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Seth MacFarlane makes leading man debut in 'A Million Ways to Die in the West'

Charlize Theron and Seth MacFarlane star in "A Million Ways to Die in the West."
Charlize Theron and Seth MacFarlane star in "A Million Ways to Die in the West."
Universal Pictures

Seth MacFarlane is best known as the creator of the hit animated series “Family Guy,” where he also provides the voices of Peter and Stewie Griffin. After successfully venturing onto the big screen with the hit comedy “Ted,” about a crude talking teddy bear, MacFarlane follows up with a raunchy western comedy “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”

The film marks MacFarlane's first big screen appearance as an actor. He plays a sheep farmer named Albert, who hates his miserable, dusty and dangerous life on frontier in the 1880s. After walking away from a gunfight, he loses his best girl to another guy, who happens to be a mustache-twirling creep. Oscar winning actress Charlize Theron co-stars as a mysterious gunslinger who shows up and befriends Albert, and Oscar winner Liam Neeson plays a ruthless outlaw with a connection to Albert’s new friend. The film contains the usual potty humor that MacFarlane fans have come to expect and love, but in an Old West setting with a sweeping score and majestic vistas.

What may come as a surprise to some is that MacFarlane is also the executive producer of the family-friendly science series “Cosmos,” hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson, which has enjoyed a successful run on Fox this season.

He recently spoke about taking on his first movie role and as a leading man no less (in a film he also wrote, produced and directed), and what’s ahead.

Q: What anxieties, fears or joys did you have for your first big-screen acting experience?

MacFarlane: Well, you know, “The Gilmore Girls” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” was my extent of acting before this. Two lines apiece.

Q: You were on “The Gilmore Girls?”

MacFarlane: I did one episode. That did make me more than a little uneasy going into this. There were two things that became apparent pretty quickly into the process. One was that the (acting) muscles didn’t take as much reconditioning as I thought that they would. It was more like voice acting than I thought it would be. When you are doing a character even in the booth when nobody is watching, my face would do different things when I do different characters. Also, (on this movie) I was with the most talented actress I could possibly want. This probably was old hat to (the other) actors, but it was new to me. Your performance really does depend a large portion on what you’re getting from the other person. I got so much from Charlize and was made so comfortable by her during this process that I got to like it pretty quickly.

Q: What was it like shooting on location in New Mexico (standing in for Arizona)?

MacFarlane: These flash floods would come out of nowhere. It was every weather extreme that you could imagine and often times on top of one another. It was blistering heat. It was Arctic winds. It was torrential rain. It was lightening storms happening all around you. It was frogs. Hail at one point. It was a perfectly nice day and suddenly there was these giant hailstones coming from the sky. It slowed us down enormously. We joke about it, but it was a big problem. If we were to do this again, it would nice to find a more temperate climate.

Q: You released the novel version of the script before the movie came out. Since it gives a way a few things, including the ending, why did you do that?

MacFarlane: it was just sort of a companion piece to the movie. Novelizations were something I remember getting a kick out of when I was a kid. I think I read the book version of “Back to the Future” when I was in grade school. In our depiction of this (western) genre, there is a genuine affection for (the books of) Louis L’Amour and Elmore Leonard. I wonder if there is a hybrid between the tone that this movie sets and something that actually reads as a western novella of some sorts. It was an experiment.

Q: Audiences are likely to love the film’s many star-studded cameos. How do you utilize the amazing talent that will do anything to make an appearance in your movie? And does Ryan Reynolds charge per word?

MacFarlane: (laughing) It always depends more the on the gag than the person. The only time it came out of nowhere was when Charlize said: “Hey, Ewan McGregor is doing a movie up the street.” I was like, “****, you’ve already offered him a part?’ He’s got that beard and that moustache which he wore for ‘Jane Got a Gun.’ The gag is so quick; I don’t think a lot of people know that it’s him. So it just depends on the moment. Who the cameo is generally tends to come second. We needed Liam’s character to kill a guy in the saloon to scare everybody and we thought, “Well, this Ryan Reynolds thing in ‘Ted’ went over so well, let’s just get a laugh here where it would normally play as a straight moment.”

Q: Was Liam Neeson always your dream casting for the villain Clinch?

MacFarlane: I’m still astonished that he agreed to do the movie. That character needed to be a really genuine threat. One of the reasons the comedies of this type did so well in the ‘80s was the ones that played the jeopardy real. As ridiculous as “The Naked Gun” is, that movie does not work without Ricardo Montalban playing it completely earnest and completely real just grounds the whole thing and gave it a backbone. That’s what Clinch (Neeson) had to do. It cannot be overstated how essential that casting was to the story. He was just fantastic and a great guy to have around, a consummate professional.

Q: Thank you for bringing science programming back to TV on Sunday nights with “Cosmos.” Are you doing more of these scientific series that will be geared towards families?

MacFarlane: I don’t gravitate towards any particular genre. I’ve had a blast doing “Cosmos,” and I’m sad that it’s coming to an end. Yeah, I would like to do something else like that. It’s something that we felt was necessary at this point in time but it was also a fun project to be a part of. So yeah, I would like to keep that kind of thing in my sphere of work as I go forward.

Q: What are the benefits of working film compared to television?

MacFarlane: I love both. From a writing standpoint, I would say maybe television is a little more satisfying because it’s not all hinging on one thing, you can experiment from week to week. You can be a little narrower in your scope one week and a little broader the next week. But with film everything can look the way you want it to look. You can really sculpt the final product and so from a directorial standpoint, film is a little more satisfying. They are both forms of media I like to keep involvement in.

Q: Is it also more appealing to go from one movie to the next movie which is it’s own thing rather than from doing a same themed television series each week?

MacFarlane: Again, they are just different. There is an appeal to evolving the same characters from week to week, but there’s also an appeal to the newness of something you haven’t tried. It scared me a little bit, the idea of doing this movie and so that is something with film that you get a little more often, you’re constantly reliving that excitement and fear of doing something new.

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