Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Susie Essman Goes to the Dogs
Expanded Version of 11-21-08 Chicago Tribune Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Essman with Sumo her Shi Tzu, as the voice of Mittens the scrappy cat being dragged by Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) and with her
"Curb Your Enthusiasm" husband Jeff Garlin
It may seem surprising to learn that stand up comic Susie Essman, most famous for her portrayal of the foul mouthed Susie Green
on HBO’s long running “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is giving voice to Mittens the stray cat in a children’s film – Bolt, the latest animated
film from Disney. But Essman, who recently appeared in the area in her stand up act (and returns in January at Zanie’s in Vernon
Hills) didn’t find it a stretch for a New York minute. “Mittens has got an edge. She’s a tough, New York City stray; she’s very near
and dear to my heart” said Essman, “I always wanted to do an animated movie and I think it would be weird if I was playing some
little twinkle toes, little goodie goodie character but Mittens felt right to me.” She talked further about Bolt, the anticipated return of
“Curb,” her famous friendship with “The View” co-host Joy Behar and more. Excerpts:
KATM: Disney animated movies love stand up comics.
SE: I know!
KATM: So did you get to riff a bit on your lines?
SE: Yes I did; they let me improvise a little bit and I think the reason why they like stand up comics is because comics know how to
use their voice expressively and know how to bring things to life in a certain way that maybe regular actors don’t do as well. I don’t
know if that’s true but you know when you’re getting a comic, you’re getting a point of view. You’re getting a fully developed
character whereas actors kind of slip in and out of characters. I think maybe a lot of animated characters need the characters to be
created through the voice.
KATM: I’m a cat person and I’m sitting with my cat on my lap—
SE: I’m a dog person – don’t tell her (laughs).
KATM: Okay but I think Mittens gets a bit of a raw deal.
SE: How so?
KATM: Because cats are always portrayed as these little evil, mean characters and the dogs are always cute and fluffy.
SE: But she talks about that.
KATM: Yes she does, later on, that’s a nice little subplot.
SE: And she also talks about how “You go into the shelter and everybody picks a cute dog that looks like Bolt and nobody picks
Mittens.” She kind of lays it out how cats are a little jealous of dogs because they get all that cute factor. So I think she’s a cat
advocate really. One of the other things that attracted me to the characters is that she is the underdog and she is the scrappy
survivor and yet she’s got the vulnerable side which comes out later. I love that scene; that’s my favorite scene in the movie. She’s
not just a one dimensional cartoon character. I think cats really feel like second class citizens to dogs. One of the other important
things to me about the movie is that Mittens is an abandoned stray and Bolt was a rescue dog and I am big on rescue. I have a
rescue dog and I want people to go to shelters and rescue organizations and Pet Finder and rescue their animals, please! These
puppy mills are horrible and these organizations are really important.
KATM: Why kind of dog is it?
SE: I have a Shi Tzu named Sumo which I think is important now because he’s a hypo-allergenic dog that I rescued and you know
who’s looking for a hypo-allergenic rescue dog right now…
KATM: Are you saying you’re going to donate your dog so he can live in the White House?
SE: No! They can’t have my dog – I voted for the guy, that’s enough, he can’t have my dog, too (laughs). But my point is that you
can get hypo-allergenic rescue dogs, too. I actually used Sumo in my approach to Mittens because I knew his back story. He came
from a good home and then the couple that had him adopted four infants and they just didn’t care about him anymore and they just
gave him up – they were going to put him to sleep, even and then my rescue person took him in and gave him to me. Anyway, I
used him for Mittens because she had that experience. She had a home and they moved away and they just dumped her. So I had
a long talk with Sumo about how it felt.
KATM: And did he respond?
SE: Yes (laughs) in a dialogue of the unconscious he told me how it was and it’s horrible.
KATM: It’s funny how you really do have those conversations with your pet.
SE: Oh yes. I have full conversations with Sumo and the beauty part is they don’t interrupt.
KATM: Can you talk about being in the recording studio with John Travolta who does the voice of Bolt?
SE: No because it never happened. I never met him. I’ll meet him next week in L.A. at the premiere. Isn’t that weird?
KATM: Yes – so was his dialogue already finished?
SE: No. I never even heard his dialogue. They do it in a very strange way. He’s in a studio recording his stuff; I’m in a studio
recording my stuff, Miley (Cyrus) and Malcolm MacDowell and everybody else are in their studios and none of us ever meet. I would
read it with the director a number of times and record it and then I would read each line separately a number of times giving them
every possible read I could; every interpretation I could so that they could then animate to it and match it to the other dialogue.
(Laughs) It’s an intense process.
KATM: That’s sort of stunning when you think how much banter goes on in the movie between you and Travolta. So no one was
feeding you lines even?
SE: Well sometimes the director would but a lot of times I just did it in my head. I mean, I knew his voice, so I would hear it and
just snap out my dialogue. It was very challenging. I liked it because it was so different than anything I’ve ever done and it was
challenging and I fell in love with the character and when I saw it I was thrilled. Because you know, you do these things and, I
mean, I’m just a voice, I don’t know what it’s going to be like and I was thrilled to see it. I love the expression they gave to her
eyes and how she looks. I’m just in love with her.
KATM: A cat version of Susie Essman as it were.
