Date: May 29, 1998
Hank Azaria doesn't have to raise his voice to be recognized
LOS ANGELES - For a man who's accustomed to being heard more than seen, Hank
Azaria is really out there these days. The longtime voice of such Simpsons
cartoon characters as Moe the bartender and Apu the convenience store owner,
not to mention the scene-stealing bat Bartok in last year's animated feature
Anastasia, Azaria is making quite a splash in the flesh this year.
He's had three features released so far: Great Expectations, Homegrown (which has yet to play Fort Worth-Dallas) and, biggest of all, Godzilla. Two are on deck: Mystery, Alaska and The Cradle Will Rock.
It's not exactly a big turnaround for the New York-raised actor, who has made previous film impressions in the likes of Pretty Woman, Quiz Show and, most memorably, The Birdcage, in which he portrayed Robin Williams' flamboyant houseboy. TV viewers may also remember Azaria as the consummate office sleazeball from the Fox network's Herman's Head series and will surely recognize him as Nat the dog walker, a recurring character on fiancee Helen Hunt's hit sitcom, Mad About You.
"Knock on wood," says the 33-year-old Azaria, looking relaxed in faded jeans, black shirt and a light jacket. "This has been a really good time for me. I feel very fortunate to be getting all these opportunities."
In the case of Godzilla, all those years off-camera in The Simpsons recording booth paid off doubly. The monster mash's producer and co-writer, Dean Devlin, was such a fan of the show that he offered film roles to several of the show's voice talents, including Harry Shearer and Nancy Cartwright.
Azaria gets the biggest part, though, as a TV cameraman, accurately called Animal, who is the one civilian who chases the 200-foot reptile through Manhattan, intent on getting killer footage.
"He's the only one stupid enough - or brave enough, depending on how you define it - to run at Godzilla instead of away from it," Azaria says. "When you think of it, he's kind of the ultimate product of this video-crazed society we're in right now. I mean, this man is not thinking ahead of what he wants to get on America's Funniest Home Videos, and he almost gets killed a lot doing it."
That's where his Simpsons and other cartoon work proved invaluable. Because Azaria's humongous co-star was by necessity computer-generated, he found himself acting opposite a big, imaginary nothing on the film's New York locations and cavernous LA sound stages.
"I think I found it, maybe, easier than other actors would. Obviously, we record The Simpsons with nothing there, like a radio play that they animate later. You have to imagine, very vividly, what's going on.
"So, at first, I found it easy and fun to do that on Godzilla. After a while, though, it got a little crazy-making. We shot for a long time, five months, and at a certain point you start thinking it's a form of insanity to have a relationship with an imaginary, 20-story lizard. It becomes the main relationship in your life after a while, and you start thinking, `I've got to move on from this!' "
He has, to a sportswriter role in the hockey comedy Mystery, Alaska, co-starring Burt Reynolds and directed by Austin Powers' Jay Roach. And in Tim Robbins' multicharacter production of The Cradle Will Rock, Azaria is Marc Blitzstein, the writer-composer of the controversial title musical, an Orson Welles stage production that was the only American play ever shut down by the government.