DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. You’ve probably heard our guest, actor Hank Azaria, more times than you realize. He’s voiced dozens of characters for “The Simpsons,” including Moe the bartender, Chief Wiggum and Dr. Nick. One character he no longer performs is Apu, which he’ll explain a little later. He’s appeared in many films, including “The Birdcage,” “Shattered Glass,” “Dodgeball,” “Night At The Museum” and “Tuesdays With Morrie,” as well as the TV series “Friends,” “Mad About You,” “Bordertown” and “Ray Donovan.”
He’s currently nominated for a Critics Choice Award for best actor in a comedy series for his role in the IFC series “Brockmire.” It’s a dark comedy in which Azaria plays a talented baseball announcer with a drinking problem whose life takes some strange and surprising turns. Azaria was also an executive producer of the show. All four seasons of “Brockmire” are available for streaming on Hulu, Amazon Prime and other platforms.
I spoke to Hank Azaria last March, when the fourth season of “Brockmire” premiered.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVIES: Well, Hank Azaria, welcome to FRESH AIR. It’s good to have you back. Let’s start with a clip, the scene that kicked off the series “Brockmire.” And I’ll just kind of set it up for the audience. I mean, you’re a successful big-league baseball announcer. And you always end your broadcasts by referring to your beloved wife Lucy – saying, Lucy, get supper on the stove because this ballgame is over.
HANK AZARIA: (Laughter).
DAVIES: And in this particular scene, you’re calling a game, and we see that you’re drinking bourbon heavily.
DAVIES: And while you’re calling the game, you tell a story about what had happened that day. Just…
AZARIA: As baseball announcers do.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Right. Right. They always do that. This one ends up being a pretty memorable story. Two things I want to say quickly about the scene we’re going to hear – first, it’s at a ballgame, and the audio that you’ll hear changes a bit because at times we’re hearing you in the booth, and we’ll – we hear what the fans at the stadium are hearing over the PA announcer, and then other times it’s what is going through the broadcast. But it’s the same scene, just the audio is a little different. The other…
AZARIA: Right. Yeah, you hear live and then, in the ballpark, then what folks at home hear.
DAVIES: Exactly. The other thing – I’ll just note that this scene has been edited just a bit to make it suitable for radio. What happens is you’re broadcasting the game, and you tell the audience that today is the anniversary of the day that you first told your wife Lucy you loved her.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “BROCKMIRE”)
AZARIA: (As Jim Brockmire) I had some time at the ballpark this afternoon to reflect upon this wonderful anniversary, as Ibanes (ph) slashes one foul to the right side. And I decided to go on home and surprise my wife Lucy with some gardenias. They’re her favorite flower. Please imagine my surprise when I opened my front door to find about a half-dozen naked folks sprawled out in my living room engaged in what can only be described as a desperate and a hungry kind of lovemaking. And right in the center of it all was my – my wife Lucy. She was wearing a [expletive], and she was [expletive] our neighbor Bob Greenwald.
That’ll bring Clark (ph) up to bat. Clark having himself a heck of an afternoon with two doubles. Bob Greenwald. Bob Greenwald – I mean, that two-faced S-O-B, I hosted his kid’s bar mitzvah. I hosted his kid’s bar mitzvah. Here’s the kicker. Here’s what kills me. My wife Lucy has the stones, she has the unmitigated gall, to turn to me and tell me that she is a sexual astronaut. I mean, what is that? What does that even mean?
DAVIES: Oh, boy.
DAVIES: That’s our guest Hank Azaria in the opening scene of his series “Brockmire” on IFC. This scene gets pretty raw, and of course, he’s interrupted, and that’s followed by a meltdown at Brockmire’s news conference. It detonates his career. You want to just pick it up from there and tell us how that gets us into the series?
AZARIA: We started the series in 2017. So this was going back to 2007, when what you just heard happened. At a press conference, he’s supposed to apologize, but he ends up – he’s pretty much having a nervous breakdown, and he strips off his shirt. And, you know, baseball throws him out. And he just loses – he just gets lost for about a decade, 10 years. Goes off into the world drinking and drugging and sexing.
You know, he had been completely faithful and in love with his wife, which is, you know, what really – and just had a vision of her as this pure being; turns out she’s this tremendously active sex addict and had been doing – having all kinds of crazy sex behind his back their whole marriage. And he kinds of turns into a crazy libertine in response, an alcoholic. And goes off – you know, calling cockfights in Manila, is where he ends up. But he called, like, a Lithuanian wife-carrying competition, which is a real thing, by the way.
