Lego Ninjago Movie casting director Mary Hidalgo talks casting for TV and film
The Lego Ninjago Movie casting director Mary Hidalgo sits down with Mandy News to lift the lid on voiceover casting for film and TV.
Mary tell us where you grew up, how you got into film and specifically casting.
I grew up in California – both my parents were born and raised there my father worked in the movie business. He was a carpenter building movie sets. He worked on the ‘70s version of King Kong with Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges and The Towering Inferno and all kinds of weird projects. He built miniature sets.
I had a variety of other jobs but the movie business is so huge here that I was like ‘Why don’t I just get a job at a studio or something?’ so that’s what I did.
I got a temp job at Walt Disney Studios in the ‘80s answering phones. This was before there was voicemail, so we had a couple of phones that when people went to lunch, they would forward their phones to me and Didi and we would answer phones and take messages.Richard Dreyfuss, Tom Hanks and Bette Midler were there. Splash had just come out. It was the first years of Touchstone Pictures at Disney. I just stuck around and kept getting better jobs.
After I got bored answering phones and after briefly being an assistant for the head of Buena Vista Productions, I ended up working in the casting department at Walt Disney TV. So, that was where it started and from there I got another job in casting. I enjoyed it and I knew a lot of actors and I think I have a really good eye for actors. It just kind of started back in the 80s.
So The Fox and the Hound - were they sort of your first gigs within that studio?
Well, my very first animation casting gig was The Nightmare Before Christmas. That was in ‘93 or something like that. Disney had created a new interest in feature animation and at the time we were casting Nightmare they were just finishing Lion King. I really enjoyed the animation casting process and then from there it was just more and more animation. And when you start just doing one specific thing, everything else gets pushed to the side because you become more of an expert in that area - in my case voiceover.
So it just kind of snowballed from there. Which is fine with me because the process takes so long and I’m a plotting kind of person. I like to take my time to figure out who the right actors are. Even if nobody agrees with me I just like to have a real solid opinion about who those actors are. It kind of gave me the leisure when it takes, back in the day, like five years to make a movie.
So, at what point did you become a fully-fledged casting director, and was that something that you had to push for, or was it just an organic process? And tell us a little bit about the difference between what you did before and what then becomes your role as a casting director?
Well, I think this is a lot of people’s experience; you start out as the assistant and all you do is ask for files and make sure schedules are in order and all that stuff. And then, a lot of casting offices and I’m sure a lot of other aspects of film-making, you get really busy and then the person that’s in charge can’t do the small roles, like ‘I need man number four on the train,’ so they say ‘Maybe you can do this’.
So you kind of branch off a little bit and do those little things that the casting director can’t do. That elevates you to the associate and gives you more responsibilities. What happened with me was I was at Disney for a very long time working with the wonderful Ruth Lambert – who’s also a really great voiceover, animation, live action casting director and very generous. When she left the company, I filled the void temporarily.
It was just really good timing for me because that’s when Pixar did Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, and as everybody knows, Finding Nemo was gold. People just saw my name on that credit and it was like ‘Oh, it’s Mary Hidalgo, she knows what she’s doing, she did that gig’ so that was the movie that started it all.
That was when I became, I believe, a full-fledged casting director, in the world’s eyes. In Hollywood’s eyes.
So, what do you look for in a voice? Obviously, to a degree, a studio has to sell their movies on known actors being involved – but tell us a little bit about what it is that you’re looking for in voices for any role, whether it’s leading or supporting...
In animation there are a lot of opinions in the room and my job specifically is to bring a variety of voices, tones and accents to a director. It’s also important to understand who can do comedy and who can deliver a heartfelt performance. My job is to bring those ideas to the director.And sometimes it is also my job to educate filmmakers on who the hot/up and coming actors are and why we should hire them.
What I specifically look for is comedy. Comedic actors excel in and really enrich animation. Animators are given recordings of the actors when they are drawing the storyboards, when they’re beating out the movie. They can then have headphones on while they’re drawing out the scene while listening to the dialogue over and over again.
