Celebrate one hundred years of Hugh Lofting's beloved 'Doctor Dolittle' with the new feature film starring Robert Downey Jr.
2020 marks the centennial anniversary of Hugh Lofting’s beloved children’s book character, a physician who can talk to animals. Doctor John Dolittle made his published debut in the novel "The Story of Doctor Dolittle" in 1920, having originally been created for letters Lofting wrote to his children as he fought in the trenches of the first World War. Soon, however, Dolittle and his incredible world would belong to children everywhere. Now, as Universal Pictures prepares to bring to the big screen a new take on Dolittle, the good doctor's legacy is destined to endure for some time to come.
“This is the most magical film we’ve ever done, and that’s saying something,” says Robert Downey Jr. who, in addition to playing the title role, is executive producing the film with his wife, Susan Downey. “It’s always a miracle to me when things that have so many moving parts come together and equal something entertaining. As people are seeing it, they’re saying they’re moved by it and they’re entertained. My long-suffering missus said it does have that appeal from four to 94. So, it’s a mission accomplished with Team Downey."
“It’s a lot of fun," says Susan Downey. "It’s silly. The scope is big, but there are real themes at its core that, no matter your age, gender or race, it speaks to you... It reminds me of those classic movies like 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' and 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.' There’s a tremendous amount of subversive humor, with a number of little sidebars. I know for a fact that my kids have a fantasy of being able to talk to animals."
At the helm of ‘Dolittle’ is Stephen Gaghan, who took home an Academy Award for scripting ‘Traffic’ in 2001 and who was nominated again four years later for his work on ‘Syriana’. When he set out to adapt Lofting’s books, Gaghan instantly knew that he wanted Downey for the lead.
“We went to meet,” Gaghan recalls, “and Robert asked, ‘What decisions have been made on this movie already?’ I could say to him, ‘There’s only been one decision, and that’s why we’re here. We want you to be this guy, and everything else is wide open.’ He’s a creative force who becomes a partner and you make the movie together. It was a huge decision, but the right one.”
“They said that Robert was the person he had in mind when he wrote it,” says Susan Downey. “Robert and I read it, and we thought that it was so much fun. Who doesn’t want to be able to think they can talk to their animals? At its core, Steve had created this epic adventure that we felt would be good for all audiences and families.”
“Once you have Robert inhabiting this character, it felt so fresh, and the voice that came out of me when I was writing felt original, back to where the books were framed,” Gaghan continues. “But I didn’t want to be beholden to those ideas. I wanted it to feel modern and have a modern psychology… At any moment, [Robert] could make you laugh, but he’s a little bit dangerous and that’s the Dolittle that we find. Dolittle is smarter than everyone else. He’s shut the world away and lives with a family of animals because he doesn’t want to deal with humans. The animals sort of do what he wants but operate in conspiracies around him. Robert plays off that. He has a physical-comedy gene and can do any pratfall as well as the most technical acting.”
Loosely based on the second of Lofting’s ‘Dolittle’ books (“The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle”), the new film begins with the good doctor having experienced severe trauma that has caused him to withdraw from the world.
“When we meet him in the film, Dolittle has moved from mourning to self-pity,” says Gaghan. “The animals are tired of it, and all this is the stew from which Robert built his character.”
“I thought about the character as someone who has become a hermit and isolated himself due to trauma or emotional disappointment,” says the star. “He’s taken it upon himself to help animals only, but he’s really given up on humanity. He secreted himself to this estate that was gifted him by the queen.”
“Robert wanted to craft an authentic character who was quirky and vulnerable,” explains producer Jeff Kirschenbaum. “Out of that, a heroism arose… He was focused on how we could take this movie and expand the audience. Robert was constantly coming up with ideas and characters. He is much like Dolittle himself, wrapping his arms around everybody around him. In front of the camera and behind it, he is incredibly inclusive and generous.”
Of course, Dolittle himself is far from being the only member of Gaghan’s cinematic menagerie. The film’s eclectic cast includes the voice talents of Emma Thompson, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Marion Cotillard, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez and even Downey’s Marvel-ous costar Tom Holland.
