Pete Sohn Interview for Squishy of Monsters University, Partnered Post…
One of the new characters from Monster University is Scott “Squishy” Squibbles, member of the Oozma Kappa (OK) fraternity and voiced by Pete Sohn of Pixar Studio fame. This guy’s played so many roles in Pixar blockbusters and he again brings a distinct character to life on the screen. This time it just happens to take the form of a multi-eyed monsters inspired by mochi (Japanese sweet). By the way, Pete is a hoot and is like a live animated character himself with all his expressions and voices 🙂 Enjoy!
Pete Sohn: My name is Peter Sohn and I’ve worked here at Pixar for about 11 years. I’m lucky enough to be playing Squishy, the chubby guy with the hat and a bunch of eyes. It’s been really fun.
Q: How did you get the role?
Pete Sohn: It’s funny. I’ve played Emile in Ratatouille here. It was like, “You’re chubby. And you’ll eat funny food. So why don’t you play this guy?” I’m like, “Okay”. Then this was kind of like, “You’re chubby. And you’re kinda nerdy too. So why don’t you give this a shot?” The recording was done a while ago and I’ve been on other projects since. This was a straight-on casting call for the thing where they wanted me specifically. It was just Dan, and Kori, saying, “Come on down and do the scratch for it.” Scratch voices are temporary, fake voice just to put something in there just to feel out how the story’s going to work. That’s how I started, with just this fake dialogue stuff. So, uh, whatever you want me to do Dan. And then it became permanent.
It’s really interesting because, working here at Pixar and then doing voices. It’s just like it’s kind of this give and take with all the other productions here because it’s so familiar. When in such family, you want to do whatever you can for each other. So if someone’s in the middle of a punch and goes, “Could you quickly come down for ten minutes and just scream into the microphone about, you know, your mom?” Sure. “MOM!” then back to work. This give and take – that’s really fantastic here. Because they have a studio and they allow this kind of creed of freedom, you can do this.
Q: What do you when you’re not doing voice?
Pete Sohn: I started here in as a character designer on Finding Nemo in 2000. Then I moved into story on that on production. Then I’ve been in animation. I’ve been in many departments. But currently I’m co-directing The Good Dinosaur with Bob Peterson that’s coming out in 2014. It’s gonna be great. It’s been amazing that this place allows you to just move around into what you’re interested in and what you want to learn about. You know, Pixar’s great about that.
Q: Did you direct Partly Cloudy?
Pete Sohn: Yes, I did direct that short. That was for Up. I made a little short about that classic story of where storks get their babies from and deliver their babies. I came up with this crazy thing where the clouds make the babies. It’s a whole other thing.
Q: Why did they choose you for this part?
Pete Sohn: I think they found a quality… You know, I’m not like the type of actor where I can meld into other different types of personalities really. They wanted that kind of nerdy, sincere quality that, to be honest, is all I can do. That’s something that they wanted in Squishy as a character. It’s not like when they first brought me on as something they talked about. They just kind of brought in this character. They read the pages from the beginning and were just like, “okay, he’s part of this frat that is kind of the loser frat”. I totally understand that role. So that wasn’t a big stretch for me. Being in the reel is kind of where the test bed. It wasn’t like, “oh you fit perfectly”. It was just kind of seeing how my voice, as a scratch voice, melded with some of the other performers. It kind of fit.
Q: Was the character inspired by you or vice versa?
Pete Sohn: I think it’s back and forth. I’m not sure, exactly. In the beginning there was a “Squishy” but then evolved to be a guy with a hat and chubby. Maybe it wasn’t a stretch. “Maybe that’s what he looks like. Oh, that guy looks like that. Let’s put him in there.” It was an evolution for sure.
Q: Describe your character. What do you like about him?
Pete Sohn: I like that he’s so sincere and kind of naïve things. There’s a scene in there where Mike and Sully want to throw a party. He’s like, “This is great. Grab some couch cushions ’cause we’re gonna build a fort!” I totally connect with that type of guy just because that’s how I grew up with my cousins. We didn’t have the Internet so the world was so like out there. For us it was just like, “Oh! You have the one piece of Lego!” Whatever that is that you can just nerd out for a while. It was that naïve sincerity that I really, really liked about him.
