The 3-D animated film “The Nut Job” is an action-packed comedy in fictional Oakton that follows the travails of Surly (voiced by Will Arnett), a mischievous squirrel, and his rat friend Buddy, who plan a nut store heist of outrageous proportions and unwittingly find themselves embroiled in a much more complicated and hilarious adventure.
Katherine Heigl is the voice of a sassy squirrel named Andie. Other members of “The Nut Job” voice cast include Liam Neeson, Brendan Fraser and Maya Rudloph. Here is what Arnett and Heigl said at the Los Angeles press conference for “The Nut Job,”
Will and Katherine, what is the one message that you’d like people to take away from “The Nut Job” that has so many great messages?
Arnett: What I’m most proud about in this movie is that it does have a lot of great messages, not the least of which is teamwork, that at the end of the day, you can’t always do it on your own and that you’ve got to rely on people that you trust and you love, and that together you can accomplish a lot.
And redemption, that even if you make a mistake, you can go back and do the right thing, and that everybody has some good in them and they can be relied on. And also, family. My definition of family is just unconditional love. The people who rely on you and who love you, they are your family.
Heigl: What he said. Ditto!
There was a line in the film that really resonated: "You're not the boss of me." Do your kids say that to you? And how do you handle it?
Heigl: Never. When my daughter was 3 — I don’t now why I did that at 3 because she was a little too young — I threw a big birthday party at the house. I made all the food and I did all the decorations myself. I took real pride in it. At the end of the night, she had been given so many gifts and got so much and was so indulged. She wouldn’t pick any of it up.
And I was like, “Naleigh, you have to pick the toys up and put them away and be respectful of them” and she said, “I’m not picking up my toys, not now, not ever!” I was like, “OK.” So the lesson is: if you refuse to [clean up], someone will do it.
Arnett: I say to my kids all the time, and this is absolutely true, I always say: “Who’s the boss?” And they go, “You are.” And then, my 5-year-old, who’s got a 3-year-old brother, always says, “But I’m the boss of him, right?”
Heigl: Yeah, you get that one.
Will, you’ve done lots of voiceover work before. Was there any time you two got to be in the room together and what was the recording process like for you?
Arnett: We did not get to be in the room together. We have not been in very many rooms together.
Heigl: Just this one and the other one before it.
Arnett: It’s an interesting process doing it. It’s really fun and it’s collaborative. The whole team who worked on this movie, from Peter [Lepeniotis], the director [of “The Nut Job”], who came up with it and directed the film, to everybody, it was really a group effort that came together in pieces. It was a very collaborative effort. And really, hats off to the director Peter for having such a great idea and message at the heart of this film. Maybe next time we’ll all do it together in the room.
That’s your main message today. It’s teamwork all the way around?
Arnett: Teamwork turns out to work perfectly great.
Do your children recognize your voice in “The Nut Job”?
Arnett: [He says to Heigl] Yours do, right?
Heigl: I think my daughter does, but I told her first. I wonder if I hadn’t said anything if she would have figured it out. I wish I had done that actually now. But yes, I told her. I explained it to her. I think she understands it.
She’s actually more excited for me. She’s like, “Oh look, Mommy, you’re in a movie. Aren’t you excited?” She’s a good little girl. I’m very proud of her.
Arnett: My kids are just happy to see the movie. They don’t really care that I’m in it. They’re like, “Whatever!” And I’m like, “The Nut Job!”
As a working parent, is it easier for you to do an animated family film where you don’t have to worry about make-up and wardrobe and you can just go to the studio as you are?
Arnett: I pretty much choose anything I do in life based on whether or not I can work in my PJs. Certainly one of the perks of doing an animated film is that you don’t have to go and get ready and wear wardrobe. You can just show up in whatever you’re wearing.
But really, the perk is that you get to play so many different characters, and animators can create worlds that otherwise you might not be able to create in a live-action film. And they’re so beautiful, too. Some of the artwork is so incredible. It’s easier as a parent certainly. It’s much better, in that it’s not as much of a demand, in terms of time so you can still take your kids to school and do all that stuff.
