Although he has built his career on in TV and feature films like “Tombstone,” “The Shadow Riders” and “The Desperate Trail,” actor Sam Elliott, 62, is traveling a new road for the first time in his 40-year career.
In “Barnyard,” Elliott lends his voice to an animated character. His vessel, Ben the Cow, is the leader of the farm and looks to one day pass along his duties to his son Otis (voiced by King of Queens star Kevin James). The problem is that Otis would much rather goof around with the other animals than listen to his father and tend to his responsibilities like keeping the hen house safe from coyotes and other prowling predators.
Taking some time to speak with me, Elliott talked about working on his first animated film, his dream to move to an Oregon farm, and how interesting it is to be portraying a cow when he is also the spokesperson of the American Beef Council.
You are one of those few actors that have a very memorable voice. Personally, I would say you, R. Lee Ermey, James Earl Jones, Gilbert Godfrey are at the top. The difference between you and them, however, is that they have lent their voices to animated films in the past. Why has it taken you so long to do one of these animated features?
Because nobody ever asked me before. This was the first. So, I was happy to be there. Its not like I was running and hiding from them before. The opportunity just never presented itself before now.
What do you think it is about your voice that makes it so interesting?
I don’t know that it is. But I’ll tell you a story about my voice since you brought it up. When I moved to [Los Angeles] from Portland, Oregon, I was first working construction. Then I got a portfolio together and starting going to workshops at Columbia Pictures and started to look at how I could get in the door, some door, somewhere. I didn’t know anybody. So I took my portfolio and went and saw a few agents. A friend from the National Guard sent me to this friend of his who was an agent in this big agency. This was a big deal for me. So, I go in there and talk to this guy and show him my portfolio. Then he said there were two pieces of advice he could give to me. One was to forget it and go back to Portland and get a real life. The other one was, that if I was going to stay in this town the first thing I ought to do is take some voice and diction lessons and learn how to talk. But I’m glad I didn’t do it. [My voice] is real and its me. It isn’t something that is contrived or put on. All my family is from Texas. My mom and I talk the same. You end up talking like what you hear all the time.
So, do most people think you are originally from Texas?
Most people think I am from Texas. I’ve spent a lot of time in San Antone. I lived up in New Braunfels. My dad was from El Paso. I’ve got relatives still spread out all over Texas.
Have you spent any time on a farm?
I’ve spent quite a bit of time on either a farm or a ranch. I’ve got a ranch up in Oregon where my wife and I are trying to move to. Were trying to get out of California finally and get away from this humanity that has taken over this coast out here. But I know what the [farm] game is about. We’ve got animals at home. We’ve always had tons of cats and dogs and a couple of horses and chickens. We don’t have other people [tending] to them for us. We know what its about from a reward standpoint and from a responsibility standpoint. Its a pretty enriching game.
Well, since “Barnyard” is the first time you have lent your voice to an animated film, did you use any experiences – maybe your narration work in “The Big Lebowski” – to prepare for this?
No. I’ll tell you, it’s very strange to play these animated characters. The most amazing thing is how long it takes to make these movies. I went in and thought it was going to be fun and I would get a chance to develop a character – something that sounded like a bull or a cow or whatever. But the director, Steve Oedekerk, said, “Nah man. I just want you to play it straight. Just say the words and play him like yourself.” I thought, that will make it easy. But it’s not that easy. It’s bizarre to be standing in a booth and playing a scene with somebody that isn’t there. You’re kind of doing a lopsided work.
Do you think that being the spokesperson for the American Beef Council had any affect in you getting the role of Ben the Cow? Is there any coincidence there?
Yeah. I’m sure it did. There’s a real interesting kind of a quandary in there. In one role, I’m playing a cow and in the other one, I’m selling the meat.
I came upon some past American Beef Council marketing campaigns. One of them was, John Wayne equals beef. Adolph Hitler equals radish. I guess being the spokesperson that really makes sense.
I think it does. It’s been good for me. I have a lot of affinity for the beef growers in this country. It’s this big business. In some ways I am representing the U.S. and their beef industry.