AZARIA: And all kind – and then misses baseball, gets a call from a very small-time, bottom-of-the-barrel minor-league owner, baseball team owner played by Amanda Peet, named Julia James, who wants him to come and call baseball games for them back in Morristown, Penn., which is a fracking town. And the name of the team is the Morristown Frackers, and that’s probably the classiest thing about the team.
AZARIA: And that’s where Season 1 begins, really, is his journey trying to make it back to the big leagues, starting at the very bottom of the barrel.
DAVIES: Right. And a lot of fun ensues. You know, this voice, this baseball broadcaster’s voice, did it – did you model that on any particular voice you grew up hearing?
AZARIA: I’ll answer you in the voice, Dave, if I may. I call this the generic baseball announcer voice of the 1970s, and much to my surprise, so does Bob Costas. Unprompted, he said the same thing to me. Bob appears in the series in Season 3, I believe. And he said, this is the generic baseball announcer voice of the 1970s. And I said, Bob, that’s exactly right; that’s what I call it. And you don’t hear this voice too much anymore. You hear it a lot calling – well, when we still had NCAA basketball – which I’m sure we’ll have again soon, folks. Keep the faith.
AZARIA: You hear this a lot on Saturday afternoons – you know, Temple versus Duke; you hear this guy calling it. And it also was the voice in the ’70s and ’80s of a lot of pitchmen announcers on television. The Ginsu knife, you know, in Japan – the hand is a lethal weapon. But this does not work with a tomato.
AZARIA: And I got fascinated with this as a kid. Like, why is this the generic voice of announcers? And I started to wonder, do they always talk like this, even in their private lives? Do they come home and say, hi, honey, what is for dinner? My goodness, I am looking forward to a spirited lovemaking session later.
AZARIA: And, you know, you can see how that led to sort of some of the comic premises for “Brockmire.”
DAVIES: Right. And that’s exactly what I was going to say. We’ve all heard broadcast – people who are often news anchors or broadcasters who have these perfect voices, and you wonder, is that how they talk to their children or order a pizza? And what’s interesting is that – you know, it’s a very funny gag that opens the series. But to make it – give it a series – make it a series with legs, he has to become a real person. And boy, this series, it really takes you some places where you’ve got to do some really dramatic scenes and go to some dark places. And I wondered if you wondered whether you could carry that voice into situations where there’s, like, real emotional stakes?
AZARIA: We absolutely worried about that. We wondered if it was really just a sketch and not something that could sustain the load-bearing – you know, the emotional load-bearing of making him just be a real person, let alone a real person that, like you said, goes to very dark places – alcoholic – truly alcoholic, drug-addicted places, where he hits a bottom and ruins people’s lives and – you know, of course, in a hilarious way, Dave, many times. But no, truly, right? You’ve seen it.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Right. No, you never stop laughing. Right.
AZARIA: I mean, it, you know so – I credit Joel Church-Cooper, our head writer, with that. I wrote the sketch that it’s based on that we wrote for Funny or Die, wrote it with a bunch of friends and a very talented Funny or Die writer as well.
DAVIES: Right. It appeared on this Internet – Funny or Die, on…
AZARIA: Right. On Funny or Die.
DAVIES: Right. Right.
AZARIA: It’s a comedy website that Will Ferrell started many years ago. And they’ll just – if you come to them with a sketch idea, they’ll – and if they like it, they’ll just throw it out there. They’ll give you a modest budget to just put it out, and that’s what we did. People responded, so we developed it into a television show. And we hooked up with Joel Church-Cooper, who was a writer at Funny or Die at the time, a young writer. And, you know, he saw in it much more depth and darkness and truth and humanity than I even did, Dave, even though I created the character, like, when I was a teenager. I sort of saw it as a sketch, as an excuse for a lot of sophomoric laughs, you know? And I just had the guy be a blackout drunk because it would justify speaking like that on the air.
But Joel saw the man’s alcoholism coming to the fore and how he was – how he kind of represented baseball. And baseball kind of represented what was kind of aging and out of touch in our society, as Brockmire now is as he’s been sort of exiled and trying to find his way back. And just to add, I mean, like, I looked at it like, listen; these great baseball stories always have a love story – you know, “Bull Durham” and this and that. And so – probably should have a love interest. Maybe it should be the owner of the team or the woman who does PR for the team. And that was all I gave Joel. That was the premise I gave Joel.
