had a profound effect on me. Steve Martin, you know. Enough to motivate me to become a comedian.
PF: You were born in Chicago, you were brought up in Chicago. Was Chicago a great town to have grown up in, in terms of your career as a comedian?
JG: I would say yes! [laughs] Because I’m pretty successful, and I look back fondly on my time in Chicago.
PF: What brought you to L.A.?
JG: My wife’s insistence that I needed to move there for my career.
PF: And, of course, you do as your wife suggests.
JG: That’s correct, sir.
PF: I guess Larry David has been, obviously, a huge influence on your success.
JG: Yes. He’s the entire influence.
PF: Why do you think that show struck such a chord? I mean, he’s such a morose character. And such an unsympathetic character, and such an annoying character.
JG: Everyone interprets him differently, I think. As well as—you know, when we’re making the show, we’re not thinking that our choices are so strange. It’s only later on when people say to me, you know, “Wow, it’s so uncomfortable during that scene.” I’m going, “Really? I was thinking about, when’s lunch?” You know. I think that the show is funny, but because of—besides being just funny, and Larry David being brilliant, the lack of political correctness is fascinating to people.
PF: You also studied filmmaking when you were in college, and you have directed. And the last time I spoke to you was for the—
JG: I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With.
PF: Do you want to do more of that?
JG: I do want to do more of that.
PF: How hard is it for you to come up with an idea to direct something?
JG: Well, you know, that’s the easy part. To be honest, coming up with the idea. Getting the money is the hard part. The idea—they come to me. I’ve got dozens of ideas.
PF: And are you planning on putting any of those on—you know.
JG: I hope so. I’ve got a movie that I wrote that I’m going to direct. I was going to star in. I’m not going to star in it any more. I don’t want to. I’d star in it if we filmed six months or a year from now. But right now, physically, I’m not up to starring in a movie. So I’m hopefully going to be shooting a movie in July or August. Actually, probably August, now.
PF: You also have The Rocker coming out. Was that an easy film to say yes to?
JG: Most work is easy to say yes to, you know? The great thing about doing film work, if it’s a bad movie and they offer you a lot of money, is that nobody’s going to remember. And I say that—I’m not talking about starring in a bad movie. I’m talking about a supporting role. When something comes along that’s funny, like The Rocker—I mean, you know, that’s not a real difficult decision. And they pay you what you want.
PF: What about working with Rainn?
JG: Rainn is a consummate professional, because I am not. [laughs] I have ADD and I’m annoying. And he was very patient with me as he was starring in his first movie.
PF: Does that ADD get you into trouble on set?
JG: It can, yes.
PF: If you don’t have patience, then how did you survive doing Wall-E?
JG: Well, WALL-E—well, you know, it was a couple things. One was—you know, no offense to The Rocker, but WALL-E will be talked about for generations. And maybe The Rocker will, too, but not in the same way. I mean, WALL-E is just classic. Hall of fame. You know, I don’t know where The Rocker’s going to end up. But it’s like—you know, it’s simple to follow Andrew Stanton’s ways of doing things. You know, you have—he wrote it. It’s his vision. You know, I sign on to do The Rocker, they have a director for hire. Different people write the script. You know, you’re sitting in your trailer. There’s problems with this, problems with that. So it’s very easy to get distracted. But when you’re dealing with somebody who is a visionary, such as Andrew, it’s difficult to get distracted if you’re involved with that.
PF: Which is presumably why you like also to create your own work, if you can. If you’re able to do that.
JG: Definitely. I would say that I’m not boring or distracted—you know, if I’m creating my own work or doing my own work. As an actor for hire, it’s all very distracting. Unless—you know, I’m an actor for hire, and Woody Allen or Albert Brooks or somebody who’s a—you know, their story, their thing, their passion. Then it’s hard to lose focus.
PF: One of the great things about WALL-E is that it does have these universal themes that Stanton explored in Finding Nemo. And clearly takes various steps further in this film. Was the film’s environmentally-friendly message something that you did look at and say, “This is something I want to be a part of, because it does have something to say?”
JG: I didn’t care. I mean, I like it. You know, I like the message. But I didn’t care. You know, I thought, “This is just good.” I don’t care about messages. I only care about good. And if there’s a message thrown in with the good, great. But the message is not necessary. It would be a great movie with just the love story.
PF: I thought the love story aspect of this movie was quite beautiful.
JG: Yes, exactly. That’s what draws me into the movie. Not the other aspects. I mean, you know, I find the other aspects interesting, but not enough to make me say yes. And not enough to make me say, “That’s the reason I’m doing this.”
PF: I mean, obviously you weren’t privy to a lot of the visuals when you were making it.
JG: I didn’t want to be privy to the visuals. They actually offered to show me things, and I didn’t want to see them. I wanted to see the movie at the end.
PF: So, what surprised you when you saw the movie for the first time?
JG: I can’t even say the word “surprised.” I mean, I was shocked. My jaw was on the ground. Besides how great the animation was, just how important my character was. I had no idea. I knew that there’d be some talking, because I did the talking in the studio, but, you know, you don’t know what they’re going to use. I had images as I was doing this of being down to nothing, and not having much to do in the movie.
PF: I mean, how satisfying is it for you to know that you’re playing a hero?
JG: Oh, my God. It’s completely satisfying. The only way it could be more fulfilling and satisfying is if I did it live action.
PF: That’ll be next.
JG: Yeah! Well, yeah. [laughs]
PF: Have you signed up for anything else?
JG: What’s going on? What do I have? No. Just this one movie that I’m waiting on to get the final green light. I’ve gotten—you know, until you get the green light green light, all the green lights leading up to it are hopeful, but they’re—you know, you can die of hope here.
PF: Is that the green light for the film that you’re going to direct?
JG: Direct, yeah.
PF: And can you talk a little bit about what kind of film this is going to be?
JG: I don’t talk about anything until I’m actually doing it, or it’s done.
PF: So you’ll talk to me once you’ve signed on the dotted line.
JG: No, I’ll talk to you once I’m working on it or finished with it.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
Got a problem? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org