What do you get when you combine Craig Ferguson’s comedic stylings with Gerard Butler’s smoldering sexiness? Two hot Scotsmen that play off each other so well that the highly anticipated DreamWorks Animation picture, How To Train Your Dragon, is this year’s must watch children’s movie.
Set in the mythical world of horn-hatted Vikings and wild 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. The unlikely hero’s world is turned upside down when he meets a dragon that challenges him and his fellow Vikings to see the world from an entirely different point of view.
I had the thrill of being invited to interview both Craig and Gerry (so many Americans can’t say his name properly, that he prefers the shortened version) in tandem, which made for an interview so irreverent and hilarious, there’s nothing more to say than READ ON.
Do you think you make good Vikings?
Ferguson: I’m great at fighting and Gerry’s a drunk.
Butler: I think we’re both big, burly, loud, obnoxious Scotsman.
Butler: And that puts us in a perfect position to play big, burly, annoying, violent, drunken Vikings.
Are there any similarities between you and your characters?
Ferguson: Gerry plays a character who’s sort of noble and dignified and has a sense of purpose, which is nothing like Gerry in real life. I play someone who’s adorable and is missing bits of his body, which is exactly like me.
Butler: I think he just summed it up for me. No, I play a character who has a great warrior spirit and really feels responsible for his people and for the village. He’s all about sticking to tradition and the values of the Vikings and then his best friend is Mr. Craig Ferguson here, who’s Gobber.
Ferguson: Who’s kind of his lackey. So in a way it’s very like Gerry’s the kind of main one and I’m his lackey.
What interested both of you about the storyline?
Butler: Well, I didn’t know if I was going to do it until I heard that Craig Ferguson was in it and he was going to play my best friend and then I thought, you know what? Wild horses couldn’t keep me away from the project. No, it just seemed like a lot of fun for me to get involved in this fantastic mythical world and to take on these great kind of charismatic Vikings and just to have a lot of fun with it. You know I’ve never done an animated movie before.
Ferguson: And I liked it because it’s acting but without wearing makeup.
Were you able to improvise while recording?
Ferguson: We would give them [the directors] what they wanted from the script, and then we would do it properly ourselves, Gerry and I improvising. There’s a kind of a mixture of both. It’s an organic process doing these things.
Butler: I’d done a bit of work with the directors before we actually went into the studio so some of the dialogue had come from improvising that we’d done and just talking about the scenes. And then when you get in there, yes, sometimes you find yourself coming off book because it just feels right. But I would say I mostly stuck to the script. Because I’m not as talented as Craig when it comes to improvising.
Ferguson: I, on the other hand, didn’t do any of the words in the script and that’s why my character’s nowhere near as interesting as Gerry’s.
Butler: Oh, dear.
Craig, did your experience with puppetry help your process at all?
Ferguson: Yes. I have a process of motivation, I just keep talking and hope something happens that doesn’t get me fired. See, Gerry’s an actor, he can be different people in different movies, I can only be me with puppets or no puppets. And so it’s a very different thing. I just show up and the reason I’m working in this movie is because I’m working with my friend Gerry who promised he would look after me. And that’s really it. I don’t have really a process – the process I have is put my pants on in the morning and that’s it.
Gerry, how was playing an animated Viking different than playing a CG enhanced Spartan warrior?
Butler: I’m curious to know what part you thought was CG enhanced …
Ferguson: I think it was his abs, by the way. I’ve know this guy for a lot of years, I’ve never seen him do a sit up. I don’t get that.
Butler: They were not CG enhanced, that was foam latex. That was a complete body suit. And you know what, there isn’t a huge amount of difference because both roles require using your imagination a little bit, because you’re not really in the world that you’re supposed to be in. So, you use your imagination and then also, you just kind of let it go and trust that you’re speaking to the person next to you or that what you’re saying is just going to be interesting and appropriate. You just trust, and also I often just look to Craig and say, what’s he doing? I’m going to try some of that.