And he came back with this incredibly – probably, I think, the best thing about the series, which is this unbelievably detailed, well-observed, unique love relationship between two alcoholics who desperately love each other but are completely damaged and insane in different ways. And…
AZARIA: …To me, that was breathtaking. I couldn’t believe it. It just came back as a script, Dave. I, like, just read it and, like – oh, my God. This is unbelievable.
DAVIES: Right. The owner of the team is played by Amanda Peet. One of my favorite line is when you’re wooing her early on, and you say, you know, we’re the same level of functioning alcoholics.
AZARIA: Yeah, that’s one of the reasons he’s very drawn to her. Yes.
AZARIA: Another one of the things the character had going for it as a character with legs in comedy is a baseball announcer’s always observing and describing.
AZARIA: So you have built into this character a guy making a lot of very funny observations – hopefully, they’re funny – like that one and saying them out loud, whereas most people might not.
DAVIES: Well, I’m glad you mentioned the writing because I think it really is remarkable. And one of the things that we see your character, Brockmire, doing is – he’s a natural storyteller. And he tells stories, like, literally when he is having sex with someone, sometimes calls it like a ballgame. But he also – when he is confronting, you know, his own demons, he can tell stories about them. And they are so arresting that it can be a vehicle for describing your own dysfunction, but it can also be a way to deflect attention because it’s so absorbing.
And I’m just wondering – you know, you’re playing this broadcaster’s voice and a guy who’s kind of – in a way, kind of deceiving people by making them think he’s got this under control when, really, he’s kind of doing another act. It’s a pretty tricky act. I don’t know. How’d you manage that?
AZARIA: Yeah. You know, it’s – this is – that’s a very good question, Dave. This is a good show, may I say that?
AZARIA: Not many people ask that insightful a question. It was a little bit tricky. And it was – I didn’t even realize how tricky it was going to be and – because, yes, on the one hand, look; this is a very presentational, kind of silly, surface way of talking, right? It doesn’t lend itself to emotional depth, Dave Davies. And so that became the fun of it – was like, well, how does a guy who’s in extremely emotional, effed-up circumstances, dark, crazy situations and yet still has to talk that way – how does he kind of get away with it? And how does it ring true at all?
And, you know, I wasn’t totally ready for it. I was in a little bit of denial about the dark truth of where we were going right up until first day of shooting. Our director of the entire first season was a guy named Tim Kirkby, who’s a British guy, brilliant director. He directed the pilot of “Fleabag,” which I think we have, in some ways, a similar tone to it. And I do my first take with Amanda, you know, at the bar, and I feel kind of good about it – you know, did my thing.
And Tim walks in and says, mate, you know, I don’t know if you’ve thought of this, but this is really dark. It’s really a lot of pain. That’s the word he kept using – is pain. There’s just so much pain everywhere you look, from what you’ve been through to what she’s been through, and it’s just all really painful. And that was his direction.
DAVIES: (Laughter) I mean, so much of his life is deeply involved with alcohol and drugs to some extent.
DAVIES: I mean, from the bios I’ve read of you, I don’t know if you’ve had any issues with that. But I’m wondering what you drew on to kind of – I don’t know – capture that part of the story.
AZARIA: Yeah. Listen; I’m – I’ve been sober 13 years, and I’ve been in the recovery community for even longer. I first went into the Al-Anon program 10 years – 20 years ago, which is for, like, the families and loved ones of alcoholics. So I have a long history of dealing with drugs and alcoholism in others and in myself, yet, ironically, Dave, I did not mean for this series to go there. That was, again, all Joel Church-Cooper kind of seeing in this. I think I had unconsciously created quite an alcoholic character, but I didn’t realize it.
And – yeah. And it was Joel who wanted to just kind of follow through on that journey. And I was like, are you sure we want to do all – I was like, well, as long as it’s funny, I’m OK with it. That was really my only rule. I learned early on that Joel Church-Cooper is an extraordinary writer, and letting him follow his muse is a good thing to do. So, yeah, you know, I drew on that a lot.
