There might not have been a fun-loving, bucktoothed snowman character in Han Christian Andersen’s original 1845 fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” but if there was, the 19th century equivalent of actor Josh Gad probably would’ve been the inspiration. In the new Walt Disney film “Frozen,” which was loosely adapted from Andersen’s classic tale, Gad, 32, plays Olaf, an enthusiastic snowman who dreams to one day experience the summer season not understanding that snow doesn’t do so well in the beaming sunlight. During an interview with Gad, whose future projects include a lead role in a Sam Kinison biopic, we talked about why an adaptation of the Andersen fairy tale works as a modern story and why he’s happy to steal some thunder from a character like Frosty for at least this holiday season.
You were born in Florida, so I’m guessing you didn’t see too much snow growing up.
No, I’m the exact opposite of Olaf. I’m what you would consider a summer man. The idea of winter eluded me in sunny south Florida. It was something I longed for though. I really wanted to be a snowman growing up.
So, when is the last time you experienced snow?
Well, I ended up moving to Pittsburgh to go to school for four years and I immediately regretted my decision. I still prefer cold weather to warm weather. I’m a bigger guy so, you know, I have a lot of insulation.
What was it about the character Olaf that you liked when you first read about him? I just love the fact that he doesn’t understand what will happen to him if he goes into the sun?
Yeah, I think that speaks to the bigger picture of what I liked about him so much – the youthful innocence; this wide-eyed, doe-eyed optimism. I felt that was perfect for comedy and had some amazing heart. I really wanted to capture the essence of a child, who happens to be a snowman. He represents the innocence of both these girls (Anna and Elsa, the two main princess characters at the center of the film) during this pivotal moment in their lives. They have their whole lives ahead of them and haven’t yet had to face adversity. They create this plaything (Olaf), but as they grow up and grow apart, the one remnant of their childhood that stays the same is Olaf. For me, I really wanted to make sure that he had that naiveté that would guide him. I was immediately connected to that.
What did you think when you first saw what he was going to look like?
Well, that bucktooth was kind of the driving force of everything! (Laughs) That big, goofy grin was so unique and so exceptionally cute. We all have an idea what a snowman looks like. Frosty has kind of monopolized the market for many years. So, I’m glad to kick him over to the curb and bring in a new snowman. There was something about him that was adorable and lovable. I really think that was captured in the animation. When I saw the first renderings, I immediately knew who the character was.
Since you’ve voiced other animated characters before, how did you want Olaf’s voice to be different? Is it important for you for each of your characters to have a distinct sound?
Oh, absolutely. With Olaf, it was pretty clear what I wanted to do with his voice. We did a recording session where I came in and [directors] Jennifer [Lee] and Chris [Buck] and I sat down and did a test to see where the character lives. That first test recording session, which was never meant to be anything more than a test to match the voice to the animation, wound up literally being Olaf’s introduction into the movie. We knew we had it on Day One. The minute they told me, “He’s a child, but he’s a snowman,” I knew exactly what he was all about. He kind of reminded me of my character in [the Broadway musical] “Book of Mormon” (Elder Cunningham) who kind of has that naiveté. But where Elder gets himself into trouble for the wrong reasons, Olaf wants to do everything for the right reasons, but doesn’t realize the consequences.
Hans Christen Anderson’s classic fairy tale, “The Snow Queen,” is a pretty dark story. Other than adding a comical snowman like you to the mix, how well do you think Disney did toning down some of those darker elements but keeping the narrative intact?
Well, I think what’s so remarkable about this film is that it takes this aged-old fairy tale paradigm and throws it on its head a little bit. There are so many incredible twists and turns, even in some of the thematic choices. It still feels like a classic fairy tale, but with a very modern approach and without the wink-wink, nudge-nudge pop cultural references. It’s such a fine line that the creative team rides, but somehow it works miraculously. I was involved way back during the very first reading when the film was called “Anna and the Snow Queen” and it wasn’t about the two sisters. It had a completely different approach. It was a cute movie. It was very sweet. It was definitely a tried-and-true form of a fairy tale movie. When Jenn and Chris collaborated, all of a sudden it became this whole different thing.
I know you have a five year old daughter. How do you handle the whole Disney princess culture with her? I don’t know what it is about the topic, but I have a problem with some of the old-fashioned messaging stories like “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” bring with them, especially when the idea that finding true happiness can only come with finding true love. How do you handle that with your family?
Yeah, you know, my daughter loves Ariel (“The Little Mermaid”), but she also loves “Finding Nemo.” She’s not necessarily drawn to the princess characters. I would go so far as to say that “Frozen” is not a princess movie. There are princesses in the movie, but that’s not really the guiding force. I think that’s why the two girls, Elsa and Anna, are so relatable. It’s not about the fact that they are ascending to the throne, it’s about how they just happen to be royalty but are more importantly sisters. They desperately need each other at the most difficult moment of their lives. I left the theater last night after the premiere hearing people talk about that. I think that’s what’s so amazing about this movie. That’s what people are really relating to – the idea of what it means to be a sibling and what that love means.
This Sam Kinison biopic that has been in talks for so long looks like it’s finally going to get done with you in the lead role. What has the experience been like waiting for news and finally getting some this past summer?
Well, I had been talking to the creative team for a while before it was announced. I wanted to make sure that I really knew Sam inside and out and that I really could tackle this role fully before I ever committed to it. When I sat down with [director] Larry Charles (“Borat”) and [producer] Dave Permut and writer Richard Wilkes and we all laid out the approach we were going to take, it just immediately became clear how much love there was going to be put into this project. I don’t think there should be a Sam Kinison project unless it’s going to go all the way. I feel like this particular film is going to go all the way. It’s such beautiful storytelling. The idea of Sam as this force of nature is the most relatable element, but it’s also the idea of Sam being the son of a preacher and dealing with some of the hypocrisies of religious fervor at the time. I think that’s what is going to make this film extremely unique. It’s definitely an exciting movie. I am literally terrified and thrilled to be playing the role.
Have you read a script yet?
Yeah, the script is terrific. We’re very excited to be collaborating with Larry Charles. We’re going to start shooting next year. I’m also working on an FX project called “The Comedians” with Billy Crystal.
Larry, of course, has a keen eye for comedy. Do you think he can take on the more dramatic parts of Sam’s life? Also, coming from a comedy background yourself, have you come to a place in your career where you’re comfortable with that genre now?
Yeah, the second that Larry sat down and pitched out his version of this movie, I knew that this was the man to tell this story. He is so remarkable and has such a keen understanding of who Sam was as an artist and the comedy and tragedy that accompanies his story. I think he will deliver a very unique version of his story. In terms of me playing this role, it’s been a really exciting time in my career. I’ve really wanted to try my hand at different things, whether it was a film about sex addiction I did with Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins (“Thanks for Sharing”) or whether it was “Jobs” where I got to play a living, breathing person in the form of [Apple Computer co-founder] Steve Wozniak. I also just came off doing the Zach Braff movie “Wish I Was Here,” so I’ve definitely been trying my hand at drama. I feel like I’m finally at a place where I’m ready to truly take on [the Sam Kinison] role. Granted, I’m still terrified of it, but I’m mentally in that space to tackle something like this.