Talk about surreal: I’m standing with a group of reporters on a train platform at L.A.’s Union Station, and we’re interviewing Miss Piggy as if she’s a real person. Not only that, she’s charming the hell out of us.
Question: “We’re on the set of your sequel, ‘The Muppets [Most Wanted].’ What are you most excited for fans to be seeing?”
Piggy: “Well, moi, naturally! I”m very excited to be giving the world more of moi. The last movie was so successful and that was largely, in part, due to moi so we are, of course, doing the sequel which will feature even more of moi, I”m happy to say. I actually get a solo in this movie that I do not have to sing with somebody else. The last one, I had to do a solo with Amy Adams. This one, I do not have to share the stage with anyone.”
The strange thing is, we can see the man behind the curtain. We can recognize that we are actively engaging in conversation with something that is not actually alive. And yet the illusion persists.
Q: “We”ve heard that there is going to be a wedding this season that may involve a pig. Is that going to be with you?”
Piggy: “Let”s see. How much do I want to say? I do have a beautiful white dress that has a veil and a very long train in this movie. I”m not going to say what it”s used for but I do get to wear it and you”ll get to see me in it.”
Ah, yes. The wedding. The reported nuptials between Piggy and Kermit continue a thread from the last movie where it was revealed that Kermit had at some point in the past jilted Piggy at the altar – a source of tension between the two that was thankfully resolved by the end of that film and which appears to be moving toward a more permanent resolution in the sequel (hence the “special ring on a special finger” pointed out by one of my fellow journalists). Of course, leave it to Piggy to plan an extravagant ceremony at the world-famous Tower of London.
“Two of [the] days [we shot in London] were at the Tower of London, and this is, I”m told, a location that hasn”t ever allowed a major film crew inside the walls to shoot,” says producer Todd Lieberman. “So, shooting inside the Tower of London with the Muppets while tourists go by saying, ‘What is going on?’ was beyond. It was really, really special.”
So then what are we doing on a train platform in Los Angeles, located 5,400 miles away from the famed British capital?
“This is where we”re getting on a train to go to Europe,” remarks Piggy. “I love Europe. It”s a wonderful country.”
“You”re taking the train from Los Angeles to Europe?” someone asks.
“Yes! Duh!” answers Piggy. “How else would you go? I mean, really.”
“Ok guys, gather round and listen up! If we’re gonna go on a world tour, well, I figured we should do it in classic style, right? So I’ve booked us on a tour train!”
These are the lines being spoken by Kermit when I first arrive – or rather, the lines being spoken by voice actor/puppeteer Steve Whitmire, who has been voicing the most famous of all Muppets since Jim Henson’s death in 1990. On his forehead, Whitmire wears a Kermit-green headband holding a microphone.
On the platform beside him, a luggage cart has been loaded with guitar and cello and violin and drum cases, along with a sign bearing the “Muppet Show” logo that currently sits in two separate pieces. Enjoying a renewed burst of popularity following the events of the last film, Kermit and friends are embarking on a grand tour of the European continent – a trip that will, conveniently enough, see them becoming caught up in a jewel-heist caper. So where are Gary and Mary (Jason Segel and Amy Adams) in all this?
“I don”t know,” huffs Piggy. “If you want to write them a post card and address it to them, you may. I really don”t see the point of it myself. This is a Muppet movie you know. Nobody really cares about the humans.”
Maybe Kermit can shed some more light?
“[Their absence is] not actually addressed,” says the green guy. “It”s just, we”re moving on from where we left off in the last movie. So Gary and Mary…just sort of aren”t a part of this particular story. It will all come clean in, come clear in the first scene. You will immediately know.”
Stepping in for Segel and Adams this time around are Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais and Ty Burrell, who will bring their unique talents to the table in the roles of, respectively: Russian GULAG officer Nadya; villainous sidekick Dominic Badguy; and French Interpol Inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon. Fey in particular appears to be playing wildly against type here, and by all accounts her performance in the film is a marvel.
“We did a number called ‘The Big House,’ which is actually Tina Fey”s big number, and she sings this song where she”s welcoming me to prison,” says Kermit, who describes the number as akin to something out of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” “And I have to say, I was meant to act as though I am kind of depressed about that, but it was hard to do because it”s such a fun song, and I think people will see a side of Tina they haven”t seen before. She”s really wonderful.”
Gervais, meanwhile, will bring his own storied brand of cynicism to the happy-go-lucky Muppet universe.
