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Nick Offerman Discusses Dubbing Work in ‘My Life as a Zucchini’

Variety logo Variety 2/9/2017 Geoff Berkshire
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Nick Offerman made a name for himself as Ron Swanson for seven seasons on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” And ever since that acclaimed comedy came to an end in 2015, he’s been working nonstop. He had four films bow at Sundance this year — supporting roles in the surreal period comedy “The Little Hours” opposite “Parks” co-star Aubrey Plaza and the Sam Elliott vehicle “The Hero”; the documentary “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry,” which he produced; and a voice role in the English-language dub of the celebrated French animated film “My Life as a Zucchini.” “Zucchini,” which is up for this year’s animated feature Oscar, opens theatrically from GKids on Feb. 24.

How did you get involved with “My Life as a Zucchini”?

[GKids] did a similar thing a couple of years ago with a great film called “Ernest & Celestine” in which my wife [Megan Mullally] and I voice a couple of supporting characters. I’m not sure whose bright idea it was to loop me in, but I very much love working as a voice performer. I guess I didn’t screw that one up too badly, so they called me for this. They sent me the invitation and the film. My agent had seen it, and so it was kind of exciting from the get go. She said, “This is a real doozy, you’re gonna love it, it’s amazing.” It’s one of those things where somebody already did all the beautiful creative work and they’re like, “Do you want to come drive this incredibly beautiful boat that we built?” And I say, “Why yes I would, thank you.”

It’s interesting because I thought the original subtitled version [of “Zucchini”] was so good that, for me personally, I can consume that and consider it a full experience. But I understand the notion of putting English speaking voices on it will help reach a much greater audience who perhaps wouldn’t jump at something considered a foreign film.

What appealed to you about the film?

The thing I love first and foremost is the incredible visual sense. It has such a unique color scheme and claymation style. It really makes it jump out, it’s like a David Bowie record. It’s a really touching story about this particular set of kids and the hardships of their individual lives. I’m grateful to be involved with great artists. That’s what we do for our jobs, try to communicate touching human truths of one sort or another, so we will eventually take care of all the kids and try to remember we’re all one big family.

And it’s a great part. There’s a softness to the guy that I found really gratifying because I don’t usually get called to play sweet guys. It’s not a surprise they cast me as a cop with a mustache, but it is a very nice surprise they cast me as a sweetheart.

What’s the best part of voiceover work?

I really like the freedom involved in not being constrained by physical reality — which always gets me in trouble, especially when I’m doing more wacky cartoons. You’re expressing the verbal reaction of a character who has fallen down an endless void or is swinging a battle axe into a dragon’s neck, it’s easy to overtax. Unfortunately, my vocal chords are mired in reality, so I almost invariably leave a cartoon recording session with no voice. It’s because it’s too much fun.

How is the dubbing process different?

It’s simple mechanics, in that we’re seeing a cartoon man’s mouth say, “I’ll be back to see you next week,” in French and you have to, depending on the duration, match it in English. I get persnickety about it. Sometimes the words they gave me, [the character’s] mouth would clearly be making a vowel sound and I’d have the word “pick up sticks.” I’d say, “I can’t. I’m not going to hand that to my audience.” So we bend it around and try to get as smooth of a transition as we can from French to English.

There’s also a great sound editor, so in a pinch they can tweak the actual film picture or tweak what you’ve given them, or both, to try to make them fit as neatly as possible. It’s different with every animated project and where you are in the process. Sometimes you record your dialogue to thin air and they draw the show to your voicework, but when you’re dubbing a completed film you’re doing your best to fit your voicework to the picture.

You’ve been keeping very busy since “Parks and Rec” ended.

There’s always the danger that if your television comedy role is popular enough then you’re rewarded with zero jobs going forward. The nice thing is I’m enough of a polymath that when people ask me, “Are you worried about that?” I’ll say, “if I’m relegated to a life of woodworking and live theater that sounds like a happy life to me.” I’m grateful to the world for allowing me to continue to essay other acting roles.

Four films at Sundance in one year is impressive.

We premiered [the English-language] “My Life as a Zucchini” there, and “The Little Hours” — it’s crazy, I’m really proud of that movie. I had a documentary I co-produced about my favorite writer, the Kentucky agrarian Wendell Berry — it contains a lot of the medicine I think will help our national malaise. The big ticket was the Sam Elliott movie “The Hero.” What an absolute dream come true. I was able to befriend Sam when he came to work on “Parks and Recreation” and that led to a friendship that led to this role in a film with him, which is pretty inarguably the greatest work he’s ever gotten to do. I’m so grateful to the filmmaker Brett Haley for writing a love letter to Sam Elliott. I think a lot of people in the business will be kicking themselves, when they see magnificent actor Sam is across the board, that nobody thought to do this beforehand.

And what’s next?

At the moment I’m looking at a couple of projects for this year, but my calendar is wide open and it feels great. It allows me to really curate. If something is gonna take up real estate on my calendar, I get to really consider it. I want to do things that I think will do somebody some good. It makes me very grateful and keeps me minding my manners.

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