And in Season 2, when Brockmire gets sober and hits a bottom and has an intervention, Joel asked me a lot about what that experience was like for me. I never had an intervention done on me, nor did I attend rehab. But I do know a lot. I’ve done it with other people, and I do know a lot about that. So he picked my brain a lot about what early sobriety is like and what hitting a bottom is like emotionally and what the issues really are and things like – how does somebody possibly reconcile the idea of a higher power if they totally don’t believe in that but they’re required to go through that for their sobriety? And – but that’s really the only time Joel leaned on me for my experience in writing this series.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with actor Hank Azaria. He stars as a baseball broadcaster with a very colorful life in the IFC series “Brockmire.” The show’s four seasons are now available on multiple platforms. We’ll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT’S “CHOIR BOYS FAREWELL (TO THE PUPPETS)”)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to the interview I recorded last year with actor Hank Azaria. You’d know him from his many voices on “The Simpsons” and other roles. He stars as a baseball broadcaster whose life takes some strange turns in the IFC series “Brockmire.” When we spoke, the show had begun its fourth and final season.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVIES: One of the other funny things about this series is that your character, Jim Brockmire, became known and admired among real-life baseball broadcasters – I mean, a lot of them. And some of them have done some great, funny appearances on the show. Did they ask to come on? Or did…
AZARIA: Some did. Some, you know, kind of playfully said, hey, why didn’t you ask me? I’m like, we didn’t think we can get you. Sure, we – you know, we will. Some, you know, we asked and said yes, then read the material and went, no, no, I can’t do that; I’m sorry. And I totally understand that (laughter). And some, you know, got a little upset with how “Brockmire” teased them.
AZARIA: We had to – some. I’m not going to name names.
DAVIES: Can you tell the story (laughter)?
AZARIA: Not going to name names. But, you know, there’s a very fine line there between – you know, “Brockmire” takes everybody down. And, you know, it can be – you know, Joel’s a good writer. It can be hurtful. So, you know, we had all – we’ve had every which way of it, you know? But it just speaks to how the character is kind of vital, I think.
DAVIES: Yeah. Well, you know, let’s listen to one moment of this. This is Joe Buck – I mean, the Fox broadcaster, who is huge in the business. And this is a moment where you’re drinking at a bar. And you’re well into your cups. And Joe Buck sits down.
And I’ll just note that there’s a moment in the scene where Joe Buck refers to being able to just think about wanting something and it suddenly appearing. And when he does this in the scene – you don’t hear this, but it happens if you watch it. When he says that, someone puts a fresh drink in his hand. Anyway, this is in Season 1 of the series “Brockmire.” And Brockmire is seated at a bar. Joe Buck sits down, and Brockmire greets him.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “BROCKMIRE”)
AZARIA: (As Jim Brockmire) Hi, Joe Buck.
JOE BUCK: (As Joe Buck) Listen; did you lie to Robbie Butler and tell him that I wear nonprescription glasses to seem smart?
AZARIA: (As Jim Brockmire) Joe Buck, it’s nothing personal, all right? I just happen to hate your stupid face.
BUCK: (As Joe Buck) You were a groomsman at my wedding.
AZARIA: (As Jim Brockmire) Look, Joe – it’s not just that you became the biggest broadcaster in America. Actually, yes, it is. That’s it.
BUCK: (As Joe Buck) Jesus, Jim.
AZARIA: (As Jim Brockmire) How was I supposed to know I was going to plateau at age 24? Oh, come on. I guess – what? – like, your grass probably isn’t as green as I imagine, though, right?
BUCK: (As Joe Buck) No, life’s pretty fantastic. And it’s weird. I’m so famous right now that I pretty much just think about something and it appears.
AZARIA: (As Jim Brockmire) Who was that?
BUCK: (As Joe Buck) Who was what?
AZARIA: (As Jim Brockmire) Great. Thanks for coming by. Mission accomplished. I feel stupid and weak and vulnerable and petty.
BUCK: (As Joe Buck) Listen to me. Listen to me. Look in my eyes. Now that I know what’s wrong, I think I can fix it.
AZARIA: (As Jim Brockmire) How are you going to do that?
BUCK: (As Joe Buck) I don’t want to oversell this, OK? But let’s just say that by the time you get back to your hotel room tonight, you may have a big surprise waiting for you.
DAVIES: That is Joe Buck and our guest, Hank Azaria, well into his cups as baseball broadcaster Jim Brockmire. The surprise in his hotel room is not a pleasant one, we’ll just add.
