Jayma Mays on the Joy of Smurfs and Future of Glee

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Not counting her miniscule blond counterpart Smurfette, Jayma Mays​ is the female lead in what may yet turn out to be the past weekend’s number one film. And yet, as a phenomenon, the movie adaptation of The Smurfs pales in the long shadow of Mays’s other gig: As the germophobic guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury on the mega hit series Glee. Talk about hitting a Daily Double.

Adding to her profile last week, Mays joined co-stars Neil Patrick Harris and Hank Azaria and director Raja Gosnell on a whirlwind of “Smurfs Week” events that helped prime audiences for one of the biggest box-office surprises of the summer. Movieline caught up with her along the way to talk about growing up Smurfy, the existential roller coaster that is Glee, and how she got her unusual accent.

So! You must be excited.
Oh my gosh, yeah. I can’t believe I’m part of this film, to be honest. I was a big fan of The Smurfs growing up, even though by default — my mom used to force me to watch because she was a Smurfs fan. When they sent the script and said, “Would you care to audition?”, I said, “Yes, please!” They knew at the time that Neil would be playing the Patrick role, and I would be auditioning to play his wife. I was so excited about that.

The Smurfs are kind of polarizing, though, culturally. You and your mother were fans, but some people can’t stand them.
It’s like Marmite.

Marmite! To the British? That’s their catchphrase: You either love it or you hate it.

As a fan, what would you say to the anti-Smurf contingent that might persuade them to see this movie?
From a Smurfs fan’s perspective? That’s hard if they didn’t like The Smurfs growing up. I do feel like a lot of it is… I don’t want to say tongue-in-cheek, because that’s probably the wrong thing. But I think they really had fun with the fact that they are the Smurfs. They make fun of themselves in a way, and they make fun of all the unique identities. I mean, there’s a line about Passive-Aggressive Smurf. I feel like if you have bad feelings toward The Smurfs, then you’ll enjoy that part of it. But I don’t know. If you hate it, then it’s had to affect you in some way growing up. Anyway, I laughed the whole way through. I hadn’t even seen it until last night [at the film’s premiere in New York].

I wanted to ask you about that.
I saw a very, very rough cut of it in December, and at the time, only 40 percent of the animation was done. So it was really hard to watch for me; I’d really get involved in the film, and then I’d kind of be taken out of it for a while. So last night it was a lot funnier than I thought it was going to be. They added a lot of funny lines for the Smurfs, and I thought Gargamel and Azrael had an amazing relationship in the film. I loved it. I was really, really happy — I feel proud.

It’s a huge role for you. How was the pressure to pull it off compounded by the crazy-making dynamics on set — acting opposite dots and marks and the rest?
This was challenging in so many ways. First of all, Grace Winslow, the character I played, is probably the most down-to-earth character I’ve ever played. Or at least she’s less quirky than any other role I’ve ever played before — despite the fact that she can see blue people running all over the place. It was nice to play someone who was kind of normal and becoming a mother. But it was a challenge working with the dots — working with nothing there, or having an earwig in your ear with the other person reading the lines and nobody else can hear that but you. It’s funny, because with doors opening and bowls moving — like the kitchen scene — they were using strings. Things were actually moving around the room. It felt a little Poltergeist-y at times. I think the hardest part is to make sure you’re being creative and marrying that technical side of the process as well. You’re making it look natural. It’s tricky. It makes you feel like you’re going crazy.

What’s the learning curve? How long did it take to get comfortable with it? Did you get comfortable with it?
We jumped right into it. We talked about the process. We had some rehearsal time, maybe about a day where we kind of walked through the process and they explained… See, it’s kind of a three-step process: You would work with this little gelatinous puppet that they would kind of walk around to show you roughly what the Smurf would be doing. Some of that was still a little questionable, but you’d get a rough idea. Then they’d take that away and put in a little metal wire so you can get your eyeline right. Then they’d take that away and just put the stickers there for you to see all over the room. So the process was very, very technical. And it was difficult to feel like you’re really having a conversation with something there and make it believable and heartfelt and funny and all those other things you want to have in a movie — even one that doesn’t have CGI.

I understand that this film is, on the one hand, about being yourself and believing in yourself. On the other, why doesn’t anyone just tell Clumsy Smurf​, “Come on! Get it together, man”?
I know, right? “Is it your shoes, Clumsy? Are they too big? Why are you tripping?” [Laughs] I know. I totally agree.

Seriously, though. Grace should have staged some kind of klutz intervention.
“Clumsy! Come on, now!” I don’t know. I do like how Raja says that each of their unique identities that define themselves are something that we can all find in ourselves from time to time. None of us are perfect, and I think if we can just accept each other for those grouchy moments that we have or those clumsy moments that we have… It’s really more about accepting that than trying to correct that, and to know it’s OK if you have these moments. That one thing isn’t going to define you forever. And he’s a hero in the end! He saves the day.

Spoiler alert!
Right! Spoiler alert; don’t tell anyone.

I would never count any of us as “safe,” to be honest.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about turnover on Glee. Is the faculty safe?
I don’t ever feel safe. That’s the cautious actor in me. I’ve been hearing rumors, too, though it sounds like it’s all pretty confirmed. Ryan Murphy confirmed that some of the kids are going to be graduating. But I don’t know. I think it’s sad, first of all, that they’re leaving, but he is such a good writer and creator, and he never wants to do anything that’s predictable. I love that about him. So I would never count any of us as “safe,” to be honest. But if that’s what he feels is right for the show, then I trust him 110 percent.

I do. I do. I feel like you can’t control that stuff, and I feel like they have the greater vision. We’re kind of fed droplets. I don’t even know what I’m doing in an episode until I get the episode. Obviously they have the bigger picture of what’s going on and what’s going to happen. So I trust them. I trust them. I would hate to leave the show. Oh my God, it would kill me. But if they felt like they couldn’t take that character any further, then you’d have to trust that.

Does the secrecy or the short turnaround for these episodes — say, getting the script right before you shoot — impact your character? I know that’s TV in general, but does it impact how she develops?
A little. I think when it comes to shooting a television show — and I’ve never played a character for this long — if you’re getting the lines the day of or the night before, then it definitely affects how you’re playing that. I never feel like, “Oh my gosh, I felt amazing in that scene.” I like it when I can have even a day and a half to look at something. So yeah, I think it affects how you approach it. Maybe you can’t think about it as much. But we always have really good directors, too. Now that I say that, I always feel like they know where the character should be going. If they feel like you haven’t brought it right away, they’ll kind of direct you in that way. It’s good. It’s such a collaborative effort; you’ve got the writers and the director and producer there all trying to make sure that character and the product go in the direction it needs to go.

Where are you from?
I’m from Virginia. I used to have a really Southern accent. You couldn’t figure my accent out, right?

I couldn’t! I was thinking maybe there was some Australian in there.
No. Actually I get Australia a lot. And Jamaican. Kidding! I used to have a really Southern accent, and when I moved to L.A., I had a casting director tell me that I should probably try and lose the accent. It would just open up more doors. You can’t be Southern in every role. And while I was trying to lose it, I met my husband, who’s British. And I started kind of affecting this British-European accent on to my Southern accent. Now it’s just confusing. I quit trying.

What do you want to do next?
I don’t know. My heart always seems to lie with comedy. I just love anything comedy. If I wanted to do something completely different, it has been an obsession of mine to do a horror film. That’s been an obsession of mine; I’ve loved horror films ever since I was little. So maybe if I went in a different direction. There’s always that.

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