If an actor has a really interesting voice, somebody that has a little bit of a lisp, or somebody that has a real texture to their voice it really helps those animators create a fuller, richer character. I don’t want to give them, for instance, Harrison Ford, because everybody loves Harrison Ford, right? He was Han Solo, but his voice isn’t that interesting to me. You have never seen him do a performance where you’re like ‘That guy is funny, he’d be funny alone in a room talking into a microphone, with nobody else around him.’ That seems like it would be a challenge for him.
Whereas Will Ferrell, you’ve seen him be really funny, he has a really unique voice, and he can do a variety of things with that voice, and he understands comedy and timing and it just gives all the animators something to kind of grab onto and flesh out those characters with. I love comedy so much, and I love the opportunity to put a comedian into a movie, because I know it’ll enrich everybody on the film. It’ll just enrich the film.
We do tend to have to hire more famous people at the level that I’m working at now, because everybody, I think falsely, believes that a movie star will bring people into their animated movie, even if they don’t see them, which I don’t understand myself, but it’s just something for the marketing department to cling onto. They can’t look at the movie and sell the movie, they can only sell the star aspect of the movie, which is frustrating to me.
That said, I do occasionally have opportunities to discover some people that have interesting voices and are funnier than you’d think they are, Liam Neeson in the Lego Movie for instance, but that’s very rare. TV we have a little bit more opportunity to hire outside the box, but the difference between TV and feature films is big.
Episodic voice over actors do get frustrated that we hire Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, etc because those actors think they’re just as good, rightfully, and think why aren’t they in features? I understand that, but I think what they don’t understand is that it’s not usually my choice, it’s not usually the director’s choice. We have to run everything by this big machine that says ‘We need a Will Ferrell in our movie to sell it.’
Also, there’s a difference between the style of acting in feature animation and in television animation. Television animation is half an hour or 15 minutes to sell a character and an idea. Feature films you have 90 minutes or more. So, you don’t want to have Spongebob, per se, in your feature animation, just because that voice can get very challenging at certain points for adults. But it works on television.
In feature animation we tend to have actors use their own voice, which is another deference between feature animation and TV animation. Putting on a voice doesn’t usually work and it affects the performance when it’s a 90 minute thing. Whereas in television we need a person that can do multiple voices. Like Billy West or Tress MacNeille.
It is challenging because I do feel that I get scowled at by TV actors all the time because they think I’m evil [laughs].
Also, I feel that there’s a certain flatness to the performance of an episodic voice over actor, because they’re trying so hard to get the actual voice right and then forget about getting the inner voice/performance right . They’re not trying to get the inside- they’re not bringing the character to life through acting, it’s through voices. For instancein Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bill Hader, his voice, to me, was so perfect for that character of Lockwood, because it was a soulful performance. He was making a simple character into one with humor and depth. He wasn’t just doing a funny voice, he had to challenge himself to be a better actor.
And I’m not saying episodic voice over actors aren’t any good, they are amazing, but somehow the wants in features are different from the needs in TV.
So when you’ve cast your main characters and the lead supporting, where do you guys go to for those characters in film or TV?
Well, usually there’s your lead actors, there’s your supporting characters and then there’s other characters that have a couple of lines that you want somebody that’s not a walla or loop group. Most of the time when it gets down to two or three lines it’s such a specific character. They’ll want the duck to sound like Rodney Dangerfield or something, for example. So, we bring in actors we think can give us what we are looking for and at the same time, we will send out the few lines of dialogue we need to all the voiceover agents and those voice agents will audition actors. Once agents send back the auditions, we listen and whittle down to four or five choices, which we then present to the director. Hopefully, there is an actor that fits the role, if not, we discuss further and go back in with more auditions. It’s all a process and we always find out actor in the end.
Yes Lego Batman had loads of famous comedians in minor roles!
