Billy Crystal returns to voice Mike Wazowski, the little green one-eyed, sort of cute monster who along with his best friend Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) were the lead characters in Pixar’s incredibly popular animated comedy, Monsters, Inc. In the prequel, Monsters University, we meet up with Mike and Sulley where their friendship began: in college. Mike and Sulley don’t get along initially – both are at MU to become scarers and the competition’s fierce – but eventually team up to overcome adversity and cement the friendship that’s at the heart of Monsters, Inc. .
Crystal says Mike is one of his favorite characters of all time and he welcomed the opportunity to voice him once agains. And while at the press day at Pixar Animation Studios, Crystal discussed being able to play a younger version of Mike and getting to work with John Goodman again.
Were there several attempts in the past to get another movie made because Monsters, Inc. was so popular? It’s been a dozen years, hasn’t it?
Billy Crystal: “It’s a dozen, yeah. It was about, I guess, nine years until they decided to do it. It took about three years, I guess, to make this.
I don’t know. I kept saying to John [Lasseter], ‘There’s just got to be another story,’ but they didn’t really do sequels except for Toy Story. And I think even those might have been reluctant in the beginning. Then I guess they must’ve brainstormed a bunch of ideas and then however this happened…I was up here for John’s 50th birthday surprise party, and he came up to me and he goes, ‘We have the sequel. It’s a prequel. They’re
in college,’ and he walked away. And it was hilarious. And I went, ‘Of course, what a great idea, and show us something we haven’t seen.’ Just another adventure of them would’ve been fine, but it’s not what they do. They value the story here. They value telling the right kind of story and no matter how good a sequel idea might have been, it would’ve been a sequel. This is a different movie. That’s why I love it because you’re finding out new things about them.”
Was it easy to get back into character?
Billy Crystal: “Yeah, because I work with John [Goodman] together in the studio and we just looked at the first movie for a little while. Listen, I’ve seen it plenty; I have grandkid. But to place them in that time in their lives… We talked a little bit about it. We had storyboards which showed us slightly thinner. It’s just amazing that [there are] just little touches that they are younger. Sulley’s thinner; his hair is slightly different and the way we carry ourselves is [different]. We just approach it that way, and then Dan Scanlon’s a terrific director and he just created the world for us and we just went.”
Is there a trick to sounding younger and thinner?
Billy Crystal: [Laughing] “I wish there was because we could make a lot of money. No, it was more of an attitude in what they wrote and how we hit the lines and a certain enthusiasm. But Mike’s always enthusiastic about everything.”
What kind of student were you in college?
Billy Crystal: “Who wants to know? [Laughing] I was okay. I could’ve been better. I was always looking for something else to do most of the time, until I got into the acting program. Then I really found myself, you know? But that’s true through high school, too. I mean, I knew what pretty much everything was. I could study less, but I didn’t get a solid grade. I really could’ve been a good student, but I was always looking for [and] hearing an imaginary audience and that’s where I was at.”
What was it like being in college with Oliver Stone and Christopher Guest?
Billy Crystal: “And Michael McKean. Nobody was who they were yet, you know? We were 18…Oliver was a little older, I think, and then he left quickly and went in the Army, I guess. And Martin Scorsese was our film professor at NYU. He was a graduate student, but he handled all the production classes and all the history classes. And he was a very intimidating young guy. [He had] hair to his shoulders, granny glasses, big thick beard, making his first movie, drove us always. We had lousy equipment, old newsreel cameras from a TV station in New York named WPIX. We had these turret lens cameras and he was always talking about telling the right story and where the camera should be at that moment. Where do you want the camera to tell that story? That was his big thing. And the history of film – that was a great class with him because we watched movies and he would talk about them. That was inspiring.”
Was Mike one of your favorite characters before returning to do this prequel?
Billy Crystal: “Yes, I felt it when we made the first movie. I just fell in love with him.”
Then this must have been a joy to explore that character again.
Billy Crystal: “More so because what I loved about coming back to him was, I got to play him at a special time in his life. I got to play him at 18 or so. It’s hard to tell with these monsters how old they are. But he goes through things in this movie that he didn’t go through in the first movie. And I totally relate to him. I totally relate to his determination and his don’t tell me I can’t [attitude]. Then when he handles disappointment, he handles it really well after he goes through his, ‘I’m done, I’m finished, I’m done,’ like we all do, and then he finds a way out. I think that makes him an adult.”
How special were the lake scene and the cabin scene to do?
Billy Crystal: “I’m glad I didn’t have to bring it up. Thank you. I hadn’t seen the movie until a month ago and when I saw it, the first time was just with the cast and honestly, I didn’t know half of these people were in the movie. I see John and I don’t ask who’s doing what. I didn’t. I didn’t know that Charlie Day was in the movie. He’s hilarious. I didn’t know that Sean Hayes was so funny. I knew that Helen [Mirren] was in it, but I didn’t know Alfred Molina. It’s a really wonderful cast. And when I saw it the first time, I loved the funny, but then when those moments happened, I was really very pleased. I have to say ‘moved’ because they stopped feeling like animated characters to me. They really felt like real people – real monsters with hearts and souls. I felt very moved by the bonding of the friendship and how he helps me through that, and I thought that was great.
