For many humans and animals alike, there’s no greater or more alluring bond and connection than the one between a loving owner and their devoted pet. No matter how many other friends they have or adventures they go on during the day when they’re separated, often times the most important part of the humans and their pets’ day is when they’re reunited at home. That powerful relationship between the owners and their animals is endearingly and humorously showcased in Illumination Entertainment’s new animated family film, ‘The Secret Life of Pets.’
The comedy reunited directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud, who previously helmed ‘Despicable Me 2’ and ‘The Lorax’ together. ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ was written by Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch, the former two of whom also worked with the directors on ‘Despicable Me 2’ and ‘The Lorax.’ Universal Pictures released the filmmakers’ latest collaboration today in theaters.
‘The Secret Life of Pets’ follows the pets who live in a bustling Manhattan apartment building, and are led by their happy and charming leader, a quick-witted terrier rescue named Max (Louis C.K.). While the various pets are fiercely loyal to their respective owners, the animals’ real fun begins when the humans leave for the day to go to work and school. When Max and his friends, including fellow dogs Mel (Bobby Moynihan), Gidget (Jenny Slate) and Buddy (Hannibal Buress), cat Chloe (Lake Bell) and guinea pig Norman (Renaud), hang out with each other, they embark on such activities as trading humiliating stories about their owners and trying out their latest adorable faces to get better snacks.
Max is convinced that he’ll always the center of attention in the life of his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). So he becomes horrified and confused when she brings home another dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who’s sloppy and massive, and doesn’t have any manners. While the canine duo initially clashes, when they later find themselves lost on the streets of New York City together, they reluctantly learn to rely on each other. They realize that they have to set aside their differences and unite to fight a cunning bunny, Snowball (Kevin Hart). The seemingly cute bunny is actually building an army of pets who’ve been abandoned by their owners, and are determined to fight back against humanity. Max and Duke, whose friends determinedly set out to save them, must find their way home before Katie returns to their apartment after work.
Several of the actors from the family comedy generously participated in press conferences recently at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey to discuss lending their voices to the animated film. C.K. and Hart were paired together, while Moynihan and Bell collectively spoke and Stonestreet discussed shooting ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ on his own. Among other things, all of the performers revealed what drew them all to participate in the adventure movie, and how the physicality they used while recording their parts influenced their respective pets’ voices.
Hart began his interview with C.K. by expressing his thrill over joining the voice cast of ‘The Secret Life of Pets.’ “This is my first animated film, and nothing gets you more excited for it than seeing that your character has two sides,” the comedian revealed.
“They showed me a picture of the bunny, where he was very nice and adorable. Then they flipped the page, and he was grabbing his ears, and his eyes were angry,” Hart explained. “They said, ‘Kevin, we want you to bring your personality to this bunny. Bring your cute and cuddly side, but at the same time, make it believable that he can start a revolution, and have other animals follow him.’ So I jumped at the opportunity.”
C.K. then divulged why he agreed to voice the protagonist in the animated family film. “This role always made sense to me, which is why I decided to do it. Max is a dog who lives in New York City, and I also live in New York,” the Emmy Award-winning writer explained. “You have this tension with your little home, because everyone’s apartment is small and intimate in the chaos of the giant city. So I always understood Max in that way.”
The comedian garnered laughs when he added, “Dogs are very transparent and easy to read. I understand every time Max is desperate for the woman to come home. But when you play another species, you can more easily get rid of parts of yourself. Dogs don’t have any timelines in their head, so they don’t have any confidence in the future. So they think that whatever they’re feeling now is what they’re always going to feel.”
Bell also received laughs when she began discussing her involvement in voicing Chloe in the animated comedy. “I play a cat, and I don’t know many cats, personally. I don’t have many dear friends who are cats. But in playing this cat, I have learned a lot about the cat community. I discovered that their complexity makes them great.” The actress added that as a result of voicing Chloe, she has started “campaigning so hard to get a cat to my husband (tattoo artist Scott Campbell), because they’re so cute. But he’s officially a dog dude.”
Moynihan then followed up by explaining his experiences with dogs as he spoke about his opportunity to voice Max in ‘The Secret Life of Pets.’ “I never had a dog. But since appearing in this movie, I have Googled pugs, because I want to find one that looks like my character. I would like to own that dog, and name it Mel. But I probably won’t-I should never own a dog, because I can’t even take care of myself,” which also garnered laughs.
The ‘Saturday Night Live’ star also added that he thinks “that whoever decided that I should audition for this thought I kind of looks like him a little bit. I also think I’m a hyper-energetic person sometimes,” which reflects the pug’s personality, and “that comes across on screen.”
Stonestreet also discussed why he was driven to voice Duke in ‘The Secret Life of Pets,’ particularly since he beings as an antagonistic opponent to Max, before they begin to bond. He also noted the differences in the personalities of Duke and Cameron, his character on his hit ABC mockumentary series, ‘Modern Family.’
