Original-Cin Q&A: Danny DeVito on Dumbo, Tim Burton and a post-Batman reunion with Michael Keaton

By Bonnie Laufer

Danny DeVito is a small wonder. The 74-year old actor has been entertaining us for more than 50 years, and whether it’s on the big or small screen, he seldom disappoints. 

DeVito will be back on the big screen Friday in the live action Disney movie Dumbo, directed by his longtime friend (and frequent collaborator) Tim Burton. It may be CG-assisted live-action instead of animation, but the story remains the same -  Dumbo is the little elephant with the big ears who can fly!  Dumbo marks the fourth time he has worked with Burton (he was previously in Mars Attacks! and Big Fish, and played The Penguin in Batman Returns), and he doesn’t plan for it to be the last.

In Dumbo, DeVito plays Circus ringmaster Max Medici, who has a long history with the title pachyderm. The actor remembers watching the animated movie when it was released in 1941, and says that, years later, he used a VHS copy of the film as a babysitter for his own three kids. 

Danny DeVito, as the Ringmaster in Dumbo, can’t believe an elephant can fly.

Danny DeVito, as the Ringmaster in Dumbo, can’t believe an elephant can fly.

Our Bonnie Laufer spoke with Danny DeVito while he was in Toronto to discuss the movie.

Read our review of Dumbo.

 Original-Cin: Regarding your longtime friendship and collaborations with Tim Burton, I would suspect that, when the phone rings and it’s him asking you to be in one of his movies, there is no hesitation.

Danny DeVito: Absolutely!  It’s a no brainer!  I was actually doing a play in New York called The Price, great play by Arthur Miller. We had an amazing cast that included Mark Ruffalo and Tony Shalhoub at the Roundabout Theatre. And when I got the call from Tim, we overlapped with his shooting schedule for Dumbo. We weren’t going to be finished the play and Tim was ready to do his movie in London.

OC: No!  It can’t be!

DD: I was like, sweating it.  Then, thank god he pushed back the movie and I got to do it.  What a huge relief.

OC: He knew nobody else could have done this role. 

DD: I would have been so  upset if I hadn’t of been able to be in this movie.

OC: What is it with you playing a ringmaster? You, of course played one in one of my all-time favourite films,Big Fish also directed by Tim.

DD: I don’t know, but I have to tell you I love doing it.  It was so much fun, and every single day on a set with Tim Burton is like magic. You feel like you are part of his paint box. He paints this gorgeous picture and you manage to fit in.

OC: Plus, working on a classic like Dumbo had to have hit home with you.

DD: Yes, I remember watching the original when it came out in 1941 and then later showing it to my own children. The story of Dumbo is so relevant even though the story is  over 70 years old. It is still so beautiful and the great things about that animated movie were all brought over to Tim’s version.  Now with CG - you look at that elephant and how you can you not love him?

OC: He’s adorable! Plus, you’ve never worked with this kind of computer graphic animation before, so it’s a whole new world for you. 

DD: No, I hadn’t. Acting on that set was a new experience for me. We had  a very strong guy named Ben who was in a suit and he played the baby elephant, Dumbo. He had a trunk and extensions for his arms and he moved exactly like an elephant.  Even then, when you saw him do his thing and then you saw his mom (Mrs Jumbo) there was a big frame covered in green. Even when he was cuddling with the frame it got you in the heart. It was amazing to watch. And then to see the final outcome? Brilliant!! It’s just beautiful.

OC: Plus you get to reunite with Michael Keaton! How was that this time around? 

DD: I’ve worked with Michael three times now. We did Johnny Dangerously, Batman Returns and now Dumbo. Of course, in Batman he was the good guy and I was the bad guy. Now the tables are turned and he’s the bad guy.

OC: I have to point out that I quite liked your bathtub scene in Dumbo

DD:  Why, thank you. With the orange slices on my eyes. Pretty fun stuff.

OC: We didn’t get to see your tush in this one….

DD: It’s Disney, we had to keep it family friendly! ( laughs)  I actually did stand up but it didn’t make the cut.

OC: Well, maybe in the BluRay version? 

DD: I hope not!

OC: Danny, you are a Hollywood legend. When you look at your amazing career and all of the characters you’ve given us. From Louie DePalma on Taxi, Mr. Wormwood in Matilda and now playing Frank Reynolds, on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia! You continue to win new generations at every turn. The college kids are going nuts for you! 

DD: Props to our Always Sunny fans.  We’ve got such great Always Sunny fans!  We keep getting a little bit nuttier every year.

OC: How on earth can you top where you have gone on that show? 

DD: Oh, just you wait.  Next year is going to be even crazier. We are going to top it. Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton are crazy, and don’t even get me started on Kaitlin Olson! She’s nuts!! They’ll shoot me out of a cannon maybe. Who knows? We’re all up for anything!