I think, again, that’s a thing where voiceover people get frustrated, because they think that we’re just ignoring them. Which we’re not. The director of Lego Batman specifically has worked with a lot of those actors on Robot Chicken. He knew who they were, and they knew him, so that’s how it happened.
What are the challenges on those big movies? Is there an example of one that was particularly a challenge? Or of problems that regularly crop up?
It’s always a challenge to find your leads, always, because of the way that I perceive things, the way directors perceive things, and then the way the studio perceives things as well as the studio’s marketing department. It is where art and commerce bump heads, If I had it my way, Will Ferrell would have been in Monsters Inc, but no one knew he was at the time. I said ‘But, you know, he’s funny and he’s got a great voice, why-’ and the response was ‘well we can’t market that.’ And you can only find it a shame.
Who do you get to play the lead in The Emoji Movie? You might want one guy, but no, we can’t have that because he’s not famous enough for the marketing department, or for the studio. And I get it, they need something to hold onto, I get it, but it is really a constant frustration.
The one that I remember the best was on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. We had hired two actors, two comedians.We’d recorded them a couple of times and they were cut into the animatic and presented it to the studio and the studio boss was like ‘Mm. I don’t know. I don’t like those actors, I don’t know. No. No. We’ve got to replace them.’ So we had to start all over again and look for actors with ‘bigger’ names. It was at this point the studio seemed to forget who the characters were and what the movie was about and they just start throwing out names like Nicholas Cage, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts – all these actors that just don’t fit the character but are famous. So we go through the whole process again, make offers to A-list actors who say no for one reason or another and then we were finally at the spot where we needed actors for production and at that point we just had to pull the trigger on an actor who was less famous but actually more right for the role. And I think we made the absolute best choices in Anna Faris and especially, Bill Hader.
It just takes one doesn’t it? If you had one that did it without a known voice or name, then suddenly they’d do loads of unknowns. If one works and makes a profit.
Pixar doesn’t ever do that. I mean, they tried in the past to do it. When we were doing The Incredibles, they really wanted Harrison Ford. He thankfully said no and then they also really wanted George Clooney and he said no. And then they ended up with the perfect actor (Craig T Nelson). The movie going public in America knew who he was and his voice was just the most perfect voice for Mr. Incredible.
Now, Pixar can do whatever they want, so they don’t have to adhere to those ‘rules’ anymore, those weird, unspoken rules in animation that we need to hire a movie star. I’ve had many casting conversations where someone says ‘Well, Pixar doesn’t hire big names,’ and then the studio exec says, ‘Yeah, but that’s Pixar, Pixar is the name that gets the audience into the theater.’ Every time. Until the day we are all Pixar, then we will continue to hire A-list actors to voice our leads in movies.
But let’s throw that side out for a second and just say that an unknown could do it. For one of those guys, tell us how it works.
The performance should be a little bit more extreme, more pushed. I like to use the example of when an actor does on-camera work ,everything’s small and close up and tiny. We don’t want that. We want a theatrical performance. We want a soap opera performance. We want something that is more meaty because we’re only hearing your voice. At the same time, especially in features, we do want a natural quality to the voice. Not always, but most of the time. That’s why we hired Zooey Deschanel, or Chris Pratt or Abbi Jacobson because that actor has an interesting natural quality to their voice, they are also a comedians and they all have the acting chops to give us a performance that is not necessarily written on the page. And speaking of reading between the lines, it is one of the things in auditions that I really respond to.
During the process we sometimes get hundreds of auditions for the same role and if 99 out of 100 actors are doing the same thing, reading the lines that are written on the page and nothing else, I’m not really going to respond to that audition because I have heard it 100 times. But if I get a reading that digs a little deeper or a reading that is just super wacky, then I really stop and take a listen.
I think the key to all of this is that you’re a good performer, you’re a good actor. It is all about knowing your craft and being able to act. I do get people that contact me and they say things like ‘How do I get into this?’ I usually ask Are you taking classes? Are you working on your craft?’ and if they say ‘No, I just want to do voiceover.’ Well, then I have no interest in you because you’re forgetting about the most important bit.
