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For a decade, Justin Long has acted in commercials, TV shows, studio features, and independents, many comedies and a few dramas. He’s also done more than his share of voice work for animated fare, like the Alvin And The Chipmunks movies, King Of The Hill, Battle For Terra, and Planet 51. If there’s a common denominator to his disparate roles, it’s his Everyman quality, a trick that probably looks easier to pull off than it actually is. (Then again, he can do off-the-wall, too, as evidenced by his appearances as George Harrison in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and as a gay porn star in Zack And Miri Make A Porno.) Best known as the Mac to John Hodgman’s PC in the “Get A Mac” commercials—where he naturally takes the straight-man role—Long has also starred in such varied work as Galaxy Quest, TV’s Ed, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Waiting… and its sequel, and Live Free Or Die Hard.
Just one year after his turn in Drag Me To Hell, Long’s curiously punctuated new film After.Life casts him again as the hapless boyfriend of a young woman in supernatural trouble. Christina Ricci plays that woman, who may or may not be dead after a car accident lands her in the care of Liam Neeson’s creepy funeral-home director. Unwilling to let her go, Long fights to find out the real truth. Long recently spoke to The A.V. Club about his desire to test himself in a rare dramatic role, the trick to doing voiceover work, and the uncertain future of the Mac ads.
The A.V. Club: After.Life is being marketed as a horror film, but it really resists any easy categorization. How would you describe it?
Justin Long: I guess it’s labeled a horror movie, but it’s more of a gothic thriller. Does that exist? It does now. It’s more of a morbid drama than a horror. How to describe it? [Sarcastically.] I don’t know. It’s about a girl and something happens. It’s more of a drama, I think.
AVC: The role is not too far from Drag Me To Hell.
JL: I always want to play the boyfriends of doomed girls from now on. [Laughs.] It’s a very conscious choice. I did it about a year after [Drag Me To Hell], but in this one, I was a lot more of an active participant in the movie. Drag Me To Hell was a chance to work with Alison Lohman and Sam Raimi, who I was a big fan of. But it was really more of a passive part, a back-seat part. All of the action, all of the real horror, was happening when I wasn’t there. So this was a chance to be an active participant and do some really high-stakes dramatic acting, which Drag Me To Hell really didn’t require of me. There were a few parts, here and there [in Drag Me], but for the most part, it was to be the guy on her shoulder. Acting-wise, it wasn’t as demanding.
AVC: In After.Life, you do some things actors tend to dread. There’s a love scene. You have to cry on cue.
JL: Yeah for sure, which is why I wanted to do it. I had never really been asked to do anything like that. I’d never gotten the chance, I should say. It was about trying to stretch as an actor, and to do something outside my comfort zone. I do a lot of comedy, but these scenes didn’t come out of left field. I was able to connect as much as I could with this character, but—thank God—I could only relate to him to a certain point, because he’s going through some pretty traumatic, tragic stuff. It was exciting to go there as an actor. I think, if anything, it was too exciting. There were times when I feel like I should have restrained myself more, or chosen moments [to emote] a bit more carefully. But the desire to play a role like this had been building up inside me for a while, so once I was given the chance, I kept swinging for the fences.
It’s not always the best policy, though. I learned a lot from watching Liam Neeson, and the amount of restraint he showed. It was really inspiring. He taught me how to choose my moments. If anything—I saw a cut of the movie, and I wish there were different moments they had chosen. You have to kind of wait for those emotional moments, and I found myself going to that dark place a lot. I don’t know how to articulate it, really, other than to say I put myself in a very dark place and tried to draw on as much memory crap as I could. I hate talking about this, because it sounds inherently pretentious. But if anything, there were moments that I should have stayed away from a little bit and not hit so hard.
AVC: Do you think there were better takes out there?
JL: Maybe that’s it. I don’t know. It’s definitely surreal to watch yourself in a movie. I don’t mean in the sense that I was being dishonest, because it really was a tough shoot for me. I was feeling [the emotions] pretty genuinely. I was so excited to do a part like this that I went there with perhaps too much abandon. The script reads with a lot of exclamation points. It reads, “He’s banging on a door and crying, and he’s beside himself,” or whatever. And of course you try to glean as much as you can from whatever’s written. But I remember I was doing a take, and Liam said, very calmly, to basically do the antithesis of what the script was calling for, to bring it all the way down. I hadn’t even thought to do that, and it felt so good in such a different way. It wasn’t big or showy, and I think that’s why he’s a great movie actor and I’m a stooge. [Laughs.] He just has that innate confidence to know that if he’s feeling something, the audience will be there. He doesn’t have to nail it home. He just has to exist in that state. I don’t mean to belittle my performance or anything, but I felt like it was a real, wonderful learning experience for me, one that I really look forward to attempting again. Ideally, you just keep getting better the more you try something.
AVC: So the opportunity just to attempt something different was a big motivation for doing this movie?
