role call

Hank Azaria Answers Every Question We Have About Godzilla

A giant, radioactive lizard is nothing compared to the wet nightmare that was five months of Hollywood rain. Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: TriStar Pictures

The 1998 Godzilla movie was more than just America’s first crack at a film in the iconic and long-running Japanese giant-monster franchise. It was also a live-action reunion of The Simpsons’ cast. No fewer than three Simpsons main cast members appear. Harry Shearer plays a slimy TV news anchor, putting his experience as Kent Brockman to use, and Nancy Cartwright plays his mild-mannered secretary, who couldn’t be anything less like Bart. But those are small roles compared to Hank Azaria, voice of Moe, Chief Wiggum, and (at the time) Apu, who takes the fight right to Godzilla as news cameraman Victor “Animal” Palotti.

“I don’t even think I saw Harry or Nancy on the Godzilla set,” Azaria recalls, explaining that Godzilla’s producer, Dean Devlin, deliberately cast a bunch of Simpsons actors for the movie because he was a big fan. “I certainly saw them for The Simpsons, because this was still when we all recorded together. We compared notes with each other, but only I was really in Godzilla for the long haul. Harry and Nancy only did, like, a few days. So they didn’t get the full-blown Godzilla ride that I got.”

That ride was a bit of a rough one. Azaria, who was born in Queens and saw plenty of old Godzilla movies growing up watching the local ABC affiliate’s beloved 4:30 movie slot, couldn’t have expected that filming the movie in nonstop, heavy rain would be harder than facing down any fire-breathing monster. And that, at the end of all that, critics and audiences would absolutely pan the movie. What Azaria hoped might propel him to a blockbuster leading-man role ended up being a kaiju-size failure.

Still, a quarter-century after Godzilla demolished New York (sort of; one of the movie’s problems is that Godzilla doesn’t actually do that much building-smashing compared to the military), it’s clear that Azaria wasn’t radioactive following the flop. In addition to his ongoing Simpsons voice work, he’s an extremely prolific character actor, and he’s even led a few TV shows. (Azaria calls Brockmire his “favorite thing I ever did.”) Just like Animal, Azaria wasn’t crushed by Godzilla, though it did leave a massive footprint.

How did you get into this movie?
I was having that moment that some actors are lucky enough to have where you are on a list. You get cast in stuff. I think that they may have had Cuba Gooding Jr. in mind first, and he almost did it. And then they went to me with it, and I was like, “Sure.” I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. [Laughs.]

Animal is a sort of “Ayyy, I’m from da Big Apple!” sort of character archetype that I feel like we don’t really see as much of nowadays. Where did that character come from?
I’m from Queens; I’m a New York street guy. I thought he should be that, and that it would lend itself to the sort of off-the-cuff heroism the guy had. He really cared about getting the shot, and it just seemed fun to play that. I’d sort of played a version of that in Quiz Show, a very different film. I’ve since done it a couple other times. I grew up worshiping those performances from, you know, De Niro and Pacino and Keitel. Those were the voices that I grew up with and how I spoke growing up in Queens.

This was in the fairly early days of CGI. You spend a lot of the movie looking up at a giant monster (who wasn’t actually there) or running away from smaller baby monsters (who weren’t actually there). What was that like to shoot? Was it weird?
It was, on the one hand, easier than you’d think. When they CGI stuff around you, they’ll just justify whatever it is you do. So if I do a double take to my right, even if the script didn’t call for that, well, if they want to use that shot, I guess they’re gonna have to draw in a monster there to my right. On the other hand, there was a lot more painstaking setting up. Now the technology is such that we could put tremendous special effects on the Zoom we’re in right now, no problem, and with no more prep than just us hooking up and talking. But all the lighting and setup back then were really tedious.

Being a voice-over actor actually lent itself to the CGI, though, because in voice-over acting, you’re just imagining the whole thing the whole time and there’s nothing there. So I was sort of more qualified for that maybe than some others.

For all its faults, I think that the first third or so of Godzilla is pretty fun, especially Godzilla’s first attack on NYC, which is also Animal’s big hero moment when he nearly gets stepped on. What was that like to film — especially in the pouring rain?
Well, I’ll tell you — it was hard. Now, I really don’t like when actors whine about how hard it was to shoot something. Like, boo hoo hoo, cry me a river. What I came to learn is that Hollywood rain is not just rain. It has to be very thick. It’s like buckets of water being dumped on your head, or else the camera won’t see it. So the rain is heavy. We wore wetsuits underneath our wardrobe, and even the scuba suit would be soaked through by lunchtime, so I had to change into a new one.

