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Russell Brand and James Marsden Give "High Octane Performances" in HOP

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Russell Brand plays E.B., son of the Easter Bunny and heir to the holiday rabbit title, in the new live action-animation hybrid Hop. James Marsden is Fred O'Hare, an early-thirties slacker who doesn't know what he wants to be, so he's never quite grown up. They run into each other, literally and vehicularly, in Hollywood, where E.B. has run off to pursue his dreams of becoming a Rock 'n Roll drummer.

Russell gets to show off his softer side under the plush hide of this animated hero. He brings E.B. to life and makes kids wish they could just squeeze him. James has acted opposite an animated co-star before, some of the funniest scenes in Enchanted were of his Prince Edward opposite a cartoon hamster. But he really stretched himself as an actor to make Fred's feature-length interaction opposite a bunny nobody can see, on set at any rate, rather believable. It's a complicated situation in which to act; when Jimmy Stewart did it in Harvey, he got nominated for an Oscar. LAist met up with James and Russell at a press event in Los Angeles to talk about their new movie.

LAist: Russell, this is probably the most kid friendly movie you’ve ever made. What made you want to do it?

Russell: I really enjoyed it. For me, the opportunity to play the Easter Bunny gave me a lot of license to be playful and mischievous. People could see the peculiar gestures I was using to motivate that voice. A lot of them, it was like I was trying to land a plane on a matchbox, peculiar and semaphore. What I liked about it is that in the world of children, there are very, very different rules and a kind of naivete and innocence and sweetness that’s been beautifully captured by this film, as you can even see from this gorgeous artwork (gestures toward the Hop poster featuring the candy factory). Imagine if you were in there! I mean, perhaps it’d be difficult to sleep. And all those chicks, why don’t they grow up into chickens? That’s what I was sometimes thinking when I was watching it. I have not had the opportunity to ask the filmmakers yet.

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LAist: What was it like working Tim Hill?

Russell: He’s lovely, you know, Tim Hill. He’s a really good director. He’s got a really clear vision of what the film is and he’s very good at explaining what you needed to be like, playing this part. He’s clearly got a great understanding of what he wants as a director and he’s very gentle and doesn't muck around with ego and stuff. I liked him a lot. Plus, I think he looks like a human rabbit.

James: It was also great to be working with Tim, who has obviously done these kinds of movies before, so he knew the process and what could be done to help the actors, knowing that this is a completely unnatural thing to be doing. They had a stuffed rabbit. We would roll camera and do one take where someone would hold the rabbit, so that I knew where he was going to go during the scene. And then, they would take him out, because he couldn’t be in it while we were shooting, and they would replace him with little pieces of wire that stood up and a little piece of green tape on the end of it. Then you would have to do the scene with the voice-over actor doing Russell’s lines and looking at these pieces of green tape. Beyond that, it was all your imagination.

LAist: Since you got to spend some time watching Russell do his recording sessions, how did that inform your performance?

James: It was really helpful. I had requested it, and Tim Hill had already had it in his head that he wanted to do that. I had just finished a movie before this called Cats & Dogs, where I was a voice, but there was live-action stuff as well. Through that entire process, I kept thinking, “Chris O’Donnell is up there and he can’t change his performance." When you lock picture, you lock picture. But, as a voice-over artist, if something doesn’t work, you can go back in, at any time, and change the lines. So, I thought, “Here I am with Russell Brand, the world’s greatest improvisational comedian. If there’s any back-and-forth banter, he’s always going to get the good end of it!" Because I’m going to be stuck with what we shoot and he’s going to go in and make it funnier.

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LAist: So, James sat around and listened to you recording? How did that actually work?

Russell: He was a pain in the ass. It’s like looking after someone’s teenager. He was like “Oh what are we going to do now, Russell? Can we go out? Can we play football? Where’d you get that jacket?” “James! If you’re going to come here, please sit quietly.” He was touching all the things. He was playing with all this stuff and putting it down his trousers. He was out of control.

LAist: He said you were brilliant.

Russell: I like James. Basically, he’s lovely, isn’t he?

James: Mainly, I wanted to get together because this movie, to me, hinges on the dynamic and the chemistry between these two characters and I wanted to explore what that was going to be and what his take was going to be on the Easter Bunny, and what he was going to come up with and make up, on his own.

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LAist: Did you run lines off each other?

