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Ben Schwartz, Star Of Flora & Ulysses - Exclusive Interview

Ben Schwartz hasn't slowed down since Parks & Rec ended. He's upped his voice acting game, playing Sonic the Hedgehog, Dewey Duck, and half-shell hero Leonardo. He still performs improv and writes scripts and books. He's also one of the stars of the Disney+ family film Flora & Ulysses, and he spoke exclusively with Looper about his time on the movie.

Schwartz plays George Buckman, a failed comic book artist and father of the titular Flora whose life gets turned around after taking in a super-powered squirrel. George starts the movie in a low place and sees both his relationship with his family and his own motivation improve after helping Ulysses the squirrel find his own purpose.

Schwartz told us about channeling that sadness, his personal history with comics, and working with breakout child star Matilda Lawler. He also brought up his time on DuckTales and his friendship with Danny Pudi, who has a supporting role in Flora & Ulysses. And yes, there's a decent chance that Schwartz saw your "Don't be suspicious" TikTok.

Sadness and comics (no relation)

Your character has a certain sadness to him for a lot of the movie. I know you've done drama in the past, but sadness is a little counter to what you normally do. How do you tap into that?

It's a wonderful question. I think I wanted to have him in a rut at the beginning, and treading water and not really believing in himself, and stuff like that. Anytime I do a character I try and access little pieces of myself, and then just exaggerate it to something that isn't me anymore. But you find those moments, that you're just bummed, or out of gas, or stuff like that. And you kind of lean into that. But while we were filming, I just could not wait to get to the happy part. I couldn't wait 'til my character was finally happy and excited. But yeah, that's it, you look at little experiences you've had, you feel the tiredness of whatever's in your body at that moment. You put it into those sad moments, until you're able to flip it.

So what's your connection to comic books? Because this is a very comics-heavy movie.

When I was a kid, I went to Alternate Realities in Westchester, and we'd collect comic books. Loved a bunch. I loved Slapstick, which is a little bit of an unknown comic book. Huge Spider-Man fan, collected X-Men. When Infinity Gauntlet came out, it was insane to me. So all those things were super fun. I was a big fan of that. And then Marvel cards, I used to collect Marvel cards. I don't know if you remember the trading cards like basketball cards. So for me, all that stuff, plus the X-Men action figures, I had Cyclops and Wolverine. That world was always very much well tapped in when I was a kid. So when I get to be in that world, it makes me even more excited.

Reacting to a pre-CG squirrel and working with Matilda Lawler

You spend a lot of this movie reacting to something that was not physically there when you were doing this. How do you handle that on set?

It's weird. So it started off as there's just this little gray pretend squirrel. And then they take that away. And then Matilda, who's an incredible actress, and plays Flora, pretended that was still in her hand and we were just looking at nothing for a while. And Lena would be like, "All right, now it jumps in the air. Now it went to the left. Now Ulysses is over there, and now we're there." And it was very fun. But to do it with a kid, to do it with Matilda, is even more fun, because their imaginations are off the charts. It was just so exciting. The idea of playing these fun little games and pretending we're looking at something made it 20 times more fun by the idea that you're doing it with a child, who uses her imagination 20 times more than I could ever do it, and stuff like that.

You mention Matilda — tell me a little bit more about her. She's really good in this movie.

She's so good. I think she's truly the real deal. She never missed a sentence, never missed a line. There's scenes where she cries in this film, and she was just able to do it take after take after take. And there's I think a strip, or I don't know what people use to cry, but there's something to help you cry, she didn't use any of that. She just was able to access something in herself and do it. And I remember when I took the movie, I was talking to the writer, Brad, and the director, Lena. And I was like, "If you get a good Flora this movie could be great." And the movie rests on her shoulders, and she was great. She was a star. She was incredible. She made the movie really pop.

What was your personal relationship like with her? Not necessarily father-daughter — as an actor to actor.

Anytime she had any question I couldn't wait to chat with her, or anything like that. But actor to actor really what I did is mostly make sure we talked about stuff that wasn't acting, through the whole thing. Because I feel like if I was that age I would want to just remind myself that I'm a kid, and do kid stuff. And she was so game. She had her teachers there, and we would play all these fun little games together, all of us, the cast. It was easy to just react to her, because she's such a good actress. So when we're on stage we'd just react to each other. And then she'd be a kid and get to go to school in between. But I thought that was important, that I made sure that she realized that this isn't the end all, be all, just being onscreen. She's such an old soul, and she understood immediately. And she understood that whole world immediately, and understood what was important to her and what wasn't.