Part of why I also felt good was on the first movie, I pushed that we work together. John and I threw aside the script in that recording session and we really got to act the scene this close to each – even closer. We weren’t on the other side of the room with headsets. We were able to really act and he’s such a good actor, and together we thought we did a good job on it.”
How different is the dynamic acting in front of a microphone as opposed to acting in front of an audience or a camera?
Billy Crystal: “Well, it is what it is, you know? You’re in this vacuum. You don’t even know where you are sometimes. That’s what Dan Scanlon was so good at. He could really paint the picture of whatever set we were going to be in, how the animators were going to [do it] and where are we going to be? Yeah, otherwise, I don’t know where I’m saying these things or where I’m going. So that’s always different. But you’re working really hard to bring them to life because they are, especially with Mike, he’s a very high energy guy. And without wanting to sound like Daffy Duck or something, you’ve really got to keep him in a reality. So I had to know where I was at all times. So that’s a little difficult in that way, knowing where you are all the time. But with the use of some computer images that they would bring up, I’d know what my room looked like, I would know what the lecture hall would look like and the campus. Sometimes they’d show you rough stuff. But nothing was as beautiful as now.
So, you know, it’s frustrating a little bit in not knowing where you are, but with a gifted visualizer and a former animator like Dan, he made it a lot easier. That’s the hardest thing, I think. That’s why I like John there because then you’re really acting.”
How did you strike the balance between scary and funny? Did you think about the grandkids so it can’t be too scary?
Billy Crystal: “No, I didn’t think about that. I didn’t, no. Mike doesn’t get real scary, you know, so I wasn’t worried about that.”
What do your grandchildren think about you being Mike?
Billy Crystal: “Well, when they first started to understand me… They’re just about to be 10, seven, three, and, and 10 weeks, and so when the girls – the older ones – started to understand what I did, it sort of happened by accident. We’d be out, it was like a mall, and some paparazzi guy jumped in front of us and took a picture. They didn’t know what’s [happening] and they got scared. And then, what was sad about it – and they’re awful – I had to explain why, and so the only movie I could show them…I couldn’t show them the orgasm scene from Harry Met Sally and make sense of this, so I showed them this. And then I was Grandpa Mike Wazowski. And you also can’t call him Mike. You have to call him Mike Wazowski. It’s almost one word now. So then they understood that I did that. So I did that for a year. They’d call me up, ‘Hello, oh, is Grandpa Mike Wazowski there?’ ‘Hold on, I’ll get him. Hey, Mike. What, who is it? Is it those kids again?’ ‘Well hi. If you guys are gonna sleep over, you have to clean up.’ And it was stuff like that. That’s a big deal to them and they’re really excited about this one.”
Do you think the heart of these movies is why they succeed? The kids can enjoy the color and movement, and the adults enjoy the story.
Billy Crystal: “Well, these are truly family movies. They’re truly FOR people, you know, I mean in the best way. We’re seeing this disintegration of the family movie into these blockbuster things that kids should not be exposed to – the explosions, the carnage, the violence. But that’s what they’re becoming, and there’s less and less of these kind of movies being made, you know? And this one is truly for everybody. What’s great about Pixar is that, if you know John (Lasseter) at all, it comes from him. He’s a brilliant guy, but he’s got a great heart, and [that has] to be part of the movie. But all of the Disney movies in the history of them, back to Pinocchio and Snow White, all have that. There’s a moment that you need for the audience to feel something besides having a romp.”
Were there any scenes that most impressed you or any characters that you found most fun to watch?
Billy Crystal: “Well, we talked about the lake scene, and that obstacle course scene is phenomenal. I had no idea that it was going to look like that when they’re throwing those things at them. They get swollen and there’s an outtake that probably we’ll get or maybe had already [have] where [acting like his lips are hugely swollen] we’re talking like this. And then when you see my lips so big, it’s hilarious.
I thought Sean Hayes’ character – the two-headed guy – was hilarious. And Charlie Day’s guy was really funny, really funny. So, it was always constant surprises. Plus, you do them, this one I was on for maybe a year and a half, two years, I think, and I forgot that I said some of these things. And then suddenly, ‘Oh wait! That’s funny!’ I didn’t remember saying them. So, that’s cool. That’s a great surprise.”
In a prequel, do you worry about setting them up for the later movie?
Billy Crystal: “Probably a big concern because it took so long for them to figure it out. Also while you’re working, you’ll get rewritten pages. I worked about every month and half or two months, sometimes three months, and you get a call, ‘Are you available in…?’ You know, sometimes it was two days, but most of the time it was one day. A lot of times you rework stuff you already had done. So they were constantly aware of this might be a problem, that might be a problem.
