UNDERDOG’S HUMAN CAST
The Voices Behind The Bark
The enduring affection for Underdog as a character drew a lot of the actors to this new UNDERDOG adventure – both to voice the canine characters and to portray Capitol City’s human citizens and villains. Naturally, the first order of business was the quest to find an actor who could bring Underdog to life. Those who grew up with the cartoon fondly recall the milquetoast voice of actor Wally Cox, who made the character so endearingly funny – and the filmmakers of the new UNDERDOG wanted someone of equal flair, but with his own unique style.
The search ended with Golden Globe-nominated Jason Lee, one of today’s most popular comic talents who broke out in the indie films of Kevin Smith and stars in the acclaimed NBC comedy series “My Name Is Earl” as the hapless crook who decides to right all the wrongs he has inflicted on the world. Lee has also made his mark in animation, voicing the role of the villain Syndrome in the Academy Award® winning Disney•Pixar blockbuster “The Incredibles.”
Lee didn’t hesitate for a second. “Like most people my age, I was a big fan of the cartoon and I love doing voice work,” he says. But he did have to spend some time working out just the right approach to refreshing a character so beloved. “This film is inspired by the original cartoon but it’s really its own modern take on the story. So, ultimately, I just set out to be me – knowing that part of the appeal would be that my voice is coming out of something that isn’t me, and playing with that idea.”
He continues: “Part of what sets Underdog apart is that he has this very clumsy, likable quality, until he becomes a superhero, reluctantly taking on responsibility. It’s a case of someone ordinary becoming extraordinary. So finding the inflections, the energy, the rhythm and the pace for his transformation was a lot of fun.”
Lee also had a blast with the romantic tension between Shoeshine/Underdog and the alluring but seemingly unattainable Polly Purebred. “He’s out of his league with Polly,” admits Lee, “so he’s always trying to be very suave with her. He’s putting on this bravado but it’s still innocent and charming and I think that’s why we like him so much.”
Playing against Lee as the voice of Polly Purebred is Academy Award® nominee Amy Adams, who won widespread critical acclaim in the dramatic comedy “Junebug” and was recently seen in the hit comedy “Talladega Nights.” Like Lee, she was a stand-out winner in the casting process. “She was a real inspiration,” says Glickman. In fact, when we started recording, she took her hair down, which is normally up, and the look matched our dog’s ears. An unanticipated coincidence, but it turned out to be a great thing.”
It was the script that drew Adams’ interest. “I absolutely fell in love with the dogs and with Polly and the way they made her more modern. I always like playing sassy girls,” she laughs. “Polly is very feisty and not afraid to say what she thinks. She craves adventure, but she is absolutely hard to get.”
As a dog owner herself, Adams loved getting the chance to explore what a dog might say – if she was granted a voice. “I guess you could say Polly just wants the freedom to be her own dog,” observes Adams. “To prepare further, I not only watched my own dog, I also went to Central Park and watched some Cavalier King Charles Spaniels to get a better sense of their personalities. What’s fun about this movie is that the dogs are presented with a mix of realistic dog behavior and very human emotions.”
Also joining the voice cast as the canine villain Riff Raff, is Brad Garrett, known for his hang-dog role on “Everybody Loves Raymond” as well as his voice work on such Disney•Pixar animated films as “Finding Nemo” and the recent hit “Ratatouille.”
The Unger Family
While the extraordinary hijinx of Underdog brings superhero adventure to the film, it is the ordinary Unger family, who adopt Shoeshine the Beagle, who provide the story’s heart. To play Dan Unger, the widowed father who works as a security guard in the building where Barsinister conducts his shady experiments, the filmmakers knew they needed an actor who could traverse from comedy to drama in a heartbeat. Known for the wit and believability he brings to the role of a family man on his hit television series “According to Jim,” and a long-time dog-lover, Jim Belushi was the first choice.
“When I heard about the new UNDERDOG, I kind of got a joyous feeling connecting me back to my youth,” says Belushi. “The original cartoon provided hours of entertainment and when I read the script, I thought it was really well written. It’s an incredible journey for children and adults. It’s got action but it’s also got great relationships, between a father and son; between a girl dog and boy dog; and of course between people and dogs, which this movie really captures. And since we all feel like underdogs at some point in our life, it’s great to see this Underdog win.”
It also helped that Belushi, who has his own German Shepherd named Truly Scrumptious, is very experienced working with actors of the furry persuasion. “I’ve done three movies with dogs, including ‘K-9’ and I just love working with animals,” he says. “They are so in the moment. No matter how well-rehearsed you are, when you are in a scene with a dog, you have to let it all go and be present, and that’s when the magic happens.” Animal Coordinator Boone Narr saw a lot of that magic with Belushi.
