Interview with John Michael Higgins
There are actors in the industry that you may not always know their names, but you certainly know their faces and the greatness they bring to any project. There are others that transcend that mentality to becoming a name while still maintaining the character actor status and make every project better. John Michael Higgins is one of those actors who is probably best known for his role in the Pitch Perfect films, but has brought so much fun and diversity to every project he has been a part of that he has quickly become one that is always a treat to see on screen. Now he is joining the Netflix original series All Hail King Julien that has continued to follow the adventures of these crazy characters from the Madagascar franchise. I had the chance to sit with this great talent to discuss his role and little about his world as an actor.
Bobby: You have done so many different kinds of roles throughout your career. How do you go about choosing a role?
John: Generally something in the script pops out at me. Usually it’s not the whole project, but something that happens in it or it could even be a line strangely. I have never answered that question before so I am surprised to the hear the answer. (laughs) Sometimes there is one joke or line and I want to say that joke so I tell them I will do it. Obviously sometimes it’s bigger with a great piece of writing or just a great project in general. In the case of All Hail King Julien there were a number of things. It was a superior script with a great studio in DreamWorks and then getting to work with Angelica Huston which is awesome.
Bobby: When you step into a franchise like this do you have any reservations on how to join into it or does it actually make it easier for your process to enter a world that has already been established?
John: Yeah there is some trepidation because you are stepping into something, especially in this case, that has existed for a while. They have their ways and style and have already made the choice and determination that I am going to be this or that. Meaning, whatever my gig is it should work for them which is a determination that only they can make. In this case I think they were right because there was something about the type humor that is very intelligent, sophisticated and deeply funny to everybody. I felt it was a good fit for that, but you are right stepping into a franchise I always raise an eyebrow and ask if this is the right thing to be doing because I usually can’t make it my own, but this one they really wanted that from me and Angelica and hope they got that.
Bobby: When you step into a role what is the process for you to develop a character and how much harder is that to do with animation when you cannot use a lot of facial expressions?
John: It’s a challenge, because I rely on my face a lot. I have been doing more and more voice work and it’s been a challenge, but it is something that I have really enjoyed trying to do. Voice performance is a physical performance because those are just muscles in your throat and have to be manipulated just like your biceps, legs or your face muscles. It’s a smaller talent in a way. I can’t use my back or eyebrow to get a laugh, so it is a little more challenging that way. I think at this stage in my career it helps to see what I am made of and I think I have had some great results and of course some iffy ones, but I have really loved this one. They have really given me a great character and it’s been great I think.
Bobby: When doing a voice over role obviously you see the script, but do you get to see what the character looks like that you are playing?
John: I have been in certain situations where they haven’t designed the character yet and just had the script and still going back and forth on even what the character is going to be. Often times they will record the voices first and then form what the design is and even on this we do the voices and then they animate it. In this job they did and the characters were still new and still designing them, but they did have scratch versions of them that turned out to be very accurate. That is usually really helpful. The minute I saw my characters potbelly I knew something about him that definitely informed the way I voiced him. I was glad they were able to do that, but sometimes you just don’t have the luxury.
Bobby: I know in a lot of voiceover sessions the actors are not together. How much harder is that when you don’t have the other actors to feed off with the lines?
John: Well it’s not ideal. There are some actors that prefer it just because the session goes more quickly when it just one person. I did all of my sessions on this show with Angelica Huston for a good reason. The two characters are always together and they are really functions of each other and finish each other’s thoughts and sentences and in a way really they are one character as many married couples are. I think that the producers were careful about that and wanted us together which I think they called exactly right. Angelica and I had a great time every time we’ve done it and mostly because we are looking at each and smiling at each other. We have a relationship on the screen as actors and because our characters are married and really into each other you can feel it on screen because we were really together in studio.
Bobby: You have done so many things at this point in your career from animation to Blade: Trinity and so much more including the popular Pitch Perfect films. Does it help or hinder you when you come into a project or has it established you as one they know you can bring something new to whatever role it is?
John: Because my career has been going on for a while certain things begin to happen. Branding happens where John Michael Higgins is some sort of product now and you are expecting something from that. It is hard to say what that is in my case because I am a character guy, but because my resume is full of a wide range of different types of characters I think that is the brand. I am the guy that is going to come in and kind of stick out a little bit like a comedy kamikaze that just carpets bombs and then leaves. It’s nothing that I made be design, it just all kind of was by happenstance. I was a very serious stage actor for twenty something years before I ever stepped on television and that was who I was. It comes as a great surprise to me that I went from often leading roles to becoming a character guy on the side and mostly in comedy. It’s been a ride for me and my preference is to continually change. Constantly look for things that aren’t like things that I have already done which goes back to the first question it is the way I end up choosing a lot of projects. Have I done this? Have you seen this already? Often you have because I have kids and need to work (laughs) and I do it anyway, but my preference would be to do some things I haven’t done yet. I have certain character types that they usually cast me for that I have done numerous times already and every now and then I will just get tired of playing the stuffy, preppy gay people that I have played before and just stop being the principal for a minute. (laughs) It’s a good problem to have. I have been very fortunate to continue to work and have a fun, interesting career and things that are still challenging.
Bobby: I can’t leave without asking you about your character in Pitch Perfect. How much of that is scripted and how much is just off the cuff?
John: A lot of it is off script. When we did the first one we really didn’t know what we were doing. I really just improvised a lot and then it kind of established the character. Elizabeth and I were just improvising without anything there. Honestly when I started talking on the first take I didn’t’ know he was going to be a misogynistic, racist guy. (laughs) I had no idea, it just started popping out and you have to understand the situation. I didn’t have any footage in front of me or actors. They hadn’t even shot some of that stuff. I didn’t know what I was looking at. I just thought it would be funny to have this bad attitude towards this and I have no idea why I thought it would be funny, but it turned out to work really well and whatever Elizabeth was doing worked really great. The second time around it had been a big success so the writers had something to write to now. They know my voice now so they wrote a whole bunch of jokes for the second one and I probably did as many of my own as the ones they gave me.
Bobby: Do you have anything else coming up you would like to, or can talk about outside of All Hail King Julien?
John: I do have a series coming out on NBC called Great News with Andrea Martin that I believe will be a midseason show. Of course we have All Hail King Julien on Netflix and several films in the can. One called Almost Christmas and several other things coming up that I hope your readers will be able to check out.
Bobby: I am a huge fan and know that whether a movie is good or bad if you are in it there will at least be one great scene in it.
John: (laughs) That is a lovely thing to hear, I really appreciate it.
Bobby: I greatly appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.
John: It has been my pleasure.
Be sure to check out John Michael Higgins in the new season of All Hail King Julien available now exclusively on Netflix.