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Date:  May 27, 1998
Source: Cinemania Online

Apu vs. Godzilla

"The Simpsons'" Hank Azaria Gets Physical With the Big Lizard

by Elizabeth Snead

You've heard his voices. Now meet Hank Azaria, the face behind so many beloved "Simpsons" characters: Kwik-E Mart owner Apu, Police Chief Wiggum, bartender Moe, to name but a few.

Holding camera, looking up at GodzillaIn films Azaria played the Guatemalan houseboy in The Birdcage, the corrupt TV exec in Quiz Show and Gwyneth Paltrow's despicable fiancé in Great Expectations. But he's perhaps best known for being Nat, the Brooklynese-speaking, dim-witted dog walker on his fiancé Helen Hunt's hit TV sitcom "Mad About You."

Until now. Until ... Godzilla. The big (very big) summer monster movie stars Matthew Broderick, Maria Pitillo, Jean Reno (no relation to Janet) and a reptilian behemoth. But it's sweet, spaniel-eyed Azaria who provides comic relief as Animal, the good-hearted but foolhardy news photographer who's determined to capture exclusive close-ups of the creature as it thrashes about New York and makes a nest of Madison Square Garden.

Hank AzariaAzaria talks about how he got started acting, his first bartending job, doing stand-up at the Comedy Store in L.A., the long, wet making of Godzilla, working with a non-existent, 20-story lizard king, trying to do his own stunts (car-hood hopping), and his upcoming lead role in the film The Cradle Will Rock, about a famous Orson Welles-directed Broadway musical production in the '30s (he plays the composer) that was banned by the U.S. government. It's currently filming in New York under the direction of Tim Robbins and costars John and Joan Cusack, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro, Rubén Blades, Emily Watson, Vanessa Redgrave and Angus McFadden.

Cinemania: Tell me about making Godzilla, working with the Big Lizard.

Hank Azaria: It's a good part, a fun part. Animal is crazy. Anyone who runs at the lizard, rather than running away like everyone else, isn't a smart man, not a totally sane man. It was long doing it — five months of anything makes you crazy and it was all in the rain. It takes place in a day and a half, and it's raining the entire time. I think that was because the creature looks better in the rain. But don't we all? I look good wet. So that was a hard, five months of wet. Other that that, it was fun to do.

Cinemania: Had you ever done the special-effects thing before?

Hank Azaria: No. And that was odd.

Cinemania: Did you have Mr. Tapey? (It's a piece of gaffer's tape that gives the actors something to look at when responding to a yet-to-materialize special effect).

Hank Azaria: All over. There was always an X somewhere and you just reacted to the X. The set was so huge — sometimes whole city blocks — that directions would [have to] come over bullhorns from far away. They would announce what was going on — anger, pain — and the four of us, Matthew, Jean, Maria and I, were all reacting to this in three takes. Then we'd be like, do you want to see our pain and anger or are we reacting to Godzilla's pain and anger? Communication is hard when the set is three city blocks.

Cinemania: Was this on location or a sound stage?

Hank Azaria: We were in New York for six weeks, ruining that city, and then we were in downtown Los Angeles, which doubled NYC for certain streets and alleys. It's amazing. I've done a bunch of movies where downtown L.A. doubles for New York. You are always so sure this is gonna look ridiculous, but you can never tell. They use it wisely. The other half was shot on a soundstage.

Cinemania: So ... did you do your own stunts?

Being stepped on by GodzillaHank Azaria: Some. You only do the borderline stuff. There was one scene where I had to run on top of cars, hood to hood. I had never done that before, and it was wet, so they had to spray the cars with sticky stuff. Roland [Emmerich, the director] didn't want me to do it; he is good that way. He was like, it's not worth it. And I was like, come on, it will be fun. You can see it's actually me. We rehearsed and it was fine. I did it easily. Then right before we're going to shoot one, the stunt coordinator comes up and says on that last rehearsal, "You know the way you stepped on the back windshield? Johnny Depp did that during Donnie Brasco and he went right through it. Action." There was a hitch to my get-along, if you will. It wasn't quite as seamless on the new take. I kind of pranced along on the top like Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run.

