Tom Noonan talks about playing 'everyone else' in Anomalisa
Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa is a stop-motion animation love story in which Michael Stone, a malcontent motivational speaker (voice by David Thewlis), spends a night in a hotel room with a sweet, insecure woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). There is nudity and a sex scene between the two of them, but that might not have been the most challenging aspect of making the film.
The film’s trickiest conceit — though it works magically once your ears get used to it — is the casting of Tom Noonan as every other person in the movie. (Michael suffers from Fregoli delusion, which causes him to see and hear every other person as the same.) Regardless of age or gender, Noonan voices everyone in the actor’s own vocal range. He is literally the voice of the status quo, somewhat monotone while at the same time completely unaware of it.
In one poignant scene, Noonan voices an ex-lover of Michael’s, who is attempting to sound cheery while engaged in pointless small-talk about her life. By the time, later in the film, when he play’s Michael’s wife and their child, you won’t even pause to consider the oddity of his voice coming from a little boy.
“All Tom, all the time,” Noonan says with a smile in an exclusive clip (above) from the Blu-ray, which arrives in stores on May 3. The film debuts even sooner on Digital HD — March 15 — and becomes available On Demand on March 29.
Noonan, who was unforgettable as the villain in 1986’s creepy, brilliant Manhunter (a precursor to The Silence of the Lambs), has also popped up over the last three decades in films like Last Action Hero and The Pledge and on the TV shows Damages and Louie. In an exclusive interview with EW, the actor talked about his work on Anomalisa, his upcoming collaboration with comedian Louis C.K., as well as his relationship to a Republican presidential candidate.
Entertainment Weekly: You’re popularly known as villains, but Charlie Kaufman sees you as much more of a warm, tender presence in movies.
Tom Noonan: That shows how creative he is, right? [Laughs] I would think that he’d tend not to have seen a lot of the scary stuff I’ve done, because those aren’t the kind of movies he would love. I don’t even know if he’s seen Manhunter. He first took note of me after seeing What Happened Was.
That’s your great 1994 movie, which won the top prize at Sundance that year. It’s also about one night between a slightly awkward couple.
Yeah, I guess it made an impression on him. Charlie had been living in some Calendar house in the middle of the country and wrote me an email way back then. That was in the very beginning of email and we had a correspondence for awhile. And then five years later he wrote Being John Malkovich and on the publicity tour for that he was always asked about who his influences were. And he said me.
And then in Synecdoche, New York (2008), he asked you to be a Doppelganger for Philip Seymour Hoffman. That was obviously an unconventional choice, since you’re 6 feet 5 inches tall.
Yes, it’s true if you look at it that way. But I have a feeling Charlie would say it’s totally normal. Well, he put me into Anomalisa first.
Right, it was originally a play in Los Angeles. What was the initial conversation like with him about that?
I was on vacation with my kids in 2005 and he called me up and said he’d written a play for me. I read it but I never really thought of my part as playing a lot of different people. The play didn’t require that the audience connect me to all of the voices because they could see me onstage.
Was the movie easier, since you didn’t have to perform in front of an audience?
No, it was much harder to do the movie than it was to do the play because I had to limit the range I used. Charlie didn’t want me to affect my voice. He wanted everyone to sound like me.
Were you worried that the scheme of having you voice all the characters wouldn’t work?
Yeah. I was worried the play wouldn’t work, but it worked great from the first time we rehearsed it. It was so funny and it completely clicked. The movie, I had less to do with. I never was involved with deciding how much of my voice would be in it.
But it’s in there so much that there’s even an audio montage in the very beginning.
The reason they put that whole wash of my voice in the very beginning was to have the audience get my voice into their head all at once, instead of in little dribs and drabs. I never asked Charlie about this, but I think they did struggle with how to introduce my voice. And that was the solution they came up with.
How long did it take you to record?
It took two or three days when we did the original recordings in December of 2012. And then I don’t think Jennifer Jason Leigh or David Thewlis had to record again, but I recorded an additional four, five, six times. They came to New York a couple times and I went to L.A. once. They also did a day or two of just me singing. But in total it was about six days more.
And you had to record background noise of all those conversations we hear, like at the hotel bar.
Yes. For those, Charlie would stay in the booth and him and I would do little improvs, like for example, playing two patrons at the bar. And then they would take out Charlie’s voice and play back my voice and I would have the conversation again with myself. They did that in the hotel lobby and on the plane. You can’t even hear much of what I said. It’s all in the background
You’re the voices of William Powell and Carole Lombard in 1936 movie My Man Godfrey, which is playing on TV at one point.
Yeah, and even the car radio in the cab, that has all sorts of stuff going on, which people are probably only subliminally aware of. There’s a preacher carrying on, yelling and shouting. There were calls coming in for the driver to pick up other passengers. It’s all barely audible but it’s in there.
Is this the beginning of a new career in voicework for you?
I loved doing it but I don’t have much confidence in myself. It’s funny because I remember when Charlie first asked me to do the play of Anomalisa and one day I said to him, “Charlie, why of all the people in the world did you pick me for this? Why did you think that I would be able to voice all these people?” And he just laughed. And then later when we did the movie I realized that the whole reason he hired me was because I’m not really good at doing different people. I’m sort of good at just being this one person.
Exactly. But that’s what makes it work so wonderfully.
Well, but I’m living under this delusion that I’m a great voice person. I don’t have a lot of confidence in my voice. I know that I sound okay but it’s real facile. I can’t do accents. But that’s what he wanted. The singing part during the movie was really great because I was a musician before I was an actor. I wrote a lot of songs but I didn’t really sing very much. And that’s something I’d love to do more of.
Will we get to hear you doing some more of it?
Possibly. I’m working right now on Louis C.K.’s new show. It’s called Horace and Pete. And they had me playing the piano in one of the episodes and they’re threatening to have me sing. So perhaps you’ll hear that soon.
Is it true that your college roommate at Yale was Ben Carson?
Oh. That’s actually true, yeah.
For how many years?
Only for sophomore year. And he was a really pleasant guy. I don’t have any dirt on him. The only odd thing he did, which was much less odd than anything I ever did, was that he would get up at 4 in the morning, have a shower, and put on a suit to start studying. And he would study from 4 in the morning until breakfast.
What did he think of you?
I think he thought I was an oddball, because I was a pre-med student like him but I was also majoring in sculpture. And I was making these huge sculptures in our dorm room.
Was it just the two of you in the room for that year?
No, it was two bedrooms with three students. He and the other guy were friends. My memory was that Ben was a Seventh Day Adventist and I think the other guy was of the same religious persuasion. My memory is that they were religiously bent, but I don’t know. Sometimes I make things up.
Have you reached out to him over the years?
Yes. About five years ago I was watching Charlie Rose and it was just on in the background. And I heard this voice and it sounded familiar. And I looked at the screen and there was this guy talking to Charlie. I thought, “I know this guy. How do I know this guy? Is he a jazz player I used to know? Or did I play basketball with him?” And then Charlie said “Ben” – and I said “Ben!” That’s my old roommate.
That’s before he began running for president, right?
Yes, then he was running Johns Hopkins [Hospital] and had written a book. So I contacted the hospital the next day and I left a message for him. He didn’t respond. And six months or a year later, I wrote him a letter, but I never heard back. Oh, well. I’m very happy that he’s done so well.