AZARIA: No. Poor Joe Buck didn’t know that that was going to be the surprise. Got to say, shoutout to Joe Buck. He’s just an amazing actor. He was so good. You know, Joel wrote that. And we were like, well, maybe we should have just, like, a Joe Buck-type play it, hire an actor. And we were like – and we kind of purposely wrote a lot of it to – it was easily cuttable if Joe Buck wasn’t up to it. And not only did we leave everything in, but there was no way – and it’s ’cause it’s Joe Buck.
It’s really fun that it’s actually Joe Buck. But nobody could’ve done a better job. I mean, we auditioned some people. He was far and away better than all them. I mean, that guy could absolutely have a career as an actor if he so desired.
DAVIES: Yeah. He comes back in Season 4 in another funny little moment of confrontation between the two of you. Season 4, the final season, it’s set in the future. I don’t know how much you want to give away, but you want to tell us what’s – a little bit about what’s coming in Brockmire’s life and the future of baseball?
AZARIA: It’s 10 years to 15 years in the future. Society has kind of continued the way it’s going with some, you know, climate problems and virus problems and unrest, violent problems and divisiveness problems, and we sort of keep pulling that thread. And baseball is almost dead. Like, no one cares about it anymore. And they actually, in a desperate move, ask Jim Brockmire to be commissioner of baseball because his market – he’s back in Kansas City. Because he’s so weird and colorful on the air, his market is the only one that actually gets attention. So they want him to try to draw the same kind of attention to baseball to try to save it. And that’s really the story of Season 4.
DAVIES: We’re listening to my interview with Hank Azaria. He stars in the IFC series “Brockmire.” We spoke last year when the show began its fourth and final season. The series is now available on multiple streaming platforms. After a break, he’ll talk about some of his other roles, including many characters on “The Simpsons.” Also, Justin Chang reviews the new thriller start Denzel Washington and Rami Malek. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SIMPSONS’ “THE SIMPSONS END CREDITS THEME (‘HILL STREET BLUES’ HOMAGE)”)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Let’s get back to the interview I recorded last March with actor Hank Azaria. He’s known for voicing many characters on “The Simpsons.” He currently nominated for a Critics Choice Award for best actor in a comedy series for his role in the IFC series “Brockmire.” All four seasons are available for streaming on Hulu, Amazon Prime and other platforms.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVIES: You’ve been doing voices on “The Simpsons” for more than 30 years now, right?
AZARIA: I believe 32, to be exact, yeah.
DAVIES: You grew up in Queens, N.Y. And I read that your mom spoke Ladino, this ancient form of Spanish that’s written in Hebrew, right?
AZARIA: My mom and dad, yeah.
DAVIES: And I wonder if hearing all those sounds at home and all the accents in New York is one of the things that – I don’t know – gave you a better ear and made you a better mimic.
AZARIA: I mean, I guess. I mean, a lot of people, you know, grew up with that.
DAVIES: Yeah, that’s true.
AZARIA: I think you’re either – you know how some people can curl their tongue and some people can’t, or some people can – like, like the taste of cilantro and to others it tastes like soap? (Laughter) I think being a mimic is kind of like that. You either can physically do it sort of, or you can’t. And I found that it – you know, as a very young person, I found I could, and I thought it was, like – I cracked myself up with it. I thought it was really fun to be able to sound like other people, and so I kept doing it. And then – obviously.
And then, you know, got lucky and got my job at “The Simpsons” when I was about 22 or 23 years old, and so that sort of kept the muscle active, as it were. I mean, every week, I had to do five, 10, 15 different voices. And, you know, eventually, you get the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours where you’re pretty practiced at doing something.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Right. Well, let’s hear a clip from “The Simpsons.” This is Moe the bartender, I mean, one of your best-known, I guess. And in this scene, he’s being given a polygraph exam by the police because I guess he’s suspected in the shooting of Mr. Burns.
DAVIES: And we’ll hear the scene. And when he tells the truth, the machine gives a cheerful ding; when he lies, it buzzes. Let’s listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE SIMPSONS”)
HARRY SHEARER: (As Eddie) Did you hold a grudge against Montgomery Burns?
AZARIA: (As Moe) No.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZ)
AZARIA: (As Moe) All right, maybe I did. But I didn’t shoot him.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SHEARER: (As Eddie) Checks out. OK, sir, you’re free to go.
