When all is said and done, Jay Baruchel will have played Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III — FYI, you can just call him Hiccup — for 12 years. It’s the longest the 36-year-old has played any one character in his career, which makes it all the more difficult for him to bid a sincere farewell to How to Train Your Dragon as the franchise rides off into the sunset.
Rivaling even Mike Myers’ run as Shrek, Baruchel’s lengthy stint as Hiccup — the teenage Norse inventor whose friendship with a wild dragon named Toothless challenges the long-standing tensions between Vikings and beasts — has been one of key constants across all of the many expansions of DreamWorks’ Dragon franchise since 2010. As the trilogy and its television offshoots close with the triumphant bang of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, Baruchel has been there the whole time, leading the way with writer-director Dean DeBlois, costar America Ferrera (as Hiccup’s partner in revolution, Astrid), and the animated marvel that is Hiccup’s best friend and companion, Toothless.
Hidden World has already proven itself to be a mammoth hit worldwide, even before the U.S. release on Feb. 22, and Baruchel has relished the response — even if the finality hasn’t quite sunk in for him yet. And it may never, really, at least not while the echoes of Hiccup and the triumphs of what Baruchel has accomplished surround him (through the 2020 Oscar race, at least, and perhaps well beyond).
It’s a complicated thing, a long goodbye. And Baruchel broke down the feelings that go with it, chatting with EW about a farewell a dozen years in the making.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First and foremost, are you a sentimental, nostalgic guy? In high school, were you a “This is the last Thursday in October we’re ever going to eat lunch” type of person?
JAY BARUCHEL: [Laughs] I wish I wasn’t, but sadly there is a precious streak in me.
What has your headspace been like as you’re being asked to constantly relive the end of such a special, long-term project for you?
It’s weird, man. I don’t think I’ve fully processed it. I’ve not ever played any character as long as I’ve played Hiccup. My first recording session playing Hiccup was over a decade ago. So that’s something, man. And I’m real proud of the work and to be a part of the movies, but I don’t think I’ve quite accepted that it’s over. It’s inherently bittersweet because, like, I think [The Hidden World] is the best movie we’ve done, and I think people are going to f—ing love it, but it’s also like, this is the last time we do this. It’s weird. But the weight of it has not fallen on me yet.
Did you feel a growing sense of finality as your recording sessions neared their end?
No, because to use your analogy, it’s like, you say this is the last time you’ll see some person in school, but then class starts and they’re there, and you still have f—ing work to do, and you still have to go to the cafeteria, and you still gotta go to the washroom, you know? I would say it snuck up on me. When I walked into it, to what would be the last session, I had an inkling that I was near the end, but there was no sense of finality to it when I showed up. And I had to do it twice, because I do the TV shows as well. Particularly because I have such a shorthand with the people that I record with, it’s like, you show up and do the gig, right? And it just happened that at the end of this one, it was like, “Well, I think that’s it!” Like, good lord. How do you process that? I was completely unaware and caught up in the logistics.
How much recording for the TV series did you do after wrapping Hidden World?
They timed out right about the same. I did my last TV session and then had one or two more for the movie.
Well, no disrespect to the TV series, but I’m happy that your last session as Hiccup was for the film.
Same, man. I agree completely. Home again, right?
You’ll have voiced Hiccup from when you were 24 to when you turned 36. That period in and of itself… it’d be one thing to play Hiccup from when you were 5 to 15, but I find those to be really interesting ages to bookend a character and a journey like this. How are those growths linked? What do you think you took from that?
It’s funny, because as much as one feels like an adult in their 20s, one isn’t. In your 20s is when you’re meant to put to rest some of the hang-ups that you had from when you were a kid, and you kind of realize the inherent tragicomic nature of life in that there are few very solid wins, and everything is nuanced, and you understand the gray area a bit more. So I think it’s kind of neat how it times out, that where I was mentally and emotionally as a human being doesn’t not dovetail with where Hiccup was in each of the movies at the time that we made them. Hiccup was 14 in the first flick, and the best way I can describe it is like… I’ve never had a kid before, but I felt like this was as close to having a kid as I’ve ever known. A guy who looks kind of similar to me, moves like me, sounds like me, but isn’t me. And now to be at the end of that? Somewhere along the line, I became him, or he became me, or that distinction stopped being a thing. And so when I watch him, I’m not watching my son grow up. It feels like me. And I’m myself a much, much different person than I was when we started. It’s funny to have a character grow up alongside you, even if he’s 10 years behind you to start with.
