An Emmy-nominated and Golden Globe-winning actor, with two feature directing credits to his name, Jason Bateman checked off another item on his career wish list this year, lending his voice to the critical and box office smash Zootopia—the first Disney animated film he has ever worked on. The actor brings his dry wit and spot-on delivery to the role of Nick Wilde, a con-artist fox dragged into a buddy cop mystery, experiencing the burden of prejudice and stereotyping in what amounts to a thoughtful and timely piece tailor-made for the present moment.
While Bateman has been hard at work on other projects throughout much of awards season, he recently won the Annie Award for Voice Acting in an Animated Feature Production, tying Moana‘s Auli’i Cravalho, with Zootopia taking the prize for Best Animated Feature. Speaking with Deadline, Bateman discusses the challenges and opportunities he finds in voice acting, the film’s resonance in the current political climate, and an upcoming Netflix series which will have him both behind and in front of the camera.
How has it been to see the way Zootopia has been received throughout the season?
It’s been really cool to be a part of one of these huge efforts out of Disney Animation. They’re incredible at what they do, they’re at the top of their field, and to be included in one of them has been stunning from the very beginning, in many ways. Not only just in the way which they run their company, but the way in which they go about executing the creative elements of it.
Then, specifically the way that they managed to craft this particular film, in a way that was so socially relevant, a little bit before that social relevance really started becoming so obvious.
You’re relatively new to the realm of feature animation. Were you waiting for the right material to come around to jump into voice work, or was this an opportunity you’d been waiting for?
No, it was an opportunity I was waiting for. I was hoping that somebody would call; they’re the only films I really get to see nowadays, with two little girls. One’s ten and one’s five, so we go out and see these movies all the time. I was really looking forward to getting the opportunity to do what some of my friends have had the opportunity to do. Then, to get a call from kind of the gold standard was just really exciting for me.
The process could not have been more enjoyable. You know, it’s like, be cautious about meeting your heroes, because they could disappoint you. It was nice to get in with these guys and see that they were every bit as professional, and as kind, and as good creatively as I’d hoped they be.
Did you have a relationship with Disney’s animated films earlier in life?
I don’t really remember any real specific stuff, studio wise, but I was a big cartoon fan growing up, and put in my time for sure in front of the television. Back then, the kids’ movies were not what they are today; there certainly weren’t as many of them, and they were nowhere near as good. I always loved watching the animation, and listening to the music. The music is such a big part of animation, too; it’s almost constantly moving, and surges like a tonal guide all the way through it. That’s helped me a little bit in the directing I’ve had the opportunity to do lately.
Supposedly, the Zootopia script went through various iterations, and once had Nick Wilde as its protagonist. What’s your recollection of the way in which the script evolved?
Well, there’s a few different answers in there. I do remember reading the script right at the beginning; it was always sort of a two-hander between the fox and the bunny, but I think it was sort of through his perspective. That wasn’t a plus or a minus to me at all, I truly was just happy to be playing a role in this film.
Then, I do remember about a year into the process—while there weren’t any new drafts of the script that were sent to me, as I was going in for my sessions, I did notice that there was a switch in the perspective of the movie, that it became much more through the bunny’s perspective. We actors are a thin breed; you think for a second, “Oh God, am I doing a terrible job? Are they thinking that it might be better going the other way?” I kind of gently decided to prod a little bit, to see: Are they unhappy, can I be doing something better?
They eventually sort of sheepishly explained that the books are just wide open there, creatively. The folks at Disney Animation and Pixar, they’re one family, so instead of doing traditional test screenings as a live-action film might, they instead are constantly running the film in front of all of their colleagues from both of those studios. It became apparent to them that they could probably get what they wanted to say better done if they went through the perspective of this bunny, coming in from out of town, and being sort of wide-eyed and naive to some of these social issues that they were looking to tackle in their charmingly cryptic way.
Not only did it make a lot of sense to me, but it was also awesome to get an explanation as to how they arrive at such a high quality with their films. It made a lot of sense to me that they’re so egoless about ripping it apart and redoing it, time and time again, to get it just right. Ultimately, they don’t have to do any re-shoots, they just need to pull out the eraser and they can pull an entire character out, or an entire act out, very late in the process, if the consensus is that this way might be better than that way.
