By Eric Goldman
Executive Editor of IGN TV
This job has given me the opportunity to meet some very cool people, but there’s few that can compare to the joy of actually getting to interact with the Muppets. Last year, I was among a group of journalists to visit the set of Muppets Most Wanted, where we spoke to Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and Walter, who were just as awesome as you might expect. They were, of course, accompanied by their very talented performers (Steve Whitmire as Kermit, Eric Jacobson as Piggy and Peter Linz as Walter), but it’s very easy to tune that out when you feel Kermit himself is speaking directly to you, nodding and listening as you ask a question and then giving his funny, thoughtful answers. All of which is to say kudos to these amazing performers who continue to give these characters life and to Jim Henson and his early collaborators, who first gave the world these beloved icons.
Nearly all of the most notable Muppet characters were gathered on this semi-rainy day downtown in Los Angeles, to film a scene at Union Station from near the start of the film, as they prepare to take a train to Europe for their big tour. (Yes, you read that right – it’s the Muppets and trains can go to Europe from America!) It was definitely an amazing sight seeing all of the Muppets gathered together for a big group shot, while people on other platforms across the way pointed and took photos. The Muppet performers all had to sit on the ground to make the scene work, holding their arms up in the air, making the characters come to life. Yet they kept their good cheer take after take, which continued into our interviews.
Asked what had her the most excited for Muppets Most Wanted, Miss Piggy replied, “Well, moi, naturally! I’m very excited to be giving the world more of moi. The last movie was so successful and that was largely, in part, due to moi so we are, of course, doing the sequel which will feature even more of moi, I’m happy to say. I actually get a solo in this movie that I do not have to sing with somebody else. The last one, I had to do a solo with Amy Adams. This one, I do not have to share the stage with anyone.”
As to whether we should take her comments to indicate any hostility with Adams, Miss Piggy stated, “We’ll just see if she’s in the new movie, won’t we? We’ll just see if it was in somebody’s contract that she was not allowed back in the sequel to the successful first film that was so successful because of me.”
Discussing his role in Muppets Most Wanted, Kermit the Frog remarked, “I am once again returning as Kermit the Frog, a part that I was born to play. And what’s cool about it though this time is that actually, at the end of the film, I am sort of like an action hero. You will see me do things you haven’t seen me do before. Quite seriously, I am kind of like a cross between James Bond and oh, something Bruce Willis would do.”
Muppets Most Wanted also stars Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell in notable roles. Said Kermit of his new costars, “Ricky is wonderful and I think he will probably become an honorary Muppet. He’s kind of our size and very funny and great playing opposite all us guys - we tend to be very broad actors. Ricky is very economical in his comedy. Tina was fantastic, I can’t imagine anybody else having played the role of sort of the mistress of a gulag. As Tina put it, her character Nadia loves prison, so it’s a little strange. She does a number that very much reminds me of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Ty, Ty is wonderful. Ty is sort of, he’s insane actually, he’s very conservatively insane. So we love him. I mean, we loved working with all those guys, and all the other guys who worked with us as well.”
Said Walter, “Ricky is a great guy. He's really funny and he's a huge fan, too. He's kind of like a human Walter. He's got this great laugh, too. Have you guys ever heard Ricky's laugh? It's like ‘hahahahaha!’ and it's like that from the moment we get on set to about three or four o'clock. Then the laughter dies. I think he gets a little tired. No, he's great. Tina... my gosh, is there no end to that woman's talents? Her singing and dancing in this film is really something. Ty Burrell, I love him in Modern Family. He plays a very different character in our movie. He's very versatile and very, very tall. I got a little crick in my neck looking up at the man. He's unbelievably tall. He's a giant in the industry.
Miss Piggy however downplayed the humans, saying of Gervais, “What does he play in this movie? I don’t know. He’s somewhere in the background. He did that show Extras which I saw and I thought he would be perfect to be an extra in my movie!” Asked later what she thought of Gervais, Fey and Burrell, she replied, “They’re absolutely wonderful. …Which ones are they again?”
The last film involved Walter joining the Muppets and he told us that when it came to the follow-up, “I discover a secret in this film. I discover something that is very, very wrong and I enlist the help of Fozzy and Animal comes along and we make it right. It's actually a pretty dramatic turning point in the movie. I'm very happy with my role in the film. Heck, if they just let me bring water to the guys on the set, I'd be happy. Are you kidding?!”
The trailers reveal that Muppets Most Wanted involve Kermit replaced by an evil double, Constantine, but when we brought that up to Piggy, she exclaimed, “A Kermit impersonator? Where did you hear such a foolish thing? There can only be one Kermit. I have no idea what you’re talking about but I will say that, some days, Kermit seemed more like himself than others. Some days he would come along and be the very soft-spoken, gentle and handsome frog that I’ve always known. Then, some days he would come to work and just be barking out orders and in a foul mood and not paying any attention to me. I wonder what that was?”
