Monsters University is the follow-up to 2001's Monsters Inc., the third feature film from Pixar Animation Studios. More than a decade later, the first movie remains beloved, and Day counted himself among its fans even before he joined the voice cast of the sequel.
"I was a fan of the first movie," he said. "Oddly, well I own it, and oddly my wife and I decided to just watch it again and we haven't watched it in years. It's been what, ten years since the last one came out? We wanted to watch a movie that night and so we watched Monsters Inc. We watched it, loved it and it held up great. It was also interesting to see how far the animation has come. And then about a month later I randomly got a phone call from my agent that they had a little part in the movie and they wanted me to do it. It was a quick yes. Purely for enjoyment I had just watched it a month before I got the part."
Monsters Inc. followed James P. "Sulley" Sullivan and Mike Wazowski, the top scarers in Monstropolis's leading energy provider. The prequel rolls back the clock to before Sulley and Mike became professional partners and best friends, back to their freshman year of college. When the two join Oozma Kappa, they meet Day's character Art, one of the many misfits who populate OK.
Even though he's in a frat, Day isn't certain that Art is even matriculating at Monsters U, saying, "I don't know if he's actually even a student at the college. He might just be glomming onto the experience. He's the king of the absurd non-sequitur. He's got that down."
Recording his role meant that the actor was able to spend time at Pixar's famed headquarters in Emeryville, California. "The very first time I recorded they brought me up and they showed me the whole facility," he recalled. "It was exciting, it was intimidating but it's a fun place. I don't want to leave it."
On this visit, Day was able to see character designs showing Art for the first time. "It was great. First of all I laughed, because it was a funny guy and I knew I was going to be in good shape," he said. "But the first time they showed me the character design and they showed me a little clip where they took a couple of lines that I said in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and animated to that. So I really got to see the whole thing the first time I saw it, and I knew that it was a funny character and he was going to be a likable guy."
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, on which Day serves as executive producer with fellow stars Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton, is rated TV-MA for good reason. Despite the more risque content of his series, Day had no trouble adjusting to Pixar's brand of family-friendly entertainment, joking, "It's been harder to adjust it to the interviews because I keep making off-colored references. No, it wasn't too hard. The lines in and of themselves were funny and so I didn't have any instincts to try and turn them into dick jokes."
Day also found the recording process, conducted without other actors present easy enough to adapt to, saying, "Well I think Billy [Crystal] and John [Goodman] record together, which goes a long way. For me, I really don't say a ton of the movie. I come in the end of the movie, I say a line here, a line there. There wasn't much banter so I imagined if I had a bigger role, then I would probably do it with the other actor. I didn't really have to be conversational because, again they were pretty much non-sequiturs or conversation ruiners often."
Of director Dan Scanlon, making his feature directorial debut at Pixar, Day explained, "I didn't know what to expect coming in here, because you see these Pixar movies and they seem very conversational, off the cuff, but Dan had very specific ideas about exactly what he wanted and had written out all the lines and alternate versions of the lines. I really just did his bidding and I knew that I was in good hands with him and with Pixar. In fact, last night after dinner he gave me a copy of a little film that he made on his own and it reminded me so much of the first time we made It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia because he and his friends had just gone around with it, but it was a much edgier sense of humor. It wasn't family friendly, which is right up my alley. He's a wickedly talented, funny guy and hopefully we'll see a lot more from him."
Pixar has emerged as one of the single most reliable purveyors of well-told stories in modern popular culture. Asked if he has learned anything useful for his series from watching the famous Pixar process, Day replied, "It would be nice to have four years to make something good. We do an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia in three and a half days, or at least we film it that quick. That process of testing and fixing and getting something right is clearly working for them. They don't miss and if any of them are misses they're still maybe much better than the average movie. They're only misses in comparison to themselves and I don't think they've really had them. So there's some sort of magic in that, which is inspirational, but if anything the lesson is surround yourself with as many talented people as you can and give them a trampoline, some balls to juggle and let them have fun when they're making it and do something great. But I don't know, I'm still trying to learn."
There is an allusion to a previous Pixar effort in the upcoming season of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, apparently. "We have a sequence in an episode this year where a convenience store is being robbed and the characters start thinking, 'If I stepped in to prevent this robbery, what would happen?' You follow not only what would happen but you follow the characters through the rest of their lives," he said. "My character is revealed that he seems to think in animation. And so we animated a sequence and we stole directly from the movie Up."
Though both Monsters University and Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim boast impeccably designed monsters, Day said that they're very different. "These are friendly monsters that are here to entertain us and later in the summer they will come to destroy us all. And both are really done by great people. I think that for me was the easy choice. Pixar asking you to be in a movie is an easy yes for any actor, I would imagine. And Guillermo del Toro asking you to be in a movie is the same thing. And both of them I said yes to before even ever reading a script! Yeah, because I knew I could get out of it if I had to, but I really just wanted to work in one case a company, in another case an extremely talented individual."
The live-action event movie takes place in a near future, after a dimensional rift deep in the Pacific Ocean unleashes huge beasts, called Kaiju, that target human population centers. To fight the Kaiju, humanity builds equally huge robots, each operated by a pair of pilots and designed purely to fight monsters. Day doesn't play a monster or even a pilot in Pacific Rim, but is instead scientist Dr. Newt Geiszler, the world's foremost Kaiju expert.
It's an unconventional take on the scientist type, but the character is still an intellectual presence in film that includes giant robot fights. "I'll be the figure that the kids are always sort of bummed to get," Day joked. "They'll have the giant robot and the cool monster then, 'Oh right, the nerd. I got him.'"
That's not to say that the actor didn't get to participate in some elaborate action scenes. "To Guillermo's credit, I was rarely in front of a giant green screen. I think there was one day where I was getting out of a giant helicopter in a scene and that was in front of a green screen," he said. "All of the sets that I was acting in were built completely. He built entire city blocks and demolished entire city blocks. There was a scene where I was running from a creature and they were flipping actual cars over me, or I'm in a crowd full of 500 extras screaming and running. It was easy for things to feel real in that movie and it was always raining too. It was raining on me constantly, so I didn't have to act being wet. Actual terror and some discomfort, but more of it was agoraphobia."
In the summer of 2011, Horrible Bosses proved to be a big hit, grossing well over $100 million domestically. The comedy followed three ordinary guys in their fumbling attempts to kill each others' bosses. In March, Day and co-stars Jason Bateman and Jason Sudeikis signed on for a sequel, which will also see director Seth Gordon returning for another round.
Day provided an update on Horrible Bosses 2, in which he'll reprise his role as sexually harassed dental assistant Dale Arbus. "I know that we all agreed to do it but we are still waiting for a rewrite of the movie, to make sure that we have a script that is worth at least somebody's time. I think we've talked about a story line that's going to be real fun and great," he said. "If the guys that are working on it now come up with a product and we have time to put it together, I can't wait to work with these guys again. They're really funny and we had so much fun making the first one that hopefully we can do a good job making the second one. If not, forgive me. I've got a kid! I've got to feed this guy."
Monsters University hits theaters on June 21st.
Pacific Rim arrives nationwide on July 12th.