It was a lot of fun to talk to “The Middle’s” Atticus Shaffer about his performance in “Frankenweenie,” which comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray this week. Shaffer provides the voice of Edgar “E.” Gore, the cheerfully ghoulish friend of the main character, Victor, the boy who brings his dead dog back to life. The film, directed by Tim Burton, is based on the classic Frankenstein story — and on Burton’s own live action short film. It is the first-ever black and white stop-motion animation feature film.
Tell me a little bit about how you first came to the project and when you first saw what your character was going to look like.
I came into the project just on an open call audition. It was a year-long audition process and I really didn’t see anything about the character until after I’d gotten the part and they had started recording the animation. So I really didn’t know the specifics on what the character was going to look like until after I’d already gotten hired.
And when you first saw your character, what did you think?
I thought it was awesome. I thought it was so cool. One of the strangest things though, is whatever character I play recently, this is like on my show “The Middle” and what not, I always wear a striped shirt. So to see that he is wearing a striped shirt I was like “Oh my God! it follows me?”
So a striped shirt is definitely your trademark these days! What about the teeth?
Well actually, I think that might have slightly come from me because Tim does like to record the actors when they are on the booth to kind of see mannerisms and what not to add to the characters. And I get into my role when I do voice-overs especially, so I hunched my back, I bared my teeth and I give the little finger thing, so I think I do definitely see traits of me in the character.
Before you made this film, were you very knowledgeable about the classic horror movies?
I am. I mean, I always have been. I love history of any kind so to be able to be a part of this, like to be able to see all these classic films I already had known for the most part. And during the audition process, because they did ask for Peter Lorre impressions at some point along the way, I was like, “challenge accepted” because I love doing impressions, I love doing accents. So I went in and my mom, being the awesome home school mom that she is, she rented me “The Maltese Falcon” and “Arsenic and Old Lace” and I already had “Casablanca.” And we sat down together and we watched the films and that alone was such a great education for me. It was just amazing.
Well, I mean, I do need to pick up as many qualities as I can. I really just pick up everything. I picked up how he behaves when he panics or when he is very calm and he is very sly and just all the variations and all the colors of him. I will pick that up and then obviously combine it with my own reactions to form the character.
And what kind of guidance did you get from Tim?
I really don’t get guidance, it’s the fact that he just knows exactly what he wants. He is the type of director that makes you fish for the answer. He knows exactly what he wants and he is able to relay that to you and then you as an actor can go “OK, I know what he means, let me just put it into my own perspective.”
Did you interact with the other actors or were you in a booth by yourself?
For the most part, I was in the booth by myself. I actually never even met the other cast members until we were promoting the movie before it came out. So for three years, I never knew any of them except for Tom Kenny [of “Spongebob Squarepants”] who was in the film. Peter Lorre is a new impression and I work better with a new impression when I just hear it and then I go into it. So they hired Tom Kenny and along with the voices that he does in the film, he would do a Peter Lorre impression and then I would do an impression of his impression. And also he would read opposite of me in the scene and that kind of helped me to get into the scene more.
If you could have in real life any one of the props that are in this movie, which one would you pick?
I actually already have a prop. Well, it’s not really a prop but I do have something from the film and it is a little Edgar doll that was used in the film. And that’s really, really cool but I am also very, very nervous because I have cats and I just know that they are going to go “Ooh doll! Let me rip it apart!” So I’m planning on getting a bulletproof glass and laser tripwires.
What do you think it is that makes horror movies so endlessly fascinating?
I think it depends on the type of horror movie. The old classic horror movies, they were ingenious. There was a concept that you wouldn’t think of before like “The Wolf Man” or “Frankenstein.” It was these weird new concepts that were different, they were new at the time so then they were kind of fun and exciting. I don’t like horror movies now though, where they are just gory and everyone is going to die in the end and they leave you with a weird feeling. I don’t like that. I’ve never been a fan of those types of movies but I do like the zombie movies and stuff like that because that’s the classic horror genre and it’s the delicate horror that you would think of.
Why do people like to be scared?
I guess because people do like the adrenaline rush. Like sometimes there is this weird feeling that you get in all of us and I get it too, where you just feel like you need to watch a horror movie which is a weird unexplainable feeling I guess is a part of the human emotion, I suppose.
After this one, do you have a favorite Tim Burton movie?
I would probably say “Corpse Bride” — that was the first Tim Burton animation that I saw and I don’t know, that one really resonated with me and it stuck with me and I thought it was so good.
You worked on this film for three years?
Three years to make the film on top of another full year of auditioning.
Wow! so you started when you were how old?
I believe I was ten.
Is that before you were on “The Middle?”
It was actually during. I auditioned before I was on “The Middle” and then when I start being on “The Middle” they would record me while I was on the show.
You said that you like history. Do you have a favorite era of history that you wish you could visit?
I love military history but I would probably have to say as an era, like if I had a time machine and I could just go back to that era it would probably be like the early, early nineteen hundreds and the late eighteen hundreds. That’s probably the era where technology is starting to become more advanced but is still old timey enough that you feel like you are in that little country log cabin type of thing.
What is some of the best advice you ever got about acting?
Some of the best advice really wasn’t for acting, it was just for life and it was from my mom. It was “always be yourself, don’t let people change you and don’t become a part of the big machine (that’s what I call it), the big machine of popularity. Just be yourself, explore your own interests and you will be successful.” That’s what I always keep in mind and I mean that’s how I like to live my life.
If you want people to take away one idea or one message from “Frankenweenie,” what would that be?
I have a huge appreciation for “Frankenweenie” because of the moral of the story and the fact that it is a black and white animation and hopefully it will inspire a new generation of kids to enjoy the old classic black and white films and have an appreciation for that part of our history. But then also the fact that the biggest message that resonates with me is the fact that you can love something so much and go to whatever extreme you wanted to in order to honor the memory or bring back that that you loved.