Young 'Frankenweenie' actor dabbles in stop motion

Atticus Shaffer, perhaps best known as Brick Heck on ABC’s “The Middle,” is a well-spoken, smart and interesting 14-year-old who would make any mother proud. He defies the traditional stereotype of a young teenager, with interests such as reading, learning and spending time with his family.

His hard work and unique personality landed him a coveted role in a Tim Burton movie. Shaffer plays Edgar E. Gore in “Frankenweenie,” which comes out on Blu-ray and DVD Jan. 8. The 3-D, black-and-white, stop-motion film is Shaffer’s first animated movie. With the perfect balance of talent and quirkiness, Atticus’ portrayal of Edgar lends just the right amount of comic relief with Tim Burton-esque darkness.

In the movie, Edgar learns of Victor Frankenstein’s success in bringing back his dog, Sparky, from the dead, and he forces Victor to show him how he did it. Edger, whose voice and mannerisms were inspired by the late Hungarian actor, Peter Lorre, ends up spilling the beans to several others, who awaken their pets that later terrorize the town.

When did you start acting?
I started acting about eight years ago. I never specifically said to my parents, “I want to be an actor.” My mom and I would always read out loud together because it was just what we wanted to do. We love reading together and do character voices, like the old man and old woman and the grumpy man type of thing, and we would always just have run reading, and I was an above-age reader because of it

I heard the audition process was a year long. What was that like?
It was so much fun because I was able to do all my research for the part and just really be able to study... And the very first audition, they didn’t say anything about really doing character voices or anything, but for the callback, they said if possible do a Peter Lorre accent, and I love doing accents, I love to play around with my voice. And so my mom being the awesome home-school mom that she is, she rented me “The Maltese Falcon” and “Arsenic and Old Lace” and we have “Casablanca”… My mom … helped me study my lines and I would perfect the character, and by doing that year-long process, it really helped me with the character because then it came more of a second-nature type of thing.

So, you’re home-schooled?
Yes, I’ve always been home-schooled.

Do you like it?
Oh, I love home schooling. [It’s] different because you’re able to actually get hands-on experience … and you’re able to do crafts… It’s much more hands-on, and also you can get a little bit more creative. And you don’t have to go, “Oh, I’m teaching you for a test. I’m teaching you for the sake of learning.”

So this is your first animated movie. What was the hardest thing you had to adjust to?
It actually wasn’t hard to adjust to for me because … in most instances, I prefer voiceover because of its simplicity but also because of its challenge because you’re able to put your entire capabilities into your voice and not have to worry about the wardrobe and makeup and choreography and stuff like that, and you can just focus on acting as a craft... And also what I love about voiceover is you’re actually creating a character. It’s not just OK you’re a person, you’re changing names and your clothes and where you’re at and then adjusting to a storyline, no, you’re actually forming the character; you’re creating it from scratch, and then you put yourself into that character. You need to find that whole character’s life … and make it into a real person.

How much of the character was your idea and how much direction did you take from Tim Burton?
It really is not a sense of it’s all on the actor or all on the director… Tim, especially, he’s the type of guy that loves to think outside of the box, and he loved to be creative and to do all these creative things … so it really is a lot of his idea, his formation of who the character is in his mind, but then also, he gives enough room for the actors to have a playground and to be able to kind of explore some things about the character, like how crazy they are in one situation or how very, very calm they are in another. And really it’s able to show all the different colors of the character because you kind of have an outline by Tim, and then you … are able to fill in the blanks.

I noticed that Edgar always has kind of a grin on his face. Did you have that same facial expression when you were acting out your lines?

Actually, yea, because it is stop-motion animation, [to help] inspire the animators, he would actually film us as we were recording our lines. And I get into my character, voiceover or not, I love getting into ‘em because I feel I perform better when I do, and yea, I would hunch my back over, I would have my fingers in, you know, in that weird wiggly kind of movement, and I would bare my teeth and have that grin, and it made me feel like I was Edgar, and I was able to transform my voice into his voice and give him that voice.

Did you get so into it that you would go to sleep at night and dream about it while you were filming?
Sometimes, actually. I mean, not always, but it was one of those things, especially during the longer portions of recording, I would definitely feel in tune with him, and … it did become first nature, which did in turn help in the movie because it is supposed to be a different kind of character…

Is there anything about Edgar you related to?
Well yea, I find it was so cool because he’s interested in these, even though they’re kind of morbid, you know, and over-the-top things, it’s the sake that he’s interested and he does want to go around and search for those hidden little dirty treasures and try to find them and make them his own and what not. And he doesn’t know everything about science, but he’s interested enough that it’s one of the most morbid and over-the-top things he’s ever done, and so he really wants to bond with Victor in that way.  

What were one or two of your most memorable moments from making the film?
Well, just the fact that it’s such a different experience because it is an animated film and it is a Tim Burton animated film, that alone just made it so, so much fun because he is so different, and the process itself is different, and it’s also an education. And I love, love, love to learn, and so to be able to sit down and say, ‘Hey, I’m doing research on acting history and one of the most memorable actors ever and I’m able to re-create that for a film, and the fact that it is a black-and-white 3-D animation movie; it’s Tim Burton. Everything about it was educational and groundbreaking, and so I literally fell in love with the project.

Did you get to work with Tim Burton a lot or get close to any of the other actors?
When the recording was being done, the voice recording was done in America, and the actual stop motion was going on in the UK, so Tim would actually have to go back and forth between the UK and here to do the recording, so there were a few times I was able to work with Tim Burton, and then there were other times where I would work with Allison Abbate, the producer. And Tim in real life, you think, oh, he’s Tim Burton and they’re kind of dark and morbid movies, but no, they’re actually ingenious, and he is so nice. He was nice to me, and he was nice to my mom. ... And I did get close to Tom Kenny because since this was a new accent, I do better when I just hear the accent and then I re-create it … and so for the majority of the recordings, they hired Tom Kenny to come in, and he would do the Peter Lorre accent, and then I would do an impression of his impression. Which was really cool because … I hadn’t met him before, and I was like, Oh my God, that’s the voice of Sponge Bob, I’m so giddy. It was so cool to work with him; he’s such a nice guy, too. I support animal rights, and there’s a wildlife learning center out here, and he went there for a fundraiser, and so for the past three years or so, I’ve gone and seen him there and been able to keep in touch with him, which was really nice.

What do you like to do for fun?
Well, acting is a hobby of mine. I love acting; I think it’s a craft, and I also think it is a great education. But in my spare time I love to read; I love to be with my family and especially my mom because she’s my teacher, and she loves to garden and cook, and I love to do that with her. I love to hang out with my friends. And also, and this is nowhere near Tim’s level of stop motion, but I do stop-motion animation with my LEGOs, and because I like military history, I’ll set up little LEGO battle grounds and have the two sides come together.

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