Hank Azaria usually lends his voice to a couple of guys named Moe and Apu on The Simpsons. But now the 43-year-old actor is getting a bit more serious for Chicago 10 (which opens today in select markets). Using animated reenactments and archival footage, the documentary — written and directed by The Kid Stays in the Picture‘s Brett Morgen — tells the story of how Yippie founder Abbie Hoffman and several other activists went on trial following violent anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Azaria voices both poet Allen Ginsberg and Hoffman, who grabbed headlines during the court case with antics like donning a judge’s robe of his own.
The star sat down with EW.com to talk about why he took on the project, what Chicago 10 says about our political climate today, and whether he’ll ever revisit one of the most famous and beloved characters he has played.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How’d you come on board?
HANK AZARIA: Brett contacted me. I loved his Kid Stays in the Picture movie. I think they had been having a hard time getting the voice for Abbie. He heard or knew that I could mimic stuff pretty well and wanted to know if I would take a shot at it, and I was really intrigued. It’s not like they had to spend billions of dollars or even thousands of dollars to get me to do it, so we could always just give it a try and if it didn’t sound too good, you just trash it, you know.
So you’re not wary of taking on films with a political message?
No. I mean, it depends on what they are. This is a true story and a relevant story for today. I met with [Brett] for an hour, hour and a half, he gave me a crash course on the history of the entire topic. I was fascinated.
How’d you prepare for this voice work?
I had to really be meticulous about this because you were hearing the real Abbie and the real Allen Ginsberg throughout the entire film [in archival footage], so you really want them to be seamless and feel like you were hearing those same voices in the animation segment. Whereas if I were playing Abbie or Allen Ginsberg, I might have accepted 88 percent accuracy of my own interpretation. Abbie was such an emotionally out-there character, it’s very difficult as a giggling or screaming freak to capture someone’s exact vocal quality.
You must have been a toddler in 1968.
I was 4.
Do you have any recollections from that year or family stories of what it was like?
No. I don’t really remember much about the ’60s at all. You know, 1970 is the first year I remember pretty well. I remember my sister playing Beatles records mostly. And I remember all of the Watergate stuff really clearly.
NEXT PAGE: ”Somebody wrote a sequel to [The Birdcage] like 10 years ago that arrived at my doorstep; it featured Agador but…it never got off the ground.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Speaking of the Beatles, were you surprised that Brett used more modern music in the film, like the Beastie Boys.
HANK AZARIA: I think that part of his message is: This is relevant for today, especially with what’s going on right now, and where’s the spirit of protest? It’s what’s going on right now because it can certainly can apply.
There are some obvious things, but what specifics in the film do you think resonate with what’s going on right now?
The Iraq War. No one took to the streets over it. It certainly would have been appropriate. If anybody even hinted we should…you were called un-American and not supporting the troops.
Do you think some of the more comical tactics that Abbie used back then would have worked today?
I don’t know. It was certainly entertaining and he certainly had a genius touch for attracting attention. It would have been amazing to see Abbie Hoffman running around as we entered this war.
I wonder, though, whether it would deflate the conversation or maybe it would be exactly what opponents of the war need to get the administration’s attention.
Maybe now, with some of the spirit of this coming back, a more sobered, measured, intelligent, follow through-able version of this would be great.
Have you been following the presidential race? Are you into it?
I have been. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s an amazing year. It’s an amazing race, if you will, which I also watch. As a Democrat, I’m happy that the debate is going back to how we can fix what’s wrong, as opposed to staying the freaking course.
What else are you working on?
I’m finishing up in The Farnsworth Invention right now, Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant play. I’m about to play Abraham in the Lee Eisenberg movie that Harold Ramis is directing called The Year One, with Jack Black and Michael Cera. Then, I’m going to go play an Egyptian pharaoh come to life in Night at the Museum 2, with Ben Stiller. And Run Fatboy Run [David Schwimmer’s feature directing debut, also starring Hot Fuzz‘s Simon Pegg] is coming out at the end of March.
I also heard something about a possible sequel to The Birdcage?
There’s always talk of that every once in a while, and then it never really happens. But I would be beyond thrilled to do that again. Somebody wrote a sequel to it like 10 years ago that arrived at my doorstep; it featured Agador but it wasn’t very good. It never got off the ground. I just had dinner with Mike Nichols [The Birdcage‘s director]; he didn’t mention anything about it. But it would be fun. They’d really have to figure something clever out, but I’d do it in a heartbeat.