By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Katherine Heigl looks smashing in a pink Valentino cocktail dress accented by a full pleated skirt and black lace. The statuesque actress has just arrived from the morning premiere of her newest movie, “The Nut Job.” But you won’t actually see the former “Grey’s Anatomy” star in the movie. You’ll only hear her.
After years of live-action television and film work, the 35-year-old Washington, D.C.-born Heigl makes her feature animation debut as a squirrel.
The family-friendly comedy caper is based on an award-winning animated short film called “Surly Squirrel,” and is directed by the same filmmaker Peter Lepeniotis.
The story centers on Surly, an outcast in the park community where he lives. With an impending food shortage, the industrious squirrel is forced to go to the nearby city to forage. Heigl is the voice of Andie, a smart and thoughtful squirrel, who follows Surly on his quest and tries to convince the outcast rodent to bring back food for the whole community. The duo and other park creatures wind up plotting a heist at a nut store, which turns out to be a front for a band of humans plotting a nearby bank heist.
Married to pop singer Josh Kelley with whom she has two adopted children, Heigl thought the animated film presented her with a great opportunity to make a movie her children could enjoy. Her past films, such as “Knocked Up,” “27 Dresses” and “The Ugly Truth,” have primarily targeted mature audiences.
In “The Nut Job,” she joins an all-star cast that includes Liam Neeson, Will Arnett (who voices Surly), Brendan Fraser, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Dunham and Gabriel Iglesias.
The film was animated in Korea and has a surprise guest performance at the end, featuring a certain Korean pop star that likely will keep audiences watching through the credits. (Coincidentally, Heigl’s older daughter, Nancy Leigh, nicknamed Naleigh, is from Korea.)
In this animated feature full of lessons about cooperation and caring for those less capable, Heigl has found a perfect foray into animation. The philanthropic actress is a noted animal lover, who co-founded a charity a few years ago that helps control pet overpopulation by providing spay/neutering services. The Jason Debus Heigl Foundation is named for her brother who was killed in a car accident when he was 15.
Before an audience of journalists and pint-size premiere attendees and their moms, Heigl recently spoke about her new film and long career, the challenges of motherhood and what’s ahead.
Q: How was your first experience doing voice over for animation? Was it strange for you not to be on camera or working with other actors?
Heigl: Thankfully, the director (Peter Lepeniotis) was on top of me telling me what my character was supposed to be doing in every moment. But, yeah, it’s weird. It’s very strange. You’re standing in front of a microphone and jumping around and doing all these weird things, what your character is experiencing. Then you watch the playback because they video record you, and it’s really embarrassing to watch.
Q: There’s a line in the movie where a character says, “You’re not the boss of me.” Do your kids ever say that to you and, if so, how do you handle it?
Heigl: Never! When my daughter was three, we threw a big birthday party at the house. I cooked all the food and made all the decorations myself. I took real pride in it. At the end of the night, she had been given so many gifts, and everything was all over the place. She wouldn’t pick any of it up. And I was like, “Naleigh, you’ve got to pick your toys up and put them away.” She said, (angrily) “I will not pick up my toys, not now, not ever!” I was like, (meekly) “O-kay.” (She laughs.) So, there’s a lesson.
Q: We have a roomful of kids here who are paying attention to you.
Heigl: (joking to the kids) The lesson is: if you refuse to (clean up), someone will do it.
Q: Do your kids recognize your voice in this movie?
Heigl: I think my older daughter does. I told her (I was doing it). I wonder if I hadn’t said anything would she have figured it out. I wished I had done that, actually. But, yeah, I told her. I explained it to her. She’s actually more excited for me. She’s like, “Look, mommy, you’re in the movie. Aren’t you excited?” She’s a good little girl and I’m very proud of her.
Q: Does voiceover work allow you more time to be a parent and is that why you took this role? Is it important for you to be able to take your kids to school and pick them up?
Heigl: If you’re lucky enough to be able to do that, yeah. It’s not always possible, though. I recently went and did a film in Cleveland (called “Jenny’s Wedding”). It was just a three-week shoot, but I couldn’t bring my family. It’s the first time I haven’t been with them. Usually, they come with me for the whole shoot. We make a home and set up camp where we are, and I feel good because I have my family with me. So it was hard on me this time, actually. I didn’t love (not having my family with me) but I didn’t really have a choice, because I really wanted to be part of that project. If I wanted to do it, I had to make that decision. So sometimes, you’ve got to sit down and explain to the kids that mommy has to go to work. It’s not always ideal.
Q: Are they understanding about it?
Q: Since they video recorded you while you were doing your voice sessions, do you see any of your facial expressions in your squirrel character?
Heigl: No, but Andy’s really pretty. I really like her lady eyes. The animators gave her very feminine eyes but they’re not mine. I like them very much.
Q: What’s your favorite character in the film?
Heigl: Mine, of course! (She laughs.) I think Surly’s my favorite character. He was a lot of fun and he’s fun to watch. I like watching him learn his lessons.
Q: How does this small independent movie compare to the big studio animated movies?
Heigl: I think it’s definitely competitive. I think they did a beautiful job with the animation. It’s really current. I love it. I worked with the (producer Mike Karz) before (on the ensemble romantic comedy “New Year’s Eve”) and so when he approached me about doing this, I told him I’d always wanted to voice an animated character so I went ahead and did it. (She laughs.)
Q: Did you know from an early age you wanted to be an actress?
Heigl: I started when I was nine. I started as a child actor. My mother often says that she never would have (allowed me to do it) had I been the youngest, if she had other young children that she had to cart around New York for my auditions and go-sees (modeling auditions) and stuff. It’s really hard. I always was very grateful that she did because I gravitated toward it. It just sort of happened accidentally. I didn’t really pursue it. When I did my first movie, I was 11, and I just thought to myself, “This is for me. I love this. ” And I never went back to modeling again. (She laughs.)
Q: Would you encourage your children to go into acting?
Heigl: I wouldn’t. Honestly, I wouldn’t. It’s so hard and it requires so much of a time commitment. I’d have to give up my own career to do that. It’s a fulltime job. My mother had to protect me always and protect my interests. She had to make sure other people’s agendas didn’t compromise me or hurt me in any way. It’s a business. So there are always people pushing longer hours or more work but you’re a kid. That’s a lot to ask a small person. And I had to keep up with my studies. My parents wouldn’t have let me (pursue acting) if I didn’t stay on top of my schoolwork. But the good news about (being a child actress) is that I had an on-set tutor. We did three hours of school a day instead of seven. You have to get all your schoolwork done so you have to really focus and get it done, and I think that made me perform better academically. Plus, the fact that I usually had the one-on-one attention (from the tutor) so I didn’t get distracted.
Q: You recently shot “North of Hell” in New Orleans. What was that experience like?
Heigl: It was awesome. I love New Orleans.