When Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays signed on to do the live-action/animated hybrid adaptation of "The Smurfs," the stars of "How I Met Your Mother" and "Glee," respectively, said they were thrilled because it offered them two distinctly different opportunities.
For Harris, it meant the frequent voice actor would get to experience a different side of an animated project. But with Mays, it gave her the chance to tell her tales of growing up in a household full of Smurf collectibles, thanks to her mother Paulette's deep affinity for Belgian artist Pierre "Peyo" Culliford's little, blue creations.
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Don't get Mays wrong: the actress loved the Smurfs, too -- but she just couldn't admit to it because loving the same thing as your mom when you're a kid just isn't the cool thing to do.
"My therapist set up the audition for the movie," Mays said with a laugh in a recent interview. "She thought this would be a good healing thing for me. She said, 'It's OK to love something that's good, Jayma -- it's OK!'"
Opening in theaters Friday, "The Smurfs" stars Harris and Mays as Patrick and Grace Winslow, a young, married couple with their first child on the way. And as if their lives weren't hectic enough with Patrick's demanding job and pre-baby jitters, things become more complicated when six little blue creatures known as the Smurfs arrive in their lives via a portal from their village into New York City.
"The Smurfs" marks a first for Harris, who previously voiced Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the "Spider-Man" animated series, and did guest voice roles on such shows as "The Justice League" and "The Penguins of Madagascar."
"When I was first approached for 'The Smurfs' I figured it was going to be for a voice of one of the characters, so when I found out that I was going to be one of the human counterparts I was understandably excited by the prospect, if for no other reason than to play in the technological world of that 3D and CG provides," Harris said in a separate interview. "I've never got to dabble in anything quite like this. I did a little bit in 'Starship Troopers,' but mostly they'd have these battles and I'd come marching in at the end, say a couple lines, and march out."
But Harris' marching orders for "The Smurfs" were decidedly more disciplined. Instead of playing against a green screen, the actor was tasked with interacting with characters he couldn't see. And the acting sometimes involved much more than just exchanging dialogue.
"At times it was my job to be very slapstick and physical, so it was a weird, but exciting combination that I tried to attain," Harris said. "I had to not only hit specific marks with my hands, feet, head and sightlines, but also swing wildly at things that didn't exist with an umbrella."
While the finished product gives the appearance that Harris and Mays are easily interacting with the likes of Papa Smurf (voiced by Jonathan Winters), Grouchy (George Lopez) or Smurfette (Katy Perry), getting to that point takes some serious time and patience.
"There are a lot more steps to the process than I realized," Mays explained. "You rehearse once with a model of a Smurf then they take that away; then you rehearse with a piece of wire with a dot on the end to get your sightline for a frame of reference and they take that away, then they put a sticker on the wall -- it can be very technical, especially when you have to actually touch or hold the Smurfs, or brush their hair like I did with Smurfette."
Mays didn't quite pull her hair out figuring out the technicalities, but admits it was a challenge.
"When you're trying to work the creative side of your brain and the technical part of your brain at the same time, it can make you feel like you're going crazy," Mays added with a laugh.
Fortunately for Harris and Mays, "The Smurfs" was directed by Raja Gosnell, the filmmaker behind such animated- live action hybrid hits as "Scooby Doo" and "Beverly Hill Chihuahua." On top of that, the actors got a producer with a passion in Jordan Kerner -- a long time fan of all things Smurf, from the books and animated series to the figurines.
"Jordan has such of a deep passion for 'The Smurfs' as an entity. He's like Grandpapa Smurf -- he knows the family of Peyo well and has an encyclopedic memory of everything about them," Harris said. "He really cares about the Smurf brand and staying true to the original books by Peyo. He's a great guy to lead us all. He certainly proved his trust early on."
While "The Smurfs" is certain to amuse younger audiences, Harris is glad that the filmmakers took steps to ensure that the film wasn't going to be just a silly "kids" movie where the live action characters came off as buffoons. He wanted characters with heart, and he's thrilled that Patrick and Grace are realistic characters -- and not caricatures -- that the adults in the audience will be able to identify with.
Neil Patrick Harris in "The Smurfs."
Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays in "The Smurfs."
"I wanted to make sure that since we were the protagonists in human form, that we were relatable and our dialogue made sense," Harris said. "We didn't want stereotypical characters, like a pregnant wife who is angry because the husband is absent."
"We wanted to make sure in our scenes together, that they still showed affection and had a sort of banter between each other that established their sense of humor," Harris added. "The filmmakers were keen on the idea of Patrick and Grace still finding each other amusing."
Even better, Mays added, the Smurf characters have just as much heart as the humans.
"That's what's always been pretty clever about 'The Smurfs' -- both on TV and in the movie," Mays said.
"I don't think growing up I realized that I was getting a message, or that there was a moral behind every episode. But there is clearly a message of unity, togetherness and family that he brought out in the books and the series -- plus I think that's wonderful that there's more to these little guys than being just fun and cute."
And, for the movie version of "The Smurfs," the little blue guys -- and a gal -- in their own little way help prepare Patrick and Grace to become parents.
"That's what was so great about the script. We weren't just two people there, with the Smurfs in our world just screwing up everything," Mays said. "There was actually a story and reason for us to be there. I love the fact that we were pregnant with our first child when the Smurfs came into our world, and while they were causing mayhem and madness, they were also making us aware of what our world was going to be like with a family."
Speaking of family, Mays said that her mom, naturally, will accompany her to the world premiere of "The Smurfs" this week. Unfortunately, while the tiny, screen versions won't be there, Mays expects some people dressed up as the creatures will be in attendance.
The problem is, if Mays' mom wants one of those Smurfs to add to her collection, the actress knows she'll have some explaining to do to some poor actor in a costume.
"I'll have to say, 'I'm sorry my mom tried to put you in her purse,'" Mays deadpanned.