Russell: No, we did some lines, but them lines didn’t end up being in the film, because you’d talk over each other and stuff. For the technical requirements of the film, the dialogue has to be isolated and incredibly clear. But it was an interesting exercise in developing a rapport between Jimmy and I, as the essential relationship of the film is contingent upon that chemistry.

LAist: Because this is a family film, did you have to watch what you said when you were improvising dialogue? Is there going to be a more “R” rated version?

Russell: I don’t think so. I think that would confuse people, "And now the gloves are off! A film about the Easter Bunny with weird undertones. Macabre philosophy." No, no, no, they can never release that film. But, of course, I like having the parameters that are required to work within different genres. I like mucking about and being silly. I really, really love children and I think probably that when among children is when I feel mostly elated. It’s not like I feel like, "Oh, there’s some children here. I have to tone it down." I go nuts with children, especially since I ain’t got none. So, when I’m round my mates’ children, I jest them kids up. I swear at them, I get more worked up, I say crazy stuff to them, fill their heads with nonsense! And then I leave them.

LAist: Did you feel any pressure at all playing such an iconic character?

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Russell: He’s the Easter Bunny! What? In case I would undermine what people’s preconceptions of the Easter Bunny were? I didn’t feel any pressure at all. It’s like as if that pressure didn’t exist. What I thought was, this is a blank canvas. It’s the Easter Bunny. Where have there been rabbits in films? Roger Rabbit, brilliant. Bugs Bunny. Harvey, that Jimmy Stewart movie ages ago. They’re always playful and fun, aren’t they? So, I thought this is a bright, bloody good opportunity for me to have a proper all knees up, a right rollicking laugh. Also, furthermore to boot, rabbits represent, like say if we were looking at, I don’t know, Native American mythology. The old rabbit, he often represents the trickster. I like that, because they’re sort of playful little devils, aren’t they? Except when they start messing with your crops. "Ah, my crops, if I catch another rabbit in my crops, there’s no telling what I’m gonna do!"

LAist: Your character attempts to follow an unusual career path in Hop. Would you like to be the Easter Bunny, if the opportunity were to arise?

James: No. What I have in common with Fred is that I’m a perpetual child, as a 37-year-old adult. I have two kids, a 10-year-old and a 5-year-old, and I’m always acting very goofy and silly with them. When I was younger, up until I was 19-years-old and in college, I was surrounded with people in high school who felt like they knew what they wanted to do with their lives. That was intimidating to me, because I didn’t. I didn’t know what my passion was until I discovered the dramatic arts in junior high and high school and I realized, “Oh, I like this. This is something I feel like I’m good at.” What I have in common with Fred is that I’m a little lazy, I’m a little bit of a slacker and I didn’t want to settle for something that I didn’t feel was right for me. I didn’t want to go get a job or get a degree in business or marketing, or whatever all my friends were getting degrees in. I also realized that it’s a tough thing to make a career out of being an actor, but I thought, “You know what? I’m going to just make this happen. I’m going to move to L.A.” I had really supportive parents. And, it happened, thank God. To this day, I really can’t think of what I would be doing otherwise. I guess Fred and I have that in common. I wasn’t going to do anything unless I was really passionate about it. I’m a little stubborn that way, actually.

LAist: Your character E.B. has great musical aspirations. Did you have that growing up?

Russell: There was a brief period where, like a lot of adolescents, I succumbed to the fantasy of becoming a Rock ‘n Roll star. Me and a cousin or two holed ourselves up in a bedroom, but unfortunately we emerged with nothing more than headaches and a mild addiction to marijuana, which has since been beaten. I’m not good at music. I’ve not got the proper rhythm or I find it very hard to … It’s like that, tap your head (tries to pat his head and rub his stomach). See, I can’t do it (gets it). You fools! You mad fools! I can do that! But, there’s no market for that in the current roll ‘n roll industry. If Axl Rose just stood doing that for hours? I don’t know, it could be useful.

LAist: How did you celebrate Easter as a kid?

James: We had visits from the Easter Bunny, every year. We would dye eggs the night before, paint them and then we’d wake up and there would be this magical display of baskets, candy and eggs. I had two brothers that were very close in age and we would do an egg hunt. They have these plastic eggs that you could put candy in and sometimes there was money, like a $5 or $10 bill. So, it became not this fun, sweet thing. It was like, “I’m gonna kill you if you have more money!” There would be a fistfight. We were very greedy as kids.

