Danny DeVito, like much of the cast of Disney’s new live-action “Dumbo,” is something of a Tim Burton MVP. DeVito, who plays Max Medici, the ringleader of a charming small circus that is swallowed up by a more menacing circus owner (played by Michael Keaton, another Burton alum), has already memorably starred in three of the director’s works (and two of them involved circuses) – “Batman Returns,” “Big Fish” and “Mars Attacks!” Those turns are pretty unforgettable. And so is his performance in “Dumbo,” as one of the first humans who understands that Dumbo isn’t just a floppy-eared anomaly but a creature capable of making audience’s hearts soar.
We were lucky enough to recently sit down with DeVito and spoke about his history with Disney (he’s one of the only actors who has voiced a character in an animated classic and starred in a live-action remake of another classic), what it was like re-teaming with Burton, and whether or not he watched that old hotel topple while making “Mars Attacks!”
Moviefone: You are one of the few actors who have starred in a live-action adaptation of a Disney animated movie and been a voice in a Disney animated movie, "Hercules."
DeVito: That's right. Philoctetes.
What do you remember from that?
I remember that being a great experience. And also a big thing is that … what's fun is when you're talking to people and some kid will go [makes quizzical face] or say, “I recognize your voice from …” I say, “What?” And they say, “Hercules,” and that's really fun. I've done a couple of voices. I did “My Little Pony” years ago because my daughter was into it and so I played a part in that. And then “The Lorax” was fun too. So I've done that kind of thing a few times. It's really good. Right now I'm doing another Disney movie called “The One and Only Ivan” and I play a dog.
What do you remember when Jack Nicholson, your buddy, was also in “Hercules?” Do you know that he was originally Hades?
Did he ever talk to you about it?
No. He was in it?
He was going to be in it and then he asked for a percentage of the merchandise revenue. But you can see actual artwork of him as Hades with the sunglasses on and everything.
Oh they were going to use his imagery? I guess this is a big thing about Jack. He's iconic and I think that if you're going to put them up there with sunglasses and looking like him and he probably should give him a piece of the action. Lucrative is what they say.
How how did you get involved in this project?
Tim It has been working on this for a while, I imagine. And when he called me a couple of years ago, I was doing “The Price” on Broadway and he said, “What is your schedule? What are you doing?” And I was tied up with “The Price” for a few months and we just hoped for the best because he thought that it was almost overlapped. And I wouldn't leave them the play.
And it worked out great. I don't think I would be really happy with myself right now if I wasn't in “Dumbo.” It was just having the family together again with Tim and with Michael; that was really special for us. We had such a good time on the set. Of course, “Big Fish” was like a similar character, but of course I was a werewolf in that and that was my first nude scene. But Max Medici is really special because he has his family circus. Theater was hard. He wants to do everything he can to make ends meet, to keep the circus afloat during the tough times.
Why does Tim Burton always think about you in relation to circuses?
Well, so far it's been “Batman Returns” and I don't know, I guess we're odd people. He is and I am and we like that. There's a kind of an oddity in what he likes about me and I like about him. We get along in that way. We're odd people out. Tim is always perceived as being like a certain way and he's been dealing with that for many years and he deals with it really well. He's actually just a funny, outgoing, sweet, shy, artist.
What was it like working with Michael Keaton again?
Keaton and I, we go back to “Johnny Dangerously.” He's always been just one of those guys, a really good guy. And when you'd see him around do whatever, whether it was at some function or wherever we bumped into each other, we always have really a good feeling about each other. And it was nice. Of course being The Penguin in Batman was great. Very happy that I got to do that. And, and now here we are again, a Medici and Vandevere – we’ll take it on the road!
You haven't talked a lot about your “Mars Attacks!” experience.
It was a great experience. Vegas baby! What was unique about that one was working with Tim, he said I was going to get killed by Martian and I thought, Well, I'm going to definitely do this movie. But we worked at night in Vegas because we had to have the casinos. We were shooting at night. I was only there for four nights and it was really a lot of fun. Very glitzy, very circus-like in a way. It's not the exact same. It wasn't Circus Circus. I don't know where we shot. God, if we, if we shot at Circus Circus. That's a good question because that would make it… Right now we have a circus trilogy going on. Right? What do you call that if we had four?
I don’t know, a quadrilogy?
Yeah. You're the guy with the pad and the beard. You're the one who's supposed to know these answers.
Did you watch them blow up the old hotel?
What do you find that to be the most satisfying aspect of re-teaming with Burton?
I love watching them work. You went to the set, so you know. I would stay on the set even when I'm not needed, just to watch him work. Because I love watching him put it all together. I am forward about that with him. I like hanging out at the monitor and watching him paint.
Have you seen a finished movie?
Oh yeah. I knew it was going to be a beautiful. The people could do this stuff are artists themselves. So MPC is … I'm actually working with them on “The One and Only Ivan.” They're really a pack of artists in their own right. Everybody from the animators to everybody and if you have guidance from Tim who is a visual artist. That was amazing to see. I saw the elephant in different stages, like, because they had models of it. They were keeping it secret. They wouldn't show anybody. But I was getting in the back there and had to take a look. So I knew it was going to be outrageously wonderful and you beyond my wildest dreams. But it really looks good. I’m very pleased with the way it came out.
“Dumbo” flies into theaters nationwide tomorrow night.