JL; Yeah, for sure. There were other things coming up at the time, comedies and stuff, but I felt like I needed to make a concentrated effort. And I still feel like I’m trying to do that, to find things people don’t want me to do. It’s funny, because that means you really have to go after them. You really have got to make your phone calls, and audition, and do your work. I never want to feel complacent, and I had started to, a little bit. I had started to feel like “I have this thing I can do, it’s worked a few times,” but not only does that get boring, but you feel stagnant and unproductive. So I was feeling a lack of creativity and motivation, so I started making a more conscious choice to grow personally. It wasn’t even an image-conscious thing, like, “I don’t want people to think this way about me.” It was really just a way to keep myself energized and feel excited about this thing I love doing. Like I went to couples therapy or something.
AVC: How distracting was Josh Charles’ moustache?
JL: [Laughs.] The funny thing is, I worked with that moustache on the next movie I did [the upcoming The Conspirator], only I was wearing it. James McAvoy was very distracted by it. I had heard a lot about Mr. Moustache, and he was actually a delight. His reputation kind of precedes him, in that he had done so much. He had been on Alfred Molina’s face, Raul Julia’s face, and he was known for making an actor come alive. So when Josh wore him, it was a really good match. It was intimidating, but much like working with Liam, I got to know a lot from Juan Antonio. It’s not just about the face. It’s what’s behind it.
AVC: You’ve done a good deal of voice work. What’s the difference between a voice artist and simply a celebrity doing voices?
JL: I love doing voiceover work. I started doing voiceover work when I had just dropped out of school, and the first few professional jobs I got were plays, but then I started making money doing voiceovers. This was in the late ’90s, so a big voice I could do was that slacker guy. You know, “Do the Dew, man! Mountain Dew!” That really exaggerated stoner/skateboard guy… I did a bunch with that. “Hey, what’s up, bro!” After that, I did voiceovers here and there, and then Mike Judge asked me to do some characters on King Of The Hill. I loved the opportunity to just transform my voice. I loved the idea of doing impressions and mimicking and playing around with the spectrum of your own voice. That’s what I enjoy most about doing voiceovers. You can be completely unconscious with the rest of your body and just concentrate on doing something with your voice, creating an entire character with your voice. When you hear a famous voice, sometimes that takes me out of the movie. One of the things I loved about Up was, I wasn’t that familiar with Ed Asner as an actor, so I was able to lose myself a bit more in the performance.
AVC: Recently, you did some voiceover work in the Alvin And The Chipmunks movies.
JL: They asked me to do Simon, because I naturally have a lower voice and Matthew Gray Gubler, who plays Simon, [In low voice.] kind of talks like this. Then I asked if I could do Alvin, because I wanted to try that character, so it required that I pitch my voice up a little bit. Beyond that, I don’t change my voice that much. I just raise it. And Ross Bagdasarian Jr., who did the original voice of Alvin in the cartoon I used to watch, he’s in the room during all the recording sessions. He gives, obviously, great notes, but there were so many times when I’d turn to him and say, “Ross, honest to God, why aren’t you doing this?” People aren’t going to see Alvin And The Chipmunks because I’m in it. It can’t be because of my name.
AVC: We’re told you do an excellent Ted Levine impression.
JL: [As Ted Levine.] Well, Ted Levine has kind of a harelip in his voice. It’s pretty pronounced. I just watched a movie with him the other night called The Last Outlaw, that Mickey Rourke stars in. I had never even heard of the movie, but it’s Ted Levine, Steve Buscemi, Dermot Mulroney. [Normal voice.] It was right after he had done Silence Of The Lambs, and he had that voice. I had always thought in Silence Of The Lambs, he was trying to be creepy. That it was part of his character. But he sounds like that. It really hurt him afterward, because his voice was so identified with that. He was so good in that movie; he was almost too good, in a sense. He had trouble getting work after that, supposedly.
Now I’ve seen enough of his work that I can get past Buffalo Bill, but the next thing I saw him in after Silence Of The Lambs was this movie called Georgia, where he plays sort of an innocuous part, sort of a stay-at-home dad. It was probably something he wasn’t asked to do. It was a way for him to challenge himself, where he wasn’t playing a serial, woman-suit-wearing killer. But he plays this guy who’s just a husband. He has these lines that are so creepy if you don’t have any distance from him from Silence Of The Lambs. [As Ted Levine.] “I put the kids to bed. I didn’t let Timmy have dessert, because he didn’t wash his hands before dinner.” [Normal.] It’s really creepy. It’s really awful. [As Ted Levine.] “Little Jessica, she did all her homework. So I read her a story and put her to bed.” Hodgman likes that one.
Justin Long's Ted Levine impression
AVC: what’s the status on those Apple commercials?
JL: You know, I think they might be done. In fact, I heard from John, I think they’re going to move on. I can’t say definitively, which is sad, because not only am I going to miss doing them, but also working with John. I’ve become very close with him, and he’s one of my dearest, greatest friends. It was so much fun to go do that job, because there’s not a lot to it for me. A lot of it is just keeping myself entertained between takes, and there’s no one I’d rather do it with than John.