“Sometimes you get actors who are standoffish with dogs but Belushi was always pushing it, even in the scenes when the German Shepherds with super powers are right in his face,” he says.
To play Dan Unger’s son, Jack, whose life is forever changed when he discovers his pet dog is actually a world-saving crime-fighter, the filmmakers decided to take a chance on a new, young star: Alex Neuberger in only his second film role. They were especially impressed with the 14 year-old’s ability to not only display a wide range of emotions but to play straight man to a hilarious dog as well.
Despite his youth, Neuberger had seen the cartoon on television, but he was primarily attracted by the script. “It was really action-packed,” he says. He was also intrigued by the character, who he notes is quite different from himself. “His mom died and his dad gave up his job as a cop and Jack’s pretty down when the story starts, until he meets Underdog. Of course that’s another big difference between us -- Jack has a pet dog, and I don’t,” Neuberger explains.
There were initial concerns over how Neuberger might handle his numerous scenes with rambunctious pups – but he proved to be a natural animal handler. “The trainers had me feed the dogs and train the dogs every day, so I developed a great relationship with Leo,” he says.
Starring as Jack’s love interest Molly (a relationship that parallel’s the courtship between their dogs, Underdog and Polly Purebred) is up-and-coming star Taylor Momsen. The 14 year-old’s already impressive range of roles includes co-starring as Cindylou Who opposite Jim Carrey in Ron Howard’s “Dr. Suess’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and as Mel Gibson’s daughter in “We Were Soldiers.”
Momsen learned about the original Underdog cartoons from her dad, who had grown up with them. But when she read the script, she took a liking to Molly, who is one of the most popular and richest girls at Jack’s school. Momsen was attracted Molly’s determination and sense of adventure and enjoyed portraying the sophisticated, rich girl’s polished demeanor. “I had to constantly remind myself how important etiquette is to her because she is such a proper and conservative girl.”
Rounding out the human cast of UNDERDOG is a cadre of supporting actors including: noted stage and television star John Slattery (“Desperate Housewives,” “Jack and Bobby”), who plays Capitol City’s beleaguered Mayor; Samantha Bee, the sole female correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” as Jack and Molly’s school principal; and Susie Castillo, host of MTV’s wildly popular “TRL (Total Request Live)” and a former Miss USA, who plays Capitol City’s ubiquitous News Reporter, always on the scene to report the amazing and mysterious appearances of Underdog.
The Mad Scientist
And then there are the humans who actually play humans in UNDERDOG. At the center of the human cast is the diabolical nemesis of Underdog: Simon Barsinister, the brilliant but definitely mad scientist whose mind and body are disfigured when an experiment goes awry. It is Barsinister who ultimately creates Underdog – and must face him in a climactic battle. To play the role, the filmmakers recruited Peter Dinklage, who garnered international attention for his groundbreaking role in the indie comedy-drama “The Station Agent” and went on to win acclaim in the hit comedy “Elf” with Will Ferrell.
Dinklage was another big fan of the cartoon series and found playing the dastardly Barsinister a happy challenge. “This character is a lot of fun,” he says. “The beauty of Barsinister is that he is defined in every scene by his huge ego. The same running joke you find with the James Bond or Batman villains is true for Simon Barsinister, because he is constantly trying to convince everybody of his genius.”
Dinklage also enjoyed the fact that Barsinister isn’t so much outright evil as dangerously over-ambitious. “He’s very misunderstood – he really just wants to create a better world and take society to new heights,” he explains. Still, Dinklage, an animal lover, admits it wasn’t easy playing a man willing to exploit animals to reach his goals. “I’m obsessed with dogs,” he admits, “so it was very hard for me to be menacing towards them.”
Creating a classic comedy pairing of villains with Dinklage is Patrick Warburton as Barsinister’s dimwitted henchman Cad. Warburton, the versatile actor best known for his recurring role as Elaine’s boyfriend Puddy on “Seinfeld” and an animation veteran who lends his voice to such hit shows as “Family Guy,” provided the perfect foil to Dinklage with their wild contrasting sizes and equally deft skill at uproarious physical comedy.
Warburton notes that he even has a karmic link to the famous canine, “Underdog and I were born the same year,” he points out, “so I basically grew up with him.” But it was the heartfelt and fun re-imagining of the story that impressed Warburton. “I think the writers created a timeless fantasy because everyone remembers their first dog and how exciting and special that experience is. In this story, Jack has a dog that’s literally a superhero, which is what he really needs in his life,” Warburton continues. “I thought the story was fun but also had a lot of heart.”
GOING TO THE DOGS: UNDERDOG’S STELLAR CANINE CAST
The real key to transforming UNDERDOG into a live-action adventure would lay in the hands – or rather, the paws – of the film’s canine actors, who become the true heroes of the story...