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Wilfred: Jason Gann on his quirky drama
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Jason Gann and Elijah Wood in Wilfred
Quirky drama Wilfred is the brainchild of Jason Gann (who stars in the Australian original and the US version), Adam Zwar and Tony Rogers. It began life as a short film and, following its success, the trio adapted it into the award-wining hit show that first hit Australia before crossing the Pacific to America, and then the Atlantic to the UK courtesy of BBC Three.
To mark the release of the first season on DVD (with uncut episodes!), we caught up with Jason Gann to talk accents, dogs and shaggy dog suits.
How did you feel when an American broadcaster expressed interest in remaking the show?
It kind of came from our end. My manager asked me if I was interested in doing an American version and I said: "If you can sell it, I'll do it". It was the best decision I ever made.
A number of Australians on US television drop their natural accent, but you've retained yours for Wilfred. Was this a condition of remaking the show or were the US execs happy about your accent?
I was shooting the Australian version at the time so I was unable to attend the pitch meeting, but the story goes that when they asked about the dog's accent someone said: "Didn't you know all dogs have an Australian accent?" They laughed and that was the last time it was brought up.
It was crazy and I was surprised they'd want to go with that, but I'm pleased to see how people have responded and how they feel the Australian accent on Wilfred strengthens the comedy. That's a great relief for me.
Your performance as a dog is uncanny. Did you spend a great deal of time studying them as part of your research?
I'm always sorry to disappoint people when they want to know if I've gone to dog shelters; I don't do that. Look, if I see a dog on the street I adore it as much as anybody else, but in the original short film of Wilfred, the one-liner was that it was a conversation between two blokes and one of them just happens to be a dog.
I wanted Wilfred to be one of those dogs that thinks it's human and is stuck in this dog's body, so I always play him as human. I play him as a sort of heightened version of myself and it seems the more straight I play it that makes it work, as opposed to if I was doing doggy acting.
It's amazing what that power of suggestion does; when I put those floppy ears on and that nose, people go; "Oh my God, he's got the dog mannerisms down perfect!" but I'm not really acting like a dog.
It's made me really think about the relationship humans have with dogs and why, and how much of it is because we see ourselves in dogs and how they replicate our behaviour. It's kind of amazing that people think I've got this dog behaviour down pat.
How did the shaggy dog suit come about?
In Brisbane I worked in a children's theatre [The Twelfth Night Theatre] for about 10 years and in the daytime I often did three different shows each day - and for years I played animals, all of whom had that black nose.
I worked for 30 bucks a show in the Queensland summer in these animal suits and it was hellish. They were tough years but I always thought it was funny seeing the other actors in their animal suits, smoking cigarettes between shows.
Season one of Wilfred is available now on DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
So when the idea for the short film came up and Adam [Zwar] who created it with me asked: "What's he going to look like?" I knew exactly what he'd look like. I didn't want to get into one of those suits again but I knew it would be funny. I wanted it to be crappiest-looking suit you could find.
The idea was to put in as little effort as possible. It's amazing how this simple idea, and how it came from years of struggling as a theatre actor, has turned into this iconic image. People buy the suit and dress up in it. Wilfred was the fourth most Googled Halloween costume last year, just after The Smurfs, and Captain America was number eight. It's crazy.
Sum up what you think Elijah Wood brings to your show...
I used to think it was the simple fact he has this otherwordliness going on behind his eyes and you're really questioning what he's thinking. That adds this kind of magical element to it, but it's actually more than that because it informs my performance as Wilfred - which has become a lot more varied.
In the Australian version it's kind of one-note; Wilfred hates Adam and he's going to do everything he can to break him. He's angry, he's bitter, he's got anxieties, and very rarely do we see him happy at all.
Whereas with what Elijah brings to the show, he brings out this protective nature in me. When I was watching the audition on-camera with me in the suit, I looked at the physicality of us together and there really was this bodyguard thing going on.
I wanted to take that further and Wilfred is as much his protector as he is his saboteur. As a result of that, the character is so much more fun to play. It's much more light-hearted and there are times where he plays characters within characters, and this is all stuff that didn't exist prior to Elijah being in the show. So there's the obvious stuff he brings and there's also a lot of other stuff that informs what I do.
You write and you act, but which do you prefer to do and why?
I'm a writer first. I actually came to America to sell formats for shows I'd created and the idea was that, although there's not a lot of money in a format sale, if I could get a show sold it would open doors for me as a staff writer.
I'd heard that Hollywood runs off ideas and that's me - I wrote a lot of ideas for a lot of shows. So I took some meetings and the gist was: "These formats are fantastic and we can sell these shows but you've got to be in them - you're amazing".
I started acting 20 years ago and was obsessed with it for many of those years, but then over the last 10 years I started to do more writing and it became my first love. Now that I'm starring in a show I'm kind of living a dream that I'd forgotten about and I'm happy to run with that as long as I can, but my main goal is to be a show-runner and producer for several shows and films.
The second season of Wilfred attracted some big names such as Robin Williams and Chris Klein; which other stars would you love to have on the show and why?
I'd love to get Jack Nicholson, if we're going to be aiming high. I think he's the greatest actor on the planet. My favourite actors aren't the ones who can put on an accent and a beard and swashbuckle a sword around - not mentioning any names, of course.
I'm not big on actors who do tricks and stunts, whereas with Nicholson you believe him. You always believe him, whereas with these other actors who do tricks I never believe in them and I never care about their characters.
When the stakes are high I'm never in the cinema thinking, "That's me up there, this represents me". I gravitate more towards actors like Nicholson than the clever ones, you know? Also I've got very similar eyebrows to him and I'd love to get him in a dog suit.
How would you describe Wilfred for anyone that hasn't seen it because it's pretty unique.
It's the hardest thing to sum up when people ask me that, but it's about a guy who's losing his mind and while the rest of the world sees a normal dog he sees me in a dog suit smoking bongs and terrorising him.
Season one of Wilfred is available now on DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.
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