Checking off on his bucket list of starring in a Disney feature film, Ben Schwartz recalls his working experience on the squirrel-starring ‘Flora & Ulysses’

If Ben Schwartz has proven anything over the last decade in mainstream entertainment, it is that he could do anything. A multihyphenate that he is — from voice-acting, acting, penning books and screenplays, directing to doing stand-up — he should have a ‘been there, done that’ T-shirt by now. But Flora & Ulysses has him beaming from ear to ear during a video interview with MetroPlus.

Had someone told him that he would be starring in a Disney film, starring a computer-generated squirrel, he says his reaction would be “just so excited”. The 39-year-old admits that he still goes to Disneyland twice a year (except during the lockdowns). “Seeing that Disney logo appear on screen and knowing I would be on screen too, would pump me up; what an amazing feeling!” He adds with a chuckle, “As for a squirrel, of course!”

Flora & Ulysses comes during the third wave of superhero films and series but offers a breath of fresh air in the form of a precocious Flora Buckman (Matilda Lawler) who befriends a squirrel with powers that are anything but rodent-like. Ben Schwartz, playing Flora’s father George Buckman, says when he first got the script, he thought it “so funny and well put-together”.

He recalls wondering if the film’s team had got an extremely talented actor to play Flora, it would make for a very special movie. “And they did,” he adds, referring to Broadway actor Lawler, “Matilda is so smart and she never forgot her lines. She was able to cry every time!” The film also stars Alyson Hannigan, Danny Pudi, Kate Micucci, and Bobby Moynihan.

Doing it for the kids

The film is an adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s novel of the same name, and was well-read for its take of Flora’s outlook on life. Oftentimes, child-centred films have a dumbing-down or condescension about them, but both DiCamillo and Brad Copeland (the film’s scriptwriter) retained Flora’s inquisitive and mature outlook on life. “I love the fact that Flora is smart and understands adult problems, though she doesn’t know everything because she is a child,” explains Schwartz, “but she is able to attack things in a more adult brain-set. It is a lovely way to express that character. In improv, we say ‘play to the top of your intelligence and never dumb anything down for the audience.’ Brad and Kate, with the script and book respectively, were able to show a kid without over-simplifying them. This lets the lessons that she learns to branch out into different age groups.” Schwartz and Lawler also bonded on set, often playing a mental telepathy game as a way to stay connected.

Schwartz, who is deeply close with his parents, is playing a parent perhaps for the first time. But when he and director Lena Khan sat down to discuss his character’s internal landscape. They agreed that, “George had to be a little detached not only from his family but from the world too, it’s a little sad.” He adds, “It’s always a bit of a bummer, to act sad around a child. But as he is around Flora and Ulysses, he becomes more of his old self again, but a different version.” Khan had essentially the notion of ‘when Flora comes with hope, it fills her father up with hope too,’ and Schwartz finds this growth both wonderful and fun to watch and experience.

Having worked with directors including Mike Mitchell for The LEGO Movie 2, Matt Ratner for Standing Up, Falling Down, and Jeff Fowler for Sonic the Hedgehog, Schwartz looks on his experience with Lena Khan with reverence. “It is wonderful to have a director like her on this big-budget movie. It is the second film for her but her first big one; she worked so hard months and months beforehand and was always prepared,” he gushes, “Imagine for your second movie, your most expensive actor is a fake squirrel! She had to track so many things and always thought about what is best for the movie and put us in a safe environment. Her work ethic while juggling a family was just incredible and she should be proud of it. We knew that this film, as we were making it, would warm hearts and give you that Disney feeling that washes over you.”

No interview with Ben Schwartz is complete without some reference to his iconic Parks & Recreation character Jean-Ralphio Saperstein. Yes, George Buckman indeed seems to be a far cry from the money-splurging, sing-song-speaking spoiled brat that faked his death in the name of insurance fraud. Schwartz, unlike most actors who sigh at the frequent mention of a character they have played in the past, actually laughs aloud at the mention of Jean-Ralphio, explaining fondly, “The legacy of that character is still living on, and how he has people singing about how much they hate other people is amazing!” So, would George Buckman and Jean-Ralphio Saperstein get along if they ever met in person? Probably not.

Flora & Ulysses streams on Disney+Hotstar Premium from February 12.

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