“Putting someone like him into the world of the Muppets, I think, will turn out really well because he sort of balances them out,” says Lieberman. “But…in a way, he comes across Muppet-like in this movie, so I think people will be really happy with it.”
As for Burrell, Kermit had this rather mixed (albeit loving) assessment to offer: “Ty is wonderful. Ty is sort of, he”s insane actually, he”s very conservatively insane.”
Speaking of new additions, another fresh face (so to speak) this time around is Kermit’s evil doppelgänger Constantine, who wreaks havoc with the help of Gervais’ aptly-named Badguy. Though it may seem a perfect opportunity for Kermit to play a dual role, the demands of the character unfortunately stretched the limits of the little dude’s abilities, leaving the producers with no choice but to cast an entirely different Muppet in the part.
“We talked about [me playing both roles],” says Kermit, “but I have to admit that I am not great at doing the accent that Constantine has. Constantine kind of has a European, Russian sort of accent and, by the way, Constantine is just one of my cousins from the swamp, so he just happens to have the right facial features for the role.”
In the realm of returning characters, one freshman Muppet from the last film who’s back for another go-round is Gary’s Muppet brother Walter, still clearly pinching himself over the opportunity to work with his lifelong idols.
“Fozzy and I have a close connection,” says Walter when asked which of the “classic” Muppets he’s bonded with the most. “It’s so weird to be friends with somebody I was a fan of first. It’s kind of amazing. Every now and then I have to step outside of myself and say ‘Oh my gosh, I’M FRIENDS WITH FOZZY BEAR! Okay, be cool, Walter, be cool.’ It’s a fine line.”
So now that Walter has been accepted into the fold, what will his role in the story be this time around?
“Actually, I discover a secret in this film,” he says. “I discover something that is very, very wrong and I enlist the help of Fozzy and Animal…and we make it right. It’s actually a pretty dramatic turning point in the movie. I’m very happy with my role in the film. Heck, if they just let me bring water to the guys on the set, I’d be happy. Are you kidding?!?”
As it turns out, that last part isn’t so far from the truth.
“[Walter] keeps messing up my coffee order,” complains Miss Piggy. “Until he gets that right, we”re going to keep calling him ‘the new guy”. Really, who needs anybody new when you have moi?”
Another dose of the surreal: lined up on the platform before us is a collection of every imaginable Muppet, from Animal to Swedish Chef to Fozzy Bear to Thog to Janice. Their human operators are bunched tightly together in the small space, gathered to film a group reaction to Kermit’s earlier proclamation. As we watch on the monitors, we can see that the scene opens with a tracking shot of Sweetums, adorably carrying a suitcase as he lumbers past a sign reading “Union Station – City of Los Angeles.”
“Ok guys, gather round and listen up!” Kermit begins as Sweetums joins the group. “If we’re gonna go on a world tour, well, I figured we should do it in classic style, right? So I’ve booked us on a tour train!”
The Muppets “ooh” and “aah” in delight as a glistening, to-be-inserted-later luxury locomotive rolls into view.
“No, not that one!” Kermit exclaims. “This one!”
And just like that, the fantasy is broken. You can practically hear the refrain of a sad trombone as the Muppets’ actual mode of transport comes into view: a far less-impressive train (to be inserted later) that results in a collective drooping of fluffy Muppet heads.
Between takes, the fantasy for us humans is broken too. As the Muppeteers stand down with their respective characters, it’s as if a light is turned out instantaneously: one moment, Gonzo and Fozzy and Animal and Thog are as living, breathing beings; the next they are lifeless pieces of fleece and foam. And yet every time director James Bobin yells “action!”, they come alive again. And we are kids, again.
On the platform opposite ours, a group of delighted bystanders has gathered to snap pictures and observe the shoot. One middle-aged man even loudly proclaims his adoration for Scooter. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine that everyone watching has unconsciously tapped into their own inner child.
“Here on this train platform I see people on the other side snapping pictures like crazy,” Kermit says of the Muppets’ enduring celebrity with fans of all ages. “It”s great to meet our fans. We don”t often get the chance to do it because we work in a studio, you know? So people come up to us all the time.”
So where do the Muppets go when their work is done? As we speak with Kermit, one of my fellow reporters notes a black contraption where humans can be seen entering and leaving with the fuzzy creations.
“Oh yes,” Kermit remarks non-chalantly. “Yes, that is a – that”s sort of like on ‘Star Trek’ when they put you inside that thing and they zap you back to Hoboken, New Jersey. It”s a one way ticket but it saves FedEx, you know.”
“Muppets Most Wanted” hits theaters on March 21.