Set in the mythical world of burly Vikings and wild dragons, and based on the book by Cressida Cowell, “How to Train Your Dragon” is an animated movie series that tells the story of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), a Viking teenager who doesn’t exactly fit in with his tribe’s longstanding tradition of heroic dragon slayers. Hiccup’s world is turned upside down when he encounters a dragon that challenges him and his fellow Vikings to see the world from an entirely different point of view.
“How to Train Your Dragon” has an all-star voice cast that also includes Gerard Butler (who plays Stoick the Vast, Hiccup’s father), America Ferrera (who plays Astrid Hofferson, Hiccup's girlfriend), Jonah Hill (who plays Snotlout Jorgenson), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (who plays Fishlegs Ingerman), Craig Ferguson (who plays Gobber the Belch, Stoick’s best friend) and Kristen Wiig and T.J. Miller (who play fraternal twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut Thorston).
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” takes place five years after the first “How to Train Your Dragon” movie and includes the addition of new voice cast members Cate Blanchett (who plays Valka, Hiccup’s long-lost mother), Djimon Hounsou (who plays Drago Bludvist, a dragon hunter) and Kit Harington (who plays Eret, a dragon trapper). Here is what Blanchett, Baruchel, Ferrera, Hounsou and Harington said at a “How to Train Your Dragon 2” press conference at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France. Blanchett got most of the questions, and some of those questions were downright embarrassing and silly from "journalists" who should know better.
Cate, how did you relate to your Valka character, since she abandoned Hiccup?
Blanchett: It’s a singular challenge whenever anyone plays a mother on film, there’s a whole raft of judgment, as if a mother is a particular archetype that every mother is the same — which, of course, is absolute rubbish. We did discuss a lot that particular issue [child abandonment], because there is a judgment on a woman parent.
And I think the film deals with it really beautifully and deeply and emotionally — that Valka’s departure was an accidental one. And when she’s reunited with her son, they discover that even though they’ve been estranged from one another, there’s a deep, genetic understanding of the dragons, and that bonds them. America [Ferrrera] said before how many times she wept when she saw the film. There’s an enormous amount of humor in the film but also an incredible amount of heart that comes from that core family of Hiccup and Valka and Stoick.
Cate, you usually don’t do animated films? How did you get involved in “How to Train Your Dragon 2”?
Blanchett: It’s a gift to be a part of a project like this. My children and I adored the first. And so when Dean [DeBlois, writer/director of “How to Train Your Dragon 2”] ambushed me a few years ago at an awards ceremony, I was intrigued. As an actor, you’re used to using your body, your face, everything you can to communicate stuff.
And when you have to only do it through your voice, and you’re doing it in tandem with the most extraordinary, state-of-the-art animation, I found it an intriguing ride over the last three-and-a-half, four years to watch the character evolve quite separate from me, and how you can enhance and work with what the animators are doing. I didn’t actually get to work with the other actors. I acted opposite Dean most of the time. It was very interesting.
Cate, what advice would you give to actors who want to do an animated film?
Blanchett: I had the gift of seeing the first [“How to Train Your Dragon”] film as an audience member, so I knew the extraordinary, exhilarating world that I was entering into. And the thing with Dean and Bonnie [Arnold, producer of “How to Train Your Dragon 2”] is that we’d spend an hour catching up where the animation was at. They’d show you the atmospheres and the landscapes and the sketches.
We’d talk through all of that stuff, as you would rehearse an ordinary film …You were working in tandem with the animators. You had to inhabit what the animators were doing. And sometimes, something would come up, almost like a mistake.
I think what [Jay Baruchel] did was extraordinary. You could tell that the animators were working with the surprising things that you did vocally. Sometimes it’s led by the animators. Sometimes it was led by the actors. It was a real dance that Bonnie and Dean made sure we were kept up to speed before we opened our mouths.
Kit, you’ve been doing a lot of projects that take place in Northern Europe. Do you have special connection to this part of the world?
Harington: Other than in fiction, I don’t have a huge connection with the north. I think the U.K. is a Nordic country, to be honest. I am from there. It’s weird. You get put where you’re taken. And I seem to be taken toward dragons, horses and cold places, which is great.
I haven’t been to Norway, but I have been to Iceland, which is a beautiful country and very, very desolate and wonderful and I love it to bits. And in this [movie], Eret is akin to that, the ice world. I like to think of him as a lost boy with his group of lost boys.
Kit, what was it like making “How to Train Your Dragon 2”?
Harington: This was my first animated voice in an animated film? Personally, as an actor, I found it an incredibly liberating experience. Sometimes with the whole film world, being in front of a camera, it can be quite constrictive.
And it’s learning how to be free on camera that makes you a great film or TV actor. Whereas with this [animated film], you get put in a room with a microphone and you get to be as big and full and expressive as you like. And I found that a wonderful place to be.
But the problem I found is that you’ve got a microphone like this and you try to go big, and you go off mic, and no one can hear you anymore. I really enjoyed it. I think it’s a very tender movie.
I love my character in it. He’s sort of rough and tough and very misled young man. I enjoyed playing him, and I enjoyed being an actor in a purely vocal sense. It was wonderful.
Cate, can you talk about the diversity in your career?
Blanchett: I think when you make a film a different genre, with a different director of a particular vision — Dean had a very particular vision — you have the potential to reach a different audience. And I think, for me, that’s particularly exciting.
