Atticus Shaffer at the premiere
On Tuesday, January 8, Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie” comes out on 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray combo pack, Digital, and On Demand, and Movie Met got the chance to chat one-on-one with the young actor who plays Edgar “E” Gore in the animated Disney film.
“Frankenweenie” is the full-length feature expanded from Burton’s earlier short subject. It’s a riff on “Frankenstein,” with young Victor harnessing the power of science after his dog dies in an effort to reanimate him. And he does—with just a few minor adjustments. He tries to hide his home-sewn creation, but when Sparky gets out, Victor’s fellow students, teachers, and the entire town learn that getting a “new leash on life” can be monstrous.”
In the film, Edgar “E” Gore is a needy misfit who doesn’t have friends but is desperate to be Victor’s partner for the science fair. In his attempts to be accepted, “E” tends to mess things up and often fails to think before he speaks. Even though “E” promises not to tell Victor’s secret, he accidentally spills the beans.
Edgar is played by Atticus Shaffer, a 14 year old who lives in California with his mother, father, and a small menagerie of pets (all rescues). Atticus currently plays the role of Brick on ABC’s half-hour comedy, “The Middle.” He began his professional acting career in late 2006 with a guest-starring role in the comedy series “The Class.” Other television appearances followed, including “Human Giant,” “Days of Our Lives,” “Out of Jimmy’s Head,” “Carpoolers,” “My Name is Earl” and the Disney Channel’s “Shake it Up.”
On film, Atticus is perhaps best known for the bus stop scene he shared with Will Smith in “Hancock.” Other feature films include “The Unborn,” “An American Carol,” “Leaving Barstow” and “Opposite Day.”
Atticus has given a voice to numerous characters in the world of animation, both on film and TV. He appeared in “Year One” and “Subject: I Love You.” On television, he is a regular voice on The Disney Channel’s animated series “Fish Hooks” and previously voiced a recurring part on “The Penguins of Madagascar,” as well as a guest role on the animated series “Thundercats.”
Atticus is an unusual name. In fact, the only Atticus I know of is from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
That’s who I was named for.
The book by Harper Lee, or the film?
When I was 14, I still looked young enough so I could get into movies for an under-12 admission. Is that the case for you?
Yes, and though most of the time I really don’t try, sometimes if a movie costs a lot of money, well . . . . But yes, I look young, and I’m very small too, for my age.
Looking young has its advantages for an actor, though, doesn’t it?
It does, definitely. That’s a fact. On my show, “The Middle,” I’m able to look younger and play a character four years younger.
How did you get into acting?
Well, we’ve never been the type of family that’s like, We will sculpt our children into actors and/or successful people. We’ve never been that way. It’s just the fact that I would always read out aloud with my mom—I was an above-age reader—and I loved to do the different voices with her. We would do the old man, young man, that type of thing, and just have fun with it. And she thought, just as a fleeting thought, how cool would it be if he was like a little cartoon voice, or like a little book-on-tape reader or something.
I became the poster child for my hospital [Atticus has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, an inherited genetic condition], and I would have to go to banquets and make speeches and tell my story, and what not. Then from there she again thought, You know, he has such good voice. This might go somewhere, but I don’t know how we could possibly do anything. And my dad, he was at his work one day, and a friend of his came up and said, “Hey, this is my son in a magazine,” and they talked about how to get into the business. We started meeting with people, just to see if maybe I could do voiceovers and be a cartoon character. And this one manager we met with said, “Hey, you should think about trying theatrical too.” By accident, I was sent on a theatrical audition, and I booked it. Everything else kind of snowballed from there.
What was that first one you went to?
It was for a CBS show called “The Class,” and I was a little guest star character on there.
So “Frankenweenie” is like the dream coming true, as opposed to the Disney Channel stuff and the dramatic films?
Absolutely. Absolutely, without a doubt.
I know I’d love to be a cartoon voice, but what attracts you to it? What’s the pay-off?
I mean, there are multiple reasons. One of them being like voiceover is simpler yet more challenging than actual theatrical, because in theatrical you have this long list of stuff to do to film a scene, whereas with voiceover it’s just focusing on your voice and actually creating a character. With theatrical you change your name and your look and then you become the character, but you’re actually creating something in animation. So I like those aspects about it.
What makes it harder, though?
Just the fact that you do have to hone your voice to the character. You do need consistency, because of this character’s voice and you’re putting all the years of life that this character has gone through. You have to be consistent, otherwise it obviously breaks the character.
Was it easy to keep consistent with Edgar, or were there a few slips that you made—and if so, when?
I think it did stay consistent, because it was actually a year-long audition process. So that was pretty much a year of me rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing the character, so that it did become second nature for me.