At the time I was living with Helen Hunt, who became my first wife. I’d come from a lunch meeting with Roland Emmerich, who said to me, “So I’ve decided zat it’s all going to be in za rain, because ze creature is going to be so beautiful in za rain.” That was one of the problems of early CGI. They had less confidence in the special effects and the rain was gonna soften the edges of the creature on-camera. I remember telling that to Helen and she was like, “Oh my God, how long is this shoot?” And I said, “Like five months?” And she said, “And you’re telling me every exterior, every single one, is in the rain? Oh, God, that’s terrible.” I’m like, “Why is it terrible? It’s just Hollywood rain.” She’s like, “Oh, Hank, you’re gonna find out.” [Laughs.] And boy, was she right. This was after she shot Twister, and man, did she get a load of a lot of wind and rain in her face on that.

There is nothing worse than being cold. If you’re soaked, it doesn’t matter what the temperature is, you’re cold. There were takes that were unusable because I just was shaking. We all got sick multiple times. I got some kind of fungal infection from being wet. It was like, really no joke. I had a new respect for Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner.

Were there any fun parts about shooting in the city?
I do love shooting in New York. We were downtown shooting in Brooklyn, and we were at lunch or something, and I’m looking out over the river toward Manhattan just by myself. And a waterspout formed over the river — I mean, a tornado. It’s right in front of me, no one else was looking. It wasn’t even that windy, just this waterspout came out of the heavens and slowly crept toward Manhattan. I’m watching this thing thinking, I’m making a disaster movie. Is this thing about to take down buildings in Manhattan? And then, as soon as it hit land, it just dissipated — which is what waterspouts do. I looked it up afterward.

Animal says, “Now I’m pissed” when he discovers that Godzilla busted up Madison Square Garden. As a native New Yorker, did you share any of that sentiment? Or was it fun to see the Big Apple get busted?
I am a genuine Mets/Jets/Knicks fan, and back then it wasn’t quite so bleak. It was bleak, but not quite so bleak. I might have even ad-libbed that line. I certainly felt protective over the Garden. The premiere of this thing was at Madison Square Garden — not the theater at the Garden, the actual arena with 20,000 people at this premiere. It was a big thing. It was a big whiff. [Laughs.] A really big Hollywood whiff.

Godzilla was a critical failure — and fans widely consider it to be a failure as a Godzilla movie, specifically. What was that response like for you, as one of the stars?
It became the symbol for Hollywood style over substance and promotion over content. Almost right from the get-go. Roland and Dean had just come off Independence Day. So we were hoping for even half that success to do for our careers what that did for the folks in Independence Day. And it just wasn’t the case. If anything, it really was a career impediment. Something to overcome afterward.

Back in the ’90s, did you see a world where Godzilla does better and launches you to a blockbuster leading-man role?
I don’t know that I thought I’d turn into George Clooney or Brad Pitt or whoever the leading man was at the time, but I was hoping it would be a boon in my career. Godzilla was one of three movies I did when, if you’re lucky enough, you get to a phase in Hollywood where, as I said, you’re on lists and you get cast. I was in Mystery Men and Mystery, Alaska right around the same time. Those were the three I had in the can that I thought all could have taken me to that next level or two, and all three of them were disappointments. I didn’t know that I would’ve turned into Robert Downey Jr., but it would’ve been good for my career if at least one of those movies, uh, did better.

That was very disappointing for a while. But then, what you learn after many years, is that even if that had happened — your career’s gonna get a dip at some point. You’re gonna have to reinvent yourself again and again and again and again. You get comfortable with your place in the world. I love being a character actor and a supporting actor. I get to do so many things and not necessarily have to carry the movie or show and have that pressure and I get to play. At heart, I’m a character actor.

How were you able to restrain yourself from doing an outrageous French accent around Jean Reno?
Oh, I would, to him. Oh my God, we spent so much time together. The shoot went on so long, it never seemed to end. We got to a point where we all ran out of anything to say to each other. We all liked each other, but we just got so past the point of exhaustion that we would just literally stare at the ground between takes. We had to save every ounce of energy in our bodies for whatever the take required and then go back to zombie state. We spent the last three weeks shooting the car sequence where we were being chased by Godzilla. Even in that stupid car, we were getting wet. I remember Reno going, “Yeah, ziss thing better be good. Ziss thing better work.” I was like, “It will, man. It can’t miss. It can’t miss.” [Laughs.] William Goldman, right? No one knows anything.

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Hank Azaria Answers Every Question We Have About Godzilla