Monday, July 21, 2003

DeGeneres felt like only fish voicing 'Nemo'

LOS ANGELES - Out here in Hollywood, a phrase you frequently hear is "a fish out of water."

Young Superman in a farm town called Smallville is a fish out of water.

So is Treat Williams' character, a hot-shot Manhattan surgeon in a small Colorado town, on WB's Everwood.

Or Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde. Joe Millionaire. Keen Eddie. Less than Perfect. The Guardian. Hack.

But the best "fish out of water" story we've ever heard in years on the West Coast is from Ellen DeGeneres, the voice of Dory, the little blue tang fish, in the hit animated film, Finding Nemo.

And how they made the movie, well, that's a whale of a story.

"For 31/2 years, I've been working on it ... in isolation," says DeGeneres, who is at the Television Critics Association press tour to talk about her new fall syndicated talk show. But we hooked her into talking about Dory.

For DeGeneres, 45, doing Nemo was like swimming alone in an aquarium. She had no one to play with, not even the poppa clownfish played by Albert Brooks.

"Albert and I never met until the premiere," she reveals.

Then she says something else that hits us like a cold splash in the face: She had never seen excerpts of the cartoon, not even daffy Dory's wonderfully expressive eyes and face drawn from DeGeneres, until the movie opened.

"I hadn't seen anything until the premiere. I had been touring," she says, trying to re-establish her comedy career after The Ellen Show, was canceled by CBS last year.

Pixar Animation Studios (Toy Story, Monsters Inc.) approached her four years ago, saying a character had been created specifically for her in a cartoon called Finding Nemo.

"Nothing was going on in my life," she says. She took the bait.

So on and off over the past 31/2 years, she has spent time alone in a studio recording her lines for Nemo.

"You're working with no one - just doing different voices, and line readings, over and over, sometimes like 50 times," she says.

Occasionally the director would have her skip a beat, a pause to insert Brooks' line in the editing room. Often they would encourage the comedian to ad-lib, to riff on a topic in her stand-up style. She had the freedom of the whole seas.

"It was great because they would give me lines, but then they would also say, 'Do whatever you want to do now.' So I could go just anywhere I wanted to go ... without worrying about upsetting another actor, and ruining their set-up," she says.

That's how ditzy Dory became so exquisitely Ellen. As Pixar says in Nemo promotions: Fish are like people, only flakier.

What also makes Nemo such a great catch is that computer artists didn't draw Dory until they watched film of DeGeneres recording the role.

She couldn't look at a drawing, and visualize the part. It was the other way around.

"It's not like you're watching the character. They create it after they film you, and create the character for your facial expressions," she says. "They just filmed me everyday, and started doing (animation) from that."

Depicting Dory has been the biggest professional challenge for DeGeneres, who has starred in two TV series and a half-dozen feature films (Mr. Wrong, The Love Letter, Reaching Normal).

"It's harder than acting," she explains. "You have to get an emotion across and do it in a way where no one sees any facial expressions or body movement at all. They have to hear it all with your voice. That's really tough."

By contrast, hosting a TV talk show will be relatively easy. She'll sit down and chat with "interesting people," not all of them celebrities on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, premiering Sept. 8 (noon on WXIX-TV, Channel 19).

"People keep asking if it's going to be like Rosie O'Donnell. And I keep saying, 'No, it's going to be like Ellen DeGeneres,' " she says.

She'll have two chairs, no desk.

"I have no preconceived idea of what it's going to be. I just want it to be real, and funny, and spontaneous."

DeGeneres, who made national headlines when she came out as gay while starring on ABC's Ellen (1994-98), says the gay culture and her sexual orientation won't be part of the show.

"People know I'm gay. There's nothing to talk about," she says.

With a hit feature film, a recent HBO comedy concert and the new talk show, DeGeneres exudes confidence and optimism. No longer does she feel like a fish out of water.

"Going through the whole 'coming out' thing was difficult for me to do. And a lot happened since then that was hard for me," she says.

"I was already kind of going upstream anyway. So just the fact I've been able to do more things after that, I just feel like Rocky on the top of the steps."

Or a really big fish in a small pond.



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