Kicking off the holiday movie season is a visually arresting tale of a magical toy store where a big book produces any toy you desire and sock monkeys lovingly hug you back. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium makes you forget about lead paint and GHB, if only for an hour and a half. But there is trouble in the Emporium: its 243-year-old creator (Dustin Hoffman) decides it’s time to exit, leaving the store in the young and unsteady hands of Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman). The Emporium promptly goes into a deep depression, self-destructing and losing its magic.
Screenwriter and first-time director Zach Helm (Stranger Than Fiction) creates a world of elaborate living toys that only a weird kid with a large hat collection can relate to. Enter weird kid, Eric Applebee (Zach Mills), who makes friends with and inspires Mahoney. Accountant Henry Weston (Jason Bateman) receives his requisite dose of childlike wonder.
Last week, the cast of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium sat down at the Regency Hotel in New York for a frank chat about misguided child actors, violent kids’ movies and sugaring up before the cameras roll. – April Peveteaux
On Making a Movie For Kids
Dustin Hoffman: I’ve never been able to grow up. This character is an adult, but he’s not a grown-up.
Natalie Portman: It was definitely appealing to me that I could make a movie that I could take my friend’s kids to. This has so much in it that will interest parents too, and when they go with their kids they won’t feel like they’re being dragged to a kids’ movie.
Jason Bateman: I don’t get to be that silly that often. I got myself all hopped up on sugar and put the hat on and away we went.
Zach Mills: They had, like, really cool stuff. It was hard not to wander off every time they yelled ‘cut’. Toys! They did tell me not to go on to the book balcony though. They know me. I like to read and I would be up there all day.
On Making It In Hollywood
Hoffman: [Acting teacher Barney Brown] took me aside and in so many words, he said, “You are a theater person. You are a theater animal and this is what you should do: Go to New York.” I was in Los Angeles and he says, “Nothing is going to happen for at least ten years. Wait a lot of tables and learn the craft. You are a very strange type and you’re going to have trouble getting work.” And he was absolutely correct. When I got The Graduate it was eleven or twelve years later.
Portman: Almost all the other actresses working today, in my age range, started out as kids. If you look at Lindsay Lohan, Scarlett Johanssen, Keira Knightley, Kirsten Dunst, Christina Ricci, Claire Danes, Reese Witherspoon . . . all of us started really young. Most of us started between eight and ten. So it clearly gives people help with how to do it as adults.
Bateman: I would not like to be thrown out of the party. The door is a swinging door and if you get too close to it you’ll get pushed out. I like staying in the back of the room with the cool kids, if they let me hang out with them. Usually when you take the smaller roles they’re somewhat better roles. Any film I’m offered to be the lead of right now is a pretty stinky movie. The films that I’m offered where I may be third or fourth down on the call sheet, they’re pretty good films. Number one, two and three on that call sheet are great actors and they attract a great director.
Mills: I want to act when I grow up. Or direct.
Hoffman: The first thing I would advise if you have children is that you learn very quickly that they can out-argue you at a very early age. There is a logic they grab onto and they start to understand your logic and they say, “But why?” You cannot win it and it can go on forever. One day I just said in great frustration, “Hey, this is not a democracy. You live in this house. It’s a dictatorship. There is no ‘why’. I don’t have to say ‘why’. You’re in bed at nine o’clock at night, no discussion. I’m the dictator. When you get out of the house you can have your democracy.” I would advise that you tell your kids as soon as possible that they’re living in Russia.
“My instinct is normalcy.” – Jason BatemanYou have to fall on your face a lot. I’ve been lucky enough that most of my face falls have not made it into the tabloids and obviously other people have not been so lucky. I think it’s a tricky thing and it’s not necessarily a positive thing happening with how young people are working and seeking that sort of attention and getting that sort of attention.
Bateman: I certainly did not come through unscathed. I was not perfect, and I’m still a safe distance from that. I was just a little bit smarter about getting caught. And I didn’t spend twenty-four hours a day being an idiot or an outlaw. That’s not an overriding instinct for me, to do mass amounts of drugs or rob liquor stores. I don’t have to fight that urge. My instinct is normalcy. It’s not tough. The borders are a little wider for you, people let you get away with a lot more. But if you have the right kind of friends and family, they just don’t let you get away with being a jerk. So if you start to sort of test the boundaries, those boundaries get solid on you if you have the right people around you.
Mills: She [Natalie Portman] kind of gave me warnings like, “Don’t end up like all the [child actors] you see.”
On The Perils of Children’s Movies
Hoffman: Think about it, like Bambi, the mother died in flames. Wow. And Pinocchio fell asleep and his legs were burned off. It’s extraordinary how violent the children’s themes are and why there is a sinister aspect to it. I don’t know why.
Portman: I started working when I was eleven, but I was never in a kid’s movie. And now I’m in a kids’ movie but I don’t get the kid treatment, because I’m a grown up. That was sort of a bizarre experience.
Mills: Sometimes on set people will go, “He’ll get a smaller trailer because he’s just a kid.” But I’m like, “My parents are going to be there!”
On “Marriage-Destroying-Good” Natalie Portman
Hoffman: I met her years ago. My wife and I saw her on Broadway in The Diary of Anne Frank. So we met and I did a very bad thing. I called up my son in Los Angeles and said, “I got her! I got the one!” I put them on the phone together and they talked a little. And afterward he said, “Dad, don’t pimp for me anymore. Please.” I didn’t take the advice. It’s one of my flaws. Natalie’s a professional. She’s fun to work with. She’s lovely. Maybe she’ll marry my son.
Bateman: I’ve described her as marriage-destroying-good. She couldn’t be nicer, prettier, more talented or smarter. Remember the Daisy Cutter? The bomb we developed a few years ago to end the war? The bomb that goes down into the ground like fifty meters before it even explodes? She’s just an incredible weapon.
Mills: Jason and Natalie gave me a lot of tips and pointers. They started out as child actors, so they kind of looked after me. Dustin, on the other hand . . . he gave me tips and pointers on where to go for lunch.