By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—In “Despicable Me 2,” the highly anticipated sequel to the hit 2010 animated comedy, Benjamin Bratt voices the character of dance crazy restaurateur Eduardo, who also may be a nefarious supervillain named El Macho. At least, that’s what Gru (Steve Carell), a former supervillain himself, suspects as he helps authorities track down the person responsible for an underhanded heist operation that has taken place at a strategic military outpost in the Arctic.
Bratt, 49, is best known for his dramatic work on shows like “Law & Order” and “The Cleaner” as well as films including “Pinero” and “Clear and Present Danger.” The handsome Latino believes his recent appearance on the hit comedy series “Modern Family” may have paved the way for new forays into comedy for him.
A married father of two, he recently spoke about taking over the role from Al Pacino (who mutually parted ways with the filmmakers midway through production) and getting his funny on.
Q: How did you get the part?
Bratt: It was an interesting set of circumstances that I happened upon when I first came into the picture, as it were. Al Pacino was originally cast to voice both Eduardo and El Macho, and as such, he laid down his performance, which to my mind was brilliant, and the animators animated the character based on what he did. So after they mutually departed ways and they needed an actor to come in and refine the soul of the character, I was met with these very strict parameters that I had to follow. One was a problem of math. In terms of timing, I had to get the wording within that verbal parenthetical just to make the words fit to the (animated character’s) mouth. The second, more challenging issue for me, of course, was to make it feel organic. So our initial approach was to replicate what Al Pacino did but, of course, we found that to be impossible. It was a waste of two days, really, trying to mimic essentially what he had done because no one can out-Al Pacino Al Pacino, and no one should dare try. So I simply used what he did as an inspiration, as a guide for what I needed to do, which was to find something within me in my own personal recollection to bring to it.
Q: How tough was it playing this character?
Bratt: The character you saw is all over the map physically. He’s a man of girth, with little hair and yet still full of life and zest and exuberance— expansive in every imaginable way. The challenge for me was to find that in myself and make it feel real.
Q: Did your guest appearance on “Modern Family” crack open the possibility for something like this for you?
Bratt: I largely have been seen as a dramatic actor. I can’t answer for the producers (of “Despicable Me 2”) but they did cite my work on “Modern Family,” and I have a feeling that it was part of the influence in choosing me. There was no audition process to be had. They just came to me and asked if we could accomplish this thing together. I’m excited about this turn. It’s like in life. It’s nice to mix it up, whatever your passions are. It’s nice to mix it up and have a varied palette to choose from. It’s a hoot, really, to be part of something like this and to actually be considered funny, when, for the most part, you’ve never really been considered funny (He chuckles.)
Q: Did you enjoy the experience of voicing an animated character? Would you do it again?
Bratt: It’s a real reward. I love doing voiceover work. I’ve got “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatball 2” coming out. The sequel is “Revenge of the Leftovers.” That comes out in the fall. I hope I’m onto a new tact, if you will, in what I do for a living.
Q: Your character has some interesting ideas about what it means to be manly. What’s your definition of manly?
Bratt: (He laughs.) First of all, I think there’s a huge distinction between “macho” and a real man. I don’t think you have to be one to be another. I think a real man can cry and it’s fine for a real man to cry but El Macho would never cry. That said, body hair is optional. I’ve been essentially hairless my whole life but I think I’m macho sometimes. You have to ask my wife. To me, the word “macho” I’ve always seen as a pejorative. It’s hyper-masculinity, almost an aggressive kind of masculinity. There’s almost a domination aspect to it that has put me off. But in the case of (Eduardo/El Macho) it’s pure fun. It’s the perfect handle for a man like this. How did he meet his death? Riding on the back of a shark with 250 pounds of dynamite strapped to his chest into the mouth of a live volcano. That’s definitively macho. And he survived! If that ain’t macho, I don’t know what is.
Q: It’s unusual to see you in a comedy role and particular in one aimed at kids. Did you want to do this for your kids?
Bratt: My kids dig it but I respectfully beg to disagree with you. I think the film, in truth, is aimed at everyone. As it happens, I was a huge fan of the first film. I went and saw it with my wife as a date movie. I didn’t even bring my kids to that film. They subsequently have become huge fans, having watched it over and over again on DVD. That’s really the beauty of the first film. What happens with the second one is that you have this kind of alchemy that exists with the balance of this acerbic, subversive humor, which is very adult sometimes in nature, balanced with these adorable minions and a real tenderness, a real heart at the end of the day, which sounds kind of corny but it’s a fact. In the sequel, (Gru is) now on the other side of the equation. He’s retired from a world of villainy, and he’s devoting himself to being a parent. Yet when this massive act of villainy occurs, he’s pulled back into a world of crime, albeit this time on the side of good.
Q: What was the process of working in animation for you?
Bratt: All actors are on the constant search for a real challenge, just to keep things interesting. I’ve been (acting) for 25 years now and I’ve done a lot of different kinds of things. This was a challenge unlike any other I’ve ever met, just because of the circumstances I earlier spoke of. For me, on camera, I’ve always been told less is more. So part of my aspiration as a film actor is to bring subtlety to everything I do. Honesty, but subtlety. This is a completely different animal here. I’m inside a studio, inside a recording booth, being as large and as loud and as proud and exuberant and as zestful as I can be and I’m being told it ain’t enough. So the challenge for me was to go beyond what I understood what my limits to be as a performer. I don’t have that objective third eye. Chris Renaud, one of the directors there, and Chris Meledandre, the producer, were there to be that third eye for me and the inspiration to push me beyond what I thought was possible. I will add that it was emancipating in way I’ve never experienced as a performer, not even on stage. You can live out loud and proud onstage too, and I’ve had opportunities to do so over the years, but nothing like this. And to be able to play a dual role, someone who, although clearly in the throws of middle age and the expanding waistline and everything else, still sees himself and comports himself as a man who is debonair and dashing and uber-charming and light on his feet.
Q: Can you relate to Eduardo?
Bratt: I think he, like a lot of us middle-aged guys, still thinks of himself as someone in his twenties. He lives that way. That’s appealing regardless of how he looks. But then to jump from that into something with more menace, if you will, was not only challenging but really exciting to do.
Q: Can you watch the character onscreen without being self-conscious about your performance?
Bratt: I find that most of us actors can’t stand watching ourselves in any form. I watched the film two days ago by myself and I found everyone else hysterical, and every other part of the movie really enjoyable, except for what I did because I was too self-aware. I was wondering if I measured up to what Al (Pacino) had initially done. He’s one of my heroes and so I never know if I’ll ever believe that I equaled what he did, but I will say whatever I did, I felt while watching it, the overriding feeling was one of pride. I think the movie is magical. It succeeds on every level and achieves whatever goal the filmmakers wanted to. It’s just that good. I’m really proud and honored to be a part of it. And, listen, I’m finally cool in the eyes of my kids. I’ve never been cool in the eyes of my kids before, and now I’m the cat’s meow.