“Cam is a type of character I have never played before appearing on the show. But I always want to play different careers in my career, and the show is the reason why you know who I am. So the fact that Duke is different from Cam isn’t a big deal to me-he’s just a different character I get to play,” the performer explained.
When asked what characteristics he shares with Duke, Stonestreet noted that when audiences are first introduced to his character in the beginning of the film, “he’s hiding something, because he’s scared and nervous. I think we all do that, because we want to protect ourselves in some ways.”
The actor added that “In this opportunity, Duke has the chance to live in a great new house. He doesn’t know how to make that stick, so he uses his size to boss his way in. I’ve probably been guilty of that in my life-I can use my physicality to get my way every once in awhile. So obviously I relate to that. He’s also a fun and loveable guy, and I think I’m like that, too.”
While Stonestreet also admitted that Duke “is a dog for open space,” he hopes that audiences, like Max, can start to appreciate him, as “all dogs need homes. I think it’s cute that they matched Max and Duke up. You don’t know where friendship is going to come from, and you can’t know for sure who you’re going to find a friend in. I like that there was a Laurel and Hardy aspect to Max and Duke.”
Even though Stonestreet and Moynihan feel like they share aspects of Duke and Mel’s personalities, Bell explained that she’s different from the cat she voices in certain respects. “I’m more of an optimistic person, and Chloe’s the antithesis of that-she’s a pessimist at all odds. But she enjoys eating, which is something that I enjoy a lot!” Moynihan also chimed in on his support of his co-star’s character, and told Bell that he “has always been a big Chloe fan, even before I knew you were playing her. She’s so cute.”
The ‘Modern Family’ actor then revealed how he physically and emotionally prepares to perform an animated character like Duke. “It’s the same thing I do with the show. I look at the material that I have to do, so that I know the objective of the scene, just from an acting standpoint. I know what Duke wants, just like I want to know what Cam wants when I’m going to shoot ‘Modern Family.'”
When he then begins filming on his projects, Stonestreet explained that his technique involves saying “the lines as many different ways as I can. I find different intentions and ways to deliver the lines, so that when the editors smash it together, they have options. I try to challenge myself, and come up with different ways to say my lines.”
Stonestreet added that he embraces the freedom that animation offers him as a performer. “I’m not worried about having people watch me make myself look really bad. At least there’s only like four people there to watch me fall flat on my face if it doesn’t work.”
The actor emphasized that the opposite is true on his popular ABC sitcom or live action movies. “You have a crew of so many people, so if you do a bad take, it’s like, ‘Wow, how’d this guy get a job? He’s terrible.’ In animation, you have the freedom to be exploratory, and have fun with it. It’s exhilarating and super fun, and I could do it all day.”
Stonestreet added that he was also able to connect with Duke while filming ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ because he loves animals, particularly dogs. “I grew up with pigs, cows, cats and dogs, in Kansas. I had animals to feed, basically since the third grade on. That taught me, at a very young age, that the world exists outside of the three foot perimeter around me. Gaining that reverence and respect for animals was a great lesson for me to learn young.”
C.K. also pointed out that Max, Duke and the other pets in the animated comedy “are domestic creatures, so they’re really dependent on people, and really need someone to feel okay. You can give a dog all his toys and treats, but he’s not happy unless his owner’s there, too.”
Hart also pointed out that Snowball is “very insecure. While he’s the leader, there is a strong sense of doubt in everything he does. With every order he gives, there’s a question behind it; he asks, ‘Was that too much? Do you guys get that?’ That’s something that Chris and I spoke about, because we wanted to ground the character. If the bunny only has one note, he wouldn’t be fun to track.”
Bell and Moynihan also revealed their process of connecting with their characters for ‘The Secret Lives of Pets.’ The actress explained that when “You’re doing animated films, you don’t put on a cloak of understanding for your characters. The process is a little more lax and a lot more fun. There isn’t any pressure to delve into your soul. You just bring yourself, but I also enjoyed (Chloe’s) sarcasm.”
When then discussing how he related to, and portrayed, Max, Moynihan explained that he knew “that I had to be this highly energetic dog. So a lot of my preparation involved coffee. I’m not a coffee drinker, so I would just have a cup of coffee before my recording sessions. That would last for my two-hour screaming sessions as I recorded everyday. But then I would be very tired as I walked home,” he added with a laugh.
Bell also noted that since the cast would record their lines alone in a recording booth, she thought she would appear wild “if I just laughed at myself the entire time. The process is weird and awkward, because you’re improvising by yourself, and trying to think what the other actors might say. But we would have to say lines several different ways, just to give the editors options.”