AZARIA: (As Moe) Good ’cause I got a hot date tonight.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZ)
AZARIA: (As Moe) A date.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZ)
AZARIA: (As Moe) Dinner with friends.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZ)
AZARIA: (As Moe) Dinner alone.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZ)
AZARIA: (As Moe) Watching TV alone.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZ)
AZARIA: (As Moe) All right. I’m going to sit at home and ogle the ladies in the Victoria’s Secret catalog.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZ)
AZARIA: (As Moe) Sears catalog.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
AZARIA: (As Moe) Now, would you unhook this already, please? I don’t deserve this kind of shabby treatment.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZ)
DAVIES: (Laughter) Moe the bartender, one of the many voices by our guest Hank Azaria. Where did Moe’s voice come from?
AZARIA: Listening to that – that was from a long time ago. Moe’s voice is a little deeper now. He’s sort of deepened over the years. Moe, he talked like – Al Pacino, young Al Pacino. You know, “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Godfather” Al Pacino, you know, kind of talked like this, and I sort of was enamored with that voice. And when I auditioned for “The Simpsons,” Dave, I was doing a play in Los Angeles at a small, you know, theater and was doing a voice of a drug dealer and kind of doing a Pacino, like this. And I auditioned to play Moe like this, and then they said they wanted it to be gravelly. So if you take that young Pacino voice and make it gravelly – I don’t know, this is what came out, and this is what they hired.
DAVIES: You want to give us one other favorite and how you got the voice? I mean, there – what are there, 20 different characters you’ve done? I mean…
AZARIA: There’s a lot. There are more.
DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah.
AZARIA: I mean, technically, like, over 200, I mean…
DAVIES: Right. ‘Cause some of them are quick in and outs, yeah.
AZARIA: I probably do 30 to 40 running characters that appear in the show at any given time. One of my favorites is Comic Book Guy. He is based on a fellow that lived next door to me freshman year of college who talked like this. Snake, the sort of convict dude, is kind of a combination between Jeff Spicoli from “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” and another dude I went to college with (laughter).
DAVIES: Wow. Wow. You know, you were always a great mimic, and you started doing these characters when you were, like, 22. And, I mean, I assume that as – you know, you’ve done a lot more roles and a lot of dramatic roles over time, and I assume that your acting skills have grown. Did that change the way you did the characters at all?
AZARIA: Yes. That brilliant acting teacher named Roy London, who passed away – boy, gosh – 25 years now. I got into his class probably after being on “The Simpsons” about three or four years, and I was in that class for about three or four years. And that, I think, really more than anything else, that was sort of my finishing school or graduate program or whatever, if you will, and master class. He got me through a lot of blocks that I had as an actor that I didn’t know I had. And I think after that, I – not that the voices changed or the jokes changed, but I think my approach and realizing that I could fill those characters in emotionally and truthfully deepened a bit and I think made my “Simpsons” work better.
You know, I – like, as I said, I’m a mimic, and so I sort of approached acting and my desire to be an actor as, I kind of want to be somebody else, you know. And a lot of this touches on some sobriety issues and low self-esteem issues and, you know, feeling like you’re not good enough or you’re not enough or you’re – and so I wanted to be an actor to sort of escape who I was because some of that was painful for me, which is also why I drank. And what I discovered in acting class – much to my chagrin, Dave – was that that’s all fine, but to be a really good actor, let alone a great actor, you actually have to be yourself; you have to be willing to emotionally reveal yourself to people, you know, onstage or in front of a camera, which I did not like at all (laughter). I’m like, that’s exactly the opposite of why I wanted to do this.
And Roy kind of really took me through, almost in, like, a therapy way sometimes, of how to sort of be willing to share myself, that I came to trust that my honest reactions to things were not only preferable, not to be hidden, but to be shared, and were the way to – what else did I have to really use as an actor except my own real experience and how I really felt about things? And once I was able to bring that to the voices – like, so whether I’m talking like Chief Wiggum or I’m talking like Moe or I’m talking like Comic Book Guy, I feel like underneath it all, it’s OK for Hank to really share what he thinks and feels, and I think that made things more believable and funnier – and for “Brockmire,” too.
DAVIES: Our guest is actor Hank Azaria. He stars as a baseball broadcaster with a very colorful life in the IFC series “Brockmire.” The series has ended after four seasons. You can watch the series on multiple platforms. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with actor Hank Azaria. You might know him from a host of voices on “The Simpsons” and many other roles. He stars as a baseball broadcaster whose life takes some pretty strange turns in the series “Brockmire.” We spoke to him last year, as the series began its fourth and final season.
