Tyrannosaurus rexes were, as everyone knows, the fearsome, rampaging terrors of the prehistoric world. But in the alternate landscape of Pixar’s "The Good Dinosaur," where the creatures that once ruled the Earth never became extinct, the mighty tyrant lizards have evolved into something a bit more refined, if still a little wild: ranchers.
On their journey back to their distant homes, the film's lost and fearful Apatosaurus Arlo and his untamed human companion Spot run across a bickering family of T. rexes that enjoys comparing stories about scars as much as running down errant longhorns, voiced with a Southwestern flavor: there's the rugged patriarch Butch, played by iconic Western actor Sam Elliott, and his constantly squabbling offspring Nash and Ramsey, portrayed by "Justified's" A.J. Buckley and "True Blood’s" Anna Paquin.
The trio recently sat down with journalists to discuss their roles in the animated comedy-adventure, which opens today nationwide.
How exciting was it for all of you when Pixar comes knocking at your door and says, "Hey, we want you to voice T. rex dinosaurs?"
Sam Elliott: Pretty cool. It doesn’t get any better than that in terms of the animation world.
A.J. Buckley: It’s like getting a call saying you made the Olympic team. It’s like, that call just doesn’t [happen]. … I told my agent I thought she was joking. I was like, "Are you sure it’s the right A.J. Buckley? Are you sure they want me?" She was like, "There’s only one A.J. Buckley."
How will these characters meet the expectations of how people perceive T. rexes, and do these characters will flip that on its head and surprise people?
Elliott: They’ve totally turned it upside down, haven’t they? I mean, in terms of the sensibility of these guys. They’re still meaty as I suppose they are. … They’re not typical of any T. rex that’s ever been represented on film or in animation that I’m privy to. I think that’s part of the charm of this thing – certainly all the overriding themes that are involved, whether it’s the T. rex’s or the kid on his journey.
This is about real life. There are a lot of themes in here that ring true for families and parents and children. There’s great things to be taken away from this. It’s one thing to be able to entertain people and we’re blessed that we get to do that, I’ve always felt. But it’s another thing to inform people, or to provoke people, or make them think.
Anna and A.J., you nailed the sibling-rivalry dynamic to a tee. Did you guys get any kind of rehearsal time together?
Buckley: This is the first time we’ve met! It was done separately.
Anna Paquin: I have a brother. I’m familiar with the dynamic!
Buckley: That’s the crazy part. None of us actually …
Paquin: … worked together …
Buckley: … until this morning. This is the first time we’ve met. I was the last person cast. I didn’t hear their voices in the scene; I just heard a scene here and a scene there. It wasn’t mixed yet. Yeah, that’s all Peter [Sohn, the director] and how he was very, very specific. All of us say that if it wasn’t for Peter and his ability to walk us into a room with an empty canvas and tell us exactly what’s going to look like, and it be that and more, and for you to think we were actually in the same room.
Paquin: I mean, that’s an enormous compliment to the entire process, but particularly to Peter, I think.
How many cool points did you score with your family, being in the film?
Paquin: We’ll wait until the movie comes out, because then the real cool points will start racking up. Yeah, I mean, aside from the fact that I always loved Pixar, I have been sort of trying to figure out how to get them to want to hire me. Then it kind of just happened. I was like, "That’s really cool and awesome – and sort of spooky." Yeah. It definitely gives me good street cred as a mom. It’s like, "My mom’s a T. rex. What’s your mom’s superpower?"
Disney and Pixar films have such a great tradition of these emotional cores. Do you remember the first animated film from either company that just really sucked you in and captured your heart?
Elliott: From either company? “Fantasia.” That was the first one for me. Everything about it: the animation, probably more than anything else. The incredible characters. I don’t even remember how old I was the first time I saw “Fantasia.” I still revisit it. Maybe the innocence of all of it. At the same time, it had some really dark elements. It seemed real on some levels. It was fantastical is what it might have been. Real in terms of what it represented.
How was Peter as a director?
Paquin: He’s amazing. He’s amazing.
