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Finding Dory: Ed O’Neill didn’t know he was a lead

The most delightful story about an octopus and Ed O’Neill you’ll read today

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Todd Williamson/Getty Images (inset); Pixar

Hank the octopus may be one of Pixar’s coolest — and, as most of the animators who worked on him might tell you, one of the most difficult — characters in recent studio history, but the voice actor behind the captivating creature took a little more time to get familiar with Hank’s many merits.

Much like director Andrew Stanton was inspired to write Dory from the voice of Ellen DeGeneres, it was the voice of Modern Family star Ed O’Neill that immediately came to mind for Hank, a curmudgeonly old septopus who would help Dory navigate a treacherous aquarium in Pixar’s Finding Nemo sequel, Finding Dory (in theaters June 17).

“We never thought of anyone else,” says Stanton. “I think we’re a product of the TV we were watching at the time, and he’s kind of the Archie Bunker of the day, you know?” Producer Lindsey Collins adds, “You believe, within about 30 seconds, that as gruff as he comes off, he’s hiding something soft and gooey in the middle.”

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But O’Neill wasn’t immediately aware that his voiceover role as the “delightful” Hank was more whale- than guppy-sized. The TV icon recounted a story to EW about his journey from never seeing Finding Nemo to discovering he’d been cast as the sequel’s most important new addition — and truly, the story is so charming that it’d be a cephalophodic crime not to let O’Neill tell it:

“The phone call I received was from my manager, and he told me that Pixar was doing the sequel to Finding Nemo, which I had never seen. And I was probably one of the only people who had never seen that movie. My kids and my wife all saw it and loved it, but I had never seen it, only because…I was slow to get on board with animation. I just said, ‘They’re cartoons, you know?’ But of course, they’re much, much more, and I realize that now. But at the time, I said, ‘Well, what do they want me to do in this movie?’

I had done a small part in Wreck-It Ralph — I played Mr. Litwak, the manager of the games store. Small role, you know? So I was assuming it was the same kind of thing. They said, ‘It’s an octopus named Hank, and you’re going to get paid by the session.’ Which sounded to me like a cameo. So I went to my first session, and it was scheduled for four hours, and you work alone, and it was very, very grueling. I mean, because of the nature of the part, there’s a lot of urgency and “Watch out!” and “Look out!” and all that. It took a lot of energy. I think I got out after three hours, but I felt like I just played a football game.

So then I said, ‘Well, I guess I have to come back,’ because I realized that the story hadn’t really wrapped up in any way. I thought it was just a little character thing, and he drops in, drops out, and that’s it. I didn’t see a script. It was basically scene-to-scene. And long story short, it just kept going. And that’s when I started thinking, ‘You know, I don’t think this is a cameo.’

Nobody ever said to me this is one of the lead roles! Never said it! And I just thought, well, I’ll keep working until they tell me not to come back. So I stopped asking because, actually, it doesn’t do you any good. You’re going to do whatever they have in front of you until there’s nothing in front of you, you know?

And then finally, I started to get an idea of what I thought it was. All my stuff was with Dory. I hadn’t seen any of it. When you work, they show you a very rough piece of animation. I went to [the Disney convention] D23 [in 2015], and that’s the first time I saw it. And then we did something where the whole cast assembled to do photos — and I didn’t even know Ty Burrell, who is my cast mate on Modern Family, was in it — and they showed me a preview, and it looked fantastic. And I thought, How the hell did they come up with these graphics — is that what you call them? — for this octopus? It’s stunning. It’s astounding. Go Google ‘mimic octopus.’

And then I was informed that they film the actors as they’re working in the recording booth, because they use your facial expressions often in the animation. If they did tell me, it went right over my head! If they did, I don’t recall it! And I found myself in there with Diane Keaton, and Albert Brooks, and Ellen… it’s been quite an experience.

So it was a slow gradual realization that this was larger than I thought. I knew, well, it’s more than Mr. Litwak, I know that. Where it’s going to fit into the whole puzzle, I didn’t know. And then towards my last couple of sessions, I thought, ‘Well, this sort of wraps up the movie…and I’m still here…so, well, I guess I’m one of the guys.'”

To read more on Finding Dory, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday, or buy it here — and subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos.

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