Hank Azaria arrives at the premiere of "Happy Feet Two" at Grauman's Chinese Theater, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011, in Los Angeles. "Happy Feet Two" will be released in 3D and 2D in select theaters Nov. 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Katy Winn)
LOS ANGELES — Somewhere, located deep inside Hank Azaria's head, there's a mental file cabinet where he's stored all the weird imitations, voices and accents he's heard and done over the years. He taps those files when called on to do a voice for an animated project, such as his long-running work with "The Simpsons."
It took a little more research for him to nail the voice of The Mighty Sven, a puffin, in the new animated film "Happy Feet Two."
"A character like Comic Book Guy was a guy (switching to the nerdish voice of the character from the Fox series) 'I went to college with who talked like this.' So he's permanently imprinted. Because Sven was to have a Swedish accent, I had to do work with a voice coach," Azaria says.
Azaria is one of the most prolific voice talents working today. He supplies voices for more than 20 characters on "The Simpsons," ranging from Moe the Bartender to Professor Frink. Coming up with a new voice for the TV show is easy because of his mental files. But because he feels more of an obligation — even a slight obsession — to get a foreign accent right, he turned to a voice coach.
The funny thing is that often a perfect accent is not completely right for an animated project.
"Certain jokes won't work. So, you always have to cheat a little bit. You can work a lot of that stuff out with a vocal coach before hand. For this film, it took us a whole day to figure out what was the funniest pronunciation of 'Erik.' We ended up with 'EEE- rik.' But we tried 50 different ones. And, it's not totally clear, in a Scandinavian accent, how they would mispronounce that," Azaria says.
Different voice or not, Azaria knows that to be a good actor he has to reveal himself. He still finds it more comfortable when he can slip into heavy makeup for a role like Gargamel in "The Smurfs" or voice a Swedish-sounding bird in "Happy Feet Two."
He's one of the few actors who stays busy on screen and as a voice talent. Along with his almost quarter-century with "The Simpsons," Azaria's been in the live-action film "Night at the Museum" and TV show "Free Agents." He thinks being on camera is far more challenging than voice work because it takes the whole body, mind and soul to perform.
"Whereas the vocal stuff, I've had much more practice at it. It's totally second nature because every day for about 23 years I've been doing it," Azaria says. "If I had to pick — gun to my head — I would probably pick the vocal stuff because it's a quality of life thing. I have a son now and it gives me more time to be with him. I really do love it. But, I would heartbroken if I couldn't do on-screen acting."