How do you rehearse a character? Do you stand in front of a mirror, do you look at a picture, do you draw a picture and then try to project yourself? How do you do that?
Actually, none of those. For me, it really is just as simple as I know what the character should be like, and because, during the audition process, they said “If possible, do a Peter Lorre impression,” I love doing impressions and I love doing accents, so I thought of this as a challenge, and I was like, Challenge accepted. So my mom rented “The Maltese Falcon” and “Arsenic and Old Lace” and we already had “Casablanca,” and we watched the films. We studied Peter Lorre as a character, she helped me rehearse my lines, and with myself and the help of my mom it became the character.
Edgar Gore is an interesting character. Not only is he a misfit who, like any marginalized student, just wants attention or to be accepted, but he also comes closest to being the villain in the story. He blackmails Victor to be included in the experiments, then he brags about their successes and it leads to more students getting involved . . . something that leads to their downfall. Science in the wrong hands, and all that. What do you think you brought to the role that wasn’t on paper, and where did you get the inspiration?
Well, Tim Burton is such a good director. He knows exactly what he wants, and therefore he is able to direct you. Obviously, he leaves you enough room, because directors are the ones who set up a playground for the actors and then the actors go into it and have fun with it. But Tim Burton, because he knows exactly what he wants . . . . I have worked with directors that say to me, “Oh, you know, I’m really not sure how this is supposed to play out. Maybe try this way. Then you try it, and No, we don’t like it, try this way. Okay. No, we don’t like it. But he knows exactly what he wants, and he’s able to direct you, and therefore I know, okay, this is what he wants, now I’ll interpret it in my fashion.
To get into character, did you watch any of the old Frankenstein variations?
No, I really didn’t do that. It was mostly watching the Peter Lorre films, because I already know who Igor is, or know how to play him off. But having the Peter Lorre layer on top of it, that’s what makes it so unique.
Where you able to connect with the emotional center of the film, as a pet owner—especially someone with a soft spot for strays and rescue animals.
Yes. Actually, just before we finished the film, my dog, who we had for six years, passed away, so it became closer to home and it became more passionate for me.
I’m sure that no two days are exactly alike, but can you talk about a representative day while you were working on “Frankenweenie”?
Well, working on “Frankenweenie,” it took three years to make the film, and I probably went in for about five recording sessions. What they did is they broke it up into acts. So I would come in and I would record Act 1. Then we would come back, re-do certain things from Act 1, and then record Act 2, and then go in and et cetera et cetera until finally it was just like getting little sound bytes like laughter and such and such.
Did you see Tim Burton’s original short feature?
I did. During the audition process, they turned on the original little short, and I was probably one of the few kids that was able to sit there start-to-finish to watch it before going in to audition. So I think that was really lucky for me, specifically, because I always get there early and I was probably fifth kid behind.
So what’s your take on the finished product, the full-length feature versus the short film?
I think it’s amazing, because nowadays we have the technology to make it so wonderful, and how stop-motion has evolved in itself, and the fact that it is the first black-and-white 3D animation. Hopefully that will inspire a new generation of filmmakers to appreciate the old black-and-white films and kind of maybe give a rebirth to that era of acting history.
Which is more fun, being on a Disney Channel sitcom or doing the voice in a Tim Burton/Disney animated film?
Doing the voice in an animated film, because—and I’m saying this even for my show, “The Middle”—it does get repetitive sometimes and it is a lot of work. It’s a lot of continuous work, whereas a film, you don’t have to think, What’s the next episode, how am I gonna play that out? And blah-blah-blah-blah. No, you have one fixed storyline with plenty of time to act it out. So therefore you can put your all into that storyline and that character, compared to having all these little episodes and you need to make it a clipped storyline.
So if you could pick your dream cast and director for an animated film in the future that you’d be a part of, who would it include, or what would it be about?
Well, I mean, really anything. I do love working with Tim Burton. He is so great. I would love to do another of his films, if I’m lucky enough to be called back. But in reality, Liam Neeson, I’ve always thought, has a wonderful voice, and Tom Hanks as well. So if I could work with one of them, whether it be in real life or in animation, I think that that would be amazing.
Now do you end up working with other voice actors in the booth, or is it mostly solo?
Not always. It is mostly solo, but this one in particular, because it was a new impression and I do best with accents and impressions if I hear it right away. So what they did is they brought in Tom Kenny [“SpongeBob SquarePants”] to do a Peter Lorre impression, and then I would do an impression of his impression.
Interesting. Now, am I to understand then, that for the rest of your career, if you had to pick a track—leading man, character actor, or voice actor—you’d go voice?
Being an actor, I would like to do a lot more voiceover work, but in reality my hope is to go to college when I’m older and become a director-slash-writer.