Buckley: The thing that I think is a compliment to him is that it seems like everyone we met today has been really affected by this film. Obviously, it’s not just Peter that has done all of the work, but he’s the captain of the team and has really sort of set the tone. I think that comes into where his passion was and how he got us involved and told the story, we told you the story.
Paquin: I was crying when you were telling it to me in the room, but yeah. I’m a softie.
Buckley: He’s a really genuine guy that really cares about the work. It’s rare to find people like that in this business, and in this world. He’s a special guy.
What was the specific, original pitch that each of you got about your characters, in terms of how Pete pitched it to you guys in terms of what he was looking for from each of you?
Paquin: Well, I had already said yes before they actually told me about the movie. I want to say they seemed ever so slightly, like, nervous that I might be, like, offended that they wanted me to be this big, badass T. rex. I was so bracing myself to be like some little thing like this that’s really wimpy because I’m a girl. I was like, "That’s fantastic!" They were like, "Really?" I’m like, "Yeah! That’s awesome." I get to be one of the dudes. Except a girl, which is even cooler.
Elliott: The first thing I saw was words on the page. You see the scenes, you don’t see the script; you just see the scenes that you’re involved with. A rendering, there was an 8-by-10 rendering of what this character looked like. When you got into the studio with Pete, I didn’t go up to Pixar to their facility up north, I did mine in L.A. and I did it in a day. When you go in there and you meet this guy that is so enthusiastic and so specific in his vision, and he has this incredible ability to draw that vision out of the performers. That’s a real gifted director. He is a very enthusiastic individual, and a very sweet guy. He’s the right guy to do this thing. It may be his first, but it’s certainly not going to be his last.
Buckley: When I got up to see him, I asked him, when we sat down, I was like, "How did this happen?" He’s like, "I saw your character on 'Justified,' and I loved the sound of your voice. These guys are already cast, so they took scenes from “Justified” and then sampled it, mixed it with them, and it fit." I was like "OK." He’s like, "So I just want you to do Danny Crowe." And Danny Crowe on “Justified” was this horrible, like, sociopath where he plays a killer. I’m like, "Huh?" Then, when we were trying to find the voice, I was trying to figure out how to be a dinosaur but be this guy. My character on “Justified” chewed. So I needed to chew. They had Jolly Ranchers there, so I picked up a Jolly Rancher, and put the Jolly Rancher in my lip there, then Nash came out.
Your three characters are important for Arlo’s journey, but they also provide some important comedic relief. In your individual recording sessions, was it sometimes hard to keep the importance of the character in check with the comedy of it all?
Elliott: I don’t remember playing any of it for comedy. … I just remember playing it straight, and it happened to be funny. Some of it. I think once you start playing for funny, it’s not funny anymore.
Paquin: Any kind of genre kind of stuff, if you start kind of winking at the audience in your performance, then how can you expect them to suspend disbelief? Plus, I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to play something for comedy if I tried. I’ve never done any.
Buckley: To do a good comedic scene, you need someone to feed off of. So you had to be truthful to what was on the page in order for it to play. If you made a crazy choice trying to be funny when you didn’t know what the other people were even doing, you’d lose them. So it was just connecting and being truthful to the dialogue. It was funny in Peter’s head. He was seeing that that joke was going to play, and we had no idea because he had already, which is insane to think about.
Almost exactly 20 years after the first Pixar film, "Toy Story," was released, what does it mean to be a part of the Pixar legacy?
Elliott: It’s huge for me personally because the 25th of November, if my mother were still living – she passed away three years ago – would have been her 100th birthday. So that’s like a milestone for me. I mean, any time you get to be involved with a company like Pixar, it doesn’t matter what day it is or date it is or anything else. This is a gift. I just look at this as a gift and a grand opportunity over a long haul. I’ve been in this business nearly 50 years. This ranks up there as far as opportunities and things I’ve enjoyed doing. It’s a day. It’s a day’s work. I mean, the work that we’ve done here today lasted five times longer than the session.
Paquin: That’s actually true.
Elliott: And the great reward is going to be going and seeing it with an audience and taking my family. Knowing my mom’s up there thinking, "That’s my boy." So, pretty cool.