How long does the process of recording a feature film typically take?
Well, it’s gotten shorter and shorter. When we did the Lego Movie it was two years. During that two year period we would have sessions as they were writing pages and then as the need for those actors arose they’d come in and record.
For television, I’m working on a Matt Groening show now and every two weeks they record so it all depends. Then it takes about a year because they have to send out the animation. I think with features they’re getting shorter and shorter. The Emoji Movie took like two years to make, as well. That’s the dream of a lot of studios, I think. To do it in a short period of time. I’m going to say there’s less than a hundred hours put in for some movie actors. It’s not a long time.
And the actors do not record at the same time?
We ideally like to do it at least once. In Lego Movie Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks had a little bit of a love story. Sometimes it’s fun or helpful just to have those two together if they have scenes together. But typically no.
Sometimes you do have to do it just to elevate the performance because some actors are low-energy. They don’t understand when you say ‘More energy, more energy!’ When you bring in another actor, their peer, it elevates their performance in a way because they’re acting with somebody and it’s fun for them.
On the Matt Groening show we’re recording everybody together and that takes all day. It’s a long day for actors. When you record everyone together everybody is trying to make everybody else laugh, so you get your best stuff that way sometimes. But you can’t always do that, not with busy big name actors.
You did some work on the Team America film. What could you tell us about that process and working with those guys?
It was great. I knew both Matt and Trey before all this happened-
What, pre South Park?
Yeah. I worked a little bit on the show. They wanted Barry White to play Chef, and I was the person that told them ‘Well, you know Barry White’s not going to do it, what about Isaac Hayes’ and so that’s how that happened. My husband is a comedy writer and he wrote on that show for a long time, so we’re all kind of weirdly connected.
Anyway, when Team America was happening, it was funny because on the TV series it’s basically just Matt and Trey doing all the voices and I knew going in that there was a good chance that Trey wanted to play the lead guy, Gary, even though he’s like ‘No, no no, we’ve got to find somebody, we’ve got to find somebody.’ I auditioned a lot of people, not a ton of really famous people’ and there weren’t many who really wanted to be in it because I think that many still didn’t quite understand what Matt and Trey were about.
We auditioned a bunch of guys and then ultimately Trey said ‘I guess I’ll do it,’ and I go ‘Of course you’re going to do it, you silly person.’ just because it’s always his voice, you know? You can read the dialogue and you’re like ‘That’s your voice. Why are you even fighting that?’
It was so funny and they had to hire all these puppeteers, which I had nothing to do with. So all these puppeteers come in and they’re trying to make everything beautiful and fluid and all these things, and they couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that they wanted it to look like Thunderbirds and to be kind of jittery and weird and look like puppets. They were just all really, really frustrated with that process, because they wanted to make it beautiful and to them it’s not comedy. That was very funny to me.
You’ve worked on all of the Lego Movies. Tell us a little bit about Lego Ninjago and the process of voicing for Lego.
Well, because I’d worked with Phil and Chris on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, I had a relationship with them and so when they were doing Lego Movie they asked me and of course, I was thrilled to do it. I think it must have been after Jump Street so people knew who they were, people- celebrities, actors, specifically Will Ferrell. He’s not a big fan of doing animation and just constantly gets asked to do animation. When we were working on the film, we kept saying ‘We would really like Will Ferrell to play Lord Business,’ and I think one of the things that ultimately convinced (along with a great script) him to do the role was that he had three boys under the age of nine who all played with Lego, so it was just a great opportunity.
When we were casting the lead, Emmet – played by Chris Pratt – we had thought of Will Ferrell for that role, but he felt too mature for the character and it wasn’t as interesting for him to play that role. We had to go through this whole business with the Emmet character as well because they wanted more, even though Will Ferrell was on board. More celebrities, more celebrities!
