Skylar Astin is such a troll — no, seriously.
The Pitch Perfect star is taking on an animated role as Branch, the curmudgeonly troll with a secret sensitive side, in Netflix and DreamWorks’ new animated series Trolls: The Beat Goes On!
He steps into a role originated by Justin Timberlake in the 2016 Trolls movie, bringing his own sense of humor and impressive set of pipes to a show that features new original music in each episode. In addition to recording voice-over for Branch, Astin also laid down numerous vocal tracks that will feature on an album of original music from the new series.
The first season of The Beat Goes On hits Netflix on Jan. 19, and the corresponding album drops the same day on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and more. EW called up Astin to chat about what it’s like stepping into Timberlake’s shoes, what type of songs we can expect from this season, and what he would want to look like if he were a troll in his day-to-day life.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You previously did voice-over work on Wreck-It Ralph; how did you get involved with this project?
SKYLAR ASTIN: One of the casting people over at DreamWorks used to work as an associate at Disney, so it’s actually the same person who has known of my ability to do this in this space. She’s known this for over five years, when I did scratch recordings for Wreck-It Ralph, so she was always waiting for that project where I could be the lead of something and really spread my wings. It was just fortuitous that it was this one and I get to sing on it. I get to do this totally amazing character that already exists, bring a little more irreverence to it, and it’s just a blast to work on it every week.
What is different for you doing voice-over acting, as opposed to live-action performance?
You really get to hone an entire performance in this one. You get to find all the manifestations and all the nuances in the voice and what it means to fall down a hill, what it means to do an emotional scene, what reads tonally to the engineers and to the producer and the director, and that’s always a fun challenge.
Were you a trolls fan already? Either of the toys growing up or the 2016 film?
When I was young, I had the original trolls from the ’80s, with the stone in the belly and everything, and they had purple hair and blue hair and pink hair. So I was very familiar, and then what they did when they brought the movie to life — how they made this whole troll universe and a troll village. [The trolls] celebrate the things that are their challenges — I thought it was adorable and a beautiful message. Our show never hits people over the head with a message, but I would think that there’s definitely something to take away from every episode. Not just is there an original song per episode, but there’s also a real beautiful message disguised with irreverent humor.
You’re taking over a character previously voiced by Justin Timberlake. Was that intimidating?
When I went in for the first audition, I had just seen the film because it was in advance of it premiering, so the people sent me the film, or at least sent me an audio clip of what he sounds like. So there I was trying to match some sort of performance, and Matt Beans, the creator/showrunner, turned to me right away and said, “You do not need to do any one version of this. This is going to be totally different. If it’s the right fit, it’s the right fit, but do not try to recreate anyone.” And in that moment, before I even had the role, I never thought of Justin Timberlake. He will continue to carry the legacy of Branch in the films, and we take him to a Saturday morning cartoon kind of place on the original series for Netflix. I can’t imagine how cool those meetings are between the TV people and the movie people, but that’s way beyond what I do. I just come in and bring all of myself to Branch.
You’re voicing a character who is a little bit of a grump and antisocial, which feels very unlike you. How do you tap into that?
Just like myself, beyond any sort of bark that I could have, Branch is 100% a softie and so sensitive and definitely insecure, which is why he puts up that really tough exterior. I love playing those characters because there’s so much nuance in layering that, so we always approach from a place of truth, but a little bit of a sense of humor with it as well, and we just crack up. We’ve done some behind-the-scenes featurettes and stuff like that, and people get a peek at how silly of a time we’re having while making this awesome thing.
Does that include improvising?
Yeah, we hit a groove where I know what’s in the [script] and I don’t even ask. I kind of just do it because I gauge the situation and then I’ll ask, “Is that okay?” And I can see them laughing because I can never hear them, and they patch in and they say, “Yes, we were just saying keep going with that whatever that is.” And I know where to do it — if it’s a tight rhythmic thing I would never dream of improv’ing, but if it’s action that hasn’t been animated yet, it’s something that I can add that only the person within the psychology of the character could add. I think they are delighted to at least have the option of using it, and they say that a lot of that stuff goes in.
What’s it like singing for an animated show? You would record in a studio for live-action anyway, but is it different in any way? How does it compare to live performance?
I’ve done live theater where I’ve had to sing live, and I enjoy performing live, but I’ve grown accustomed to singing in the studio and I understand what that entails. The producers of Pitch Perfect who I record with for ADR are the people that I record with for Trolls, so I know them very well and we already have kind of a shorthand, so it’s old- hat to go in there and lay down some of the tracks. We work pretty fast and furious. It’s always fun; we’re always happy with the outcome. I’ve actually heard an advanced copy of the album and it’s rare that I want to play it for my loved ones, but I immediately sent it to my family, just to be like, “How awesome are these songs?”
There’s a song called “Forgive Me” in an episode called “Creek Week,” and as you can see in the video [above], it is my forceful apology to Creek, written and composed by Creek himself. So it’s an apology song to himself that he wrote himself, and for the album we recorded an extended version that has a second verse, a second chorus, and even a crazy tag where my falsetto just keeps going and going. It was really fun to record and it’s slightly out of my range, the stuff that you’ll hear on the album, but I was just going for it and I think it’s one of the better songs that I’ve ever had the pleasure of recording.
For this series, was there a particular genre of music or type of song that you haven’t really had the opportunity to perform in film/TV yet that you were excited to take on?
I would say rap, but I actually rapped one time at the MTV Movie awards. But I’ve got to do different kinds of rapping on Trolls, which was really funny. But something that I did recently was sing a total country banjo song, and the only person that knows that I have a country kind of thing I can do is my wife [Anna Camp], because I sing Blake Shelton around the house a lot, kind of in a comical way. We always make jokes that we could moonlight as a sort of country duo, but that would be a total lifestyle change and we’d move to Nashville or something. But it was fun to dabble on the day recently, and you will get a 50-second song cut eventually of Skylar Astin as Branch singing a banjo country song.
Have you always wanted to make a family show or children’s programming?
I’ve always wanted to do a cartoon. I grew up watching cartoons, and it’s always been a thrill for me to do that. I always think about all my buddies’ kids — there’s such a demand for more Trolls. Some of my buddies are like, “Thank you so much. We’ve worn out the DVD. I’m so excited I get to see you, but I’m also excited that I get to see different, more stories with these characters.” … Moving forward, there’s going to be so much more Trolls, and certain things will carry over. The movie will do what the movie’s going to do, and they’ll do their own specials with those different actors, and there’s going to be a lot of Trolls. And it’s great because the trolls are great.
If you were a troll, would you want to look like Branch or would you opt for a different hair color, more sparkles, etc.?
I like the gray/blue — the grays and blues are my favorite colors, so I do like that in Branch. I would dress him up a little differently because you need to brighten him up, maybe with some white. I do like his hair. Maybe I would style it, like I would slick it back. Like there’s one moment where he gets wet in one of the episodes and it’s all to the side like a side ponytail, and I wonder if I would rock that.