Stonestreet also discussed the experience of recording his lines for ‘The Secret Life of Pets,’ saying “It’s fun recording in the booth by yourself.” The two-time Emmy Award-winning actor noted that “on ‘Modern Family,’ we have props, sets, wardrobe and things like that. But when we were in the booth for the film, the other actors and I didn’t have all of that, and we were being directed by Chris. We would talk to him about what was happening, and then we were left to do it. So that process was fun.”
The performer also noted that “I’m motivated by the words. I would try to give him as many options as I could. That way when the editors put everything together, they could create the scenes they wanted to make.”
Further explaining the process of providing Renaud and the editors on ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ several options for each scene, Stonestreet added that “There was some improvisation. I let the filmmakers decide how much improv they want to include, which is also the way it also works on ‘Modern Family.’ That’s why they hired me and the other actors, like Kevin Hart, Louis C.K. and Jenny Slate, as they wanted us to bring what we had to bear, and improvising is one of the things that we all bring.”
Bell also admitted that many of the actors didn’t meet each other until the day of the press conferences. “We didn’t get to interact with each other, which is a huge bummer, because this is such a cool cast. We just all jumped in, which was insane.”
Moynihan added that he’s “meet a lot of the other actors individually, but not on this job. Kevin and Louis have hosted ‘SNL,’ and Jenny was a cast member on the show. I have also met Lake before, but no one had rehearsals together.”
Bell also emphasized that “it’s a very fun and different exercise for an actor to not have to go through hair and make-up, and not be conscious of what they’re doing in front of the camera. You’re free to make strange faces, which do add to your voice performance.”
Moynihan followed up on Bell’s description of working on animated movies, as he added that the filmmakers on ‘The Secret Lives of Pets’ would tell him things like, “This is going to be super easy. Your character of Mel is going to be on top of a sky-scraper, and then he’s going to fall down a long yellow tube.” The actor added that the filmmakers would explain the action in his scenes to him, so he would “have to picture everything that’s happening. Then two years later, you get to see the final result.”
The performer then discussed how seeing a drawing of Max when he was first cast affected his portrayal of the dog in the animated family film. “I received an email, in which I was asked if I wanted to audition for the character. There was a picture of the character, and I thought, yes-this is absolutely adorable. That picture was one of the first things I saw.”
Bell agreed that she knew what Chloe would like right away when she first signed on to star in the comedy. “In your fist recording, you look at that image of your character, and think about how the animal would talk. So we received those images really early on,” the actress revealed. “When I looked at Chloe in that early picture and saw her round build and smug face, I thought, I understand the game.”
The actress also praised the filmmakers, as she noted that “We actors were just a small part of this process. All of the deep and painstaking processes that went into making this movie was left to the animators, editors and director.”
When then asked how they would react if her pet was to start talking to them, Bell divulged that “I would start off by telling them, ‘Listen, I’m not going to tell anyone about this,'” which garnered laughs. “I’m not going to the media or the government. We’re not going to go on talk shows. So I would make sure that it would stay a serious secret between the two of us.”
Moynihan also chimed in on the light-hearted response on what he would tell his pet if it spoke. He noted that he would say, “If I tell one person you talk, they’ll come take you away and do experiments. I would also ask what people have been saying about me. I would take him to ‘SNL,’ ask why my sketch got cut and then leave the room and send my dog in to find out why,” which also garnered laughs.
Bell, who is a mother to a young daughter, also mentioned that she’s “so proud that I made something that she can see. This film will be the first thing that I will allow her to see. This is the first time I’m involved in a family movie. So it totally makes a difference that maybe one day I’ll be her hero, because I play a cat. She loves animals!”
The actress added that she thinks ‘The Secret Lives of Pets’ “does a great job of appealing to both parents and their children. But the parents won’t know what their children are laughing about, and the children won’t know what their parents are laughing about. That’s the way you want it.”
Moynihan also praised the fact that the animated film is set in New York City. “It’s absolutely stunning. The first shot of the movie is of the Brooklyn Bridge, and it’s beautiful. I’ve walked across that bridge a million times, and I love it. To see it in the movie is like seeing the most pristine version of it, ever,” the actor stated. “There’s also a big, sweeping shot of the city, and I was like, ‘That’s my apartment building, and there’s my window,'” Moynihan added.
“There’s also a shot in the movie of the dogs on scaffolding next a building. There are a bunch of billboards in the background, and one of them is for ‘SNL.’ I didn’t know that was going to be there,” the actor revealed. “It blew me away for two reasons: I always wanted to be on ‘SNL,’ and I got very lucky that I was given the opportunity. Also, ‘SNL” would never pay to put a billboard in Times Square in real life, so that was great to see!”
Watch the official trailer, and check out pictures of C.K., Hart, Stonestreet, Bell and Moynihan, below.
Written by: Karen Benardello