Like "The Little Mermaid," "Frozen" is inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and tells the story of two royal sisters Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Broadway star Idina Menzel). When Elsa's ability to create ice and snow (and her inability to control it) freezes over their kingdom, Anna must set out to find Elsa and reverse the eternal winter.
Moviefone Canada sat down with Gad (who was flanked by Olaf toys) to talk to the Tony-nominated actor about fulfilling his lifelong dream, using his daughter as inspiration for his character, and getting to reunite with "The Book of Mormon" composer Robert Lopez for his very own Disney song.
Moviefone Canada: I like these little plush toys you've got.
Josh Gad: [Laughs] They surround me with myself.
Is that weird?
It's so weird! The ones that talk are even weirder to me. They have my voice talking back to me. I'm like, wait, what is this weird game we're playing? It's very cool.
You have a daughter too, right? What does she think of all this?
She has taken this thing and run with it, she just loves it. We were in a New York cab yesterday and when the cab ride is over, they have those little TVs, and my character says "good bye" to you. And she just didn't want to get out of the cab, because she was so perplexed and mesmerized by the fact that Daddy was talking to her through this snowman form while sitting right next to her in the cab.
Was that part of the impetus for you to do the movie, the idea that this was something you could share with her?
The Disney animated movies had such a huge influence on me growing up. I grew up during the second golden age of Disney animation, "Little Mermaid" through "Lion King." Those movies were events. I remember every summer a new Disney movie came out, you had to be there opening night, and you saw 'em 10 times in a row. So I grew up, specifically [with] "Aladdin," watching Robin Williams play the Genie, and I remember turning to my mom and saying, "I want to do that one day, I want to play that comic relief sidekick," because it just resonated with me. So the impetus was I got to live out my lifelong dream, while also being able to share something really special with my daughter.
What makes a good Disney sidekick for you? What did you see in "Aladdin" that connected with you?
Well, I think it's a character that can appeal not only to kids, but to adults, and work on numerous levels. And the beauty of those great characters, whether it was Sebastian in "Little Mermaid," or Timon and Pumbaa in "The Lion King," or Cogsworth and Lumiere, or the Genie, is that they all offer something to every single person in the audience. And they also are kind of the heart, they offer that heart, whether it's about sacrifice, in the case of Olaf, or it's about the indelible friendship that they offer the main characters. So I think that they are so relatable because they're the Everyman.
Obviously you've done a musical before on Broadway, but how does it compare singing in an empty sound booth vs. a packed house?
It's less rigorous, for sure. There's something also really lovely about having an opportunity to do it over and over again until you get it right. [Laughs] As opposed to getting out there and belting it for the audience to judge. But also, because it's just you in a booth, using your voice, you gotta make sure that you are making it count. You're getting to do a Disney song in a Disney musical. With great power comes enormous responsibility. [Laughs] That is the truth. For me, it was like, there are only 53 Disney animated feature films I believe, every one better count and every character in every one better count. Those songs mean so much to so many people that I really wanted it to land. It was immensely powerful to go to a theatre the other day, and watch the movie in its entirety and see people applaud at this film.
Was that daunting for you then, knowing going into this that you could be put in the same conversation as the modern Disney classics that you grew up with?
Absolutely. It's so incredible to think back on sitting in those theatres and watching "You Ain't Never Had a Friend Like Me," or "Under the Sea," and have "In Summer" hopefully join that canon. It's so cool.
So how did you come onto this? Were you looking for more musical projects?
No, I got a phone call before I ever did "Book of Mormon," to do a reading of a project called "Anna and the Snow Queen." At that time, it was a far different version that I think had more in common with the Hans Christian Andersen version. And it was good, but I think it was missing some components, and Disney wasn't quite ready to greenlight it. Then "Book of Mormon" finished and I got a call saying that it was back, but it was called "Frozen," and it was more about these two sisters. And just by pure coincidence, Bobby Lopez was now writing the songs, and Bobby, of course, I collaborated with on "Mormon." So to get an opportunity to not only do a Disney movie, but then to work with somebody that I had just shared one of the greatest creative experiences of my life with, that was awesome. It was amazing to have him write specifically for my voice. For instance, the operatic nature of the ending [of "In Summer"] is something that he I think wrote specifically with me in mind. Because it's something that he knows I do.
When you're doing an animated movie, how much does the character design inform the voice that you decide to go with? Do you see the design first and then try to match the voice in your head?
Oh, absolutely. But with this character in particular, early on discussing the story and the themes of the movie, I knew I wanted him to be a child. That was key to me, he had to be a kid who just happened to be a snowman. And not only a kid, but a kid who is basically new to the world. So that naïveté and that bright-eyed optimism was something that I really wanted to capture the essence of. And at first I played around, I remember there was a lisp that I initially tried and I immediately knew it wasn't going to work because the character didn't need those affectations, he needed a simplicity. And that's when he kind of came to life.
Did you end up using your daughter as sort of your own personal focus group at all when it came to developing the voice or any of the jokes?
Quite the opposite actually. I studied her in order to get the voice. Or in order to get some of the mannerisms of seeing a kid exist in their own little bubble. It's that fast-paced nature of discovery and that quality of stream-of-consciousness and just speaking into a void. [Laughs] And not really talking about anything in particular that has anything to do with anything else. It was that sort of ADHD quality that kids have that helped to inform me.
This movie is getting some really nice reviews. Do you enjoy reading those, or with a movie like this, is it almost more rewarding for you to see what families and kids are saying about it?
The most rewarding part of it is watching kids respond to it. It's always amazing to get great reviews, because you want to please everybody and you hope that your work is affecting critics and audiences alike. But with movies like this, I think it only helps in terms of hopefully creating a narrative of a classic, right? I hope that this movie stands the test of time like all the ones I grew up watching do. So that ten years from now, kids put "Frozen" in on Christmas and watch it; that's their movie. That's what we set out to do with each of these. I think that this one in particular has a lot in common with those wonderful Disney classics. And I hope that the reviews and the collective response of audiences as they experience this movie for the first time will create and manifest a movie that stands the test of time itself.
It's also got a nice modern update to it though. It feels like a classic fairy tale, but it's got that little twist.
It does, without a hint of irony, which I love. It doesn't tackle it by making pop cultural references, and wink wink, nudge nudge jokes to the audience. It does it by being reverential, while updating the themes that it's revering. And I think that that's what makes it so surprising and powerful.
What's been the oddest part of this whole experience for you? Is it the plush toys?
The plush toys are definitely up there. Being an audio animatronic at Disneyland is up there. Hosting a nighttime water show at Disneyland is up there. But the most surreal part of it is putting it in the context of my baggage and my experience of what it means to watch a Disney film and what a Disney film means to me, and now being a part of that for other kids, including my own. That's the part that I find the most surreal.
"Frozen" is now playing in theatres.