The Emoji Movie star Jake T. Austin discusses the world of emojis, the film’s message, and his character, Alex. In the wake of the success of Warner Bros’ The LEGO Movie in 2014, it seemed studios were eager to mine other beloved childhood toys for film ideas. Paramount and Hasbro have since moved forward with a shared universe comprised of popular properties like G.I. Joe and Micronauts. Plus, Sony is working on a live-action Barbie movie and is set to release The Emoji Movie – based on a more modern “toy” – this summer.
For its part, The Emoji Movie follows a boy named Alex, and the emojis who live inside his phone, residing in a place called Textopolis. Within the world of emojis, Gene (T.J. Miller) doesn’t feel as though he fits in since he wants to express more than one emotion. In order to become more like his parents – Mel Meh (Steven Wright) and Mary Meh (Jennifer Coolidge) – and figure out his place in Textopolis, Gene goes on an adventure with his new friend Hi-5 (James Corden) and the hacker Jailbreak (Anna Faris). The film also features the voices of Patrick Stewart as a poop emoji and Maya Rudolph as Smiler.
Following a presentation of footage from The Emoji Movie, Screen Rant had a chance to interview co-star Jake T. Austin about his role in the film, how director Tony Leondis constructed a film narrative from the concept of emojis, and which emoji is his favorite.
So what was your initial reaction to hearing they were making an emoji movie?
My initial reaction to hearing about the film – I was a little bit skeptical just because I didn’t know how the story would evolve off of an app. Y’know a lot of movies that are inspired by other movies or books, those are easier to figure out. But this one was difficult to pinpoint, y’know, What direction are they going to take it in? Obviously I knew it was going to be very funny and a comedy, but the imagination and creativity from Sony and from all the people involved and the comedy aspect from James Corden and T.J. Miller really brought so much out in this film that I didn’t even expect to see. I’m pleasantly surprised. When you do a movie you don’t get to work with anybody else like this, I didn’t get to record with anyone else, so it was an isolated experience and now that it’s getting towards the completed product, I’m anxious to see – oh my gosh, it looks pretty cool.
So have you seen any footage from it?
I haven’t seen any director’s cut or anything, or even like a final cut, I’ve just seen the official two minute trailer.
And what did you think?
I was blown away, because I’ve done animated films before that take three or four years and the process is very tedious and time consuming. We started this movie in October of 2016 and it’s already done. It was the quickest animated film that I’ve ever worked on. And it was kind of incredible to watch the technology that is available now to make that process four times as fast.
What exactly drew you to the movie?
The script. I mean, obviously I was familiar with emojis, but it was a project that I was just intrigued from the beginning – how are they going to do this, and if so, how would I have anything to do with it? How could that work? I think it’s a universally cool movie because it’s not just for kids, it’s an epic adventure film and it’s an animated film, but there’s something in it for everyone.
Tell me a little bit about your character, Alex, how does he fit in with the movie?
Alex is a teenager going through the struggles and the turmoil of going through high school and throughout the film Gene, who’s a multi-expressional emoji, starts giving him kind of like leeway. The emojis act as his wingman, to try to get him the girl, to get a girl interested in him that – she has no idea he exists. So obviously there’s a little romance, a little love, but the film is about an adventure that the emojis go on to try to make T.J. Miller[’s character] a normal emoji and in the process, my character Alex is about to delete the world of Textopolis that all these emojis live in, and, subsequently, you’ll have to find out, but things don’t go as planned.
So does Gene’s journey affect Alex’s relationship with technology?
Absolutely. Gene’s struggling with his own internal thing, trying to not be normal – it’s OK to not be normal – but at the same time, Alex is learning how to express himself in a world where technology kind of consumes kids. Y’know, everyone has their head in their phone now, so I think the emojis awaken Alex to paying more attention to the real world and human interaction as well as learning to not feel so much pressure in life. Like, Gene is feeling pressured that he has to be a certain way, Alex is feeling the pressure. So I think it’s a movie that the message is be yourself, and relax, everything else will fall into place.
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So do you relate more to, Alex or Gene?
I relate more to Alex, I think, because Gene comes from a place of more experience. I definitely relate to Alex and I can say that in high school I was quiet, I was subdued, I wasn’t ostentatious or outgoing per se – I really wasn’t outgoing, so I can relate to Alex completely.
So you said that you didn’t get to interact with any other stars in the recording booths, who would you have liked to have interacted with?
Oh all of them, I think T.J. is very talented. I think anyone who can do stand up comedy is talented in their own respect, and of course James Corden, and Anna Faris, Sir Patrick Stewart, Christina Aguilera – there’s just so many people and different stars that I love myself that I would be starstruck by, let alone now I get to say I’m in a movie with them. So cool.
