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Giving the Bad Guy a Voice: Meet Rob Riggle from "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax"

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Ron Riggle voices O'Hare in Dr. Seuss' The Lorax Photo courtesy Universal
Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss! Today, on what would have been Theodor Geisel’s 104th birthday, an animated 3D movie based on one of his most beloved books hits theaters, Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is brought to us by the creators who gave us HOP, and the soon-to-be sequeled Despicable Me. Danny DeVito voices the Lorax, who speaks for the trees. The object of the Lorax’s unsuccessful, tree-lover conversion, the Once-ler of whom we never see more than eyes and a green-sleeved arm of in the book, is voiced by Ed Helms. The movie takes us back to the days of a young Once-ler, whose desire for success and riches ruins the environment that made his creations possible to create.

Zac Efron voices an adventurous and love struck 12-year-old named Ted (as in Theodor) who has grown up in a synthetic utopia walled off from the wasteland created by the Once-ler. He might never have ventured beyond the walls of the city were it not for the girl he’s fallen for, Audrey (as in Mrs. Audrey Geisel). Taylor Swift plays the girl Ted would do anything to win, and it turns out what she’d like most in the world is to see a real, live tree. Encouraged by his spitfire grandma (voiced by America’s 90-year-old sweetheart Betty White) Ted ventures forth to meet the cantankerous Once-ler, who may be his only hope in finding a tree for Audrey.

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The most despicable character in The Lorax never appeared in the classic children’s book on which the movie is based. His name is O’Hare and he’s managed to make a fortune bottling air. He and his entire business model are anti-tree, and he’ll do anything to keep Ted from introducing real trees to the town he practically owns.

This bad guy is voiced by comedian Rob Riggle, who I’ll admit I’d kind of assumed would be like the obnoxious characters he usually plays, until he entered the press conference and pointed at my head exclaiming, “That’s fantastic!” with a cheerful smile. I’d forgotten I’d converted my movie-swag, yellow Lorax mustache into a fuzzy-bowed headband. (If the Lorax had taught me anything, it was the importance of recycling.)

LAist:This character is so unlikable, it seems like so many of the characters you play are unlikable, yet that’s not you. How do you tap into this guy that you just want to punch in the face?

Rob Riggle: [laughs] Yeah, well, one of my favorite games to play in comedy is “arrogant ignorance,” I think that’s just a really fun game to play. It’s a guy who’s large and in charge but totally wrongheaded, because we meet those people in real life and you just want to wring their necks, but there’s a lot of comedy in that. I tend to gravitate towards that. I like to do that, so that’s where a lot of the comedy comes from.

Now, no bad guy thinks he’s bad…

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I’m as bad as O’Hare. In real life. [deadpans]

Where did you get the motivation to voice this terrible guy who wants to cause pollution so he can sell air and seems to have no redeemable qualities?

Well, I read the script and I remember thinking, I want to find a way to verbalize this guy. So, I just went back into my mental Rolodex of people I’ve encountered in my life that have come off in a very gruff and unforgiving manner. I had some drill instructors when I was in the Marine Corps that I went back and drew from and I went in and I read the voice the way I pictured him and they liked him, so that’s the way that goes. And as for the character, I just went in and tried to have as much fun as I could, but at the same time be as honest as I could, and they let me do it.

What was your reaction when you first saw the actual design of the character, small of stature and with a ridiculous, Bettie Page-fringed, bowl cut?

I genuinely laughed out loud, cause I didn’t know what he was gonna look like. You just read the words on the page and you get a picture in your own mind and I thought it could range anywhere from what he ended up looking like to one of his giant goons. I thought the haircut was hilarious, I thought the short stature with that body actually worked better with the voice that I used.

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Is The Lorax a book you’ve read to your kids?

When I got the film, the first thing I did was go out and buy a copy of The Lorax and I read it and then I took it home and read it to my kids. We love that book. I had been exposed to it as a child, but obviously it had been many, many years since I had looked at it.

There is a strong environmental message in the book, how do you think it translates in the movie?

I love this story because to me, you could tell it a hundred years ago or you could tell it a hundred years from now and it’s just gonna be a good story. Taking care of your environment, I don’t care what your political affiliation is, it’s just a good thing to know. It’s a good thing for kids to hear and it’s a good thing for adults to hear. Take care of your environment, be good stewards, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a good thing and I think everyone should hear that. I enjoy that part of the message. I think that’s great and I’m looking forward to my kids seeing the movie.

Are voices something you just like to play around with in your spare time?

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I’m not like… Hank Azaria, to me, is a genius when it comes to voices because I feel he can just strap on voices and do the most amazing things. I don’t necessarily have that kind of ability, but I do like to play with voices to tell stories. When I tell a story I’ll take on a woman’s voice or I’ll take on a man’s voice, but isn’t that the way it always goes when you tell a story to friends? You know, you always do your girl like, “Naa na na naa,” [high pitched] and then the guys like, “Duh, I don’t know,” [low pitched]. We all do that.

I’m kind of picturing you reading the book to your kids and am kind of curious what the voices are like when you do them versus how they are in the movie.

I do try, when I read books to my kids… my daughter’s getting older now so she reads on her own… but my son, I still read to him. I do find that in order to keep his attention throughout the whole book, I have to animate. I have to become characters and blow them out and I keep his attention that way and he enjoys it a lot more.

Now, you’ve already voiced a number of animated character on T.V..

Yes, I’ve done voices on American Dad, Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, Glenn Martin, DDS

How did voicing this character differ from those experiences?

They’re similar in a lot of ways, they really are. The scope of this, obviously, is much bigger. But as far as getting into a room, figuring out who the character is and then trying to verbalize that and then improvising… coming up with some things that might catch people off guard or that are fun or spontaneous… I think most of the writers and producers and animators that I’ve worked with enjoy that. They kind of want you to shoot from the hip a little bit, because it brings it more to life, it’s more organic. So everywhere I’ve done that it’s been appreciated. At least that’s what they told me. They could be lying.

There is a catchy little song in the movie called, “Let it Grow,” but on the way out of the theater I heard a group of kids parroting your character’s alternate lyrics of, “Let it Die!”

Noooo! No, that’s the wrong message! Don’t do that! [laughs then groans]

But your character really got into his song, was that you singing?

Yes. Now I’m not a singer and I have no business singing. It was hard because, ask anybody on karaoke night, I’m a terrible singer as is, but then to sing on top of that as O’Hare, in his voice, that was interesting. They brought in someone who is a wonderful singer to help, and I forget his name right now so I’m sorry for being a jerk like that, but they brought in someone who I worked with. So we got it. I don’t know if we got it, but we got what you saw. [laughs] It was fun, but that might be the only time you ever hear me sing in a movie, ever, and rightfully so. But I enjoyed it.

Do you think we’re ever going to see you play the nice guy?

I want to! There’s a movie that just came out called Big Miracle where I get to play a pretty nice guy and I was very happy about that, I enjoyed that. I’m always looking, I would love to play more nice guys, but in this town if you do something well they tend to say, “You’re going to do that.” But don’t get me wrong. I’m a comedian, I like comedy and I see the comedy value in that so I’ll play that everyday and twice on Sunday. I have no problem with it. I enjoy it. It’s fun. And if you do it right, it works.