"I've been wanting to play in this space for a long time," Josh Gad announces between takes. It's April 2018 on the U.K. set of the fantasy film Artemis Fowl, and Gad, decked out in a mangy jacket and extra fur, has brought to life one of the book series' key characters: Mulch Diggums.
Described as Die Hard with fairies, Disney's adaptation of Eoin Colfer's beloved novel stars Ferdia Shaw as the titular Artemis, who teams up with a fairy LEPRecon officer, Holly Short, to search for his missing father. Mulch Diggums is a kleptomaniac dwarf and smelly schemer drawn into the adventure alongside Dame Judi Dench as an elf commander and Nonso Anozie as Artemis' trusty bodyguard, Butler.
How long does it take to transform into Mulch Diggums?
Josh God: We've actually gotten the process down. I have an unbelievable makeup team. They created the name "Heathrow" to describe me, because it's literally, like, seven people on a runway waiting to get their hands on my face. The process takes about two hours now. We listen to a lot of ‘80s music, [which] gets us in the mood. To get it off, I would say it takes about 45 minutes to an hour.
What about Mulch appealed to you?
It felt like something I haven't done before, which is nice. I had never read Eoin's books prior to getting the offer to do this, but I'm a massive Harry Potter fan. After I read the script, I picked up the book and I literally read it in about a night. It's one of the quickest reads I've ever read. Then I immediately picked up the second book. Rather than a Potter-like character whose entire journey is about learning, Artemis’ entire journey is about coming into himself. This is a journey about a kid who is already very mature and makes a lot of mature decisions for better or for worse. I just love that. It felt extraordinarily original to me.
Eoin described the book as "Die Hard with fairies," and in many ways, it feels like that. It feels like that is what Ken is creating. My character and how he fits into that is really fun. What made me fall in love with Mulch was that this is a guy who's sort of a loner, but at the same time -- while he is a thief, is very flatulent and definitely has his bad qualities -- he's somebody who has a conscience, somebody who genuinely is a good guy. I love that dichotomy.
What did you do to prepare for the role of a giant dwarf?
I studied a lot of literature. [Laughs] No, I read the books. One of the things Ken and I discussed early on was this idea that we wanted to give Mulch a vulnerability of sorts, and that vulnerability stems from a place of not belonging, of wanting so desperately to be one thing but having an appearance that's different than everybody else. That really opened a lot of doors and became really fascinating. You're getting to see this character who desperately wants to fit in but doesn't, which is very similar to Holly. They're on similar paths. It's this innate need and desire that I would hope grounds the character. He's not just a zany character who's coming in and farting nonstop and doing those things that people love from the books.
Since the book is set in Ireland, do you use an Irish accent in the film?
No, no. Kenneth was very adamant [that I didn’t], because the characters living down in Haven City are not Irish. They're all their own breed of things, so we created a different sound. But it's not an accent, per se.
What is your favorite characteristic or ability that Mulch has?
I would say that my favorite ability -- just because I haven't really seen it before -- is the way he uses his hair as a tool. The hair is very much a character in and of itself. The digital team has shown me some spectacular imagery of what they're planning on doing with it. It's not just hair for the sake of hair. If you've read the books, it very much plays a role in how Mulch does what he does. We've sort of grounded the infamous flatulence from the books, because you can get away with it in books in a different way. We're still doing it, but it's sort of taken on a different quality in this, because it's something that -- other than being full of bravado about -- he's actually very embarrassed by it. It provides a nice comedic vulnerability to the character that's fun to play.
Do you have the famous flap on the back of your costume that lets out "air" to propel Mulch forward when he’s underground?
Oh, there is very much a flap. What comes out of that flap is up to the MPAA. But yes, there is a flap.
There's a lot of young new talent in this film.
And a lot of great old talent, as well!
What kind of atmosphere does that bring to the set when you've got these new kids who might be acting for the first time?
