THE ANIMATED SIDE TO JUSTIN LONG
by Paul Fischer
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Justin Long rose from TV and indie features to supporting and starring roles in major features like “Accepted” (2006), “Live Free or Die Hard” (2007) and “He’s Just Not That into You” (2009). Long’s droll timing and refusal to mug was crucial in elevating him from his early roles as social misfits on TV’s “Ed” to nervous but capable young men in the mold of Jack Lemmon for the aforementioned projects, as well as “Herbie: Fully Loaded” (2005) and “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” (2008). His low-key presence in a series of popular television ads for Apple computer increased his visibility in 2006 and beyond, which in turn helped to make him one of the most likable and dependable comic actors in film.
Born Justin Jacob Long ihe was the second of three sons born to R. James Long, a philosophy professor at Fairfield University, and Broadway actress Wendy Lesniak. His mark on Fairfield College Preparatory School was perhaps best summed up by his yearbook superlative – “Most Likely Not to Be Seen in Class” – but he continued his education at Vassar College, where he appeared in several plays, as well as the sketch comedy group Laughingstock. Long cut his college education short to pursue his acting career, which began in earnest in 1999 with the Disney live-action film “Galaxy Quest.”
Long also broke successfully out of the misfit mold in several features. The hit horror film “Jeepers Creepers” (2001) cast him as a wise-cracking traveler who is pursued by a humanoid monster during a cross-country trip, while the Britney Spears vehicle “Crossroads” (2002) afforded him a moment in the teen idol spotlight as the singer-turned-actress’s prom date and first screen kiss. The success of both projects increased Long’s profile in the feature world, and led to more prominent roles in comedies and the occasional indie drama.
Though Long’s post-“Ed” characters continued to toe the oddball line, his comic timing gradually elevated him from sidekick status to second lead and even starring roles in films with such box office champs as Ben Stiller and Lindsay Lohan. He was a member of Vince Vaughn’s hapless “Average Joe” team in Stiller’s broad comedy “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” (2004), then took top billing as a slacker biding his time as a server at a greasy spoon in “Waiting…” (2005) with Ryan Reynolds and Dane Cook. The Disney comedy “Herbie: Fully Loaded” (2005) gave him another shot at screen romance, this time opposite Lohan, while the lowbrow “Sasquatch Gang” (2006) allowed him to stretch his comedy skills as a dim-witted opportunist seeking to cash in on an alleged Bigfoot sighting. He reunited with Vaughn for “The Break-Up” in 2006 before landing his second starring role in “Accepted” (2006). The comedy cast him as a scheming high schooler who creates his own college to distract his parents from his failing grades. Though each subsequent film helped make Long more visible in the entertainment industry, it was a series of television commercials that truly cemented his place on the post-millennial pop culture map.
In 2006, Long was partnered with humorist John Hodgman in a series of extremely well-received television ads for Apple computers, which boosted his profile considerably in 2007, which saw him co-starring with Bruce Willis and finding a place in Judd Apatow’s cabal of comedy players.
The blockbuster “Live Free or Die Hard” (2007) cast him again as a computer jockey, though this time with the skills to aid Willis’ indestructible cop John McClain in stopping a terrorist plot to shut down the United States’ communication systems. Long also lent his voice to lead chipmunk Alvin in the live-action film version of the long-running cartoon series “Alvin and the Chipmunks” (2007) before giving an amusing impersonation of “Sgt. Pepper”-era George Harrison in the Apatow-produced biopic parody “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” (2007). 2008 saw Long firmly in comedy mode, with appearances in features ranging from the critically reviled “Strange Wilderness” to Kevin Smith’s comedy hit “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” where he broke amusingly from type as a gay adult film star who helps inspire Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks to pursue their own fortune in pornography.
2009 was one of Long’s busiest to date, with roles in films by the likes of Sam Raimi (“Drag Me to Hell”), Miguel Arteta (“Youth in Revolt”) and Cheryl Hines (“Serious Moonlight”), as well as “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel” on deck.
In Planet 51, a new animated feature, Long lends his voice to innocent alien Lem, who befriends human earthling Captain Charles T. Baker [Dwayne Johnson]. Long talked to PAUL FISCHER in this exclusive interview.
QUESTION: Do actors do these kinds of animated movies because for the child within? I mean, is that part of the appeal?
JUSTIN LONG: Absolutely. I think just kind of participating in a different genre, is kind of nice. I’d like to do as many different types of movies as I can, and the challenge of trying to make that real. That, like, whole animated thing. Just to give them as much of a voice as the animators have, and try to help bring that to life.
QUESTION: What, to you, is the challenge of creating the light vocal tone?
JUSTIN LONG: Well with this, because I have a much deeper voice than I think people maybe realize, I just talked about pitching it up. It was really simple, actually and just having that constant reminder of his innocence, and his age. I think that just really naturally helped pitch it up and there were times when it was frustrating, because you want to give just as honest a performance, without having to worry about the tone – the intonation of the voice but it took me several years to finish recording, over which time I think my voice actually got a couple octaves deeper.
QUESTION: It must be a challenge in itself, to go back and forth like that.
