LOS ANGELES | How difficult is it to play the son of a cartoon superhero?
“It’s about 1.5 times as hard as regular acting,” says Johnny Pemberton, the Rochester, Minn., native who plays “Son of Zorn” on the new Fox comedy.
Because the series features both live-action and animation, Pemberton often has to shoot scenes in front of green screens – “which is really boring” – or interact with other actors who have to pretend there are cartoon characters in their midst. “It’s expensive and time-consuming,” he says of the process, but it does allow the producers to approach familiar topics in an unfamiliar way.
In a nutshell: Zorn is the Defender of Zephyria, a bare-chested warrior who has a son with a human ex-wife. Because he doesn’t really know his boy Alan, he decides to live in the suburbs and help raise him. Unfortunately, much of his past life keeps coming back – like wolf-bats and arachnobots.
Former “Saturday Night Live” star Jason Sudeikis provides Zorn’s voice; Cheryl Hines plays his ex-wife and Tim Meadows is her fiancé.
Juggling two worlds is difficult for Zorn, but also complicated for Alan, who doesn’t quite know what to make of an animated dad who hails from some world no one understands.
A veteran of several animated series, including “Pickle and Peanut” (he’s Peanut), Pemberton says he never lets down when he’s doing voiceovers. “It makes me physically exerted doing it,” he says. “I’m always thinking about the world I’m in and imagining all this stuff, even when we’re just sitting still. It’s difficult.”
The live-action element of “Zorn” just adds another technical layer.
Sudeikis, meanwhile, isn’t on set when those scenes are shot. He literally phones in the performance, letting Pemberton, Hines and Meadows deal with the live-action stuff.
“They’re very simple,” Pemberton says of the show’s special effects, “but they look great. The thing we have to worry about is when Cheryl and Tim get into laughing fits.”
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The reason? “There’s a lot of really weird stuff in the show, stuff that we play normally.”
For the 30-something actor, “Zorn” is right in his wheelhouse. A star of such films as “21 Jump Street,” “Neighbors 2” and “In the Loop,” he performs “weird” standup. “It’s subversive stuff that plays with music and expectations.”
He got into the field after moving from Florida (where he attended Florida State University) to Los Angeles.
“The first time I did it, I got a deep sense of satisfaction,” Pemberton says. It was something he wanted to do while living in Minnesota but never dared. “When you say you want to be a comedian, someone will ask you to prove it and then you’re an idiot because it’s like you think you're funny.”
In college, he says, “I studied basically nothing,” but did a lot of things on the radio.
“I got a late start in comedy but it was the only thing that made me happy.” A 10-year veteran, he never has tried to categorize that part of his work. “It’s like trying to describe what a smell is like to someone who has never smelled something. You can do it, but it’s really difficult.”
Playing young isn’t as easy as it seems, either. “It’s good because you can get work,” Pemberton says. “But it’s also bad because you have to live in that (age range) even when you don’t feel that way.”
Stepping out as the “Son of Zorn” has its challenges, as well. Viewers will get a look at how much of a resemblance he bears to his father and what that entails.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what people see as opposed to what they know,” he adds with a smile.
“Son of Zorn” airs at 7:30 p.m. Sundays on Fox beginning Sept. 25.