When Julia Sweeney came, who plays Ms. Squibbles his mom, I got to have lunch with her. She’s so brilliant. Then seeing in the reels how he’s embarrassed of his mom but still totally like, “Yeah, that’s my mom”. He still loves her but totally living this weird 30-year-old living with his mom kind of feeling. I totally understand it, connect with it as well. It’s not a stretch. Seriously, it’s not a stretch at all what that character is.
Q: Did you play much of the role in figuring out the character of Squishy?
Pete Sohn: No, the script was written. It was mainly just trying to find funny ways to say certain things. It was Dan Scanlon and the writers and the storyboard artists who really figured that and fleshed most of that out. I really was at that point of finding funny ways to say things. Dan is such a good director in understanding my personality. We know each other so he can put me in a place very easily, like creating some analogy for me to go and, “Oh, I get it. Okay.” and I had done voices before. I’m right up here so it’s not like they have to figure everything out and come down. It’s just like come down, I would say the line, and then be away. I’m sure they’re working it out every single time.
Q: What kind of movies did you see when you were fifteen or sixteen?
Pete Sohn: Fifteen and sixteen, wow, that was a huge year for me. I come from a Korean family and they don’t speak English very well. So my mother always took me to these movies all the time that were all English. She didn’t understand anything that was going on unless it was told visually pretty well. Most of the movies from my childhood were going with her. Then, she said in Korean, “What did the character say?” and I’d have to translate it in the middle of an audience. What affected me most were the movies that I didn’t have to translate very much, the ones that were told visually very well. A lot of them were these Disney animated movies. Some of the great directors can tell stories visually without you having to understand what people are saying.
It was an epiphany around that time, of 15 or 16, of wanting to get into animation because of that fact. At fifteen, sixteen I was just now bringing in as much as I could watch. Literally, I had my lunch money and I would save it – “The Bicycle Thieves. I’ve never seen that. I’ve got to go see that. Or Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” So that was the 80’s. All the 80’s movies of totally influenced me.
Q: Do people recognize you?
Pete Sohn: People here do. It’s not like outside. What’s so funny about that was Ricky Nierva and the guys. I was on a project and we were in the story room right up there coming up with the story. Working here with a bunch of artists, they will look at your face and make fun of it immediately by doing drawings. You would be like, “What are you drawing”? They’d show and “Oh! That’s me. Oh, ___ you! ” Then you try to draw them and insult them back. It all started from up there they kept drawing me as a thumb. Like “You look like a thumb”. Then a bunch of other hands, and they put a hat on the thumb. I’m like, “That’s so mean. How dare you!” Then, as the cruelest joke it becomes this real thing.
I grew up in New York and I was a bear cub. So there was that aspect of an Asian boy scout in an urban area. That’s about it. I did a scratch voice for that as well, “Hey, Harold. Blah-blah-blah”. I’m a 30-year-old guy. That’s the limited kind of work that I’d done on there. It’s funny, a lot of the work here is just like about jacking you then all of a sudden you’ve something permanent again, if that makes any sense.
Q: Can you do the dance like Squishy?
Pete Sohn: I haven’t seen the dance. I only saw it in boards where it was all like, do-do-do-do-do. I haven’t seen the animation yet. I’ve been busy on another project. I will dance for you if you want but I haven’t seen the footage.
Q: What’s it like hearing your voice on the big screen?
Pete Sohn: It’s really thrilling. It is really exciting. There’s two pieces of it because you work on these movies and the grind of constantly trying to figure out the story, your brain goes in that one direction. But then you have to reserve that other side of you as an audience member, like trying to watch the movie for the first time every time you see it. You try to ignore that. Sometimes when you hear your voice it’s just like, “Oh! That is so embarrassing.” But at the other time I don’t see it as my voice anymore because the work that Dan and the whole crew does makes it its own thing because the acting that he’s doing and the attitudes that he’s having are not necessarily me. So you’re like, wow, it’s becoming something else. But if an audience laughs at something, I’m like, ‘oh, yeah, well, that’s me’.
It’s a mixed bag for sure because it’s really exciting but at the same time it’s naked. It’s a really naked thing because you’re so self-conscious in there. For me acting is just about trying to not think about anything else other than what that character’s thinking about and what the natural instincts can be. So when you’re in there and they’re like, “Okay, do it like this. Here’s the line.” “But mom!” How was that? “No, no, no, you’re really mad here.”