America and Jay, what was different for you in returning to the “How to Train Your Dragon” series?
Ferrera: It was really wonderful to get to grow the characters. The film [“How to Train Your Dragon 2”] starts five years after the first film. Jay and I actually never left these characters because in the years in between, we’ve been voicing the characters in the Cartoon Network series. Astrid and Hiccup have stayed with us for seven years now.
One of my favorite parts of the second film was the conversations I got to have with Dean about where this character would be and what she would want for herself. And ultimately, getting to play a character who is in the middle of the action is so wonderful.
I would say that for all the female characters — Valka and Ruffnut as well — we’re not standing on the sidelines cheerleading. We’re in the thick of it and most of the time causing the trouble. I’m so grateful to Dean for creating these female characters and for it not to be an issue. We don’t talk about it that way, and I think that’s a wonderful thing for our young boys and girls to grow up seeing.
Baruchel: Like she said, after seven years, this guy is just in me. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing Hiccup. It’s kind of fun to age him up a bit. What he’s dealing with in this one is a bit different than what he was dealing with in the first one. In this one, he’s trying to find a way to bridge a gap from who he wants to be and what his dad expects him to become, as I think a lot of kids at that age do.
Cate, do you sometimes get fed up with being asked how you handle motherhood and your career?
Blanchett: That question is only directed toward women: “How do you have it all?” I think we live in a world where there’s still not equal pay for equal work. I still don’t understand how in 2014 why that’s not the case. I’m not necessarily talking about the industry in which we work. It’s every industry.
I think the things that have been said about women not only in African countries but also the English-speaking world is absolutely appalling. I think sometimes we’re back in the Middle Ages. But I’m an actress at a film festival. I can cope with those questions, but it’s still surprising that we’re still asking those questions.
Kit, can you comment on the success of “Game of Thrones,” a show that might not have been possible 10 years ago?
Harington: “Game of Thrones” is doing wonderfully well. It’s at a time that is a golden era of TV, as it’s been called anyway. From an actor’s point of view, it’s a wonderful thing to do. It’s quite like this, in the way that Jay has carried Hiccup over those years, I’ve lived with my [“Game of Thrones”] character Jon [Snow] in my show for four years now, and I will for a few years more.
And that’s a really exciting place to be as an actor, to grow up with a character. I’m making my mistakes as a young man, and he’s making his mistakes as a young man. It’s fun. It’s a wonderful opportunity. I won’t realize how wonderful it is until retrospect, actually.
Djimon, how did it feel to play a villain in “How to Train Your Dragon 2”?
Hounsou: It was great fun. I feel like I’m young again. I feel like I’m 20 years old, in the sense that I began my career with DreamWorks [in “Amistad”], and here I am. Wow, what an amazing journey. Twenty years later, it went by so fast.
It felt great. I felt I was immediately embraced. This [DreamWorks] is the house I grew up in. It was amazing to go back to it. To be directed by Dean, and knowing the support I had from Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, it was tremendous.
Cate, what are your favorite kinds of movies?
Blanchett: I’m very eclectic. I like a big blockbuster as much as the next person. The wonderful thing about festivals is that they often showcase films that of a smaller, more particular concern, which I also really love. Since having children, I weep at the drop of a hat. I love a good weep in the cinema — and a good laugh.
Cate, who do you think is a better actress: you or Marion Cotillard?
Blanchett: There is no competition. Marion, hands down. I think she is one of the world great actresses. From the first few frames of “La Vie en Rose,” I just thought that I’d never seen anything like it. To see her in comic roles, and I was blown away again in “Rust and Bone.” We share the same agent at CAA, much to my chagrin. I think she’s a genius. I can’t wait to see her Lady Macbeth.
Cate, are you concerned about the Australian government cutting $38 million from Screen Australia?
Blanchett: I think there’s a lot of concern with the budget generally, not just with the film industry. It’s not lot only a potent industry that feeds Australia at home, but culture, generally for any nation, is a piece of soft diplomacy. It’s the way we understand the way the mindset of a country works. It’s a huge economic driver at home, and I think it’s very short-sighted.
Cate, how do you feel about women being held up to more scrutiny than men at red-carpet events? Have red carpets become the new beauty pageants?
Blanchett: Jay gets that all the time, doesn’t he? [She laughs.]
Baruchel: I’m just a piece of a**.
Blanchett: It’s important to remember why we’re all here. The wonderful thing about Cannes is that it’s an event. And part of the event is dressing up, but when you feel like a piece of merchandise, it’s slightly different. Certainly, I have always had an extraordinary time here, and I love dressing up. It’s a little rude to look a woman up and down like that. And when a camera does it, it’s slightly annoying.
Cate, what do you like to read when you’re at home?
Blanchett: My husband’s a writer. I find it very difficult to read screenplays, because they come alive in conversation with the director. And when you hear what the backdrop is going to be, what the ensemble is going to be. When I heard who was going to do the voices for this [movie], it suddenly became very exciting.
My eldest son, who just turned 12, loves reading screenplays. And he said to me a couple of years ago, “Mom, when are you going to do a blockbuster?” And I said, “Honey, this [‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’] just might be it. But he’s actually very good at reading them. He actually loves reading the screenplays. He says, “I think you should do this one or this one.” He was very pleased that I was doing “How to Train Your Dragon.”
For more info: "How to Train Your Dragon 2" website