Will you be growing Hiccup’s finale beard as well?
[Laughs] I love it! Actually I suspect [he has one] because in 90 percent of the recording sessions, Dean saw me on Skype with a beard. One of the things I love most about voice recording is that I don’t have to wear makeup and put on other people’s clothes and have a bunch of people staring at me, so I just look like me on my nights off, and so maybe this is just a function of my narcissism and vanity, but I like to think I had a beard long enough that eventually they thought, “Oh, maybe Hiccup could have one too.”
Dean said that over the years, you and America took really beautiful ownership of these characters and helped guide them. Not in a way of callously rewriting dialogue, but in caring deeply for the way Hiccup and Astrid might react to or internalize something. Can you elaborate a bit on that from your perspective?
One of the many things that’s really cool about working with Dean is that this is a guy who’s this wellspring of ideas and art — this entire universe effectively blossomed out of his heart and his mind — so to have that specific sense of what the story should be and that specific a vision, and yet to have the patience and tolerance and knowledge to let us add our own language or find our own language about it… Dean is an amazing writer, so it’s not like we sit down, I’ve got a pen in my hand, and I go through and X things and go, “Well, Hiccup wouldn’t say this.” It’s more that the script is the script, and then when it comes time to play around, he has encouraged us from the beginning to put our stamp on it. I think as specific as his vision is, he knows they’re not novels. They’re movies, and a movie is an inherently collaborative form. The best ones have the fingerprints of everyone involved.
I haven’t done it half as much as he has, but in the opportunities that I’ve gotten to direct, I’ve told my actors, “I want you to push back, and I need you to tell me if this character wouldn’t do this.” It’s a really cool thing to have a character that has been solely on paper for half a decade, standing now flesh and blood in front of [you], and I want the actors to defend them. You are the steward of this character. You take ownership, and if you think I’m taking them to a place they shouldn’t go, I want you to tell me that. I know that for me, the process is better because of that. If everyone’s fingerprints are on it, then it’s a real special, handmade thing that isn’t f—ing cookie-cutter and forgettable, and you don’t fall asleep to it on an airplane. I don’t want to put words or ideas in Dean’s mouth or head, but I suspect he sees the benefit of that too. And ultimately, it’s been up to him how much of it he even wants to use — he could have just been humoring me and letting me get my willies out. [Laughs] But it ends up in the flick, and that makes me really proud to own a piece of something as special as that.
If this is truly goodbye to Hiccup, are there any lingering questions you have about the character that have never been answered?
I suspect the closest I’ve come is daydreaming about where he’d go and the adventures he’d get into after we stopped seeing him. Part of me thinks that he ends up in Vinland, in that first failed Viking conquest of North America in the 9th century. I like to think he was there. But I don’t know that I’ve thought about [other questions] because I know I can always chat with Dean. I’ve spent a sh—load of time chatting with him, either in recording or waiting to get on an airplane at the gate, so between my proximity to him and the few times I’ve gotten to meet [author] Cressida [Cowell], I don’t know if there’s a tremendous amount of mystery.
I’m sure the most meaningful conversations for you throughout this whole experience have taken place not in the actual studio, but waiting for airplanes and riding in cars with Dean.
Yeah! That’s how the sausage is made. There’s been a lot of super-fun times doing recording sessions, but for every one of those, there’s an equal amount of promoting and traveling and just banality. I don’t know about you, but it’s not everybody that I can spend a sh—load of time with, but he’s one of them. He’s a real special guy. One of the things I’m most proud of is when How to Train Your Dragon 2 opened at Cannes, he and I, at the end of it, stood at the top of the stairwell, that famous f—ing staircase in front of the movie theater, both wearing tuxes, and I leaned over to him and said, “Not bad for two boys from Quebec, eh?” [Laughs] It was pretty cool, man. That’s the other thing: I count myself as a patriot and I still live in my country, and if I had nothing to do with these movies, I’d still be so proud of them because of where Dean came from and where he was educated and what he has ended up giving to the world. It’s something that makes me proud as a Canadian.