It's really unbelievable. I was actually talking to Ken about this... Because he worked on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and worked with kids who basically are the equivalent to what these guys are going through now, I was very curious to hear his take on that. Because they don't know what they don't know and that is liberating to watch. There isn't a lot of anxiety. There isn't a lot of the nerves that you have as a seasoned actor. I would say that the more that you do, the more anxious you get about your choices, the more you start to overthink things. You don't know how your life could change. Experiencing that and experiencing these kids at the ground level before they become stars is really, really, wonderful. They're just having fun.
You also worked with Branagh on Murder on the Orient Express. How was it working back-to-back with him?
He is my favorite director right now -- other than everybody else who I've said is my favorite. [Laughs] It's a different experience to hear the words coming out of an actor's mouth. Meaning, [as an actor-turned-director] he understands our strengths, he understands our weaknesses, he understands how to communicate a thought in a way that feels very palatable and understandable. So for me, having come off Orient Express where he was also my co-star, into now this, where he very much is just my director, we have a backhand that's just wonderful. I would do 50 movies with him. I adore him.
Did Branagh allow you to improvise while on set?
Ken did. He's terrible, because he pushes me to do it more and more which makes him laugh, which then makes me laugh. It’s a double-edged sword and we keep going around in circles. He very much lets me play. There is nothing greater than making Kenneth Branagh laugh, but also nothing worse because my entire facial hair starts to come off. It also keeps people like Judi Dench on her toes. We did a scene together, and you could just tell by her expression that she's like, Why did I do this movie? Why did I ask them to kill off my character in Bond? Daniel Craig is so much more professional than Josh Gad. But it's just so fun because nobody knows what the hell is going to come out of my mouth next.
Would you say you have more scenes in the movie than what Mulch actually has in the book?
Yes. I would say that Mulch doesn't overstay his welcome in either the book or the movie. What I love about characters like Mulch, it's what I love about characters like [Beauty and the Beast's] LeFou. You come in, you can do your thing and not overstay your welcome. And a character like this very much serves a purpose. He is, in many ways, the comedic engine. Things get dire, things get very real and it's always important to have a character to break that tension.
What were your expectations for the sets coming into this film?
We're shooting a scene today involving a gigantic troll. Normally, you would have a tennis ball and you would stare at that tennis ball and you would try to imagine that it's a giant troll. They built an actual troll for us to look at! That is unbelievably helpful, because while you can leave a lot to the imagination, when you have two young kids and this is their first rodeo, imagine how beneficial that is that they can actually look at that and they can actually feel that presence. And the audience is going to be blown away by it as well.
There seems to be this movement right now towards more practical effects, which as a fan of cinema, I love because you can use CGI to embellish those things, but not over-rely on so that you feel like you're in a video game. To me, that's the greatest experience, because everything feels tangible. Everything feels real. There's this great effect where I'm opening a safe, and I figured there was going to be blue screen and we were going to do it all in blues. They literally built a mechanism so that all of the locks are moving in conjunction with my hair, which will obviously be added in post.
What was your feeling when you walked on set and saw it for the first time?
I think of that great line that Richard Attenborough says in Jurassic Park over and over again, "Spared no expense." It really is spared no expense. It's unbelievable. The level of detail is so spectacular. My kids were here last week and I had the opportunity to bring them to the set. I took them into Hidden City and it wasn't quite done yet, but what they had in there was pretty cool and [my kids] were literally, like, jaws on the floor. "When does this Disney ride open?" My 4-year-old goes, "Why do you always play such bad people?" And I looked at her, "Because it pays for your school, sweetie." [Laughs.] We then toured the manor and there's no sense to them that this is fake. The fact that the kids can walk into a mansion and it’s a fully operational house with central heating, it’s unbelievable.
What do your kids think of your look?
They hate it and they love it. They love to hate it. [Laughs.] They see me on FaceTime all the time like this. I think in person they thought it was much cooler and funnier. They're like, “Why is that homeless man our father? What happened to Daddy? Why is he so dirty?" At lunch, I'll take off my mustache so I can actually consume food, so I'll just look like a weird Amish rocker who hasn't showered in years. So they get a kick out of what I do. Now that they're really starting to understand how the cake gets made, they're really enjoying it from a process standpoint. I did a time-lapse video for them, so that they could see how much work goes into it and they're so taken aback by it. It's a thrill to be able to share that with them.