'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Hank Azaria ('Ray Donovan')

The 27-year 'Simpsons' vet discusses getting his voice insured, the acting teacher who convinced him he could do more than just voices, the challenges and rewards of guest acting (which he's previously done on 'Friends' and 'Mad About You') and more.
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Hank Azaria

"It's given me a lot of freedom," Hank Azaria, who has voiced characters on The Simpsons for 28 years, says of the Emmy-nominated Fox series as we sit down to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast. The show pays a fortune and demands only two to four hours of his time each week, two things that have enabled Azaria to take on a wide variety of other projects, as well — including the part of Ed Cochran on FX's Ray Donovan, for which he is now up for the best guest actor in a drama series Emmy. "I literally can afford to do that because of The Simpsons," he says with gratitude.

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"I was a mimic, really, ever since I was a kid," the 52-year-old says, and from that came a desire to perform. "I spent all my time in the theater in college, and by the time I graduated realized I'd regret it if I didn't give it a shot as a young man." He moved to New York and figured he "couldn't get arrested" in the theater, but landed a part on a TV show that came with few lines in a TV, and that is what brought him out to to Los Angeles in the late '80s. From there, he says, "I had a series of very small, very lucky breaks."

Two of Azaria's earliest breaks came courtesy of the then-fledgling Fox network. The first came in 1989, when he landed a job on The Simpsons, the first animated primetime show. (He auditioned for the part of bartender Moe, who he says remains the "closest to my heart," but wasn't made a regular until the middle of the second season, by which point he was voicing five to 10 characters.) Then, in 1991, he was cast on a live-action sitcom called Herman's Head. He was excited, but skeptical. "I didn't even think the Fox network would stick around, genuinely," he says with a laugh.

He says his acting approach had been shaped a few years earlier by "a very passionate, awesome ... ego-less" acting teacher named Roy London, who forced him to get outside "my comfort zone" and do things other than voices (which he used even to get into restaurants by posing as celebrities). "Instead of just thinking, 'What's the funniest way [something] would sound,' sort of thinking about, 'What if I really were a cop having to deal with this?'" In short, he says, London helped him learn "to actually act and not just be a comedian," which improved his work all around. (Even so, he got his voice insured 15 years ago after blowing it out, something that "really scared the shit out of me.")

In the mid-'90s, Azaria started to do more dramatic acting. His memorable performances include a TV producer in Robert Redford's Quiz Show (1994), Gwyneth Paltrow's fiance in a modern-day version of Great Expectations (1998), Mitch Albom opposite Jack Lemmon in the TV movie of Tuesdays with Morrie (1999) and the editor in Shattered Glass (2003). Always, though, he has jumped between the genres, doing Mike Nichols' uproarious The Birdcage (1996) and John Hamburg's Along Came Polly (2004), as well. "If I'm working heavily on a drama for a while, I really look forward to a comedy, and vice-versa."

Through the years, numerous TV series were built around Azaria, but most failed — a notable exception being Showtime's Huff (2004-2006), on which he played a therapist who seemingly could help everyone but himself. Mostly, though, his small on-camera screen success has come in guest appearances — for instance, as David, Phoebe's scientist ex-boyfriend on Friends; as Nat, the dog-walking neighbor, on Mad About You; and now as Cochran on Ray Donovan, on which he's appeared in 14 episodes since 2014. (He received Emmy noms for all three, which come on top of his seven for The Simpsons, one for Huff and one for Morrie.)

"This is a guy who obviously always had this dark side," Azaria says of the character. "It came out in his work ... it just was quite well hidden ... Now he's sort of full-blown, 'Screw it, my life has been completely ruined. I might as well do whatever I feel like doing. My name couldn't be worse. There's no reputation to lose.' Some actors find guesting on a series to be intimidating, since it involves stepping into an ecosystem that already is up and running, but not Azaria. "In a way, it's kind of an advantage 'cause you can sort of objectively look at the world of the show and go, 'You know, here's what I feel like the show can use.'"