Ed O’Neill Talks About ‘Finding Dory,’ Working with Pixar For the First Time, and a Possible Hank Spin-Off?

By June 17, 2016
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From the moment that I first saw a clip of Hank, the grumpy septopus from this year’s Finding Dory, I knew that Modern Family star Ed O’Neill was the perfect actor to lend his voice for the role. Having to be cynical, constantly annoyed and lovable all at the same time is a hard balance to get right, especially when you’re only able to bring your voice to a character, but luckily, O’Neill has gotten to perfect that kind of character quite a bit of the years.

Recently, I got to speak with O’Neill about the film as well, including how he first thought the role was nothing more than a cameo in the movie, what it was like working on a Pixar movie for the first time (as opposed to other studios) as well as my personal idea for where I’d like to see Hank go next. You can find out full conversation for yourself down below.

I know Andrew mentioned that you didn’t know the extent of Hank’s role initially in the movie, how did you first get involved in the film then?

I got an offer to do an octopus, my manager said an octopus for Pixar, and I said ‘Okay,’ and he said, ‘Well, it’s the sequel to Finding Nemo,’ and I said, ‘Okay, well can I see a script?’ He said, ‘There’s no script.’ I said, ‘Well, okay, can I see sides or something?’, and he said, ‘There’s none.’ He said, ‘It’s Pixar!’ I thought that okay, I’d do it, and it’s probably a cameo. Nobody told me anything, I just showed up. They asked me if I wanted to go to Oakland to record, and I said, ‘Why would I want to go to Oakland to do a cameo? No, put me over here at Burbank.’ That’s too far to go! I live in Brentwood, that’s too far to go! [Laughs]

So I get over there and it’s a four hour session and I think, ‘A four hour session? Why? I can’t knock this out in one or two? I mean it can’t be this difficult.’ You know they showed me like a rough outline of the octopus as black and white drawings. It was a drawing and it was storyboarded and they told me ‘this is what happens, you meet Dory here, and you see her tag and you want it’ and I said, ‘Okay,’ thinking ‘that’s it, that’s the part, he wants it and he doesn’t get it.’ So we recorded and Andrew said it was great and they may need me back when they rewrite, that’s what they do is rewrite, so they may need me again in three months. So I said okay, but thought, ‘Jesus Christ, they’re gonna rewrite this now and I’m gonna have to do it again! It’s like Groundhog Day.’ So I went in three, but it was a little different and this repeated like three or four more times over a year.

I just thought, ‘This cannot be a cameo…’ Nobody told me anything, it had never happened to me before. So I went up to Andrew and I said, ‘Look, this is not a cameo is it?’ He said, ‘Cameo? This is one of the best roles in the movie.’ I just wondered why nobody would tell me that.

What’s it like then, to get to see the animation done and polished in the final version, after all of that work and effort?

The first time I saw it was at D23 last year, and I was stunned, really. I mean just the way it all moves, wondering, ‘How do they do it?’ But they do it, somehow.

What I always find fascinating about acting in animation, is that you just have your voice, but there will be moments especially in Pixar movies, when your character will say something and then something will happen and your next line will have to convey a different opinion or change in emotion. We can see that in live-action, but when you’re recording that line-to-line in a booth with nothing more, what’s that like?

Well, often times I think we use our bodies. It’s like if you’ve ever seen a Joe Cocker performance on stage, you know he looks spastic, it’s not quite that, but to make that point you don’t just stand still with your hands in your pockets when you’re doing something dangerous or exciting, you know you’re using your body. It’s just not being filmed, but it’s changes your voice, it makes your voice work better. Your body change your voice.

How much is the trust then in the filmmakers to fill in the blanks onscreen for you?

You know, when you’re working at Pixar and you have the luxury of your first animated job being at Pixar, like me, you’re kinda trusting going in cause you see what they do and have done.

You know, I’ve asked that question to a couple of actors in Pixar movies, and it’s always that answer. It’s like if it was anyone else, then it’d be a different story, but there it’s easy almost.

Exactly. You wouldn’t do that for any other job.

I’ve gotta say as well, that one of my favorite throwaway lines in the movie is when Hank says, “I’ve had very bad experiences in the ocean!” But then you never find out what those experiences were. You can assume, but you never find out.

Yeah, you know sometimes that’s better than telling what it is because they have to use their imaginations. It reminds me of when I was going to do this David Mamet movie once, where my character was a retired cop who got a sheriff’s job in New England, in some little town in the middle of nowhere. He was a homicide cop and he quit very young, and long story short, he got a room in a rooming house that widow ran, and she was attractive and had a little boy. Anyway, she invited him to dinner because they provided the meals in those rooming houses, but he was the only one staying there at the time, and he came down anyways to be polite, and she sort of looked at him after a conversation and asks him what he did before. He says, ‘I was a homicide detective in New York,’ and she says, ‘Oh my goodness.. you must have seen some bad things,’ and he says, ‘Yes.’ But he doesn’t say anything else, that’s it, and you get that it’s better than if he told you what happened.

I think I’ve read that script actually.

Yeah? It was a really good script.

Back to Pixar and speaking about working in the booth, what was your favorite scene to perform and act out in the movie?

Oh man, I’m trying to think… I really enjoyed the petting pool scene because that was a situation where I really could just sort go all out in a panic. A manic panic acting like I couldn’t be touched. That’s when he gets really terrified and inks all over and it had to be a climax almost, you know? Because the joke was, ‘It’s okay you know, it happens.’

Personally by the way, I’m prepared to start a campaign for a Hank and Bailey (Ty Burrell) standalone movie because I really loved both of you characters in the film and your two characters’ sense of humor.

[Laughs] Yes! Well that’s Ty, you know. We work and laugh together all the time. Ty is great, he’s the best. 

Finding Dory is in theatres everywhere now.

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Alex Welch

Alex Welch

Alex dreams of meeting a girl with a yellow umbrella, and spends too much time* staring at a movie screen. His vocabulary consists mostly of movie quotes and 80s song lyrics. *Debatable