Okay, I’m back in my room in New York and I’m thinking about my mom. What am I doing? Okay, I’m eating some heavy, fatty food that she doesn’t want me to eat. She’s now taking the food away from me. Okay, erase everything. Okay, but mom! And then really try to be in there for that is a really interesting thing. So most of the time you’re like, oh, I could’ve done that better. Or I could’ve done this better. But it’s trusting the directors and the crew knowing that they’ll take care of and make that character real.
Q: Do you have another favorite character in Monsters?
Pete Sohn: I love Art. There are a lot of really funny scenes with him. I’m a big Muppet fan too, and he embodies the Muppet-feel. But you can’t imagine how, if it was a real Muppet, how you would work that type of shape. What’s so exciting about 3-D is you’re able to do these kind of things, get that feel that you had when you were a kid but make a whole new thing out of it. And I love Ms. Squibbles. I thought she was really, really funny and heartwarming. I can’t wait for you to see the rest of the movie because there was a lot of stuff that happened.
Q: Does family tease you about the movie characters?
Pete Sohn: Yeah, it’s so funny because most of my family is all Korean. My brother can go, “All I can hear is you. I can’t see anything else. The movie’s ruined because of that.” I’m so sorry. And so it’s mostly like that. “Mom, did you see the movie? What’d you think?” She doesn’t understand the English as well. She knows it’s my voice but anyway.
Q: How is that for you when you watch those Pixar movies?
Pete Sohn: Well, it was only Ratatouille. I played a mugger in The Incredibles. In the beginning, it’s kind of like this gimmick of, wow, my voice is up there. That’s really funny. And then, Ratatouille, it was really just the brilliance of the work that was put into it because I also worked on that movie as well as a story artist and an animator. It really is a split mind where you want to just focus on the production and the performance, and then think about how it’s received later.
Q: Are you still able to look with innocent eyes?
Pete Sohn: No, it is naked. Boy, I’m glad it’s not film because I will just be like, “Never again! Don’t ever!” With a voice you’re only thinking about how the character’s moving. Because other animators hands are doing the acting, you’re able to separate yourself a little bit more from it.
Q: Were you like your character in college?
Pete Sohn: I went to art school. So, I was a nerdy loser in art school – totally the same. There were no frat parties or anything like that. It was mainly, “Look I’m gonna paint my body with this giant ‘X’ on it. Definitely the cliques of being with friends, that kind of innocent level is absolutely something I shared.
Q: What scares you?
Pete Sohn: What scares me? Okay, I’m gonna get real now. I have a three-year-old daughter and this six-month-old baby now. What scares me is, this is gonna sound so sappy, but I had no idea having kids – that idea that they will be able to break your heart purposely one day. In the beginning, it’s like, “oh, wow. I love you. You love me. That’s great.” Now that the love has grown so much, they have that ability now, “I hate you, Daddy.” “How can you say that?! I’m so terrified of that just because of what I did to my parents. I know it’s coming. That’s oh so sad.
Q: What advice would you give to young people that want to get into animation?
Pete Sohn: I call it love the tree. Love it whole-heartedly and, in doing so you’ll start finding all the other branches of it and then you start to learn everything about it. The more knowledge you have something about it, the more you begin to understand and the more you love it and you become so passionate about it that you can’t help but do it. It’s an important thing because this type of work takes a long time and it’s hard work to do. These films are like four to five years. When people are thinking about getting into it, that’s great. You can meet people and I love it. And I love that about it. And I love this. That passion can create life. In animation that’s what it’s all about. It’s about trying to make something real and alive. The only way you do it is to love it really.
It’s funny because growing up in New York, there was a lot of racial stuff that I had grown around with. I was always pushed to a place where you are that color. I’m yellow. This is who I am. This is what I identify with. But then, finding this passion in animation at a young age, finding people at school and people here of like minds, it’s like, “Wow, this is my race now”. It is not the color of my skin. It is not my heritage in a way. It is these people that I connect to on this kind of passionate level that has become a race. You only connect like that with other people that love the same things that you do. You know what I mean? Boy, I feel like I’m getting really sappy here.
- “Like” Monsters University on Facebook
- “Like” The Blue Umbrella on Facebook
- “Follow” @Disney/Pixar on Twitter
All-expense paid press trip provided by Disney/Pixar. No other compensation is being/was provided. All opinions are 100% my own.