Movies & TV / Columns

The Emoji Movie Roundtable Interview Clips: Director Tony Leondis and Star TJ Miller

May 17, 2017 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
The Emoji Movie

Recently, 411mania had the privilege of attending Sony Pictures Animation’s Feature Slate event, where the studio provided an early look at its upcoming animated feature offerings in the coming years. One such feature included the new CG animated feature The Emoji Movie. The upcoming animated feature takes viewers into the secret world inside their smartphones and the city of Textopolis.

The Emoji Movie follows the story of Gene (T.J. Miller), an emoji who was born without a filter and has multiple expressions. Gene wants to become “normal” like other emojis and enlists the help of his best friend, Hi-5 (James Corden) and the code breaker emoji Jailbreak (Anna Faris). Together they go on an “app-venture” through the apps of the smartphone world to try and find a Code that might fix Gene. However, the smartphone world is fraught with a greater danger that threatens the phone. The fate of all the emojis then depends on the friends who must save their world. During the Feature Slate event, 411mania got the opportunity to speak to director and co-writer, Tony Leondis, and the The Emoji Movie‘s star, TJ Miller, of Deadpool and Silicon Valley fame during a group roundtable interview session. Here’s what they had to say on the upcoming project based on those lovable text images:

Jeffrey Harris: In light of recent events, I think it’s very interesting you have a character in this movie called Jailbreak, who is a hacking emoji. That seems to be a big thing going around these days; especially at Sony.

Tony Leondis: Yes!

Jeffrey Harris: So, does Jailbreak have a boss named Vlad or maybe Julian?

TJ Miller: You guys have really good questions!

Tony Leondis: *Laughs* No. Nope!

TJ Miller: She’s a good hacker.

Tony Leondis: That’s right.

Jeffrey Harris: She’s a white hat?

TJ Miller: White hat, exactly right track. And it’s also — you’ll find out throughout the journey of it, it’s also about her expressing herself and who she is. We find out more about that, and I think the hacking for her is a means to help other people. So, that’s kind of turning the idea on its head rather than just seeing that world as completely nefarious. But thank you for bringing up Russia.

Jeffrey Harris: Are the feelings emoji characters meant to mirror the emotions of the boy character in the film, played by Jake T. Austin? Is there a mirror journey going on for either of the characters?

Tony Leondis: Our emojis go through their own journey. And it does emotionally parallel what Alex is going through. That’s very intuitive. Alex is trying to express himself in a world of technology, and how do you do that? And that’s what Gene is trying to do.

TJ Miller: And his response to her or reaching out to her might just be three emojis and that’s it. Or just one. So how do you choose that and how do you figure out what that would be? And yeah, we live in a weird world where you do express your emotions through text using emojis. And so in that way, the emojis that Alex is choosing are expressing his emotions. And the real danger to everybody in Textopolis, and also to Alex and this possibly budding romance, is if an emoji malfunctions. And cue me.

Jeffrey Harris: The presentation had a great sense of world building for Textopolis and how this whole emoji world works. So, when the emojis are not at work, do they live in these homes [noting concept artwork of homes hung the wall?
Do they eat code? Do they eat text? How do they sustain themselves?

Tony Leondis: You ask such good questions. You should be making movies.

TJ Miller: We should be given these questions in advance *Laughs*.

The Emoji Movie

Jeffrey Harris: I just really like world building, and it really looks like you’ve really thought and fleshed this whole world out. So, do the emojis eat and drink? I’m curious.

Tony Leondis: They go on shifts. So, when Gene’s dad is on the phone, that means his mom can be off. And then, they just rotate. So, they’re always on call. But, we’ve actually had big discussions. They do not eat, and they do not drink.

TJ Miller: So, this takes away from the defecating issue, which is always a problem in the animated realm.

Tony Leondis: Sometimes we play the jokes. Like in the favorites section, they can have cocktails. But, we try not to make a big deal of it. It’s a good point.

TJ Miller: And the favorites section is sort of the VIP lounge. I really enjoy you talking about that.

Tony Leondis: That’s where you want to be.

TJ Miller: And there’s a bouncer there trying to keep you from getting in. … As far as the world building goes, it feels a little bit like this is their job. They live in these houses. They switch shifts, but it’s almost a family business for each and every one of them, right?

Tony Leondis: Yup.

TJ Miller: So you get people clocking in and clocking out, and you see them a bit like that. That’s the way that it’s different from any other movie. There’s not quite that intersection of this strange, kind of otherworldly but it’s right in our phone landscape mixed with your nine-to-five [life]. And there’s a little bit of the nine-to-five, just show up, just do your job, don’t do anything that you aren’t supposed to. I think we are talking about that and how a lot of people feel trapped within that. Luckily, none of us at this table, but I think there’s a lot of people that can relate to that. They sort of are told, “Don’t smile too much,” and “Don’t talk to people too much at work.”

Jeffrey Harris: Since the movie features the appearance of real-life smartphone apps, did any app companies say no to appearing in the movie?

Tony Leondis: No. We’re pushing them away.

TJ Miller: *Jokes* Words With Friends wasn’t particularly friendly, which is very ironic.

Jeffrey Harris: For TJ, when you get to work on an animated project like this, when you finally get to see some of the finished product, are you ever surprised by seeing what your character looks like and hearing your voice come out of that character?

TJ Miller: Certainly. In How to Train Your Dragon, both the television show and the films, it was very strange because they said, “Well, we’ve sort modeled the character after you. So, it’s meant to look like you.” Then, I saw it and I was like, “Oh no. This is what I look like?!” But you know, it’s fun for instance, like in Gravity Falls, I just did the character, and then they showed me what he [Robbie] looked like voiced to it. With Big Hero 6, I had went in, and they had already mocked up [the character], so I knew exactly what I looked like. And again, like Robbie, it’s kind of this y’know kind of guy — I don’t why people want to pay me to act like I smoke weed all the time. I’ll take it. This was so exciting because this was a character, kind of like the character I did in Office Christmas Party, this guy is nothing but lovable. He’s up and he’s positive. Although he faces a lot of challenges, and he has some real low-points in the film, this is a really, ultimately a very sweet, excitable character who just wants to make his parents proud and fulfill his destiny. That’s the thing we haven’t really talked about because they’re so within the box so to speak, this is their destiny is to be X-eyed person or the lips. That’s the thing for Gene, he’s taking over his parents’ [legacy] — it’s that story too. It’s the passing of the scepter from generation to generation. I don’t know why I said scepter, maybe because you said Lord of the Rings earlier. But, that’s a big part of this too: What is your destiny? Are you supposed to be the thing you were told you were supposed to be in the beginning? These are all sort of the very important things and questions and lessons. Because every time you make a movie like this, another reason I like being involved in these types of projects, you are kind of trying to suggest good lessons and trying to help children develop a moral compass, but on their own, so you’re not sort of telling them what to think. You’re not telling them, “Here’s a story. Glean from what it what you’d like to.” That’s really important for me too. That’s a very different vibe from the lessons we all learned in Deadpool.

The Emoji Movie

Thank you to Tony Leondis and TJ Miller for taking the time to speak with us. The Emoji Movie arrives in theaters on July 28.