“[I would] find pictures of animals and cast them,” Gaghan recalls. “I’d think, ‘That’s the perfect mountain gorilla!’ Then I’d have to articulate to the animators what it is about that animal that makes it perfect. Is it the cock of its shoulders? The light in its eyes, or it being bashful. You identify these human traits that underlie the visual language of the animal. It all comes down to brass tacks… If you look at it from a superhero paradigm, Dolittle is a superhero whose super power is listening. The reason that he can communicate with all these creatures is that he has this core of deep empathy. When the order of the modern day is demonization, ‘Dolittle,’ at its core, is about the value of being heard. Every creature has something to say. There are points of view in nature that deserve our ear. You reel that back, and it plays out in the human community. ‘Dolittle’ is about looking for the similarities versus the differences. Whenever any of us do that during our day, it makes us better.”
Sit down with star Michael Sheen and explore his antagonistic role in the bigger than life adventure, ‘Dolittle’
From his acclaimed performance as David Frost in Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” to the angel Aziraphale on the recent Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett adaptation “Good Omens,” Michael Sheen had consistently proved himself to be a true chameleon of stage and screen. This weekend, audiences will have a chance to catch him as Dr. Blair Müdfly, the arch nemesis of Robert Downey Jr.’s Dr. John Dolittle. Moviebill had the privilege of sitting down with Sheen to discuss his turn as Müdfly and his approach to acting in a such a VFX heavy adventure.
Moviebill: How familiar were you with the story of “Doctor Dolittle” before signing on for the film?
Michael Sheen: I was thinking the other day about the original film with Rex Harrison. I remember when I was at school -- I must have been about eight or nine – and the school had a trip to go to the local cinema to watch the film. I remember going to see it and loving it. It's a very fond memory for me, watching that film. There is something very magical about animals talking and walking and those extraordinary pushmi-pullyu in the original film. All those kinds of crazy animals. I loved it. There was a real magic to it for me. So when the idea of doing this film came up and there was the idea of Robert [Downey Jr.] playing that character, I thought it was fantastic. I was really intrigued to see how you would approach it and what that character would be like with him in the role. Of course, with the way effects are done now and the amazing work that people can do visually, animals really can come alive in a way that they couldn't before. I was really excited about it.
Moviebill: What are you interacting with on set before the animal visuals are added in?
Michael Sheen: That's the strange thing. The first scene that we did on this film was with the Queen. Queen Victoria is ill in bed and all the courtiers are there. I'm doing this stuff with the leeches when all the animals come in and it's chaos. That was the first thing we shot. I remember Robert came in and there were no animals, obviously. It's just a guy with a stick with a tennis ball on the end of it. I think that the duck was a little wooden duck on wheels. Someone was just pushing it along the floor. There was, for the gorilla, someone in a green suit. There was no Jip. The dog was jus tnothing. You had to imagine. We were told, “At this point, Jip will run in and jump onto the bed.” It was really was playing pretend. Of course, all acting is pretending, but when something is like this, it really feel like a kid again. You just sort of make believe. There's a kind of a liberation in that because, of course, your imagination has to work a lot harder. At first, it seems like it's going to be quite hard to have to imagine these major elements of the film, which is the animals, with nothing, really. It actually becomes quite freeing, because you just see them in your head. In fact, I remember Steven [Gaghan], the director saying, “Oh, you did a reaction to that, which I really liked! We'll add an animal doing this or that to match your reaction.” So it was kind of a two-way process, really. It wasn't just us having to react to what they were going to do. They also reacted to what we did as well.
Moviebill: Dr. Müdfly is a character created specifically for the film and who didn’t appear in any of the books. What was the first thing you learned about him?
Michael Sheen: I suppose that he was someone who had known Doolittle from when they were at university together. He’s sort of his nemesis, you know? That was the kind of starting point, someone who had grown up with Dolittle and who, on the surface, seems to hate everything about him. Underneath this, though, he really admires Dolittle and wishes he was more like him. That has kind of now turned into a jealousy and a desire to kind of stop him. I liked that. That was a good way to be able to get into the character
Moviebill: The story sort of hits the ground running with Doctor Dolittle having already been established and having gone on prior adventures. How important is it for you to work out Müdfly’s backstory?
Michael Sheen: It definitely helps having some backstory worked in. For instance, that whole thing about them being at university together makes a massive difference. Otherwise, you’re just sort of playing a generalized “I hate this person and must stop them.” Whereas, if you know where he’s actually coming from, that really helps acting the part. Hopefullym it brings a bit more nuance, a bit more depth. It opens up the options for what you can do with that character as well because then you have the chance for redemption for the character as well. If, underneath, he actually wishes that he could be more like Dolittle, then you've got the chance of being able to play with that trait later on. So it makes a massive difference.