JUSTIN LONG: Yeah, yeah. Obviously, the three directors were listening pretty closely and all the sound guys were really on top of the exact tone of my voice, but, yeah, it was difficult. It was frustrating for me to kind of always remember where to be and, you know, you also don’t want to sound like you’re forcing your voice, you don’t want to sound like you’re really pushing it, it’d just be annoying. At one point, before Planet 51, I had gotten cast as Despereaux in Tale of Despereaux and I recorded several sessions with them, over the course of a couple of months. It was a dream job, because I got to work with greats, like Kevin Kline, Dustin Hoffman and Tony Shalhoub, my heroes. And then they replaced me, because they said that my voice was too low. And Gary, the director, didn’t want me – and I was like, “I can force it.” Because when we first started recording, I kind of forced it up a little bit and he was like, “No, that just makes it unnatural, and it’s not right, and I don’t want you to have to worry about that. You just do your voice.” It turns out they replaced me with Matthew Broderick, which was actually quite a compliment, as he was another childhood hero of mine.
QUESTION: Well, with this one, I guess, it’s The Rock and Jessica Biel. So, I don’t suppose that’s not too shabby—
JUSTIN LONG: Not too shabby. We got Gary Oldman, too, and John Cleese, none of whom I worked directly with. It was different than my Tale of Despereaux experience, because Gary was actually having the actors interact. He felt it would give it a sort of immediacy, and like, organic flow, that being in a booth by yourself just doesn’t create.
QUESTION: Do you find it frustrating, being alone?
JUSTIN LONG: Oh, yeah. I mean, on the one hand, it’s liberating, because you don’t have to worry about what you look like, and I tend to gesticulate a lot, so I could, wildly throw my hands around as much as possible without being sort of self-aware of my body and you can channel everything into your voice. So in that sense, it’s liberating and it’s kind of fun having someone else to bounce off of was really tricky. It’s like, a whole different type of acting and you feel a bit schizophrenic, too, creating both sides. I would have loved to have done it directly with those guys, especially since we could have found some fun ad libs, or could have improvised moments, maybe. I think it helps make it more natural, but I saw the movie, and I would never have been able to tell.
QUESTION: Now, in the years that we’ve spoken, your career has continually gone in leaps and bounds. How surprised are you by that? And what further challenges do you face as an actor, in this particular stage of your career?
JUSTIN LONG: Well, I’m surprised as probably most everyone is, everyone but my mother, who’s like, “No. I knew it.” [LAUGHTER] No, she’s not, actually. She’s shocked, as well. But not a day goes by when I don’t count my blessings and have an awareness of how fortunate I am. I don’t come from a classically-trained background. I don’t have, like movie star looks. let’s face it. I’m kind of a shitty actor. So [LAUGHTER] – so, I – no, no, no, no, no. I’m fishing for compliments. But, I did a movie called Afterlife that was a really intense kind of dramatic role and I found it so terrifying to do, because I didn’t know that I’d be able to go to these places. But it was also incredibly gratifying, in a way that a lot of movies I’ve done haven’t been, in that way. They’ve been gratifying in other ways, but this was a whole different type of creative satisfaction. I’d love to do more dramatic movies. I’d kind of love to just work with people who are good. I know that’s such a trite, cliché answer. But I’m getting to work with Robert Redford now, and it’s sort of a surreal experience.
QUESTION: Is that the film that he’s directing?
JUSTIN LONG: He’s directing – it’s called The Conspirators
QUESTION: About Abraham Lincoln.
JUSTIN LONG: Yes, and a story that was completely unfamiliar to me. It’s really fascinating about the conspiracy surrounding the assassination, and the woman who ran the boarding house where Booth and all the conspirators would meet. It’s a really cool story. But I have a small part, very small part.
QUESTION: Whom do you play?
JUSTIN LONG: I play James McAvoy’s friend. It’s really a very peripheral role, but it’s just an honor to be in the company of these actors. Tom Wilkinson, and Kevin Kline, and McAvoy himself is great and to be directed by Redford – it’s a really cool, surreal experience. But I also just love playing different types of characters. I don’t necessarily need to be the lead, or do big studio movies, I just want to do as many cool little characters as I can, before I shuffle off this mortal coil.
QUESTION: No – my God, you’re a long way.
JUSTIN LONG: Sorry, I got really weird and morbid. Sorry. [LAUGHTER] I got dark!
QUESTION: What else are you working on?
JUSTIN LONG: I finished this movie Going the Distance this summer, a rom-com. But it’s a lot more kind of raw and realistic, I think, than most of those movies are. I’m excited about that. But right now, I’m kind of just reading scripts and I just finished writing one. So after The Conspirator, I’m working on my tan.
QUESTION: Do you want to write and direct?
QUESTION: Is it a comedic script?
JUSTIN LONG: Yeah, it is, but it gets kind of serious. It’s a relationship movie, about this guy who falls in love with this girl from afar, and kind of stalks her on the internet. He doesn’t stalk her, but he – without – giving too much away – not that the world’s clamoring to know. [LAUGHTER] Spoiler alert! He sort of creates his own profile to mirror hers, to kind of attract her.
QUESTION: That sounds intriguing.
JUSTIN LONG: Yeah, it’s good. I’m really happy with the way it turned out, so I hope we can get people interested. Other than that, there’s just been a bunch of little parts I’ve done that are coming out and hopefully I’ll do something next year. I don’t know. It’s kind of nice having a couple of days off.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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