Ferguson: And trust me, what I’m doing is not a sit up. Yes, it took a long time to put on the weight for this character. And that was definitely digitally enhanced, I’ll admit that.
Why do you think the directors chose to make the Vikings Scottish?
Ferguson: I think they cast two Scottish people because they wanted Gerry because he’s a movie star and I was inexpensive. And I think that’s how it came about. It was a creative decision that arrived through money. That never happens in Hollywood usually. We do have a big kind of history in literate tradition of Vikings and we have a lot of Viking blood in Scotland, I mean especially up north wherever you go you see a plastic Viking sitting outside a shop and Viking calendars and – because they – you know they came down and stole all our chicks and then some of them didn’t quite get back and ended up settling down here. So there’s a lot of Viking blood in Scotland and Sean Connery played a dragon in that movie and he was awesome so …
Butler: Yes. And I already played a Viking in a movie called Beowulf and did a dragon movie.
Was it difficult to get into character with Craig by your side?
Butler: Oh, dear. So for me it’s not difficult being appropriate, except when I’m sitting next to Craig Ferguson, then it’s a big problem.
Does the movie deliver a particular moral or message to the audience?
Butler: I think it’s a great message of truth and courage for kids and sticking to what they believe in and learning to trust their own intuition and talents. There’s more to it than that, but I’m going to let Craig answer the next one.
Ferguson: I think that the idea of that which you initially are frightened of may become something that is of value and a friend to you. Initially the young boy is frightened of the dragon and terrified of it, and then as he gets closer to it he makes friends with it and so that perhaps a fearful response to something new is not always accurate, and I think that might be a useful message for young people too.
What will kids find most memorable about the movie?
Butler: It’s a great fun story with some lovely messages lying behind it there and I think that visually it is stunning and it’s just a ride when you take a trip on the dragon with little Hiccup and you go through into the clouds and down over the sea and up over the mountains. Then just the story itself, it’s really touching, his relationship with this dragon and his courage to stand up for what he believes in despite you know going against all the kind of traditions and beliefs of where he comes from and I think that the message is for kids, the message is for parents, and you know you come out having learned something and also having had a huge visual treat.
The Vikings in this movie have a tradition of slaying dragons. What kinds of family traditions do both of you have?
Ferguson: We always, in my family, call each other every Sunday and catch up on the week, because we’re all spread out through the world.
Butler: Yes, we live all live all over the world, so you know for us Christmas is obviously a big tradition, we go back and we eat turkey and stuffing and …
Butler: And with Craig and his family.
Craig, how do you teach the young Vikings to slay dragons at your school in the movie?
Ferguson: They fight them. There’s no molly coddling, there’s no talking about feelings, it’s you start fighting dragons on day one and if you survive then you do well. It’s not unlike the schooling that Gerry and I received in Scotland.
Do you two pal around outside the studio?
Butler: Well, he runs six miles around Lake Hollywood and then …
Ferguson: And then flies a plane.
Butler: And has been promising to take me up flying for ages.
Ferguson: I’ll take you up.
Ferguson: Yes, yes, yes, I’ll take you up.
Butler: My free time is spent chasing Craig Ferguson around, trying to get a shot in his plane.
Ferguson: I think what he means by that is girls.
Butler: My free time is girls.
What was your favorite part of playing a Viking?
Ferguson: I think for me, wearing a hat with horns on it.
Final thoughts on the movie?
Ferguson: I think other animated movies can offer things for families and I think this one adds to it. This movie has an epic cinematic quality. But it also has a fun kind of very young visual aspect to it as well. So it covers a broad age range so that parents won’t get bored and young children will enjoy it as much as older children. But I think a lot of films – well a lot of the animated films coming out do that. It’s not – it’s not that the other ones can’t, it’s just that we can do it better.
Click here for Part 2 of my interview with America Ferrera and Jay Baruchel.