Moviebill: Is it fun getting to play the bad guy?
Michael Sheen: It can be. Ut depends on the kind of film. With a film like this, which has a sort of playful exuberance about it, the bad guy is still to be enjoyed rather than just to be frightened of or disliked. There's a kind of colorfulness to it and that's enjoyable to be able to play. It’s also fun to be able to play off another actor like Robert when you have that sort of protagonist/antagonist relationship. If the other actor is very playful and is up for exploring things, as Robert is, does make it a really enjoyable experience.
Moviebill: So there was room for you to improvise?
Michael Sheen: Oh my goodness, yes. I mean, one of the things that I think is very important to Robert is to keep things very fresh and alive in the moment when you're doing it. Every day, you'd come in and there would be different stuff. Even though you’ve worked from the script and that is the basis, you get together and you sort of talk about the scene and rehearse the scene a little bit for the camera. It would be what came out of that session that would dictate what you did for the rest of the day. Even then, you would keep changing it as you're filming. Maybe something would happen. We would try something different we would bounce off each other. There was always room for that and, hopefully, that means that you get little special moments beyond what was on the page.
Moviebill: You are an actor who seems to move effortlessly between film, television and stage. Do you approach roles for each with the same process?
Michael Sheen: Well, certain things stay the same always. In terms of working on characters, the basics of acting are very much the same. You need to be clear about what your character wants. All that kind of acting stuff. The big differences, I suppose if I'm being very specific, is about who you're doing it for and how best to communicate the story to that audience. If you're in the theater, the audience is right there. You're in the room with them and that requires a certain kind of storytelling whereas, if you're working on film, they're off behind the camera so you have to be very clear about how you communicate the story and what your role is in this. I spent most of my time doing theater early on. I did very little filming or TV. I remember learning eventually that a big part of what you do as an actor on stage is being the editor in weird way. You are deciding what your audience gets to see or not see yourself. Whereas, on film, someone else is doing that. Someone else decides. Your job as an actor on film, I think, is more just to inhabit everything. To make every moment alive with possibility. Then, other people choose what they use. You can't do that. So, as an actor on stage, your way of being able to communicate the story is very much down to you. You build that story. You build that arc whereas, on film, someone else is building that arc for you and your job is to supply them with the content. On stage, you are much more in control of what that arc might be.
Moviebill: Throughout your career, you have managed to tap into several prominent fandoms with “Good Omens” being the most recent example.
Michael Sheen: Yeah, that has been amazing. The way that people have responded to that has been great. It has created a real community online through social media. There's this extraordinary community now that exists that is very impressive. I see people being incredibly supportive of each other. It seems that “Good Omens” has connected with a lot of people who might have been struggling with different things. All kinds of different things. The fandom sort of brought people together who found a love for the show and the characters and the book. It has actually created this whole new thing now where people are creating a really incredible, mutually supportive network. There’s all this art and people who enjoy the characters are doing all kinds of different things. It's wonderful to see. I love it. It us such a really lovely, positive thing that has grown out of it and it seems to go against the grain of a lot of social media, which be fairly negative, horrible stuff. Instead, it's all overwhelmingly positive, which is brilliant. I think there's something very much in Neil [Gaiman’s] work, which is very human and kind of open and positive. I think that, knowing Neil as a person, he is like that. I think that it comes through in the book that Neil and Terry [Pratchet] wrote and through the series as well. People respond to that. It tends to attract people who want to be positive and who want to be supportive of each other.
Moviebill: You were also on Neil Gaiman’s “Doctor Who” episode in 2011. In a way, you could almost imagine Doctor Dolittle as a Time Lord.
Michael Sheen: (Laughs) Oh, yes. You can imagine a one-off “Doctor Who” episode where he can talk to the animals. That would be quite fun.
Moviebill: Do you know what language you would pick if you could speak to one animal species?
Michael Sheen: I suppose just because we are around them more than any other animal, dog would be it. It would be great to be able to understand what a dog is thinking. Or maybe we shouldn't. A friend of mine once had a fantastic idea for something where dogs were actually aliens and dressed up in dog outfits. Maybe they’re actually just watching us the whole time, which I always thought was a fantastic idea. Maybe we don't want to know what they'll think of us. Maybe we think of them as being incredibly loyal and that they look after us, but maybe they're just making fun of us the whole time. So maybe it's better that we don't.