It’s a great way and, boy, so many movies I wish I had been able to do that on. You know, fix problems as you go back. ‘We’ll do that again.’ There were several different openings of the movie that I did, and I think that they settled on this field trip idea out of a story that I told them about going to my first Yankee game in 1956 and having All-Stars in ’56 – Mickey Mantle signed my program and then I wanted to be a Yankee. That became that opening field trip when you see the guy at Monsters, Inc. So they’re always listening because I had recorded two different versions of Mike being brought to college where I played his parents and his sister – all of them in the car. You’re dropping him off, how nervous he was, and the parents, and his mother and his father, and his sister, you know, setting up his room and all that stuff. When I saw the movie, I had forgotten that they’d even talked about that because a little boy voiced that. I didn’t do that scene.”
Did you ever want to do a sequel to the original movie? Do you think people wanted to know what happened to Boo?
Billy Crystal: “That’s the obvious thing, they’re going to go into the real world to hear something happened to her somehow or Randall did something to her and we have to go and now we’re trapped in a real world and so on. Is it like Peter Pan now that they see her and Wendy was 55 when they find her or something and going into menopause and didn’t want to see Peter, you know? ‘I’m hot, I’m hot, do you understand that? I’m hot.’ And Boo would be 16 or 17, what’s the time in Monster World and human world? That was sort of the obvious place to. I think we thought they were going to go. This was just a delightful romp.”
How easy was it getting back together with John Goodman and bouncing things off each other?
Billy Crystal: “It’s the easiest thing in the world. He’s Sulley. He’s this wonderful big grizzly bear of a guy who sits there and says, ‘What do you wanna do here?’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna just play around here.’ ‘Good, good, terrific,’ and he just listens and he says the right thing and he laughs – and he’s just a wonderful actor, too.”
Was it that way from the very first time?
Billy Crystal: “Yes, the very first time. Well, the first time it happened that we worked together was I went to work on the first day and his stuff had already been recorded. So I went, ‘Wait, he’s not going to be here? But that means if I had something new to say, I can’t do it because he’s not here to answer it. This isn’t going to work.’ ‘Well, that’s how we did Toy Story.’ ‘Can he come in? Is he not here?’ ‘No, he’s here.’ So we called him and he said, ‘Great.’
Then we did everything together. It just popped that way. Throughout some of my movies, I’ve had partners that have been really extra special good teammates. Gregory Hines was a great teammate in Running Scared, and De Niro, of course, and, and just recently with Bette [Midler]. You just key in with people and they’re so good, and they have a natural thing with you. Then it’s a great joy. So falling back with John was like putting on a pair of old slippers.”
Do you get the same sense of satisfaction from all your performances?
Billy Crystal: “They’re all different. There are all different kinds of highs, you know? The best high always, honestly, is in front of a live audience. That’s why I love doing my show, whatever it is. Now I’m going back to Broadway with 700 Sundays in November to be pretty much the last time I’ll do it. So I’m going to do, like, 60 shows and I can’t wait to do it again. It’s been a while – two or three years since I toured with it last. That’s still the greatest highs, , that feeling of being in control of 2,000 people. You know, it’s me and them, and I like the odds. It’s not even so much the funny; it’s getting them quiet. In the quiet moments in 700 Sundays, I just really love that I know they’re getting moved. That’s a particular powerful feeling that it’s very hard to describe, but it’s incredibly satisfying.
And I have a book coming out in September, September 10th, called Still Fooling Them about my [life]. I turned 65 in March and it’s about a man’s view of what happens to him as you get older. Nora wrote a great book about her time getting older, and I thought I’d go out on the road with it because I was missing that juice, and I started writing about what was going on with me. But instead, they felt more like New Yorker essays about different things. I said, ‘You know, this may be a book more than it’s something else,’ and I never had that discipline to sit down and write every day. I gave it to a lit agent and sold it, and I said, ‘But you know what I could do for the rest of it is, it’s sort of a memoir of…since most of it takes place in my 60s, why don’t I do zero to 20, my 20s, my 30s, my 40s, my 50s as sort of funny anecdotal pieces that support the other pieces?’ And then that’s how it came in, and I’m very excited about it. So that’s a different kind of high. That’s a very satisfying feeling is writing something and then taking weeks to just polish a couple of paragraphs. I know when you write a piece, you feel good when it goes in, like you did it right. So, it’s just a different kind of thing. I’ve had good times in a lot of things.
When I directed 61* I thought nothing would be a better experience than that. You know, directorially, there was a movie that I really loved, loved doing because I knew those guys, and I knew that team. I knew Mickey Mantle very well, ultimately, so it was a real love story to recreate that time period. That may be the best job of all in show business, is directing something that you love. But still for me, it’s being in front of people. That’s still the best thing.”