We also spoke to a human among this motley group, producer Todd Lieberman, who returns from the last film, along with director James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller (the busy Jason Segel did not co-write this installment). When it came to their approach to Muppets Most Wanted, Lieberman explained, “Last time we wanted to start with kind of an emotional story and introduce a new character and introduce the Muppets to a generation that maybe weren’t as familiar with them as I was or James [Bobin] was or my partner David [Hoberman]. That movie hopefully set that as a basis, so now we just want to have a boatload of fun. So, I think in this movie, we’re leaning a bit more on mayhem and a fun caper aspect of what the Muppets can offer - and I think there’s an emotional story there too - but I think people will be really excited about some of the craziness that goes on.”
It was noted that Gervais is known for a certain amount of cynical humor. Asked what he brought to the Muppets universe, Lieberman replied, with a laugh, “Complete cynicism. No, Ricky is probably one of the biggest Muppet fans in the world. He was so unbelievably happy to be a part of it. He’s obviously extremely funny, extremely smart, so putting someone like him into the world of the Muppets, I think, will turn out really well because he sort of balances them out. But, I think, in a way, he comes across Muppet-like in this movie, so I think people will be really happy with it.”
Apparently Fey’s character, Nadia, becomes quite affectionate towards Kermit. Said the famous frog, “I don’t want to embarrass Tina. I love her and we had a great time together. I think that’s only on camera. I mean she’s a married woman. Besides, Miss Piggy might read this and you never know what could happen, so…”
Kermit added, “We did a number called ‘The Big House’, which is actually Tina Fey’s big number and she sings this song where she’s welcoming me to prison. And I have to say, I was meant to act as though I am kind of depressed about that but it was hard to do because it’s such a fun song, and I think people will see a side of Tina they haven’t seen before. She’s really wonderful.”
When it came to the songs, Lieberman noted, “Oscar winner Bret McKenzie is back. The first movie showcased a lot of the talents of Bret and what he can do in different genres. This movie will do the exact same thing in different ways. We’ve got pieces that span from a ballad to just an unbelievably fun old school musical-style romp, so he’s showcasing all different kinds of music in this too.”
2011’s The Muppets included some of the classic songs the characters are associated with. Asked if they’re doing that once more, Lieberman replied, “Yes, yes we do. There’s something that we’re doing - we have a plan for it. I can’t say much more than that. We have an idea for a song that is a classic Muppets song that we want to incorporate somehow into the movie.”
Overall though, don’t look for quite as many references to the past in Muppets Most Wanted. As Kermit explained, “I think there actually is probably a little less of that this time. This is less about sort of reminding people who we were in the past and moving us forward again, which is very cool. It’s easy to call it a caper, but not like the [Great] Muppet Caper. It’s actually just a more wacky story where the Muppets are trying to stay out of trouble. And there is quite a lot of trouble that we find that we are getting into, so it’s really more of a narrative kind of story.”
We were visiting the Muppets Most Wanted set near the end of production, while they shot in LA, but most of the film was made overseas, where the brunt of the story takes place. Said Lieberman, “The idea was pitched that it was going to be a kind of European adventure. We obviously wanted to shoot there and we were lucky enough to be able to utilize that background architecture and these cities like London. I think we take advantage of it in some cool ways. The Muppets against the backdrop of the Tower Bridge looks pretty damn cool, so I think it’s going to be big in scope.”
Asked what it was like to produce a Muppet movie, Lieberman remarked, “The fun part with the Muppets is that you can break the fourth wall and do self-referential jokes. We do a lot of that, and there’s a certain amount of freedom I guess that allows a filmmaker to do and enjoy that. I mean, the technical aspects of making a Muppet movie are very challenging - we learned that with the first one. You have an exterior location like this that isn’t built three-and-a-half feet off the ground, so you have to have people lying on the ground and stuff them into small spaces. So, shooting the Muppets is definitely challenging, but I guess their whole idea is fun and mayhem and thinking of all types of crazy things to do with them is definitely part of the allure of doing it.”
Given Jason Segel and Amy Adams aren’t in this film, Miss Piggy was asked if the absence of their characters, Gary and Mary, is addressed. Said the ever-blunt diva, “I don’t know. If you want to write them a post card and address it to them, you may. I really don’t see the point of it myself. This is a Muppet movie, you know! Nobody really cares about the humans.”
As we were wrapping up, Walter was asked which of the Muppets he hung out with while not filming and he replied, “After shooting is over? I hang out in a box. That part I was not expecting.”