Lightyear's James Brolin On Voice Acting, Being Kept In The Dark, And His Amazing Beard [Interview]

James Brolin's acting career stretches back to the 1960s, and covers a wide spate of films and TV that has seen the actor appear in genre classics like "The Amityville Horror" and "Capricorn One," and award-winning TV shows like "Marcus Welby, MD" and the soap opera "Hotel." For "Welby," Brolin won an Emmy and a Golden Globe. He was a regular character on "Pensacola: Wings of Gold," appeared in "Traffic," and produced Stewart Raffill's delightful cult oddity "Standing Ovation." 

Despite a long and varied career, however, Angus MacLane's new film "Lightyear" — the latest from Pixar — is Brolin's very first voice acting role in a motion picture. In "Lightyear," he plays the evil Emperor Zurg, a seemingly robotic oppressor from space who is intent on — for mysterious reasons — attacking a stranded human space colony. In "Toy Story 2," it was also established that Zurg — in a humorous "Star Wars" knockoff — was also Buzz Lightyear's father. 

Brolin generously sat with /Film to talk about voice acting for the first time, the mysterious circumstances under which he recorded, and how much he actually knew about the character going in. Naturally, the actor's famous and resplendent beard had to be mentioned.

First, the beard

Firstly, I loved your beard in "The Amityville Horror." 

It's funny. I got out of "Marcus Welby" and I did "Gabel and Lombard" after that, "Capricorn One," shaven, and [then] I guess "Amityville" came out — oh, no! "Night of the Juggler," I did that. I grew the beard for "Night of the Juggler." Hair was down to here. Lot of beard. And while I was shooting that movie, they didn't have a script, they had the book of "Amityville Horror." They said, "They want an answer right away." And I said, "No, I don't have time [to read the book]. I'm doing a picture." So I would get home at night, I'm living in New York at the time because of this other picture, and I'm reading this novel, trying to get back to my agent saying, "Yeah." And I'm literally scared to death. It's 2:00 in the morning. I got to be up at 6:00. I'm going, "I can't stop." And so I did "Amityville" and kept the beard on. So then most of the work I've done, I've had at least some scruff. It's easier in the morning though, isn't it?

Definitely. You championed the look. 

I was told by so many executives now, "No, whiskers don't belong in our movies." "Well, okay. I quit." "Oh no, no! You can keep it."

Luckily when you're doing voice work, you can have whatever facial hair you want.

Yeah. That's true. But this is the first animated voice work I've ever done, so that doesn't count.

Transition to voice work

How was the transition from acting in live-action to doing voice work for animation? 

I've been trying to do voice work for many, many years and never got hired. I did a lot of sample tapes through big agencies, submitted to big ... they [were] just not interested, for whatever reasons. And then last year, Robert Downey, Jr. and Susan [Downey] told me they wanted my voice to narrate their series "Sweet Tooth," and it became a big hit. Pixar heard the voice and it matched maybe what they thought their Zurg might sound like, I guess.

Did you know anything about Zurg going in? Did you watch the previous "Toy Story" movies?

No. As a matter of fact, I didn't realize — well, I think I knew it was a ... I had a few days from that time they needed me pretty quick. They had been searching for the right guy, and suddenly I got a call they wanted me to do it. And they didn't even want me to come in and talk to [the filmmakers], they wanted me to do it, period. But I wasn't allowed to read a script! I could see that next day's dialogue the night before I was to go in and start my first day recording.

My goodness. 

Yeah. Tell me, why the secrecy? If you find out who Zurg is, is somebody not going to see that movie if they find out? So the psychology of it beats me at this point, but I'm going to see the finished film tomorrow and I may understand how smart and how dumb I am.

'Lines, lines, lines'

That has to be a little bit frustrating: Reading lines and trying to get into character, but not knowing the whole story.

Well, it's a giant experiment for a guy that's pretty much done everything for a long time. It wasn't frustrating as much as it was fun and challenging, because they've got a lot at stake. I have really nothing at stake. So I trust they know what they're doing here with this.

You haven't appeared in a science fiction story since "Capricorn One" in 1977. 

No, I have not. No. Uh-uh.

Was it exciting returning to the genre? Could you tap into previous experiences to inform your performance decades later? 

Oh, because I didn't know anything about it, I didn't know what to tap into! I mean, I literally — lines, lines, lines. I show up to work, they have a copy of those same lines on a music stand in front of me, and there's a microphone. The whole studio's empty because of Covid. It's just me and the recordist. So it was a very unusual situation, and it was really fun because it wasn't my fault — that's the way they wanted to do it, and I wanted see what happens. Yeah, so there you go. And if I fail, it's just a voiceover, a cartoon character, if I failed, to me. But evidently it didn't fail. So they pulled me out of oblivion and now I've got to fight my "son."

The awards

You have an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Where do you keep them?

I'd like to say, "Well, one's in a cardboard box in the closet" and everything, but no, I just built myself an office in the last couple of years, and they are sitting out. But I don't live and die by them at all. I wish they were directorial awards. But I ain't finished yet!

I was about to say!

I've got a lot to do yet.

"Lightyear" will open in theaters on June 17, 2022. It also stars Chris Evans as Buzz Lightyear, and features Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi, and Peter Sohn.