With 25 years of animation work and well over 500 characters under his belt, you’d think South Park co-creator Trey Parker would have fielded hundreds of voiceover offers throughout the years. Or at least, dozens. Or even… one?
“This was, believe it or not, the very first pitch I ever got,” Parker tells EW of his role as manic ‘80s villain Balthazar Bratt in Despicable Me 3 (out June 30). “My instinct is usually ‘F— no, I do my own s—,’ but when I got it, I was actually really flattered. I was like, ‘Wow, someone actually asked me to do something.’ And also I was kind of like, ‘Well, why the f— has no one ever asked me to do this before?’”
Parker already knows the answer—or at least, he has a fairly good guess. For years, he assumed that his association with the lewd and long-running Comedy Central cartoon that he co-created with Matt Stone in 1997 rendered him a woefully incompatible selling point for children’s animation. “For a while I thought, you take a kids’ movie and you throw Trey Parker up there and maybe some adults go ‘nuh-uh,’” he says, laughing. “But also, I do every voice I could possibly do on South Park, so it’s not like you can say, ‘Hey, come do some new character for us.’ Until this offer came in, I hadn’t really thought about it that it’s the first time anybody’s ever asked me to do something like this.”
For the 47-year-old, stepping into Despicable Me 3 also marked the first time he would be directed in the recording booth by someone other than himself. Save for 1998’s BASEketball, Parker has always had a hand in writing and/or directing every major project on his resume, and on South Park, he wears hats of writer, director, producer, and performer. Here, he had one job—to act.
“It was definitely tables turned,” he explains. “The funny thing was, with every actor I bring into the booth on South Park, I know for sure they’re not going to do it big enough. You stick a mic in their face and you put headphones on, and you automatically get smaller—especially real actors who are used to being so small because the camera’s zoomed right on their face picking up every little nuance. So as a director on South Park, I’m always telling people to do it bigger. And the opposite happened here. When I walked in that first day, they gave me the big speech I always give to people: ‘Now listen, don’t get discouraged, but we’re probably going to want you to bring the energy level up.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is exactly what I tell people.’ So I do the first couple of Bratt’s lines and they go, ‘Oh! Okay…so…let’s bring it down a little bit?”
The booth means something different to Parker, whose time recording lines on South Park is often a first pass on the material; he’ll take note of reactions from his colleagues, rewrite lines in his head, direct Stone and the other voice actors, and perform his own role, with 100 things in motion at once. (“To me, the booth is just the beginning,” he says. “It was really weird [on Despicable Me] to say the lines and then be done. I’d be like, ‘I’m done? You mean like, go get a sandwich done? Really?”) On the grander timeline, a major animated feature like Despicable will usually take anywhere between two to five years to complete—a stark opposition from the weekly process of South Park, wherein an episode famously goes from conception to air in six days. “I started to get the idea of the corporate machine—you’ve got these celebrities that you’ve got to schedule time with, and pay them every time, so you’ve got to [cover your bases],” Parker recalls. “I would do a line and they’d go, ‘Okay, but he’s angry here, so can you do it angry?’ So I would. And then they’d say, ‘Now, can you try it like he’s sort of happy?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, is he happy or is he angry?’ And I slowly started to realize that they’re trying to get every version of this because they just don’t know yet. For me, it’s a matter of running back and forth in the booth. For them, they’ve got to get every single thing they can, and realizing that was really helpful to me. At first, I thought I was just really f—ing up a lot.”
Parker has claimed he can only do about 80 variations of his voice, so inevitably, the character of Balthazar Bratt (an insane former ‘80s child star who lost his fans after puberty and subsequently vowed to destroy them) would logically share some sonic quality with at least one resident of South Park. The lucky character: Randy Marsh. “Bratt looks a bit like Stan’s dad, although the difference to me is that Randy is a big f—up but has a big heart, and Bratt doesn’t. But Randy’s voice is just kind of my voice anyway, so I worked on it enough so that it didn’t sound exactly like Randy and was his own thing,” says Parker. “The other thing I thought of when I saw the character was Kirk Cameron—a guy who obviously was the s— in the ‘80s and then went crazy and turned to religion. I wanted Bratt’s voice to be somewhat generic, because Illumination is so much about the visual of things that if you add too zany of a voice, it starts to become overly cartoony.”
Ironically, it was Despicable Me, not South Park, that clued his daughter, Betty, into the brilliance of what her dad does for a living. Parker says, “I had brought her into South Park to do a line as Kyle’s little brother—I think she was 2 and a half at that point — and I had put her in front of the mic and said, ‘Say this,’ and she did, but I know that it was definitely stuck in her head, like, ‘What was that?’ But then there was a day on Despicable Me when I brought my wife and daughter into the booth, and she sat there for an hour on the couch, and they showed her a little bit of animation, and she was just watching me with these headphones on doing these big lines, totally laughing. So the next week, I brought her in to do more on South Park, and she just lit up. She put the headphones on and goes, “Okay, how should I do it now?’ She just suddenly got it.”
What Betty doesn’t know just yet is that Parker took the role in Despicable because of the opportunity he saw—not in voicing a part in someone else’s film, but in finally making something that his daughter could actually see. “That’s been the nice thing—I did it for her, and the thing that made it all worth it was when we saw Sing, and as we’re sitting there in the theater, the preview came up for Despicable Me. And the trailer ended, and it was that thing where everything was super loud and then the theater got really quiet because the trailer’s over, and she just yells out in the silence, ‘That’s my daddy!’ Man, it was the best feeling ever.”