Honed from his successful start in sketch comedy, Martin Short wields a wide array of voices and postures, which have served him well in crafting a career largely built around comedic personas. It’s not a huge surprise, then, that in Tim Burton’s new stop motion-animated movie, “Frankenweenie,” Short voices not one but three characters — unusual student Nassor, stern neighbor Mr. Burgemeister and the kindly Mr. Frankenstein, father to Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan), a sensitive young boy who harnesses the power of science to bring back his beloved dog, Sparky, from the dead. For ShockYa, Brent Simon recently had a chance to speak to the 62-year-old actor one-on-one, about building characters through voice, the secret to auditioning, bad directors, and more. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: For the voice of Nassor, you talked about watching YouTube videos of Boris Karloff as an inspiration and part of research, but what other means of building up the other voices did you engage in?
Martin Short: Well, the father was the most directed performance from the start from Tim. He had the clearest vision of what he wanted the parents to be, which was probably the same reason he wanted Charlie (Tahan) to play the boy instead of casting, you know, Jim Carrey or someone. I think he wanted a sincere, heartfelt element of believability to each of those characters. The others were more up-for-grabs. Mr. Burgemeister was really just me experimenting and improvising.
ShockYa: So it’s not based on a particularly terrible neighbor?
MS: No, it’s not based on anyone. But there were elements of (changing tones) this voice and that voice. I had this idea of that person who’s smoked for many years, finally quits, and then says that they [are] (in a deathly rattle) totally healthy now. Sometimes, in the most blatant way, characterizations can skirt clichés in a movie. Like (in a grim, raspy voice), ”I want you to go to hell!” You always hear that voice. But sometimes smaller things are just as disturbing — that asthmatic quality to someone breathing. And Tim had broad boundaries of how he saw the character of Burgemeister — menacing, creepy, disturbing. And if you use those adjectives it becomes subtler than (if you say) scary, monstrous or demonic.
ShockYa: There’s an inner tension to Burgemeister. I could feel his ass cheeks being clenched.
MS: Yes, absolutely! Because he has his precious (lawn) flamingoes and flowers, and the Dutch Day and all this strange little world that’s so important to him. And with Nassor, I had this idea of Boris Karloff, but I kept doing him more lispy. It’s just trial and error, and when you’re working with someone very creative and in a situation where you have time to explore, it’s just very great.
ShockYa: Were you always attracted to acting as a kid, did you have this same kind of performance instinct?
MS: Absolutely. But I also think my life would have been very different if I’d grown up in Manhattan. I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, which is a steel town 40 miles west of Toronto. I was literally at 14 years old doing an album, “Martin Short Sings.” My mother was a violinist — she was the concert mistress of the symphony, so she would hear it and adjudicate it. And then I would pretend to have my own imaginary television show — NBC, 8:30, every other Tuesday, which left time for my imaginary film career. I had an applause record, I’d type things up from “TV Guide,” and yet at no time did anyone say, “Hey, do you want to be an actor?” or, “Hey, do you want to go to the National Theater School in Ottawa?”, or even to a theater program? Because it wasn’t cool to be one of the theater nerds. I had no connection to that world, nor did I seek it out. It just didn’t have any reality to me. When I went to university I did seek it out. But I went to university in pre-med, actually, and then switched to social work after two years because it gave me more time (for acting). And then when I left I’d done so much theater that I thought before I did a masters I would give myself one year of contracts, because I didn’t want to be that 38-year-old actor who was a waiter. I thought if I liked doing this then I’ll do it in community theaters, but then my first year I worked and then that begat the second year and the third year and the fourth year, and at some point you go, “I guess this is real.”
ShockYa: Were your parents supportive?
MS: They were always supportive. And yet I always knew that it wasn’t going to be a situation where I was going to be supported (financially). I think if you have a kid who says they want to be an actor you say, “Fantastic, but…” Because it’s not like someone saying I want to be a doctor. If you go to Stanford and speak to the dean of the medical school and ask the percentage of people that will actually graduate and be doctors, he’ll say 97 percent. But if you, say, go to Tisch (School of the Arts) and ask what percentage (of students) five years from now are even going to be in show business, they’d say two percent. You can’t tell the students that, but you have to be aware of that, and if you have a kid doing that you have to say, “God bless you, I hope it works out great, but you’re going to have to be on your own.” The flipside of that is Frank Sinatra, who said his father was always there to piss on his dreams so you can’t be that guy either.
ShockYa: What’s your take on auditioning? It’s a completely different skill set from delivering a performance on camera, and actors of all sorts of experience still have a complicated relationship with it. I imagine you do it much less now that you’re established, but did you ever reach a point where you said, “Hey, I feel like I’ve solved this”?
MS: At the beginning you don’t, of course, but there are tricks to it — like, you memorize the script but then you hold it, because if you say that you have it memorized they’ll say, “Well, that’s not that great.” But if they still think you’re struggling then they’ll say, “Gee, he seems to have a good command of it.” And the other thing I learned is that just because you don’t get the part does not mean that you didn’t give a good audition. And because there’s so little control that an actor has over his life — even when you make movies you can do seven or eight great takes and one bad one and if the director’s an idiot and picks the bad one then they’ll look at the movie and say, “Well, Short’s not very good in that!” And you’re like, “Dude, there were nine other takes I could show you!” All the power you have is that day, when you’re shooting. So if you do those great takes, and weasel a couple of other ones out of the director, you can go home and say, “Look, he may blow it, but I did a great day and I toast myself!” And you do that with auditioning too. You say, “Look, I nailed it. It’s not my fault that I’m too young for it, or too old for it, or too short for it, or not good-looking enough, or too good-looking, or maybe they just want a star. I nailed it.” You have to have that confidence or it will just eat you up.
ShockYa: Is there a commonality amongst bad directors with whom you’ve worked?
MS: Yes: (pauses) a total assumption that they know what it is (they want and need) – an arrogance to, in advance, knowing what it is. Because on a set with creative people, there’s going to be something magical that happens the day of shooting that’s going to throw off your assumptions, and if you are closed going in and think you’re the only [person] to be respected, it’s unlikely the project will be terribly exciting because you won’t have taken advantage of the talented people around you. It’s a limiting thing, I would say. The only thing I can control is the mood on the set – and because often I’m asked to do comedy, the atmosphere I like to keep [is] loose and happy. But if the guy’s a prick, then he won’t get as much from me. If the guy doesn’t want to hear my opinions, then he’ll get what he wants, [but] he’ll restrict his own potential.
Written by: Brent Simon