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BB-8 “Vocal Consultant” Ben Schwartz on Getting Into Character and BB-8’s Gender

BB-8.
Left: BB-8. R: Ben Schwartz, vocal consultant.

© 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved. Ben Schwartz photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images.

Comedian, actor, and writer Ben Schwartz might be best known for playing Jean-Ralphio Saperstein on Parks and Recreation, but there’s a good chance that you’ve been seeing a lot of his work lately without even realizing it. As soon as the new Star Wars movie The Force Awakens premiered earlier this week, HitFix spotted his name in the credits, where he’s listed alongside Bill Hader as “BB-8 Vocal Consultant.” We called him up to ask what exactly it meant to be the vocal consultant for an automated soccer ball in the biggest movie in the universe.

How did you get involved with The Force Awakens?

I lucked out. JJ Abrams gave me a call and told me about this new character, BB-8. He was like, “Hey, we’re trying to figure out the voice. I wanna try a bunch of stuff. I want this guy to have personality. I want him to be funny. I want him to be heartwarming. And I’ve been thinking about how to structure the cadence of his beeps and boops. So let’s see if your voice works there. And then we’ll take your voice, and we’ll give it to Lucasfilm, and they’ll turn it into the beeps and the boops.”

So we tried that, and it was so fun to do. I would record lines for these scenes—I’d get to see scenes before anyone else, and it blew my mind—but then any time we did it, it kind of always sounded like a voice—it never really sounded like what we wanted. So we experimented… We tried synthesizers. We plugged a microphone up to his computer … And then they brought Bill Hader on, and Bill Hader I believe did very similar stuff. (We were never in the same room together.) In the end, I have no idea how much of what we did is actually in the movie, but it was all a path to get there.

You mentioned “lines.” Was there a screenplay you were working with?

There was never a screenplay. I’d see the actual scene that they filmed. So in my head, any time I saw BB-8, I would say lines that I thought he would say, off of the other person’s lines. So JJ and I would talk, and he would say, “What do you think BB-8 is saying here?”

Do you remember any of the words or phrase that you said?

I remember a lot of them. But I don’t want to say ’em, just because I don’t know how much I’m allowed to talk about. I’m so excited that I got to do anything in this movie that I don’t want to jinx it.

Did you do anything to get into character?

Yeah, I was very method. For 16 days straight, all I did was run on balls. That was part of getting into it.

Did you feel competitive with R2-D2 at all, or, say, WALL-E?

Those are the legends of your time! That’s like saying, “Are you competitive with Michael Jordan?” You look up to them. The human who developed R2-D2’s sound and voice [Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt] is a genius. I could never try to compete with those.

Did you find yourself trying to be cute? Do you think BB-8 tries to be cute, or just is cute?

No, I don’t think I was trying to be cute. I just think the character’s written and portrayed in such a way that you want to root for him.

You’re using the pronoun he. Is that BB-8’s preferred gender pronoun?

It could be a she. It’s an it. It is all races and all genders and all everything. It’s also a droid. It is definitely not one thing. I don’t think it has a gender or anything. I am a he, but the beeps and boops do not determine what gender at all, and I think that’s amazing.

Do you know if you’re going to be involved with the sequels?

No, I have no idea. I have no idea about anything. For me, this was an I can’t believe this is happening moment, and I am just happy with that. I got to go to the premiere, and when my name flashed on the credits … it was just the most surreal moment in the universe. And it was just seeing my name in the credits, in the font, with the music.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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