Do you think any of them fit their emojis perfectly?
I think James Corden is a perfect casting choice for Hi-5 and I think the studio and Sony and the actors did a good job of getting into their characters – as much you can for something that’s animated. But everyone really found their inner emoji or found their inner voice through these characters, which is really cool. You can kind of see who’s who before you even hear the voices.
Throughout the movie we see Gene make friends with Hi-5 and Jailbreak, do we see any of Alex’s other relationships besides the romantic one?
Alex has a best friend in the movie, his name is Travis. His best friend is a more confident, easygoing guy who’s definitely more comfortable around the ladies. So Alex reaches out to his friends for help and he also reaches out to a girl that he really likes, who doesn’t know he exists. So that’s like a subplot, that’s one of the storylines in the film. But the main storyline is learning how to express yourself and be comfortable as yourself, and knowing who you are.
We get to dive into Alex’s phone, but do we get to see any other phones?
Oh yeah, there’s a lot of – uh, I don’t know if I can bring up who, but y’know. When you look at your smartphone and instantly you’re saying to yourself, ‘What’s going on behind all this? Is there someone behind a desk controlling…’ It puts you in a place that makes you wonder, is there a world inside my smartphone? I mean, it seems like there could be, and this movie brings it to life.
We saw some of the expansive worlds of the other apps, what did you think of the apps? We got to see Candy Crush–
That was so cool! I mean, just like that makes it kinda surreal, watching that and not seeing any of the animation, but then seeing it all when it’s done is like an overwhelming experience. I was like, ‘Wow, this is going to be something special.’ And then, the Candy Crush, I play the game all the time so it’s just like funny, like, wow, I can’t believe they thought of that. It’s awesome.
Is there any app you would like to see them go into that they don’t within this film?
I said one of the cool apps would be, this is going to sound like a boring answer, but iTunes. I feel like it could have been cool had you seen some of the live-action, like maybe they’re stuck in the iTunes app and they have to get out. But I don’t know if there’s any specific app that I would be too drawn [to]. It’s more of a just everything, and how everything comes together. How Candy Crush has something to do with Alex’s text messages and the relationship that he has with this love interest. I think there’s so many things at play and it’s really great how they all come together.
Throughout the movie we see Gene and Jailbreak form this romantic attachment, does that have any parallel to Alex and his romantic interest?
Definitely. I think Gene and Jailbreak go off and hit it off. I think Alex takes a lot of direction and courage from Gene, he has to learn how to be his own man and the whole movie he’s kind of guided along by these guardian angels, these emojis who are helping him the whole time. And I think he has to learn that Gene’s not always going to be there for you, you can’t always rely on sending an emoji to express who you are. And that’s really the theme, is like you’re here on your own, you got to be your own person.
So do you think people are a little too reliant on technology for communicating?
Of course. I mean, I think we need it now, and I think obviously there’s nothing you – you can’t go a day without using wi-fi or purchasing something in a store. Technology is needed, but I think we should be using it for the greater good and not to our own detriment. So I think, especially young kids, your computer will always be there, your phone will always be there, but get out of the house and express yourself and get outside because that’s a short-lived enjoyment. You’re only young for so long.
How do you think technology has evolved how we communicate? For instance, I’ll use an emoji with one friend – like the tongue out emoji – but I won’t use that with someone else because it won’t convey the same thing based on my relationship to those people.
So there’s certain things where you’re like, ‘OK this person would not agree.’ So you got to know what to say and there’s a time and a place, and I think emojis make that interesting. The choices that we make to use certain emojis or to send people clips on YouTube, I think that’s changed how we interact and I think technology is a huge way that changes our relationships with people in our lives. You’re right, there are certain things that I would know, like, ‘Oh my God I hope my mom doesn’t see that’, or ‘I hope my sister didn’t get that video on Facebook that I got.’ So I mean, I know where it comes into play and I think it’s interesting because life is so short and now technology just makes everything accessible. So it’s a blessing and a curse.
So I’ve seen comparisons between The Emoji Movie and things like Inside Out and LEGO Movie, what do you think sets it apart from other animated features?
Right with built-in franchises… Well I think what sets it apart is the story, and I didn’t see LEGO Movie, I didn’t see the other one, but I know that this has a strong core plot and that’s something that surprised me completely. Like I said, how would they build a story that would make sense around this movie and it really does and it’s cute. It’s funny and it’s enjoyable to watch and it’s not a movie that hurts your brain – this isn’t a philosophical movie, this is a very relaxed carefree movie, but it’s an epic adventure too. So I just think there’s something in it for everyone, it’s a lot of fun.
