Seth Green, otherwise known as the voice of Chris Griffin in Family Guy, talks about his character, his love for acting and what it means to be part of a rude/crude humour series watched by over 14 million fans.
In Family Guy you play Chris – have you ever met anyone like him?
I’ve never met anybody who summarizes him perfectly, no. He’s so bizarrely indescribable because he’s not any one thing. You can’t pin any one thing on him. In the whole first season we thought that he was just stupid. And then we realized he’s not just stupid, he’s a weirdo. And he’s not just a stupid weirdo; he might have arrested development but he might also be brilliant in some cases. So he’s an artist, and he’s a singer and a peacemaker and a virgin, like all these weird things that don’t seem to go together. It’s really fun.
Do you now have an input into where to take that character?
My input is really vocally. I don’t ever ask them to write me something specific. They’ve given me such gold over the years that I don’t complain. I don’t read the scripts, which is probably unprofessional, but I’m a big fan of the show. The process of our record is organized in such a way that I don’t have to read the entire script. I can just come in and do my lines. I’ll record four or five episodes at a time, and then I get to watch the show on television like a fan, having no concept of the context of my recorded dialogue. Then I’m like, “Oh, that’s what that means.”
So what have been some of your favorite episodes that you’ve enjoyed watching?
There’s a really stupid episode where they decide to be the A-Team and go do a con, and they — the guys that win had a real black guy, and they had Mort Goldman as Mr. T. So sad.
You seem to go further than other animations, like “The Simpsons.” Do you often get surprised that you can be a bit ruder?
I think it’s just what the audience will bare and things come over time that builds on something that existed. If it wasn’t for shows like “The Simpsons” or shows like “The Flintstones,” for that matter, we wouldn’t be able to do the things that we have. I remember the first time I heard the word “bitch” on television, what a shock that was, and just where we’ve come as a culture, like what we find funny, what we find acceptable, you know. In the UK, you know the comedy over there is so much more advanced in its rudeness and yet innocent in its portrayal. There’s this sense in the UK that everyone has a bit of folly in their youth. You might see a girl on Page 3 and then she’s meant to become respectable at a point in her life. They just won’t tolerate an older woman behaving this way. Like there’s a real cultural mandate for proper behavior. I think that that allows for a more ribald kind of humor on television because
No one takes it so seriously, whereas we’re more puritanical in the States, so the notion of topless women or swearing on television is so offensive because it’s implied that it will literally crumble the structure of our family values. I just find that to be so funny.
So how do you balance everything that you’re doing? You’ve got the acting. You’ve got “Robot Chicken.” You’ve got this. There’s a lot that you’re cramming in there.
It’s true. I work all the time and I don’t really sleep. And I’ve just sort of accepted the fact that I love working. I have a lifestyle that allows me to really get the best enjoyment out of all of it and not complain too often, although I’m exhausted today. I landed at 6:00 in the morning from New Zealand. I keep falling asleep at 9:00 and then waking up at 3:00 or 4:00. And I’ve had to go into my office every day at 8:00 so I’m just kind of delirious still. But that’s all right. I don’t mind living that rock star lifestyle. (Laughter.)
Is it also good to diversify rather than just being an actor waiting for the next gig?
That is the thing. It’s really impossible in today’s climate to just be an actor waiting for the next gig because I’m not that kind of actor. I’ve never really been the guy everyone’s like, “Get me him for this lead in this romantic comedy.” That’s just not what I really do. I put way more emphasis on self-generation and just collaborating with superior talent and trying to find things that are appropriate for me to perform and also finding ways to actualize these crazy ideas that my friends and I have.
What do people mostly recognize you for? Is it Austin Powers or Scooby Doo?
It really depends on where I am and who’s doing the asking. One thing that I have found is that in the last ten years, I’ve gotten recognized every single day of my life. Often, like, in the fifties or hundreds a day. So it’s just made me less attentive to people’s names and faces. (Laughter). And it’s this horrible thing where I meet people, and I’m like, “Hey, nice to meet you,” and they’re like, “Oh, we hung out, like, six months ago for over an hour at that party where we were both doing shots all night.” And I was like, “Well, six months ago, party, shots all night. I mean, can’t we just shake hands again? “What did we talk about?” And he’s like, “Your grandma had just died, and my grandma had just died and it meant a lot to me. You gave me some solace in that moment.” I’m like, “I am so happy (hesitates) — to see you again.” I don’t know. I feel bad. But everyone seems to be understanding. It’s so not personal. My eyes are like a computer. You get to that point with your computer, and its like, “I won’t do any more. You are 99 percent full, and you’re going to have to delete some shit before I’m going to take another word.” You’re like, “All right. What don’t I need? I guess I don’t need that” — “I guess I don’t need that Thompson Twins song. I can get rid of that. All right I don’t need that video.” You know what I’m saying? So you start to dump stuff. My brain is constantly dumping to make more room for RAM.
