Peter Sohn doesn’t think of himself as an actor. And yet, the director behind The Good Dinosaurs and this year’s elementalswho has been working at Pixar for years in the animation and story departments, has racked up a résumé of impressive character work.
“The characters that I’ve done are all small, goofy, sidekick kind of characters,” Sohn tells EW, referring to the likes of Emile in RatatouilleSquishy in Monsters Universitythe Pet Collector in The Good Dinosaursand Sox in lightyear. “But even with that, because I’m not a trained actor trying to be in the role, it requires a lot of vulnerability that I didn’t know early on. Through the years, just trying to do it, you learn because you ‘re going through different directors.”
US elementals hits theaters, Sohn looks back on some of the small but memorable roles he’s had in Pixar movies.
A mugger and guard in The Incredibles
Sohn confirmed he has two roles in 2004’s The Incredibleswhich marked his first opportunity to voice characters for the animation studio.
The first is a mugger that Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) chase down in the opening flashback sequence. “Brad said, ‘You’re from New York. I need a mugger,'” Sohn recalls of The Incredibles director Brad Bird. “All I had was, ‘Look, the lady got me first,’ and then she knocked me out. All I remember is I couldn’t do a punch sound, and they were trying to do that.”
The other role was one of the security guards in Syndrome’s secret island birth. “Teddy Newton is this wonderful artist at Pixar. He’s well known for his caricatures and his amazing, brilliant ideas. He’s always been this X-factor at work. We were in the office together, and Brad put us as these two security guards in the base where Helen is looking for Bob,” Sohn says. It’s the scene where Elastigirl extends her head down to peek at the security cameras. She makes a sound that prompts a “did you say something?” reaction from the guards. Sohn plays the one who says, “Uh, I didn’t say anything.”
“That [film] was my favorite only because there were a lot of opportunities for different things,” Sohn says. “I was just jumping from different departments. You really learn about people’s priorities there very quickly.”
Emile in Ratatouille
Sohn would take a more prominent voice acting role in 2007’s Ratatouille, another Bird-directed film. Sohn remembers the directing change having a big impact on his character, Emile, the rodent brother of Patton Oswalt’s Remy, the rat who’s also a culinary genius.
Jan Pinkava and Bob Petersen were once on board as co-directors of Ratatouillebut Bird would later step in once the former left Pixar and the latter went back to working on Oops.
“There were two versions of this character,” Sohn remembers of Emile. “There was a sort of Fiddler on the Roof version of Emile where the character is all about traditions and the rat culture that they had. And then that version didn’t live up. Brad came in and was just like, the humans are gonna be French culture and the rats will be New York culture or a blue-collar city, which is totally different than what it was before.”
Bird once again remembered Sohn was from NYC. “I joke around a lot and maybe it’s apocryphal, but I remember Brad going like, ‘You know, you eat garbage. Come on, let’s do this character.'”
The Pet Collector in The Good Dinosaur
Sohn directed his first Pixar film with 2015’s The Good Dinosaursin which he also voiced the role of the Pet Collector, aka the Styracosaurus known as Forrest Woodbush.
“The film was made so quickly. That was the film that was made in 18 months,” said the filmmaker. “Most animated films take about 4-5 years. You’re running on instinct when you’re working that fast.”
That’s how Mr. Woodbush came about. Sohn wondered what the film would be like with a character that you couldn’t really see and would camouflage in the woods. “You’re just working very quickly. ‘What is he saying? What if he’s got a bunch of friends? He’s this nutcase out there living by himself and lonely.’ ‘Okay. Let’s just record it,’ ” he explains.
Sox in Lightyear
Sohn as Sox, the cat-like personal companion robot for Chris Evans’ Buzz Lightyear, became the unexpected standout of this 2022 film — which still dumbfounds Sohn a bit to this day.
“Sox is just me goofing around with [director] Angus [MacLane] because he knows I love Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Sohn says. “I don’t think I could have gotten [the performance] with a director I didn’t know. I would just be like, ‘How do you want me to do this?’ He was like, ‘You know how you do that Data thing? Let’s go do that!'”
Sohn, it turns out, can pull off an accurate Brent Spiner-as-Data impression. “A lot of these roles are because they saw something in me versus me performing something,” he added.
The character he cut from Elemental
Sohn almost voiced a character in elementals, which is out in theaters this weekend. It was by “survival” that the role was cut.
elementals is set in Elemental City, where anthropomorphized elements — water, water, earth, and fire — all live together. Ember (Lea Lewis), a fire elemental, falls in love with a water elemental, Wade (Mamoudou Athie), causing a culture clash between their two apparently opposing families.
Sohn was going to voice a brother character for Ember named Bon, like a bonfire. “He was just this put-upon son that the father never believed in,” the director explained. “But we cut him out. You’re always voicing a lot of characters just to get it up there, but I just wanted to get some real performers.”
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