Taking two young actors used to doing the underdog shuffle and putting them in the lead roles of DreamWorks Animation's How To Train Your Dragon makes for a movie that encourages audiences to see the world from an entirely different point of view.
Set in the mythical world of Vikings and dragons, and based on the book by British author Cressida Cowell, the computer-animated action comedy tells the story of Hiccup, a Viking teenager who doesn't fit in with his tribe's longstanding tradition of dragon slaying, and Astrid, the best warrior in the village who becomes his unlikely ally.
I had the amazing opportunity to talk to both America Ferrera and Jay Baruchel to get their take on making the characters' seemingly ordinary lives extraordinary.
America, you played a sweet, gentle fairy in Disney's Tinkerbell movie. In contrast, what was it like to voice such a strong female character like Astrid?
Ferrera: I had never really done animation on this level before [or been] a character this big in a movie, and just learning to be expressive solely through my voice and not having facial expressions and body language and all that stuff was hard. That was like relearning how to act - like acting with your voice one-on-one. But I loved Astrid because she was ready to fight with the boys and dragons. I love that the movie never really makes a big deal out of it, it just is what it is. She is the best young dragon slayer and there is no mention of being a girl, so that's ridiculous or any of that.
Jay, who inspired you to act?
Baruchel: It's a nice question. If there were any people that kind of made me want to do stuff on screen it would probably have to be Rowan Atkinson and Michael Richards. I have absolutely memorized every single Mr. Bean routine and I could do pretty much every Kramer bit that was you know from all nine seasons of Seinfeld, so those were the guys that kind of a made me want try to do stuff. And then of course, anything Gary Oldman does convinces me that I still haven't done what I am supposed to do yet.
The movie is called How To Train Your Dragon, but it appears that a particular dragon, Toothless, ends up training the Vikings in the end. What do you think?
Baruchel: Wow, I'll field this one. Without giving away too much, that's the money stuff you're referring to, that's big stuff. I think Toothless ends up training the Vikings in that he is the first one to make them look at dragons differently. Before him, dragons are villains, dragons are the ones who burn down houses and take food. Once Toothless appears, you see that there is more to dragons than what we thought and as a result, it changes the entire Viking demeanor and approach, so I think just by a virtue of the fact that he is adorable and loyal and responsive, he kind of makes them change their whole game plan.
Did your roles feel physical even though you didn't have to do any actual stunts while recording?
Ferrera: Yes, I would say that they felt very physical. I mean we didn't have to fly dragons or anything but just to get those Viking screams and warrior calls and grunts and there is a lot of running in the movie. So we were constantly panting and I found myself getting really physical in the room just to get to that place where you know, you feel like you were running from a dragon.
Baruchel: Yes. And they're constantly just asking us to do a grunt. Do a grunt like you just caught something. Do a grunt like you just landed somewhere. And so yes, even though it's just like America and I literally standing in a room with microphones in front of us, if you saw what it looked like, it would look ridiculous.
Did you dream of acting when you were little?
Ferrera: Yes, I feel like I have for a very long time known that that's what I wanted to do mainly because I grew up watching a lot of TV and a lot of movies and the imagination that a kid is allowed to express ... It's like your imagination just runs wild and I think as a kid I was so, I was so enthralled by this.
Baruchel: And for me, no. Since I was nine years old and to this day, all that I actually really want to accomplish in my life is to direct low budget horror movies in Montreal. I'll quit this crazy game at a certain point. Acting has been incredibly good to me. I love it and if it weren't for this job, my family and I would have a much a different life. I'm still surprised that people haven't gotten sick of me yet.
Your roles in Ugly Betty and Knocked Up show you in the unlikely hero light. Do you think Hiccup and Astrid jive with the personas you usually play?
Baruchel: Well, my guy definitely does, I think for her, Astrid's like the alpha male of the movie. For me, it's back doing the old underdog shuffle as usual.
Ferrera: I think I'll have to learn that one. I think that Astrid was like a newer kind of character for me to play, because she was so tough. And actually, in the beginning you think she is the most likely hero. She is smart and she is prepared and she is physically trained and everyone thinks she is the star Viking. I think her biggest moment in the movie comes when she realizes that she is not going to be the hero, and she encourages Hiccup to go and be the hero, and that makes her the hero in a way that she never thought she would be. She steps outside of what she expects from herself. It was just fun for me to get to play a real bad ass chick, slay dragons... there is a part of me that really regrets that this wasn't live action. It would have been really fun to do all the kicking Jay's butt.
Now that you have both added voice work to your acting resumes, do you have a preference for either?
Ferrera: No, it's all awesome. I mean, I feel so lucky to get to say that I have this animated film and then a romantic comedy coming out and then a really dark independent film that's going to be at Sundance and a television show that is really fun. And I think to feel stretched and fluid as an actor like I can go in between all of these sort of things is the dream.
Baruchel: Yes. For me, this is definitely logistically the easiest. It's nice to not have to put makeup on and wear whatever I want, all that stuff. It's all fun, it's all cowboys and Indians, you know and to make living at it is pretty sweet.
Can you relate to your characters?
Baruchel: I relate to Hiccup because he was real skinny and childlike, and his dad wants him to be more athletic and physical than he wants to be. So these are all things that resonate with me. Best part was that I learned how to design medieval siege weapons that take dragons out of the sky.
Ferrera: I think I relate to Astrid in the way that she wanted to play the games that all the guys are playing, you know practicing to slay dragons. I felt like growing up, I always wanted to be doing you know everything that the boys were doing because if it was just for girls and I felt like somehow I was being put in a box. So, instead of playing on the girls' softball team, I made my mom let me play on the boys' Little League Baseball team and that was my Astrid moment when I was growing up.
Of all the characters you've played throughout your careers, have you had a favorite?
Baruchel: For me, it would be this movie I did that people like but not many people have seen. It's a movie that they called Real Time with Randy Quaid where I played this compulsive gambler. And I'm not a compulsive gambler, but aside from that I swear a lot and I live with a cat and I think quite highly of myself and I come from the ghetto and I still live in the ghetto.
Ferrera: And I would probably have to say, the first movie I ever did, Real Women Have Curves. I was 17 and I was playing a 17-year-old Mexican-American girl living in L.A. and the whole movie was about one foot in one culture and one foot in the other culture and learning how to somehow find an identity being not wholly one thing or the other. And I feel like as I've grown up, I go back and watch that movie and I feel more connected to that film as I get older, and realize now more than I did then, how that role couldn't have been more true to my life.
How To Train Your Dragon will be in theatre's in March 2010.
Convonista says: This insightful interview was conducted in late 2009 and originally released in January 2010.
Maria Pilar Clark is a mom times two and Windy City-based writer.
See more of Pilar's stories here.