Hank Azaria is freezing. When I enter his suite at New York’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, the ever-versatile performer is sporting an oversized white robe. “Sorry about this,” Azaria says. “It was really cold in here.” For me, the scene is jarring, particularly after having run through Columbus Circle in 90-degree heat. Azaria looks like a character, but more importantly, he looks a little ridiculous. Playwright Jenelle Riley has gone on record calling Azaria “the best actor working today,” and anyone who’s ever taken an acting class knows that step one is a willingness to make a fool of yourself. That’s never been a problem for Azaria, who, whether in the flesh or with just his voice, has fearlessly pushed himself to lovably buffoonish ends, in a fashion that’s distinctly and recognizably his. Creating myriad caricatures of varying origins that somehow always remain soulful and innocuous, the actor, 49, has surely been a part of your life in one way or another, be it as the voice of many characters on The Simpsons, or as the co-star of films as diverse as The Birdcage and Dodgeball.
Azaria can ably play serious (look no further than his work in Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass), but comedy will likely always be his forté, and you can get a diverse dose of it right now on the big screen. In The Smurfs 2, the madcap whiz is back as the evil Gargamel, and in Lovelace, he takes on the role of the colorful, fashion-challenged Deep Throat director Gerard Damiano. For all its apparent attempts at camp, the latter film isn’t a comedy, but that doesn’t mean Azaria isn’t a riot. Unleashing some of his expert dialects to boot, the benevolent-seeming guy told me about porn, Gerard’s Jheri curl, and the shelf life of The Simpsons, all while making me laugh out loud…a lot.
It’s ironic that the two films you have in release right now, The Smurfs 2 and Lovelace, are basically at opposite ends of the taboo spectrum: a kids’ flick and a porn-star biopic. Which other movie of yours would you say lands in the middle of those, in a neutral, fit-for-everybody zone? Mystery Men? Godzilla?
Hmm, I don’t know. Something that’s halfway between Lovelace and Smurfs? I guess Mystery Men. I mean, the most popular thing I did was probably The Birdcage, but I’ve done such varied roles that I tend to get little cross-section-y reactions from people. Quiz Show was one a lot of people seemed to respond to. A lot of people remembered that story, and it was a New York thing—people from my parents’ generation, especially, remembered the scandal and the era. But I don’t know if there’s anything between Smurfs and Lovelace. I don’t know if that zone exists. [laughs]
Well, the gulf between them speaks to your versatility. Do you feel different approaching a set to play Gargamel than you do approaching a set to play Gerry Damiano? Or is a job a job?
Ultimately, the short answer to your question is “a job is a job.” You approach everything just like, “How do I make this work and come to life?” The Smurfs thing is extraordinarily broad, even for me, and I’m mostly falling down and getting hit in the head so five-year-olds can really enjoy it. That’s mostly what I’m doing there, though I do try to get as much into those movies for Mom and Dad as I can. In a thing like Lovelace, the mechanism of acting is the same, and it’s the same with voiceover. There’s no difference. But obviously Lovelace has an ensemble. With Smurfs there’s literally nobody there. They’re all animated, and I’m just doing gags with pretend cats and pretend Smurfs. Something like Lovelace lets you take in all the performances around you and react to them, as opposed to fabricating some lunatic, odd cartoon world.
And, of course, doing a fact-based film calls for a little more homework, which in this case involved watching some porn, I’d imagine. Did you watch a lot of Damiano’s stuff, or porn in general?
Well, in that sense, I suppose I’ve been researching this role since I was 14 or 15 years old. [laughs] But, you know, I got lucky on this film, because there’s a lot of footage of Gerry Damiano being interviewed, and him really spilling it about what it was like to make [Deep Throat], what the journey was for him, what it meant to him—a ton of from-the-horse’s-mouth stuff. And there was also just a lot of who he was in there. There he was [adopts New Yawk accent], talking like he talked, and with his crazy hair.
I was going to ask if he was always rocking that Jheri curl.
Oh, totally. Every interview. And it was just a complete wig. Like, one of the worst toupées I’ve ever seen. And he was a hairdresser! How any woman would trust this man to work on her hair, with this thing sitting on his head, I’ll never know. It was also two-toned, by the way. He was white-haired on the side with this big black thing on the top. I didn’t go that far in the film, honestly, because no one would have believed it. People would have been like, “What the hell? What is that?” As it was, it was already insane.
Well, I guess that answers the question of what the craziest thing you learned about him was: the hairdresser bit.
Yes. That was a bit of a shock.
Another real-life guy you played was Michael Kelly in Shattered Glass, which also had you starring opposite Peter Saragaard. If Michael Kelly, or The New Republic, for that matter, were to do a story on Gerry Damiano, what angle would they take?
Well, the facts on him are amazing. Here’s a guy who was a hairdresser, who stumbled onto porn movie sets, and was more a lover of film than a pornographer. He was that too, and loved sex, and loved being around that whole sexual world, but was genuinely kind of childlike and enthusiastic about movies. His dream, his artistic dream in life, was to make “good” porno movies, with a good plot, and good story, and laughs, and heart. So, anyway, the angle would be that he was a guy who tried to elevate porn. He made this horrible movie, and yet, that became a tremendous success anyway. It’s an unbelievable story.