Chris Evans certainly has the market cornered on superheroes, voicing the iconic space ranger Buzz Lightyear shortly after hanging up (and handing over) his shield as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain America.
At the world premiere of the Disney-Pixar animated movie on June 8, Evans admitted that taking on the voice role was “intimidating,” especially when following the work of Tim Allen as Buzz in the four “Toy Story” films.
“The first time you have to do that iconic line, ‘To Infinity and Beyond…,’ you kind of just do a shameless Tim Allen impression. It’s intimidating,” Evans told Variety, crediting “Lightyear” director Angus MacLane and the Pixar team for helping him craft his own take on the voice. “Eventually you feel comfortable enough to make your own tracks in the snow and find your own interpretation, while still using Tim Allen as the blueprint.”
The next day, Evans sat down with Variety at the press junket for the pic to dive a little deeper into its themes, as the story explains exactly who this space ranger was that inspired Buzz Lightyear, the toy, that audiences know and love.
Alright, Chris, so I understand you’re a bit of a space nerd.
So was there any part of you that wished this could be a live-action movie and you could get in the Buzz Lightyear suit?
Yeah, maybe. We had to do some press the other day at JPL, the Jet Propulsion Lab, and it was just … I mean, I could’ve stayed there all day. It was so fascinating.
What was the nerdiest question that you wanted to ask?
Well, there were certain questions you want to ask, but you’re like, “Am I going to sound so stupid?” You want to ask a bunch of things, but you have to kind of refrain because, again, you can only embarrass yourself so much in front of these guys.
This movie is a deep exploration into Buzz Lightyear’s origin story. It’s fun and exciting, but I didn’t expect that it was going to be about him dealing with his hubris and learning teamwork. What interested you most about the premise?
Well, to be honest, what interested me most was working with Pixar. The premise was not inconsequential, obviously, you want to make sure that they’re going to make a good movie. But you trust in Pixar, my trust, they have so much goodwill. I’ve never seen Pixar miss, so I didn’t really worry too much about the story itself. I was just thrilled that Pixar was calling.
Angus MacLane [the director of “Lightyear”] explained that this is the sci-fi, ’80s action movie that Andy from “Toy Story” watched and bought the toy Buzz Lightyear [voiced by Tim Allen]. But something Angus was really interested in for this story was the time dilation. Obviously, you played another man out of time — how did the way Buzz is dealing with being a man out of time really contrast from what you were doing with Captain America?
Sure, I mean, there are a lot of similarities between the characters. Fundamentally, they’re very different men.
I was fascinated about how Buzz could almost be more connected to what Pixar animators deal with. It literally takes four years to make these movies, so these men and women disappear for four years and pour themselves into these projects. And they said, every time they make a movie, when they come out, the world has changed. And I just thought that parallel was really, really interesting, and I was happy for the Pixar animators that they somehow got to inject their experience into this movie.
How do you relate to that in your experience? The filmmaking process is a little bit shorter as an actor, but making an animated movie takes years and years, and then, obviously, Marvel was a different type of years and years.
Well, with Marvel, it’s never so consuming that you feel like you have to re-enter society. For the most part, Marvel is more of short bursts of responsibility, spread out over a long period of time. For 10 years, you’d have a movie; and then six months later, you got press; and then six months later, a new movie; and then six months later, press. So it was very balanced, and measured, and never too consuming in a way that, all of a sudden, I felt like I was needing to re-acclimate.
And then two years after that, you get me writing headlines that say things like, “Chris Evans Returning to MCU in Some Vague Way.” That was a report a year ago, is there any clarity on what the vague way is?
The vague way is from rumors online. That’s the vague way. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Well, I want to dive a little bit more into the relationships here in “Lightyear” because we get a chance to learn how Zurg [James Brolin] became Buzz’s nemesis, and we also get to learn more about this relationship between Alisha [Uzo Aduba] and Buzz, and the origins of “To Infinity and Beyond…” What was your reaction when you read that script and found out that’s where that line came from?
[Editor’s Note: Since this interview was conducted, “Lightyear” has been banned in Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Kuwait, among other West Asian territories, due to the inclusion of the same-sex kiss.]
I thought it was beautiful. That’s the best thing about Pixar, being able to kind of take these great catchphrases that Tim Allen originated and made so iconic and create origin stories for all of them. It’s basically a movie full of easter eggs, and it’s incredibly satisfying. But it’s a little daunting, because those words are precious, not just to me, but the fans of Buzz Lightyear, the fans of Tim Allen, and you want to honor them as best you can.
In wanting to honor this story, what was something that was either particularly important to or exciting for you as a fan, as you were learning more about the man behind the toy?
Hmm, I liked the fact that Buzz — albeit a hero and someone who is this kind of taciturn, austere, stoic, he seems impenetrable at times — but that even he can be human, and make mistakes, and feel guilt and shame and regret. But be forced to learn from it.
It’s inescapable; we all make mistakes, and the way to move forward isn’t by burying it or pretending it didn’t happen. The way to move forward is by owning it, learning from it and growing.
And, in this movie, we get one of the most emotional montages that I’ve seen, probably since “Up.”
Did any of this make you tear up when you watched it?
Of course — I sobbed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Pixar movie where I didn’t cry. They have the recipe, they really do. I don’t know what it is, but man, the tears start falling.
In that montage, we learn more about Alisha’s life, that she is married; we find out this lineage into her granddaughter [Izzy, voiced by Keke Palmer]. Something else we reported on was the removal and then the reinstatement of this kiss between Alisha and her wife. Disney put a line in the sand saying, we’re putting this back in, but also, we’re not going to remove it for any other territories, in these places that would have a problem with it. What did you make of the company making that decision?
I mean, it’s great. As great as it is — and you know, I’ve been asked the question a few times — it’s nice, and it’s wonderful, it makes me happy. It’s tough to not be a little frustrated that it even has to be a topic of discussion. That it is this kind of “news.” The goal is that we can get to a point where it is the norm, and that this doesn’t have to be some uncharted waters, that eventually this is just the way it is. That representation across the board is how we make films. Look, it’s an honor to be a part of something that is taking those steps, but the goal is to look back on this time and just be shocked that it took us this long to get there.
Last thing for you, “Lightyear” is an ’80s-style actioner and the next one up is “The Gray Man,” which is not set in the ’80s, but it kind of has an ’80s vibe. Everyone is always talking about the ‘stache, but what are you most excited for people to see with Lloyd Hansen?
He’s such a fun villain. I love playing the villain. It’s such a good time. He’s just a wildcard; he’s nuts. And Ryan Gosling is such an unbelievable actor. He’s such a wonderful anchor for any movie. He has the capacity to do very little, but still be so captivating and, his sort of measured interpretation of the role is a great counterpart for my over-acting.
“Lightyear” is in theaters on Friday. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.