Jay Baruchel, like many young Canadian actors, got an early taste of showbiz on the 90s Nickelodeon/YTV series Are You Afraid of the Dark?, which partially filmed in his hometown of Montreal. Since those early days, he's appeared in both small and large roles in several Hollywood films (Almost Famous, Million Dollar Baby, Knocked Up, Tropic Thunder) while taking lead roles in smaller, mostly-Canadian films as well (Fetching Cody, I'm Reed Fish, Real Time, and the upcoming The Trotsky). He's even tried his hand at television, starring in a few short-lived series, including the memorable Judd Apatow-created Undeclared.
Lately, however, he's been given the opportunity to shine in some major Hollywood releases, and the rest of the world is beginning to realize why many of us were fans of his from early on in his career. Earlier this spring, he starred in the R-rated romantic comedy, She's Out of My League, and if people don't yet know him, they sure will when The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a big-time summer blockbuster directed by Jon Turteltaub and co-starring Nicolas Cage, hits theatres this July. But Baruchel has already made it big at the Box Office, as the voice of Hiccup, the reluctant hero in DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon. Already past the $100-million mark less (and over $200-million worldwide), Dragon is a straight-up hit, and a lot of that is thanks to Baruchel's vocal mannerisms and commitment to the craft of animated voiceover.
Last week, we had the chance to talk with him over the phone to talk about his reasons for taking his first voiceover gig, why he's passionate about the story and film in general, and if he thinks he's ready to break out as a bona fide Hollywood leading man.
Mark McLeod: I'd like to just first start with... what attracted you the project?
Jay Baruchel: For me it was the chance to be a part of something that would maybe mean a lot to a potential whole generation of kids, you know? 'Cause it's the movies I liked when I was a little kid, the things that I liked when I was a little kid, there's nothing that compares to them. You'll never like something as much as you liked it when you were little. And so, movies like The Sword in the Stone or The Neverending Story were the movies when I was little, I became obsessed with them and they just captured my imagination and they kind of steered me along my life's course and you take this stuff with you for the rest of your life. And so for me it was the chance to, in some way, have something to do with something like that.
MM: Yeah, for me it was An American Tail. I think I saw it 12 times when it was in the theatre.
JB: Man, that was a pretty big deal for me too, Fievel, man, but that's what I mean. When you think back and you think, you try and remember how you felt watching it's unlike anything because it's devoid of intellect. It's a pure emotional connection. And so I just jumped at the chance to be a part of that in some way.
MM: The movie's based on a book. Did you read the book at all before you went into making the movie?
JB: A little bit. I read it once production had started. I wasn't familiar with it beforehand but having done this movie I kind of discovered a whole wonderful world that Cressida [Cowell, the author] had created.
MM: Do you feel the movie represents that world accurately?
JB: The movie more its own entity completely and she'll attest to that. There's no better and no worse, it's just different. The movie does things the book could never do and the books do things unto themselves and I think we've sort of taken the heart, the nucleus of the themes and the ideas of her book and kind of expanded, expounded on them and made something, just made a whole other brilliant work unto itself.
MM: Now this is the first time you've done a voice in an animated movie. Did you approach it differently at all?
JB: Only in that it robbed me of my crutches: my gesturing with my hands and my physicality which is something that is in every role I do pretty much. And so at the end of the day when it was just me and my nasal voice, it forced me to become better so I think I'm definitely a better actor for having done this movie.
MM: Now, the movie's out in 3D, and 3D of course is all the rage now with Avatar and Alice in Wonderland and all that. Was it always planned to be in 3D or was that something they came across later?
JB: No, no. From the very beginning over three years ago, everyone had every intention of this being a 3D flick. It just took us a long time to make it. But that's always what this was going to be.
MM: What are your thoughts on the current 3D trend in movies?
JB: I think it's awesome because for some movies, for particularly kind of escapist, dream-like movies, they're movies that create whole other worlds like ours or Avatar or Alice or something, I think it's cool because the goggles, the glasses gives people the chance to become deeply immersed in this whole other world that's created in front of them. But I think at the end of the day though, the same old rules apply with any technology advances. The story isn't good and if the people don't care about any of the characters, the stuff becomes incredibly irrelevant. So I think given the option it's a great thing, but I think the movie has to be just as good without it. So I think it's an added bonus, it's an enhancement that gives people a chance to jump into movies in a way that they never could before. But at the end of the day a good movie is a good movie.
MM: What would you say sets How to Train Your Dragon apart from other animated films?
JB: The epic scope of ours is pretty incredible, pretty breathtaking. I also think that it's uncommonly action-packed. I think that the action sequences in this are unbelievable, are as good as anything you've ever seen in any live-action. I think it's gorgeous to look at. I mean, it's one of the prettiest, best-looking animated films of all time. I think it's incredibly funny. I think it's legitimately emotionally moving. I just think it's a true and timeless classic. I think it's a heck of a movie. To me it's one of the best American movies in the past decade: live-action, animated or otherwise. I just think that this is truly a work of art.
MM: Now were you always into dragons and mythical creatures when you were growing up as a kid?
JB: I was always kind of into King Arthur. I was always obsessed with Arthur and Merlin and all that stuff. I have to say that actually when I was in my early 20s I was quite obsessed with Vikings and I'd gone through this period where I read all these old thousand-year old Viking sagas. And Viking culture and all the names and all the gods and the pronunciations was actually something I was well-versed in when I started making this movie.
MM: You have a really good supporting cast in the movie, and with a lot of animated movies people sort of work solo or apart from each other. Did you get a chance to really work with the other cast members?
JB: For the most part I recorded everything by myself. I few times I got to work with America [Ferrera] and Gerard [Butler] and Craig [Ferguson] and my friend T.J. [Miller] and Jonah [Hill] and that stuff was cool but for the most part it was me by myself. It's awesome when you get to work with the others because they each have their own unique distinct way of doing things in our own unique taste and you take that with you and you remember it for next time. But for the most part it was me by myself in a booth recording with the headphones on.
MM: Do you think the film has a positive message for youngsters? Something they can really get behind?
JB: Oh, 150%! I think it's just because things are a certain way doesn't mean that that's not how it's supposed to be. And also, all the things that make you an outside, the things that when you're young you kind of curse yourself for and say, "Why am I so different? Why couldn't I just be like these guys?" -- that those are the things that make you special and give you something to offer people later on. And that everybody has something to give.
MM: Up until now you've sort of been mainly a sidekick character in American films and more leads in the smaller Canadian movies. We actually chatted years ago about Fetching Cody at the Toronto Film Festival.
JB: Oh cool.
MM: Do you think with this movie and She's Out of My League and of course the upcoming The Sorcerer's Apprentice, you're going to break out into the American market now?
JB: Oh God. I have no idea. That's out of my hands. I don't know. I really couldn't answer that. All I can do is hopefully keep finding work and hopefully keep being in things that I like. Whether or not I breakout is out of my control. All I want to do is make things that people dig and hopefully effect people's lives in a positive way and make people laugh or move people or do all those things that actors are supposed to do. I just want to give people movies that they dig.
MM: I like to ask everyone I talk, and you may remember this from years ago, probably not, is if they could describe your character in one word, what would it be and why?
JB: Um... iconoclast... because he's born into a culture he's completely at odds with and yet finds a way to effect great chance nonetheless.
MM: And how would you describe yourself in one word and why?
JB: Oh boy... dysfunctional, because people have been staring at me since I was 12.
For more information on How to Train Your Dragon, from DreamWorks Animation, visit www.howtotrainyourdragon.com. Or buy tickets to see the movie in 3D at a theatre near you!
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.