Characters like the villain Smiler are very creepy, how do you think that’s going to play with kids?
Yeah those moments, and also – well I think there’s a lot of humor in it for adults. It’s not just for kids and it’s not just for adults, but I think there’s something in it for everyone. There’s a right balance and I think there’s an appropriateness that’s kind of needed. There are certain things that if we could show everything on our phone, then I think the movie might be rated R, but it feels contained and it feels really real. It feels like something that I would want my kids to see – one day.
So in real life, what is your favorite emoji? And in the movie, who is your favorite emoji?
I’m going to answer the second part of your question first. My favorite character in the movie is James Corden. I love comedy, I’m a huge comedy fan, but watching his show, his late night show, and then watching him take on this character, it’s like two different people and it’s really funny. And I didn’t know that he was so good, I didn’t know that he could deliver that performance in animation, so it genuinely surprised me.
And my favorite emoji would definitely be the A-OK emoji, but that’s kind of a go-to. I’m an easy going guy, I like to go with the flow. So I’m A-OK.
That’s one of my favorites, too.
And it’s like, if you want to stop a conversation, just go, ‘OK’.
And is there an emoji that you would’ve liked to have seen in the movie?
Maybe like the surfer emoji, [he could be] like, ‘What’s up bro? Gnarly!’ Because there’s an emoji describing everything now, but when you watch the movie there pretty much is a character for every emoji, even if there isn’t a character who speaks, [who] you see… I don’t think there was any emoji that was missing from the film which is cool.
How do you like working in animation versus live-action?
I love animation, I love it in a weird way because while you’re getting less of an experience, you’re getting more of an experience because you’re really tested as an actor. You become an actor to pretend to be someone else and it’s easier to do that when you can react via your facial expressions, when you can react via your body language, when you can react via your dialogue. In this, you can only react with your voice and more how you sound in a given moment. So you have to put everything into every single line just so you can hope to convey or get across as opposed to what you would be able to do if the camera was on you. You wouldn’t have to really say much at all. I think it takes a certain level of patience to do voiceovers. Y’know, you say the same line 30 times sometimes. You’re like, ‘Why am I doing it so much?’ Because it’s so specific. But I like voiceovers in a different way, but I love both.
And how was it like working with the director, Tony Leondis?
Tony is so awesome, because he’s a very good technical director, understanding the animation and what it takes to go into the color composition and, gosh, everything. But also he works with the actors and works with the crew members, the writers to make it funny. You’re laughing there, he’s coming up with new lines. So I think he’s a well-rounded director who does a bit of everything, which is really nice.
Did you get to improv at all?
Well, some lines he would ask me, ‘Would you say this as a kid?’ And I would say, ‘Well, I don’t think Alex would say this’ or ‘I don’t think I would say this, but maybe he would.’ [Leondis] did give me a lot of opportunities to define the character, which was really nice especially in animation where everything’s kind of by the book.
So how did you prepare for the role?
My voice is a little bit higher in the movie. Y’know, I’m 22, and I did the voice of Diego [on Go, Diego! Go!], I could sound like I’m younger. But in this film there was definitely a need to be the character in high school – I’m not in high school anymore – so the way I would normally talk, wasn’t the way that I portrayed the character. But the way I portrayed the character was like myself in high school and I just tried to bring as much of myself into the role as possible.
What do you want audiences to ultimately get from this movie?
I want audiences to respond to it, I mean hopefully like it, and I want people to see it because it’s an adventure and I want people to go on the journey with us and watch your favorite world of emojis come to life and visit this insane world of Textopolis. I think it’s really something that’s not to be missed. There’s something in it for everyone.
And it’s especially relevant right now in the age of social media, and the age where everything’s digital – everything’s on your smartphone. It speaks to how the young generation, and every generation, has to adapt to technology and how sometimes we have to step outside of our comfort zone to be our true selves.
Next: The Emoji Movie Trailer
The Emoji Movie unlocks the never-before-seen secret world inside your smartphone. Hidden within the messaging app is Textopolis, a bustling city where all your favorite emojis live, hoping to be selected by the phone’s user. In this world, each emoji has only one facial expression – except for Gene (T.J. Miller), an exuberant emoji who was born without a filter and is bursting with multiple expressions. Determined to become “normal” like the other emojis, Gene enlists the help of his handy best friend Hi-5 (James Corden) and the notorious code breaker emoji Jailbreak (Anna Faris). Together, they embark on an epic “app-venture” through the apps on the phone, each its own wild and fun world, to find the Code that will fix Gene. But when a greater danger threatens the phone, the fate of all emojis depends on these three unlikely friends who must save their world before it’s deleted forever.
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