The Star Of Pixar's Up Never Intended To Audition

Pete Docter's 2009 animated film "Up" is perhaps one of the more unusual in Pixar's history. After a heartbreaking opening sequence that details an entire romance between a man and a woman — one that incorporates their meeting, their courtship, their marrying, their stymied efforts of having children, their connubial bliss in a shared business, a devastating illness, and a funeral — "Up" settles down into the sad final years of an old man named Carl (Ed Asner) as he adjusts to life alone. 

The plot of the movie follows Carl's quest to float his entire house, via thousands of helium balloons, to a remote location where he can memorialize his wife. Accidentally along for the ride is a nerdy Wilderness Explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai), who was hanging out on Carl's porch when the house took off. Eventually the story involves a rare jungle bird, a pack of extremely well-trained canines with bark-translators and dog-sized airplanes, and Carl's childhood adventure movie star idol, now ancient and living in a zeppelin above the rain forests. Without the opening sequence to anchor the film, "Up" may have been very difficult to accept. 

Thanks to Asner's and Nagai's chemistry as voice actors, however, "Up" remains appealing throughout, and the growing relationship between a young nerd and an old curmudgeon is irresistible. In a 2009 interview on NPR, Docter talked about his film's similarities to "Fitzcarraldo," the importance of its music, and its notable casting process. It turns out that Jordan Nagai, not a professional actor, didn't audition for the role of Russell. He was only in the room when his brother, Hunter, did.

A Wilderness Explorer is a friend to all

Russell is relatable to anyone who was a scout or merely an ambitious little kid. In trying to fill his badge sash, Russell is determined to aid Carl in any way he can, innocently dogging him for what he may need aid in. Carl, meanwhile, wants to be left alone to mourn in peace. Getting Russell's casting just right was vital to Docter, as he knew of the slippery slope toward cloyingness that kid characters often find themselves on. Luckily, they found authenticity in Nagai, who was just sitting off to the side during the audition process. Docter recalled

"[W]e were looking for somebody — and you know, this is always a treacherous area to walk into as you're approaching something like a kid because it's so easy to be cloying and sappy and/or just, like, bad acting ... and we wanted this to be authentic and real-sounding. And when we heard this kid, he came in, and like you say, he wasn't even planning to audition. [Hunter Nagai] stepped up, and they said 'Thank you, great. Well how about you? Jordan, why don't you come over here?' And he just — I think he talked about judo or something, and his voice just made me laugh. He had this really wonderful, sweet, innocent voice."

Nagai chanced into the role, and Russell's authenticity was sealed. Nagai played the part beautifully, appeared in a few ancillary "Up"-related shorts, did one episode of "The Simpsons," and essentially retired. Meanwhile, Hunter continued to pursue acting. 

The Thumper story

Nagai's chance audition isn't the first occasion of this happening in animation, however, as Docter was quick to recall. For the 1942 animated feature "Bambi," a young actor named Peter Behn played the voice of Thumper, the enthused rabbit. The story goes that Behn read a certain line of dialogue so badly that the casting agent ejected him from the studio. It wasn't until animators heard the audition tapes that he was called back in. The animators designed the movements of Thumper based on Behn's voice:

"[I]t's little bit like you hear the stories of the voice of Thumper from 'Bambi,' you know. They were reading kids and the director said 'Oh, get him out of here, he can't act,' and the animator said, 'No, no, keep him,' you know, because there's something really charming and quirky and kind of indefinably odd, and that's exactly what we got with Jordan. He just has this really great appeal to his stuff."

Of course, getting a good voice performance out of a non-professional child actor required some creativity from the director. Voice acting is a challenge in that the performers don't often record in the same room together (although some directors insist on full-room recordings). Nagai, alone in a booth, needed a lot of motivation to get into character, it seems.

"So yeah, it's a tricky gig, especially here. [W]e record the dialogue first, of course. So there's no animation to react to. You're just in a grey room with a bunch of words on a page, and nine times out of 10, no other actors, even."

One can only imagine how intimidated it was for Nagai, who wasn't even supposed to be there that day. 

Hoisted by his own director

Docter resorted to some pretty fun means to ensure that he could get a genuine laugh from Nagai. In the film, Russell is lifted off the ground by the aforementioned jungle bird, and he giggles when the bird's beak tickles him. According to Docter, a genuine laugh is difficult to fake, so he simply reenacted what Russell was going through by physically hoisting Nagai into the air. Evidently, that worked. The director explained: 

"And then of course we did have to work a little bit to get some of the acting. He covers a lot – a big range of emotions, and having never done it before, you know, we basically did a lot of tricks where, you know, we tried to get him to laugh, and it was just not really working. So I picked him by the ankle, held him upside down and tickled him as he said the line. So as he's being tickled by the bird that's what that is. "

"Up" would go on to be nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, only the second film ever to have done so (the first was "Beauty and the Beast" in 1991). It would win Best Animated Feature, as well as Best Original Score for Michael Giacchino, and it's still listed near the top of Best-of-Pixar rankings. No doubt, Nagai's authenticity contributed to that.

Let's just hope that Hunter doesn't resent Jordan for his success.