Stand-up comedian/actor/writer Patton Oswalt provides the voice of a rat named Remy in Disney/Pixar’s animated family comedy, Ratatouille. Oswalt’s best known to TV viewers as Spence on The King of Queens, but his lengthy career also includes 20+ films as well as appearances on various TV shows. Sitting down at the 2007 Wonder Con for a one-on-one chat about his latest project, Ratatouille, Oswalt shared the scoop on how he got into character as a rat who loves to cook.
What's the story of Ratatouille?
“Well, the overall story is that this rat, Remy, he’s a rat, and he’s with his family, and they just kind of travel the world eating food. That’s what they do, they move and they eat. That’s what rats do. Remy would like to slow down a bit and wait for the good stuff, which kind of makes him an outsider. And then due to a bunch of crazy circumstances, the rats, in doing what rats do, get themselves in trouble. Remy gets separated from the colony during an amazing chase sequence and then Remy ends up in Paris at this formally four-star restaurant that’s now run-down. Remy starts adding stuff to the soup, the stews, and then the food starts getting better. He has to find out how do I, because he wants to be a chef but you can’t be a rat in the kitchen, so how do we work this? That’s his problem.”
It’s really all about going after what you really desire and what you’re passionate about. Can you relate to that?
“I think anyone can. I mean anyone seeing this, there’s always something in life you’re like, ‘I know this is crazy, but it’s what I want to do.’ I’m sure when you wanted to be a writer, there must have been questions like, ‘What the hell do you want to be a writer for?’ And you’re like, ‘Don’t you understand it isn’t anything that I even have to be that passionate about? It’s just so natural. It’s the only thing that I don’t need to think twice about what I’m doing. I don’t need to get my energy going to do this; I would do this if I wasn’t being paid. I just like to do it.’ And that’s what Remy’s doing. Remy would just be cooking.”
When you picked up the script what was your first step in preparing to play a rat?”
“Here’s the thing, you don’t get the script till you get there to do the voiceover. They just give you your sides. I’ve never read the whole script, so more in general, I was focusing more on his obsession with food and cooking rather than on his ratness. You’ll see in the movie, he’s trying to rise above his ratness. Because being obsessed with good food and cooking makes him kind of a freak in the rat world. ‘What are you talking about? We don’t care about that!’ It’s the thing that you are so in love with and obsessed with that everyone else is like, ‘Okay…’”
And cooking isn’t something a rat would love.
Ratness – did you coin that phrase?
“Yes, I’m coining the phrase ‘ratness’. Put a little ™ in a circle.”
So you didn’t concentrate so much on the ratness, but did you have to find a rat voice?
“They insisted, I insisted, I just use my own voice. You’ll see in the movie it’s my voice. I wasn’t doing a weird rat thing. They just said talk the way you talk.”
That makes sense since we know rats don’t really talk.
“Exactly! What if they all sound like me? What if they sound like me and Brian Dennehy and we find that out and we’ve done a rat voice? They’d be like, ‘Oh the movie was terrible!’”
How did you get into the character when Remy’s running around and getting physical?
“You try to run around or duck or reach for something you can’t get. There’s a scene when I see my dad again and we hug. Brad Bird came in the booth and gave me a hug because when you hug someone, it changes how you talk without you having to think so much about it. So yeah, it got pretty physical. There’s a scene where I’m kind of drowning and they made me - I had this big thing of water - I’m drinking water, going, ‘Glub, glub, glub, blahhh…’ I kind of coughed it up and got it all over me. It was hilarious.”
Are you getting visual cues from anything while you’re doing the voice work or is it all in your imagination?
“It’s all in my mind. I mean, I’ve seen what the characters look like. They’ve shown me some scenes and sometimes I’ll go back in and do ADR and change one or two lines, but for the most part, I don’t think they want you married to an image. It’s more like you be in the emotion of the moment and let the animators do the acting. I know this sounds really weird, but the animators at Pixar are great actors because like great actors, they observe how people act. Like the way you’re sitting now, the way, not your fingers but your knuckles are on your chin, that’s different than someone who would go like this or this, and they would notice all that stuff. They would put that into your character.”
Did they observe you while you were in the booth?
“Not just in the booth, they brought me in to talk with them and do some stand-up. A lot of them have been to my stand-up shows, but then I talked to them and they ask me questions. I asked them questions about animation and they saw how I’m really getting into things and making a point.”
Did you bring anything from your stand-up routine into the character of Remy?
“No, because the script was already so well written that it would have seemed dopey of me to go, ‘Now I’m going to bring my brilliance to it.’ There’s no point in doing that. I just really dealt with the emotion and the tension of the script and dealing with the other characters. Much better comedy came out of that, and it came out in the way that I would deal with that. How would I deal with frustration or like talking to someone and they’re not understanding my simple point? Like especially Pete Sohn who plays my brother Emile, he’s a great foil because he just doesn’t understand anything I’m saying. He loves me and I’m like, ‘Would you please just…’ He just doesn’t put it together.”