But we just listened to a lot of voices in a room with the directors and everybody else. We stare at a drawing of the character usually, when we’re listening to a clip from a movie. With Chris Pratt, we all knew who he was and we were just asking does that fit the character? Can you see that voice coming out of that drawing? A lot of times it weirdly works when you just stare at the character and then listen to the voice. It was easy to get him through even though at the time he wasn’t anything at all. He was just in Parks & Rec. He hadn’t been in Jurassic Park, he hadn’t been in Guardians.
Ninjago is an ensemble cast, there are five main ninjas. So they wanted them to work in a group/ensemble and the original director, Charlie Bean, and I were both on the same page comedy-wise, so it was like ‘Who fits together? Who sounds good together?’ There’s a process where we listen to stuff and pull clips from whatever performance we think is going to sell the character to the director.
A lot of times conversation starts with ‘Oh, so, Chris Pratt’s great, so who does he fit with? Cut him together with Elizabeth Banks, Jennifer Lawrence,’ just a bunch ofother actors. You just cut the pulled clips together, opposite each other, and even though the dialoguedoesn’t really make sense, it somehow all works and we can determine if the tone of their voices are too similar. Does she sound too old next to him? Does he sound too old next to her? And when you play them together and when you get it right, everyone in the room hears it and it’s like Yeah! That’s gold, let’s do it!’
In fact, it was the same thing with the Lego Ninjago movie. We had a lot of characters to clip together to. figure out if they all worked well. Do they sound right? Do they sound too much like each other? The main focus though is whether or not the actor is funny and can deliver a joke. That always puts an actor high on lists, when he/she is funny.
What advice could you give to an aspiring animation casting assistant or director? What would you look for in somebody?
I just look for somebody that can watch a movie, watch a TV show and hear a performance and a voice and know that it’s suitable for animation. That’s a skill that you need to develop, because I only hear voices now. It’s always voices to me and a performance and sometimes it’s hard to disassociate the look of an actor from their voice.
So there’s that, but I think, again, it goes back to my advice to actors to just be an actor and not worry about anything else. Just, if you’re going to be a casting director, just take any job casting anything, doesn’t matter if it’s animation or not. Animation, again, is very niche. You can cast TV shows and then still do animation, but if you want to be in this world, just take any job. Then you’ll learn who people are, you’ll learn how it works. It’s not a big pool of people, animation casting people.
What advice would you give to aspiring voiceover actors?
Ummmm. Learn how to act? Just take any job you can get, because then you’ll meet people and just work at your craft.
Especially in this age of technology that we’re all living in. You can do anything on your own computer and you can animate anything. So just keep working at it and take any job you can get because those people sometimes go on to do other things and they’ll remember you. Or they won’t, but they usually do.
It’s all about contacts and it’s all about knowing what you’re doing, or even pretending like you know what you’re doing. Just be confident about it. It happens. It just happens. One day it happens.
If you were listening to a voice-reel, are there any technical noes or yeses that would you put you off?
I’m not a big fan of funny voices. I feel that they’re just shallow and don’t indicate whether you’re a good actor or not. That’s the challenge for voiceover actors because they’re like ”Do I put together a reel, and what do I do with my reel?” I will have agents audition people for me and I’ll listen to them and if there’s somebody I find particularly interesting – whether their voice or performance – then I’ll go back and look at that actors resumé and what other things he/she has done.
I don’t usually like to get a reel from somebody of just strictly animation voiceover. It doesn’t help me understand whether or not you’re a good actor or what else you can do. It’s just nice to be able to audition people.
Once you get an agent, out here especially – and I assume in the UK as well – there are voiceover agents that just strictly do animation, commercials and all that stuff. They have access to me and most actors don’t. They’ll be able to promote people or they’ll just say ‘I thought this person was really funny, here’s their audition.’ That’s really helpful.
I don’t know how they get agents. I don’t know how agents hire people. It’s another question I get all the time. I just don’t know. I’d like to be able to recommend people to agents but it’s all about the actor doing the work and doing the hard work of getting that agent. Once you have an agent, then you have to continue to work and be funny and hang out and know other actors.