Watching the final product and talking DuckTales

So what was it like when you finally got to see all this onscreen? Her, the actual squirrel, the actual cat that was attacking everybody?

Yeah. That cat was so good. The squirrel was such a good job. The CG company they used was incredible. I couldn't believe how good that squirrel looked. But it's always so trippy. I remember when I did DuckTales, and the first DuckTales episode comes out, and you're like, "Oh my goodness, there I am. I'm Dewey Duck, and I'm next to Scrooge McDuck." And it's that big feeling. Or Sonic is a great example, because when I'm doing the voiceover all you see is the live-action elements. And then you see it, and there's this emotional feeling when you see this thing that you've just been talking and you haven't seen a representation of it, it hasn't been CG'd yet. And it's gorgeous. And it was very similar to that with Flora & Ulysses, where it's like, if Ulysses looks awesome it's going to sell this movie so much harder. And it did an incredible job.

Yeah, they absolutely did. And speaking of DuckTales, what's it like working with Danny Pudi in person?

The best. He's so good in this movie. He's so funny in this movie. And he's, like, a great physical comedian. He gets to show off so many things that people don't get really to see about him. I'm the biggest Danny Pudi fan in the universe. The idea that we got to play together, it was so fun. And also then I have a friend there in Vancouver the whole time we're filming. It was heaven. I love him. He's such a good person. I love him.

TikTok and younger audiences

A lot of what you've done is largely for kind of adult audiences, but now you're doing work for kids. You got Sonic the Hedgehog, you got this, and the kids know you from another way. I'm sure by now you're aware that you are a popular audio on TikTok?.

Yes! I was made aware of that a year ago. I could not believe it!

So have you watched any of those TikToks yet?

I watched a bunch of them. There was one where a dog was sneaking in. They're all amazing. And the funny thing is a lot of people have no idea that the audio is from Parks or anything. It's just a line that people heard over and over again. But I love that. If I was starting out in comedy at UCB at the time, Upright Citizens Brigade, I feel like me and my friends would be all over TikTok, and trying to, like, heighten different, funny jokes and stuff like that. So that whole community seems like it's fun and collaborative, which doesn't happen very often.

So we've mentioned you've been doing Flora & Ulysses, doing Sonic the Hedgehog. A lot of what you've been doing is more family-oriented. Is that a deliberate choice on your part, or those are just the roles coming to you?

For me, it was like, I want to always try to do a little bit of everything. So I'll write, I published a bunch of books, and then I wrote some scripts, and then I'll write a TV show. And then I will act in this type of movie, then I really want to try to do drama. So I try to flex muscles in different places, just trying to get better at things. One of the reasons why I love to do family films is because that's what I grew up on. And especially a Disney family film. Those are the movies that I grew up on. So the idea that maybe I could be in one of those for a new generation is incredible. So Sonic was that to me. And then this is especially that, because you get to see that Disney logo right in the beginning, which is something I've grown up with my entire life. And then to be a part of one of those movies, man, it's really exciting. The idea that maybe the whole family will get together and bond, especially through times like this, for something that we made. It's great.

Closing thoughts

Did you actually get to read the book before you did any of this?

No. I now have three copies of it, but before I did it I didn't. And then the writer explained to me that my character is barely in the book and is an older man. And so he was like, "Don't read the book just yet. Read the script first." I was like, "Okay, okay." So at the beginning, just to understand who I was going to play in the movie, that's what I did. I waited on the book until later.

Is there anything you want people to take away from this movie?

I think there's a lot of hope in it. I think there's a lot of hope and I think there's a lot of love. And I think there's also the idea that maybe my character, and there are characters in this film that are kind of down at the beginning, but through family or even through love of other people, are able to really connect with who they are and to grow as a person and be who they really are. And I think there's a lot of love in that. So I really like that stuff. Disney does that heart stuff so beautifully, and Lena did a great job directing it.

Is there anything you want to bring up about this movie that we haven't talked about yet?

I think it has all this comedy. If you like superhero type movies also, it really scratches that itch. It does that in a really cool way. The CG is gorgeous. And the girl who plays Flora, Matilda Lawler, is incredible. She's incredible. And so the idea that people get to see her in her first role makes me really excited, and one of the reasons why I really want to go out and tell people about it. The movie's wonderful. Matilda's fantastic. And I hope people like it, I hope it brings them joy. And maybe they get to watch it as a family, or whatever, but the idea that they get to really take something from it and just love something makes me happy.

Flora & Ulysses is streaming on Disney+.