SE: Yes! You know what they do – they have a DVD shooting me the whole time that’s never seen – thank God because I had no
makeup on – but the animators then watch me as I’m reading the lines and they watch my expression and the way I use my hands
and my body language and then they try to get as much of my personality into the animation as they can and I think they did that
KATM: Now you got married for the first time in September, right?
SE: Yes, two months. I’m a newlywed.
KATM: What made you take the plunge after all this time?
SE: You know, he asked and I was just like, “Okay.” It was an interesting process because I planned the wedding in three days.
He proposed on September 1st and we got married on September 13th and it was great. We did it at the Friar’s Club and Jeff
(Garlin) my other husband – my television husband was there. I liked having both of my husbands there. It was just family and a
very few friends and it feels different – it really feels different even though we’ve been together forever.
KATM: Are we going to hear about the honeymoon in your stand up act?
SE: Yes – I haven’t really written material about it but I’ll improvise something (laughs).
KATM: What’s up next for you?
SE: In December we start shooting Season Seven of “Curb” so that will be happening very soon and this is kind of interesting – I
just finished shooting a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie for CBS called Loving Leah (now titled Unorthodox) that will air at the end of
January and I play a Levirate, a Hasidic Jew (laughs).
KATM: You’re really spreading your wings.
SE: Yes and I love it. You know Susie Green is one of my favorite characters in the whole world and I love doing her but I get a
little pigeonholed so anytime I can do something different like Mittens or playing this Hasidic mother (Lauren Ambrose plays my
daughter) – if it’s well written, I just jump at it.
KATM: Nice to have those options after how many years of stand up comedy?
SE: A lot – 25 years and “Curb” has given that to me. One of the funny things is that the animators, the director and the producer
of Bolt wanted me for Mittens and they animated scenes from “Curb” to see what my voice would sound like coming out of the cat.
So there’s a scene from “Curb” where I’m a cat and Larry’s a hamster which is hilarious.
KATM: Any chance that will see the light of day?
SE: No – I already asked them if I could have it to show to Larry and they were like, “No, no, no, nobody sees this!”
KATM: You and Joy Behar are friends for-evah, right?
SE: 25 years.
KATM: So how come we don’t see you sitting down more often with the ladies on “The View” more often?
SE: Oh I’ve done it a bunch, I’ve done it five or six times.
KATM: Okay, okay. Maybe it’s because I always think, “Why isn’t Susie Esman at that table every day?”
SE: I’ll tell you why – they would never put Joy and us together. Like when they hired Whoopi why didn’t they hire me instead,
you're talking about?
SE: Because they think Joy and I are too much alike. Even though she’s Italian and I’m Jewish they just think we’re two New York
Jews. They’d never put us together; they think we’re too much alike. Which we’re not, actually, we’re very different and we even
disagree on a lot of things. She’s so good on that show, isn’t she?
KATM: Yes. I love how she just sits there and listens and then puts something out that shuts everyone up.
SE: Yeah I know, especially with that other one.
KATM: Oh, don’t get me started.
SE: Well the New York Times referred to her a couple of weeks ago as the “Edward R. Murrow” of “The View.”
KATM: So what makes New York ladies so funny?
SE: (Laughs big)
KATM: Joan Rivers, Totie Fields, Madeline Kahn, Joy Behar, yourself—
SE: I don’t know if it’s just New York ladies – I think it’s New Yorkers. There’s a lot of funny Chicago comedians. You know, when
you grow up in a city you gotta deal with the elements and it makes you sharp and you have a lot of stimulus around you to feed
KATM: I know you always appear every year at the “Standup For Madeline” cancer benefit for Madeline Kahn in New York. Was she
an inspiration for you?
SE: Oh God, she was just one of the funniest people ever. I mean think of her in those Mel Brooks movies. I just adored her. I
never met her. I now know her husband, well not her husband anymore because she’s dead but it’s my pleasure. The fact that both
Madeline and Gilda (Radner) both died of ovarian cancer and they were two of the funniest comedic actresses out there is just ironic
and sad and horrible and I think the world is a much poorer place for both of their deaths. So I do Gilda’s Club stuff and I do
Madeline’s stuff every year and it’s really important to me because ovarian cancer is really a silent killer. They need to find a
mammogram for ovarian cancer; it’s really about the detection. There’s no way to detect it and that’s what the OCRF (Ovarian
Cancer Research Fund) which sponsors the event is really looking for. By the time people know they have it they’re in Stage III or IV
KATM: Madeline was and is one of my favorites. She needs a biography.
SE: She was special.
KATM: Do you think you’ll ever go the Fran Drescher “The Nanny” sitcom route? Is that a dream?
SE: Only if it shoots in New York. I would love to have a show that shoots in New York but you know, I’m so spoiled now because
once I do “Curb” it’s very hard to go do a multi-camera sitcom kinda show. I mean, Larry is hard to follow.
KATM: And I would imagine giving up the improv aspect would be hard.
SE: Yes, there’s no script. But I do love that – that’s why I loved doing Bolt and the Hallmark movie because they’re so different. I
think I’d rather do a drama where I play a comedic role – play a cop or something, you know? Doing a typical sitcom after “Curb”
would be very difficult but I’ll take the money (laughs). I say all these things like Miss Idealistic but the truth is, like everybody
else, I’m a whore (laughs).