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DAVIES: You know, on “The Simpsons,” you’re no longer doing the voice of Apu, the guy who owned the Kwik-E-Mart. And this followed a protest campaign of sorts. There were questions raised about the fact that – you know, that you, as a white actor, were portraying this Indian stereotype at a time when there weren’t a lot of well-known Indian characters in American culture. And the comedian Hari Kondabolu raised this issue and then made a documentary about it. You want to just share your thinking about how – share with us how your thinking has evolved on this?
AZARIA: Yeah, sure. I had been doing that voice for about 25, 27 years before I really heard anybody express upset with it. And one of the first things that happened was that comedian Hari Kondabolu actually tweeted at me a link to a performance he did on a late-night comedy show where he did a routine about how much he resented the voice of Apu and the character of Apu or things about it, anyway. And he said it sounded like – the voice sounded like a white guy doing an impression of another white guy who was making fun of his father. And, you know, that was really kind of the first I’d heard of that kind of upset and bristling over the role.
And then not long after that, I got reached out to by a reporter, a writer named Mallika Rao, who was doing an article for the Huffington Post. And we sort of – I talked to her about it, and we did a little bit of a deeper dive. And it – that’s what really started me thinking because with Hari, it sort of felt like comedian to comedian. And my first reaction – and not so much, you know, person to person or – not that I wasn’t taking it seriously, but I kind of got pretty defensive and bristled, and I looked at it from much more of a comedy perspective – like, you know, we make fun everybody at “The Simpsons” and, you know, where does this kind of thing end if you’re going to, you know, have me not do the voice of this character? And I got pretty defensive about it.
And then over time, as I realized the criticism wasn’t just Hari or a comedy routine but was really shared by many people in the Indian community in this country and the South Asian community, I started taking a look at it. And what I realized was, over time, after a lot of soul-searching and doing workshops and reading and talking to people, was that I had a blind spot or two when it came to this character, I think as evidenced – the best way I can express it is, I based the voice of Apu – I was imitating a lot of convenience store clerks that I heard, but it was also based on a Peter Sellers voice. Peter Sellers did a movie called “The Party.”
AZARIA: I think it was in 1966 – where he played an Indian actor. And he’s doing a pretty thick Indian accent in brownface. To me, you know, there I am – I saw this movie, and I’m a teenager, OK? I’m an aspiring mimic and comedic voice actor. And to me, there was – and I worshipped Peter Sellers. I thought he was a genius and hilarious. And to me, I didn’t distinguish between his, you know, silly French Detective Clouseau accent from “The Pink Panther” movies or his weird German Dr. Strangelove accent in “Dr. Strangelove.” So I mean, that’s a blind spot. That’s in the great show business tradition of, we make fun of everybody, and everybody’s fair game, and that’s fair enough.
But the character had unintended consequences for people – kids growing up in this country, Indian and South Asian kids growing up in this country had to live with that character and be called Apu in ways they didn’t appreciate. And that was a lot of my journey with that character, and it took some years to figure it out, for me.
DAVIES: I want to talk about another role of yours. This was “The Birdcage” in 1996, back quite a while ago, but it was a big role for you, I think. And I thought we’d hear a clip. This is the – it’s based on the French film, “La Cage Aux Folles.” And you play the housekeeper of a middle-aged gay couple played by Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, who live above a nightclub that features drag queens. The Robin character owns the place; Nathan Lane performs in it. Your character, named Agador Spartacus…
DAVIES: …Is Guatemalan and gay and aspires to perform in the club. And this is a short scene where Robin Williams’ character has gotten up in the morning, and you give him a strong cup of coffee, and then you ask why he hasn’t let you perform in the club. Let’s listen.
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AZARIA: (As Agador Spartacus) Good morning.
ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As Armand Goldman) Not yet.
AZARIA: (As Agador Spartacus, laughter).
WILLIAMS: (As Armand Goldman) Thank you.
AZARIA: (As Agador Spartacus) You’re welcome.
WILLIAMS: (As Armand Goldman) What is this, sludge?
AZARIA: (As Agador Spartacus) Yes, it’s sludge. I thought it’d make a nice change from coffee. So why didn’t you tell me you seeing Val last night, you bad man? I would not have been so sassy to you.
WILLIAMS: (As Armand Goldman) Will you put some clothes on?
AZARIA: (As Agador Spartacus) Armand, why don’t you let me be in the show? Come on. Are you afraid of my Guatemalan-ness (ph)?
WILLIAMS: (As Armand Goldman) Your what?