That was as close as I got, but I got slammed around pretty good. When you are running, people are running in the opposite direction, in hordes, and they are running, not looking at the poor actor with the big camera in his hands. I got slammed into a lot. I mean, I went flying. I don't know how to do anything without [actually] doing it. We had to do a lot of running away from things in terror. And when running in terror, you run full-out and don't see the wall in your way, and I actually slammed myself a lot. We filmed a scene where we were all hopping a fence down into an alley, and Jean was in combat boots and he slung his foot over and, bam, right in the face. Jean is a big guy. Big French boot. Almost once a week, stupid little things like that. Once I'm wearing a wedding ring and I run and see something terrifying and we stop. I grabbed the railing and the ring got caught and I just gushed blood. A million things like that. My character is frustrated a lot and is always banging his equipment. If you do that once, you have to do it 60 times that day and from 15 different angles. At the end of the day I was like, can I just fake the pounding on this one? You don't realize the repetition is gonna hurt so much.

Cinemania: Do you still do all those "Simpsons" character voices?

Hank Azaria: Yeah. I do Apu, the mart guy. Moe, the bartender. Professor Frank. Cal, the old sea captain. A lot of others, too. If you knew these characters, you would be on the Internet all day.

Cinemania: When did you start doing that?

Hank Azaria: I didn't do it on "Tracy Ullman," where it originated. But in its first year as a sitcom, they had a Moe, but they didn't like him, so I replaced him.

Cinemania: Did you audition for Matt Groening?

Hank Azaria: Yeah. It takes them a very long time to animate the show, so I had no idea what this was. I hadn't seen the script. I went in and gave them my take on Moe — actually it was just a bad Al Pacino impression. "Hi, how are you?" kind of a Dog Day Afternoon voice. I went and recorded it and was like, what is this thing? They said it will be an animated prime-time show and I was like, that sounds good. Next week they called and said, "Can you come in and record some more of that?" Sure. It kept going, but it was a year after that that I actually saw it. No one was more shocked than I was.

Cinemania: So your voice has been more famous than your face.

Hank Azaria: Yeah. Absolutely. It's nice. Maybe after Godzilla, my fame will catch up to Apu's.

Cinemania: When did you start doing "Mad About You"?

Hank Azaria: Like, three years ago. I really just drop in. I started doing that when Helen and I got together just so we could see each other every once in a while. It's been fun. It's based on someone I knew growing up, who actually spoke that way.

Cinemania: Did you imitate your parents and teachers when you were young?

Hank Azaria: Oh, yeah. It was very annoying. Parents, teachers and other family members. I found a tape recorder, back then they were gigantic, and I found my voice on it when I was a little kid and had hours of entertainment giggling to myself at the sound of my own voice.

Cinemania: You moved out to L.A. and did stand-up to start off?

Godzilla CastHank Azaria: Yeah, for a brief period of time while I was doing "The Simpsons," but wasn't getting much work as an actor. I did a lot of improv comedy. We wrote sketches in the improv group and I had material left over from the sketches and went up as a lark at the Comedy Store, not even thinking it was an audition, and they liked me and made me a regular. I had no idea what I was doing but would go up twice a week and try out material. Totally terrifying. I wasn't very good at it. Twice I had a good night out of, like, eight months of trying. That was fun but it was like jumping out of an airplane. Something I'm glad I can say I did, but I don't want to do again. I have had a weird career. I would do, like, a pilot a year, a lead or a supporting role and not work again for the rest of the year. The next pilot season, I would get another one.

Cinemania: You must be bitter about that.

Hank Azaria: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah, I have a lot of hate. I am filled with hate. I have all the names of the people who didn't hire me on a list. Actually, pilots pay well, so you can kind of live the rest of the year on that money and the memories.

Cinemania: Tell me about your upcoming films.

Hank Azaria: I just finished a film called Mystery Alaska with Russell Crowe. I was up in the Canadian Rockies. I was not planning to work for a while, just take some time off, but then this Tim Robbins film came up and it was just too good. It's The Cradle Will Rock. I play Mark Blitzstein, whom I didn't know was a real person who wrote this musical — wrote and composed it. It's really an opera. And the only one banned by the U.S. government, back in the '30s. Did you ever see The Three Penny Opera? It was the first American version of a play like that, where it was an opera, but an opera of the people. This was written in English and is about working stiffs and ultimately about a union uprising.

Cinemania: So there are socialist overtones?

Hank Azaria: Blatant. I think that's why it's still not popular. I think now it's safe enough, what with the Berlin Wall down. But even 10 years ago, it would have been scary.

Cinemania: What's Tim Robbins, as a director, like to work with?

Hank Azaria: Incredible. He is intensely smart. It's a great job, because it's something that you can believe in and enjoy. It's an amazing group of actors he's assembled and you can just trust him. He is amazing with actors, because he's a great one himself. You can relax, knowing he's going to figure it all out and look after your performance. You can't always trust that. You have to look out for yourself and come up with your ideas 99 times out of 100 in most films.