Dean has made it clear that from his perspective, Hidden World is the finale to this trilogy of Hiccup and Toothless. It does seem like at the moment, everything Dragon-related is coming to an end, but I’m wondering what stance you have on whether you would continue with Hiccup if this ends up not being, well, the end.
That’s a very reasonable question. I just don’t know if I have an answer to it. It’s dependent on a bunch of factors, everything from Dean’s participation slash blessing slash what the vision of the thing is, the merit of it. I can foresee a situation where I say no, absolutely unequivocally no. But I can also see a situation where I say, you know what? This could be f—ing cool, if there’s an appetite for it, if people want more adventures. But it’s all completely hypothetical, talking out of my ass. The best thing I could say is that I really, really love the work. I’ve enjoyed the work and as fun as the work has been, the finished product has been 100 times better. So I’m honored to be part of this thing. And yeah, who knows?
It’ll be interesting to see whether the fans and studio want more, or whether they’ll respect the vision and leave it there. As I’m sure you’ve seen, they’re a very passionate group.
[Laughs] It’s been an interesting thing to be a fly on the wall and see a fandom that didn’t exist spark, get created, and then just f—ing holy smokes. They’re f—ing serious! It’s really cool, man. Some people will work their whole lives in movies and TV and not be a part of something that is half as impactful. People complain about fanboy culture a lot, but, Jesus Christ, what else do you want, man? I keep thinking about this VH1 Behind the Music I watched years ago with Metallica, and they talked about how when they were starting out, they were an opening band and all their supporters would come in droves to listen to them, and then when the headliner would come on they’d all turn their backs to the stage. And it’s like… man, that’s all of it. That’s the whole thing. I’m very, very proud and grateful to have the culture of fans that we have.
I find it fascinating that the fandom emerged right from the very beginning, from that very first film. I think the power of the themes and that original climax struck a chord.
It’s a movie whose perspective started in and has never left the margins. It’s an outsider’s perspective. The trilogy is a love letter to square pegs.
It’s also had a lot to say. There are themes exploring disability, coexistence and how we do that, even conservationism and natural interventionism. If an audience member walked away from this trilogy with their mind changed about one thing, what kind of perspective shift would make you proud?
It’s really two things for me: that what the world tells you are your failings can actually be your virtues, and that just because something is a certain way and has been a certain way doesn’t mean that’s the way it’s supposed to be. These are movies where a character that has been told he has no voice or say not only learns to exert agency, but affects sincere change and connects to people and helps them. The world doesn’t need any more eager politicians — we need reluctant politicians who are answering the call, and I think we need people who have been told that they’re not going to run sh—, because they have the correct perspective. I think the big takeaway is that no matter how small or insignificant you think you are, you can do something. We can all change the world.
You could read this entire trilogy as a portrait of a leader.
That’s it. Exactly right. And the best kind of leaders are always reluctant, to a degree.
One last question, and obviously it’s the most important one I have to ask: Are you now triggered by the word “hiccup” in regular life?
[Laughs] Yes! A resounding yes. Anytime anybody even remotely has the hiccups… or let me put it this way: Anytime somebody even says the word “hiccup,” I hear “Jay.” There’s a bona fide Pavlovian response that has been created over 12 years of recording this character. And I will say, it doesn’t happen for what he’s called in other languages, which is also part of the fun of traveling the movie, which is learning what he’s called in Mexico and France…
What is he called?
In Mexico, he’s called Hipo, which is Spanish for “hiccup.” And in France he’s called Harold.
Harold? Are you kidding?
Nope. Harold. And Toothless is called Krokmou, which means “soft bite.”
Damn. Toothless lucked out. That’s not anywhere near as bad as Harold.
Yeah, Harold is kind of… let’s just say, it’s not nearly as definitive as Hiccup.