AZARIA: (As Agador Spartacus) My Guatemalan-ness, my natural heat. You’re afraid I’m too primitive – right? – to be on the stage with your little estrogen Rockettes, right?
WILLIAMS: (As Armand Goldman) Oh, yes, you’re right. I’m afraid of your heat.
DAVIES: Robin Williams and – yes, that was our guest Hank Azaria as Agador Spartacus in the film “The Birdcage.” Boy, that’s a long way from your voice, but I guess this is what you do. Tell us about getting the voice of Agador.
AZARIA: Guatemalan. So I worked at the time with a wonderful voice coach, accent coach named Robert Easton, who’s no longer with us. And so we, you know, studied Guatemalan, and then I started – I had sort of two versions of the character, the voice that you heard there – who, actually, now when I do it, it’s a little higher, but it’s sort of this guy – and a little more – kind of a little tougher, a little lower, something like this.
AZARIA: And I sort of tried them out for a friend of mine who happens to be this amazing drag performer (laughter). And he sort of helped me pick the voice you heard. And then I realized, actually, into rehearsal that – you know what, Dave? – I was really just imitating my maternal grandmother.
AZARIA: That’s like – as you mentioned, I grew up in a Sephardic Jewish household which speaks Ladino, which is a Spanish dialect. And that was very much the accent and the way my grandmother sounded. And she was a very loving, maternal person, which felt right for the character as well. So I sort of was doing an impression of my grandma.
DAVIES: Right, right. You know, it’s so interesting as I listen to that – and we talked about the controversy about the Apu voice on “The Simpsons.” And, I mean, this film was – what? – 24 years ago.
DAVIES: And I wonder if it were made today, if, you know, a white guy doing a Guatemalan voice like this would draw criticism. Has this occurred to you?
AZARIA: Absolutely, it’s occurred. This is a good show, Dave. You’re very insightful.
AZARIA: It absolutely has occurred to me. And I think we can say that pretty much for sure, if this role – if this movie were being made today, they wouldn’t offer me this role. They would get a gay Guatemalan or Latin character – Latin guy to play it, and which I think is as it should be and is right. And, you know, I did my best with this role. I did it with a lot of love and pride and as meticulously as I could. So, you know, I don’t regret doing it, but I acknowledge that it would be done differently today.
DAVIES: I want to ask, too, before we leave “The Birdcage” – this is a hilarious film. And Robin Williams just is so – he’s such an improviser. And I’m just wondering were you breaking up all the time on the set? Were there scenes that were improvised?
AZARIA: Yes, Robin is – you know, his shtick was to go wildly off-script and with flights of fancy, and it was often hilarious. But in this particular movie, directed by the late, great Mike Nichols – God, all these people are gone. It’s really sad. But Mike didn’t want that. He wanted to play as a really tight farce. He wanted to keep the pace moving. And so we rehearsed it like a play, which is very unusual for a movie. For about two or three weeks, we gathered over at Paramount and just ran the scenes and rehearsed as if it was a play. And we were pretty much all off-book and ready to go with each scene ’cause he didn’t want to do too much coverage. He wanted to just have the scenes play in real time. And if you look back at that movie, there isn’t too much close-ups or – just kind of plays.
And he said to Robin and to Nathan Lane, who was very witty, tremendous improviser himself – he said, guys – Mike talked like this. He said, now, gentlemen, I know you love to go off-script, and it’s delightful. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to rehearse, and feel free to say whatever you like and go as crazy off-book as you like. And Elaine – Elaine May wrote it – is going to take it all down, and we’re going to choose the lines we like the best, and we’re going to stick with those. We’re not going to improvise on the day. And that drove Robin insane, as you might imagine.
AZARIA: And that’s what we did. And Robin would beg for what he called wild takes. He called Mike boss. Boss, boss, please, wild take? Boss, please, wild take? And so we’d do a take where Robin could go insane, as insane as he liked. And some of that made it into the movie, but most of it was pretty much as we rehearsed it.
DAVIES: Well, Hank Azaria, it’s been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
AZARIA: Thank you very much, Dave.
DAVIES: Hank Azaria, recorded last March. Azaria stars in the IFC series “Brockmire.” He’s nominated for a Critics Choice Award for best actor in a comedy series. The award ceremony is March 7. “Brockmire” is available for streaming on multiple platforms. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new thriller starring Denzel Washington and Rami Malek. This is FRESH AIR.
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