Having worked in television and film, indies and tentpoles, across various formats, is it exciting to enter a new world in that way, and be exposed to an entirely different creative approach?
Oh yeah, I kind of geeked out, just as a fan of our industry. Animation is an enormous side to the financial stability of our industry, and to get a front-row seat in how the sausage is made in that area, I just felt incredibly privileged. I had my eyes open the entire time.
What do you see as the unique opportunities and challenges inherent to voice acting?
It took some getting used to, and by the end of it , I still don’t think I grasped it fully. I’d love to have another opportunity, because I spent however many years trying to get a handle on the combination of body language and voice and facial expression, and all of that stuff that we do as actors in live action. You can say the line, “I love you” one specific way, but you can do 12 different things with your face or your body, and it has 12 different meanings. When you’re doing voice work, you can say that same reading of “I love you” and you’re completely at the mercy of the animators to either support that, offset that, juxtapose it, contradict it, etcetera, etcetera.
Fortunately, the animators there are so good and so sophisticated. They’ve got little cameras inside the booth so they can see what your facial expression was, what your body language was, and they use that as a bit of a guide, perhaps. It all does need to coalesce.
What was the process like, working with the Zootopia directors?
I foolishly asked at the beginning, “Do you want me to do kind of a voice for this, or how do you want me to spin this?” They were like, “We just want you to do your thing; that’s why we hired you.” And I went, “Well, yeah, I guess that is.” If they wanted somebody to do a character voice, they’d hire one of the really talented voice actors to do that. In fact, they did, with many of those characters. I ended up kind of doing whatever the hell it is that I do, and I just leaned on them a lot for their guidance. They were great in kind of holding my hand through the whole thing, because, you know, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing in there.
One of the fascinating aspects of this film is its political consciousness, and the way it operates on a timeline, from the campaign days of March to present post-election realities.
Look, when they were tackling these issues at the very beginning, they were obviously relevant issues, because issues of racism and bigotry and xenophobia will always be relevant. There will always be historical examples of those things, but I had no idea that it was going to be so currently relevant, and so topical as we got deeper into the process. Then of course, with the release of the film, and now, even more so. They were definitely ahead there, and saw some wind coming.
[The filmmakers] certainly have my respect for the non- sort of preachy or pedantic way in which they addressed some of these issues, dressing it up in this kind of “medicine goes down easy” vehicle of animation and humor, and ways in which the youngsters that see this film can sort of get it, and then also obviously all the parents that are sitting next to them. There’s another frequency that is really only audible to them that kind of says it in a little bit more of a sophisticated way, as well. To be able to do both of those things at the same is some real talent, so I just feel really fortunate to of been a part of it, to say the least.
Has this aspect of the film resulted in people wanting to engage with you about the issues depicted on screen?
At the time it was released, for sure. I had a lot of conversations, not only with the press, but with some people in my personal life, about them noticing the same things I just talked about. It was certainly a really satisfying experience, for at least the people that I talked to, that watched the film, and that really appreciated the way in which they went about messaging these kind of high-brow issues.
You’re back in the director’s chair for Ozark, an upcoming original Netflix drama in which you also star. What got you excited about that opportunity?
I’m in post-production on that right now; we just wrapped shooting that last week on Atlanta. It’s a 10-episode first season. It’s something that was attractive to me because I had wanted to challenge myself with directing basically a 600-page movie. Then, as we got into the limitations of schedule with pre-production, we realized pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be able to prep all of the episodes as the director. I decided to just do the first two and the last two, and I hired a few people to come in and do the middle six. But as the executive producer, I’m sort of afforded that privilege of oversight that a director enjoys in film.
I’m really enjoying that challenge of that initial draw, that 600-page movie kind of thing, as we’re in there doing the sound mix and the picture edit now, and then the DI on all the episodes. It’s been the hardest work I’ve ever done, but I’m really excited that it’s yielded what I think could be a good product.