In the early days of video game consoles and platforms, companies were represented by a franchise character. For Sega, it was Sonic The Hedgehog, an anthropomorphic blue hedgehog known for his spiky hair and extraordinary speed. But after spending over two decades in games, comics, and some animated TV series, Sonic is getting his very own live-action/animation hybrid movie. In it, the blue hedgehog comes to Earth to escape malevolent forces, like the evil Doctor Robotnik (Jim Carrey), that seeks to harness his power of super-speed.
ThatItLA attended a press conference for the film where we talked to Ben Schwartz (Parks And Recreation), the voice of Sonic, about bringing the iconic video game character to life via his voice, his love for animation, and more.
Schwartz recalled how he played the game as a kid on the Sega Genesis console and on the Game Gear until the batteries ran out. So it is safe to say that he was preparing for the role very early on in his life. But before he signed on, he was approached to play Sonic as a test, made by director Jeff Fowler and Tim Miller, so that it could be used as a pitch to studios. Needless to say, they loved his performance so much that they wanted him to play the role once Paramount Pictures green-lit the project.
“It was a huge deal for me because I played that game for so long, and I loved it so much,” Schwartz said. “I love animation, so for me, it was a huge deal.”
But that was only a small part of what drew him to this role. “Imagine the thing that you loved most growing up, and someone’s like, ‘oh, do you want to play that now,’ is like, oh my gosh, that’s an option now,” Schwartz said. “For me, it was watching The Disney Afternoon and playing video games as a kid. Those are really the things that influenced me. Calvin and Hobbs, The Wattersons, all of these wonderful things, and so for me, that’s how I was introduced to creativity and really loving art and really loving comedy. So I thought, how lucky am I that I could possibly be someone’s entryway into what Sonic is.”
Schwartz pointed out that while a child may not have seen Sonic yet, but they may connect to the character in a way that got him excited when he was watching cartoons or playing video games. “I was so excited to be a part of the legacy of what is this character,” he said.
Actors have different methods to prepare for a role, some do research about who their characters are. But Schwartz took a much different approach. “I lived with a group of hedgehogs for three years,” he joked. “I attacked this like Daniel Day-Lewis attacks all of his roles.” Joking aside, he saw the title character as a little kid, after he read the script. “In the film, this little kid is in a cave, by himself for a while,” he continued. “Finally, he gets out of the cave, and he gets to do all the things he’s wished and dreamed he could do. So the speed of those first games I tried to bring to his personality and the script lent itself to me be like what if this little kid was so excited to get out there and finally get out there and hang out with his best friend with a guy that he always wanted to hang out with and do all these fun things.”
“So in my performance whenever he is talking or anything like that I tried to do it that when you hear it, you kind of feel the energy of that young kid trying to do all the things he’s always dreamed to do,” Schwartz said.
Of course, with this being an action-comedy live-action hybrid movie adaptation of a popular video game, there are many ways to interpret the character and how he should be portrayed. While some are just direct adaptations, improv helps give us a new perspective on the character, and with it being a comedy, it opened the door for the cast to play around and have fun. “Jeff Fowler did an incredible job directing this film, and this is the first big movie that he was able to direct,” Schwartz said. “When we were doing my lines as Sonic, he would first do it as is, and then we would always have room to play and improvise and try stuff out because Jeff is one of those great creators that want to collaborate and wants the best for the movie.”
The thing is, Schwartz doesn’t get to see the finished version of what he’s recording until later on during the production process. One scene he hinted at is when Sonic is on a baseball field, and he is voicing six different versions of the same character because Sonic is playing six different positions simultaneously. “I record something, and I have no idea what it is going to look like, and a year later, I see actual video of what Sonic looks like doing those things,” Schwartz said. “And the animators did such an incredible job on the emotion. I had these little dots on my face for the camera, so every time I emoted, they could copy it and kind of help with the animation of Sonic’s face. So, to see all of that come to life was so fun.”
Of course, Schwartz’s performance is only one small part of the film. The other is using his social media presence to help promote it. This includes any and all platforms like Instagram and Twitter. And the technology has changed a great deal since its launch, allowing the cast to do a variety of things with it.
“Now we are able to tell different cities we are coming; now we are able to create content,” Schwartz said. “In the beginning, when I was making short films before YouTube existed, the only people that see them were people who come to shows. Now we have an opportunity that if you want to become a comedian or if you wanted to be a writer, you can write and try to put your words out there and act. So I feel that avenue of creating content and having people actually like you know if you wanted to actually do these things you can give it a shot and it will cost what you probably have in your phone, already.”
Sonic The Hedgehog is in theaters February 14 and is rated PG.