Is that a consideration when you’re choosing roles? Is that something you’re both thinking about as working parents?
Heigl: I think if you’re lucky enough to be able to do that, yeah, but it’s not always in the cards. I recently went and did a film in Cleveland. It was just a three-week shoot, 18 days, but I couldn’t bring my family. It’s the first time I haven’t been with them.
Do they usually travel with you?
Heigl: Usually, they always come with me for the whole shoot. We have a home and set up camp wherever we are, and I feel good because I’ve got my family with me. So it was really hard, actually.
I didn’t love it but I didn’t really have a choice. If I wanted to be a part of that project, which I very much wanted to be, I had to make that decision. Sometimes I just have to sit down and explain to my kids that mommy has to go to work. It’s not always ideal.
Arnett: For me, certainly, having kids changed everything about my life. Retroactively, now I work backwards. I’m lucky enough to work on a TV show. Last couple of years, I was on a couple of different shows. But certainly more so now, my schedule with my family is first and foremost and everything else is secondary to that. Absolutely everything.
Will, you’ve done a lot of animation and voiceover work and have a very specific voice. Can you talk about creating the voice for Surly and what exactly you wanted to do with that character and that voice?
Arnett: The voice for Surly is, of course, very close to my own voice, but it’s informed a lot by this story, by the arc and the animation and working with the whole creative team on “The Nut Job” in finding what really works. Surly is a rough-around-the-edges guy. He’s a loner.
He’s looking out for himself so we wanted to give him a bit of a street feel. I wanted to keep him close to me but also have that rough-around-the-edges kind of thing, which you might not think when you look at me, but certainly, at least in this world, I can do it.
Do you see your characters’ gestures when you’re doing voiceovers? Is the physical comedy timed with your performance?
Arnett: You’re not watching it as you’re doing it. You’re not watching it happen.
Heigl: Do you mean do we see ourselves in the character, like in our facial expressions?
When you’re doing the voiceover, usually in animation, they film you, so they can put your facial expression in your animated character. Do you see that in your character?
Arnett: They always have a camera on us. When we’re recording, there’s usually a video camera recording us
Heigl: I wish I had realized that.
Arnett: But they don’t necessarily use our characteristics. Early on, they might take some of that information to inform how they might want our characters to react to something, but they don’t just take that and stick it in.
So you don’t see yourself at all when you’re working in animation?
Arnett: Not really.
Heigl: No, she’s a squirrel.
Arnett: [He says to Heigl] When you look at Andie, do you see yourself?
Heigl: No. I really like her lady eyes because the animators gave her very feminine eyes, but they’re not mine. They don’t look like mine, but I like them very much.
Arnett: They really captured my doofus smile.
Heigl: Yeah, they really caught that.
When you were in “The Nut Job,” you said something in Spanish like, “Dios mio.” What was it?
Arnett: That’s right. Dios mio! I wanted to connect with my fans in all communities in all parts of America. If I hadn’t said that, you and I would not be talking right now. Buenos dias!
What’s your favorite character from “The Nut Job”?
Arnett: Great question! What would you say?
Heigl: Well mine, of course. I think Surly is my favorite character. I do. He was a lot of fun. He’s fun to watch and I like watching him learn his lesson.
Arnett: And Precious! What about Precious?
Heigl: I do love Precious. I forgot about Precious.
Arnett: Remember Precious the dog?
Heigl: Precious was really fun and she exists in real life, too. She’s amazing.
Arnett: That’s true.
Will, how did you feel when “The Nut Job” director Peter Lepeniotis told you that you were the character that everyone hates?
Arnett: Well, about the same way I feel right now hearing you ask me that, which is pretty crummy. No, I liked it. I’ll tell you why I liked it. It’s because it was my job to tell the story of a guy who everybody thought was maybe a bad guy, and it turns out that he ended up doing the right thing, and that he was a good guy, and that he was able to see the good in himself because he didn’t see himself as being good, but his friends saw something good in him that he couldn’t see. It was important for me to help tell that story.