LAist: In the U.K., Easter is celebrated a little differently.

Russell: We don’t care about it, do we?

LAist: Can you talk a little bit about the differences?

Russell: In England, we just have some chocolate. That’s it. Occasionally a nan or somebody goe,s “Oy, this has something to do with Jesus.” You go “Mmm. Okay, thanks.” But there’s none of that Easter Egg Hunt or like the bunnies and Easter bonnets and tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree and all this. The Americans have gone hog wild for it, so I think, let’s encourage it! It might distract them.

LAist: Which animated characters did you like when you were growing up?

Russell: I liked Bugs Bunny. He was pretty good. He’s annoying as a duck and he’s anti-proletarian. Daffy Duck I couldn’t see what was going on with him. He seemed like he was angry about something. My favorite one though is Pinocchio. I liked that kid. He was made of wood. I liked that for a start. I also liked how he’d tell a lie and his nose would grow. I liked the morality of that. I also liked that he had to go and live on that island with all those weird boys turning into donkeys (brays like a donkey). When children’s stories suddenly go freaky on you. “Be out in a minute.” “What? I’m a child.” “Hang about.” I like all the names of everyone in Pinocchio: Geppetto, I just think about that sometimes, "Geppetto, Geppetto." I was saying it for some reason the other day. Oh yeah, I was singing the song “In the Ghetto,” by Elvis Presley. I was saying, (sings like Elvis) “He’s got a little wooden son and he sits with him when his work is done. He’s Geppetto. Geppetto. And there’s one thing he doesn’t know, he’s got a little lying son. He’s Geppetto. Geppetto. People are not gonna understand...”

LAist: You said you're not musical, but you’re right on key there.

Russell: Oh well, that’s just singing a type of music. If you asked me to play a xylophone, I’d be up a gum tree.

LAist: Chelsea Handler makes a cameo appearance in Hop. What was it like to work with her?

James: I’ve been doing this for 18 years and there’s maybe been three times in my career where I just could not keep it together for a take. Chelsea was hilarious, but she’s obviously really, really irreverent. Here we were on this kid’s movie and we were messing with each other, during each other’s close-ups. It took hours to get just one clean take and the crew was actually really angry. They were looking at their watches, going, “It was funny the first time, guys, but now, we’ve got to get through this.” And, of course, that made it worse. I would be doing my close-up and she would be looking at me, mouthing, “You’re embarrassing yourself. What are you doing? You’re the worst actor I’ve ever seen.” She’s got her sense of humor and mine is very similar. We had a good time not being able to keep it together. We actually keep in touch now. She sends me random emails of kangaroos humping each other.

LAist: Russell, you also make a cameo, in the scene where you walk in on the character you voice, E.B., having a conversation with himself in a mirror. How did that feel?

Russell: That was my best bit, because I got to be in the film twice at one moment. It felt like I was getting a lot of attention because I was talking to me and I was me. A lot of time, when I’m talking, I think, “I’m enjoying saying this, but wouldn’t this be better if I was saying this at me?” In that situation, that was literally the case, by a mirror. So, I think that was an interesting piece of work from Tim Hill, the director, and perhaps a comment on the fractured nature of the human psyche in the way that perhaps we have many selves. People say, “How are you today?” Perhaps you are morose or melancholy or grandiose or filled with splendor and a sense of wonder and that all things are possible (contorts his body to express emotion he mentions). The cells that make up our body constantly change. From one day to the next, we can be a different person. So who are we? What is the self? Thank you very much! Goodnight!

LAist: Is there a Booky Wook 3 in your future and will it include a chapter about your adventures as E.B.?

Russell: If there was a Booky Wook 3, it would a bit, I mean, that chapter would just be, “Was in booth, talking. Monday: Got up, went back to booth.” In a way, it’s good because a rabbit’s life is mostly spent in the subterranean context of a network of burrows. We only see them when they’re in the outdoor world, like when you see a teacher from school in the supermarket in their normal clothes with their normal first name. It’s very unsettling. So, I don’t know if the chapter would not be incredibly informative or picaresque, but the movie which derived from those sessions is very colorful, exciting and interesting.

“HOP” opens in theaters today, April 1, 2011.