'Home' is the story about an alien (Parsons) on the run from his own people, who lands on Earth and makes friends with an adventurous young girl (Rihanna), who is on a quest of her own.
Jim tells HuffPostUK about this unlikely alliance, plus taking a masterclass from comic veteran Steve Martin and the eternal optimist he thinks is in all of us...
You must get offered a lot of film roles. What made this story stand out?
I was really excited at the prospect of doing any animated film at all, because I’d never done one. It was just the opportunity in and of itself; that part of it was very appealing. The first thing I saw of it was a rendering of the character Oh, and I loved him. In fact, I liked him so much that I thought, ‘Oh! They can’t want my voice for this. He’s so cute!’ He’s got that adorable, curious quality about him.
But then the other thing that’s so appealing, and that has only intensified as we’ve done it, is it’s such a beautiful story about learning to let other people be who they are, and letting their true self shine through, and finding how much you end up loving that person. It’s about not prejudging, and not coming in with too many assumptions about other people. I think it’s an important lesson at all times of life, but really important right now.
For anyone who is yet to see the film, tell us about your character, Oh.
A: Oh is an extremely friendly, curious, enthusiastic being who, by his very nature, is not one of the crowd. Nothing would please him more than to fit in and conform with his fellow aliens in the Boov race – but he doesn’t, and he can’t help himself. Therefore he feels like an outcast, and his attempts to fit in end up causing trouble for him, to the point where he has a very big mistake he makes that could get his entire alien race in trouble. He’s on the run; he’s a fugitive from the rest. That’s when he meets this young human girl [Tip, voiced by Rihanna] who feels like an outcast in her own way and the two of them find all these things they have in common.
But for him in particular, he’s an extremely optimistic hopeful character. He has an irresistible curiosity and enthusiasm for life in general that is just beautiful.
There’s something about unquenchable optimism that always makes you love a character.
Yes! I feel like everybody feels that part in them, everyone can feel that inside themselves. I have an optimist inside me too. And it’s really easy to lose sight of that and get caught up in the drudgery of daily life and trying to get through things. I think – as with any character that connects with people – Oh’s quality that connects is a mirror of what’s inside them. It’s that hopefulness. To get to see the world through his eyes for a little bit reminds you that you can apply that to your own life.
In terms of the relationship between Oh and Tip, did you get to record your dialogue with Rihanna?
A little bit, not a lot. It was wonderful. She’s an excessively warm person, a very funny and quick-witted person. We had never met before, and I was taken aback at what a wonderful sparring partner she was, both in conversation and to work with, immediately. I think she’s a beautiful fit for this part because she brings two very opposite qualities to this character, of strength and maturity, and this real sad loner quality at the same time. It’s very moving, and very vivid, what she’s brought.
There was a picture online of you recording alongside Steve Martin as the Boov’s leader, Captain Smek. Please tell me that he was as fun to work with as we imagine.
That was beyond fun! It was like taking a class. He was like you would think he is, but even more impressive in person. He is so creative and so brave. We would be doing a scene and… it’s not just that he does improv or anything like that. It’s just that he knows natural ways to take a scene and play with it, and these rhythms and noises and things that are really awe-inspiring. It’s because he has a real fearlessness about him, and it makes it tremendous fun to work with him.
And President Obama visited while you were both recording. That’s amazing!
Yes, he was at the DreamWorks site to give a speech that day. He and Jeffrey Katzenberg went around; he got a tour of the facilities. Steve and I were there and we were recording, so we met him.
Did they warn you he was coming?
Of course! Are you kidding me? There are Secret Service agents everywhere! You know what’s going on.
But did he reveal the secret plans to fight an alien invasion should one occur?
No, not a lick.
So what are you like in the recording booth? Are you quite physical?
I am very physical. I almost always left somewhat drenched in sweat, which surprised even me. You think of it as something where you not only don’t //need// your body, but you don’t even have it to use! There’s nothing you can do with your body that’s going to show in the final product. Maybe that’s all the more reason I used my body so much to get whatever noise or sounds out of it I could. When we needed to keep the energy up I found myself almost running in place! It was very physical.
How much recording time did you do in total?
It was spread over about two and a half years, but I did, I think, 31 or 32 sessions. They varied in time. The shortest I did was probably two hours at once, but I would do four hours at a time. They said it was a lot, but it never felt like a lot. It just felt like I worked on it over a very long time. I think that he had a lot to say in the film, is the bottom line, and that’s really all that mattered.
The central cast of this film – yourself, Rihanna, Steve Martin, and J.Lo as Tip’s mum – are all very gifted musically. Was there ever any talk of just making this a full-on musical?
No. But I did offer up that I would sing with Rihanna any time they wanted, and literally no one ever took that a step further. Isn’t that insulting? (laughs)
Oh that’s outrageous! But it’s interesting that J.Lo is in the film because, in the book, Oh’s character actually took the name J.Lo as his human name. Do you know how she got involved?
I know that they just wanted her to play the mother, which she did. I don’t know why they changed his name. I think there were copyright issues with her name. It’s funny: Oh ended up being such a wonderful name for him, and the way they incorporated why he’s called Oh is so beautiful. But right before we got to that, I was crushed that he wasn’t going to be called J.Lo, because it was very fun to keep saying, ‘My name is J.Lo’. I enjoyed saying that very much. But I really do think it worked out for the best.
The explanation for his name being Oh really is perfect.
It ended up being such a character-defining moment, and that simply wasn’t there before. He was called J.Lo because he thought that was easy for humans to understand.
Now your Instagram account is full of pictures of your adorable dogs. Did you have problems relating to Tip, who is a cat person and has her cat, Pig, with her?
No, not at all! In fact, when I first saw the little cat, Pig, animated, I was like, ‘Oh! That’s the star of the film right there, that stinking cat!’ It’s a very cute cat, and kind of has the body of a dog if I’m being frank. She looks very sturdy.
You’ve done a lot of theatre work in the past, and you have another play coming this summer. A lot of voice actors say that the process is a little like theatre; did you find that?
That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but I do think that’s why I enjoyed it so much, now that you’re saying it. I know that’s why I enjoyed doing it, because it required so much mental creativity and commitment. You’re absolutely right; the theatre is a wonderful training ground for something like that, where so much is left to your imagination to create the world around you like that. It’s really the essence of what’s so fun for, I think, many people when they first start to want to be an actor, is that they realise they enjoy making up a world around them to exist in, a whole situation and a whole way of being. And even more so than theatre, animation requires that because there’s just nothing to go on. It’s in your head and your heart or it’s not there at all.
DreamWorks Animation’s HOME is out on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD on 20 July. Watch the trailer below...