There are lots of great animated films from Pixar, DreamWorks and Disney, but “The Nut Job” is a small Korean production. How does a small independent movie like “The Nut Job” compare to the big studio animated films?
Heigl: It’s definitely competitive. I think they did a beautiful job with the animation. It’s really current and up to speed with all those big movies, too. I got involved because I had worked with the producer [Mike Karz] before [on “New Year’s Eve”], and they approached me about doing it. I’d always wanted to voice an animated character and so I went ahead and did it.
Arnett: I agree.
Did you know from an early age that you wanted to be an actor?
Heigl: Well, I started as a child actor when I was 9. My mother often says that she could never have done it if I had been the youngest, if she had other small children she had to cart around New York City for my auditions and go-sees and stuff. It’s really hard.
But I was always very grateful that she did because I just gravitated towards it. It just sort of happened accidentally. I didn’t really pursue it. When I did my first movie, I was 11, and I just knew, “This is for me. I love this.” I never went back to modeling again.
What would your advice be to parents whose children want to act? Would you let your children go into acting?
Heigl: No, I wouldn’t. Honestly, I wouldn’t. It’s so hard and it requires so much of a time commitment. I’d have to give up my own career to do that. It’s a full-time job. My mother had to protect me always and protect my interests and make sure that other people’s agendas did not compromise me or hurt me in any way.
It’s a business. So there are always people pushing for longer hours or more work, when you’re a kid, that’s a lot to ask a small person. And I had to keep up with my studies. They wouldn’t let me do it if I wasn’t on top of my school work.
But the good news is that there is an on-set tutor so you do three hours the whole day instead of seven. You have to in those three hours get all your work done, so you actually focus better. You’re forced to really focus and do the work and get it done. I did better academically when I had that one-on-one attention. I got in school.
Will, when did you first know you wanted to be an actor?
Arnett: Boy, I still don’t know. I guess when I was a kid I did have the idea that I wanted to do it. I was in some school productions. But it wasn’t really until I moved to New York when I was 20. It’s very, very tough. I did have some of the experiences of being a kid and doing it.
It was very tough. It takes a lot of guts. The truth is there’s a lot of rejection. As you know, I had a lot of rejection early on in my career. We [Katherine Heigl and I] worked together. She was an assistant in my first manager’s office over 20 years ago and that’s the truth.
So, even then as a young man, it was very difficult. I think you have to be sure that you’re not good at anything else, and if you’re totally sure, then good luck.
Will, was working on “The Nut Job” different from other animated films you’ve worked on, especially with so many animal characters and actors voicing them?
Arnett: It is different. Each time you do it, it’s informed by the story and the character and what you’re doing. Like I said before, this character was a little rough around the edges. And then, with “Horton Hears a Who!,” for instance, Vlad was a vulture and he’s sort of Russian.
And then, I’ve played monsters before and robots and whatever. Each time, there’s something different. You try to get informed by the surroundings and the story. I wish that I had more time to work with the other actor because it’d be kind of fun. It’s an interesting process to do. Unfortunately, in animated films, you don’t get to do it that often, and I think it’s probably worth looking at doing some times.
Katherine, “The Nut Job” is the first time you’ve done an animated voice. What was the experience like for you playing the sassy squirrel Andie?
Heigl: Thankfully, Peter was on top of telling me exactly what my character was supposed to be doing or what my character was doing in the moment. But yes, it’s weird. It’s very strange. You’re standing in front of a microphone with a head set on and jumping around and going, “Umph!”
And doing all these weird things whenever your character is experiencing something. And then you watch it in playback, because they do video you, which I didn’t realize, and it’s really embarrassing.
Will, why did the raccoon hate Surly in “The Nut Job”?
Arnett: You know why the raccoon hates me? It’s because it turns out the raccoon is not a great guy. And so, in the story sometimes things aren’t what you think in life. The raccoon seems to be the good guy.
And Surly, the squirrel that I play, seems to be the bad guy, but it turns out the opposite is true. So there’s another lesson. Guys, this thing is chock full of lessons. Let’s get out there.
For more info: "The Nut Job" website