Has it got sort of ideas buzzing away, things you want to do in the future?
Yeah, it’s tough, especially with trying to make movies. It takes so long. The process of actually generating and producing film is really — unless you can get some momentum, unless you have something that comes out that makes a ton of money and everyone is like, “What do you want to do?” you say, “I want to do this,” and that kind of speed-tracks it. But anything that you just want to invent takes a really long time. So you’ve got to be patient and stick with it.
What are you most proud of?
I’m still here, dude. I started when I was 7 years old. I’ve been acting over 25 years and people are still sitting in a room waiting to hear me say something. That is a phenomenal accomplishment, in my opinion.
Why did you start at 7? Is it something you wanted to do?
I like acting. I really like acting.
It wasn’t your parent’s kind of pushing you?
No, no. It was almost the opposite. Not to say anything against my parents but no one believes that you’re capable of any kind of success when you start. And they’re right. The odds are stacked against you to do anything.
What did you say at 7? “I want to be an actor”?
No. My folks were working at a summer camp, and they had a drama program there with all the teenagers. I was 6 years old just hanging out with the teenagers in the drama program, seeing them try on costumes and seeing them rehearse their lines and sing and perform. I was like, “Maybe that’s what I do.” I’d always been inventive and a mimic, creating characters or impersonating anyone I saw on TV. I was just drawn to that. And I was just really fortunate all my life to have a purpose. I think that so many of my friends suffered as a result of going into college for something that they estimated they’d be interested in, and then they rediscovered themselves along the way. You see a lot of people wake up in their thirties in a career that they can’t imagine how they got to and they don’t feel like there’s any opportunity to do what really makes them happy. And I’ve just chased. I’ve just chased what makes me happy all my life.
So many people who start off that young in this business end up crashing and burning. How did you manage not to?
I was not famous, and I think that makes a huge difference. Anyone who starts their career by becoming famous, especially as a child, has a completely different burden than I do. I had such consistent heartbreak and failure (Laughter.) and it really gave me an even temperament and just an impersonal understanding of the way the business works. I’m not shocked by anyone’s opposition to me as a suggestion, you know. I’m just not that offended by people’s lack of vision. But I didn’t have anything to overcome. I was not that kid from that movie. By the time I was 19 years old, I was a somewhat accomplished character actor who had a variety of performances under my belt. So when people thought of me, they weren’t able to kind of put a pin on me.
What kind of idols did you have?
I guess I’m not comfortable with the term “idol,” but there were people that were heavily influential to me. I just got to work with Robin Williams. He was a guy that I always grew up looking at because I felt like we had similar opportunities. He was a heavily comedic actor who made a huge splash as a dramatic actor and has enjoyed that versatility. Even though his style of comedy is broader than mine, I’ve always felt like we had similar paths. I look at a guy like that and say, “Okay, this is how you do it over 30-plus years.”
It seems like you can do what you want. You’re sort of your own boss a bit. Is there anything that you still have a big yearning to do?
I don’t have character aspirations. Like I always quote “Get Shorty” and say I’m not anxious to be the crippled gay guy that climbs Mount Baldy. You know what I’m saying? It’s not like I’ve always wanted to be a killer or I’ve always wanted to be this. I read stuff all the time, and if it excites me, then I chase it. That’s the best way that I can pick stuff.
How does the “Family Guy” process start? Do they just hand you a script and you go into the voice booth?
Yeah. I don’t like to prep on it, unless it’s something that I have to know. Like sometimes MacFarlane comes to me with “They want it to sound just like this” or “We’ve got a song that you’ve got to sing.” You know what I mean? There’s something very specific that we’re imitating, and I’ll study it. But for the most part, I like to get my pages right when I walk in the booth.
Almost like doing it off the cuff?
I really do. And it’s also because I don’t need to think about it a lot. It’s almost scientific. This kind of show is compiled somewhat scientifically. As much as humor is just a sense, there’s a science to it, and there are things that you’ll laugh at and things that you won’t. So when they have a line, often written by a writer in a particular voice, you’ve got to execute it just like that. So I’ll go, “What does it sound like?” And he’s like, “Da-da-da-DA da-DA da-da.” Then I do that line, and that’s funny. But I’ll do five episodes at a time and have no idea what I’ve done.
What were you like when you were Chris’s age?
When I was 15 years old, I skateboarded quite a bit and I was always in trouble. I knew my principal’s office in detail. I was not a kid that fitted in. I was confident in a way that was disproportionate to my success, and very optimistic, but always getting in trouble. I couldn’t resist it.
And Chris has the evil monkey in the closet. Did you have an irrational fear of anything? Did you have a bogeyman or anything?
No. I’ve been really lucky to not be afraid of a lot. I think it’s because I saw “Nightmare on Elm Street” so early, and you get that whole idea — it’s an ancient Japanese theory that if you turn your back on that which you’re afraid of, it has no power. And I’m like, “Huh, right on.” So I just don’t spend a lot of time operating from fear.