BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone
BOB GARFIELD and I'm Bob Garfield. The Academy Awards are this weekend. The coverage of the nominated films have tended to focus on how thoughtful and profound and little watched they were. So we decided to visit a, shall we say, simpler time. 2005, when the Oscar for Best Animated Feature was bestowed on the director of a tale about a lovable, if somewhat dysfunctional family with superpowers.
ROBIN WILLIAMS The Oscar goes to... The Incredibles. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD There was much that made this film special. It's campy 60's noir aesthetic, its nuanced portrayal of family gender roles, and of course the gifted kids. Violet the moody, invisible teenager, and Dash her fleet footed little bro.
ELASTIGIRL Dashiell Robert Parr. You are an incredibly competitive boy.
DASH You always say do your best, but you don't really mean it. Why can't I do the best that I can do? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD I must have been fabulous to have been in that movie and at the Oscars that night, but of course, the people who make the movies move on with their lives, or try to. For some it's harder. Like Spencer Fox, the former child actor who played Dash in the first Incredibles, but not its sequel. Out reporter Micah Lowinger tells the story of Spencer's complex relationship with that role.
MICAH LOEWINGER We begin when Spencer was a kid and his mom asked him, what do you want to do with your life?
SPENCER FOX And at that time, I was watching Best of: Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, on SNL every day after school.
CHRIS FARLEY Now, young man, what do you want to do with your life?
DAVID SPADE I actually, Matt, I kind of want to be a writer.
CHRIS FARLEY Well, la-dee-dah! [END CLIP]
SPENCER FOX I was like, what they do. And the way that that road goes is you audition for talent agencies. We had like one day or we just like walked around Manhattan, and went like a bunch of these different agencies. And one of them happened to think that I was a particularly precocious young, chubby lad. And they said, you got the gig. We're going to send you out for auditions.
MICAH LOEWINGER So you were a little chubby.
SPENCER FOX Not just a little chubby. I was objectively fat. Like, I was just this, like, ovular child.
MICAH LOEWINGER When I met Spencer almost a decade ago, he'd already slimmed down. He was full of energy and confident, just like Dash. I was told by a mutual friend to not bring up The Incredibles, but I did.
SPENCER FOX The audition was crazy. They said if you have any fun voices or impressions, you're welcome to do them. And so I did an impression of my grandpa [CHANGES VOICE] just being like this, like old Jewish man that always talked about his time in the Silver Eagle. [VOICE RETURNS TO NORMAL] I guess, his like nickname in the Army, was like the Silver Eagle, and they reacted very strongly. Huge stomach laughter, like the hands up in the air.
MICAH LOEWINGER He gets the gig, and Pixar flies 10 year old Spencer and his mom out to its San Francisco studio. A quirk of animated filmmaking is that you don't often get to record with the other actors. So Spencer taped the Dash parts in a handful of intense one-on-one sessions.
SPENCER FOX I was in the studio with Brad Bird the entire time.
MICAH LOEWINGER Dash doesn't have a ton of dialog, but Spencer and the director spent hours perfecting his performance, like one scene where Dash is chased through the jungle by two killer drones.
SPENCER FOX The whole thing was like, you need to sound like you're out of breath. You need to sound like you've been like sprinting. And I tried my darndest to act that. But as we have discussed, my experience as an actor was very limited. Brad Bird was like, this, ain't it?
MICAH LOEWINGER So he has Spencer run four laps outside around the Pixar Studios complex.
SPENCER FOX He did the first two laps with me. I did the second two laps by myself. It was all laughter the entire time. He was like, cheering me up. Come do we're almost done. And like, I remember doing the last lap and instead of, like, taking a break, you know, taking a sip of water, I ran back into the vocal booth and put the headphones on and went directly into reading the lines.
MICAH LOEWINGER In another scene, Dash is sent to the principal's office for putting a tack on this teacher's seat. He's nearly caught using his superspeed, which is supposed to be a secret.
ELASTIGIRL Dash. This is the third time this year you've been sent to the office. We need to find a better outlet.
DASH Maybe I could if you let me go out for sports.
ELASTIGIRL Honey, you know why we can't do that.
DASH I promise I'll slow up. I'll only be the best by a tiny bit.
ELASTIGIRL Oh honey, the world just wants us to fit in, and to fit in. We just got to be like everybody else.
DASH But dad always said that our powers are nothing to be ashamed of. Our powers made us special. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Navigating the fear that others will judge or punish us for what makes us unique is a core theme in The Incredibles franchise, and one that would actually surface in Spencer's real life, beginning in 2004. The Incredibles is one of the most praised and profitable movies of the year. Spencer walks the red carpet. He goes on Conan O'Brien. There are Dash toys in Happy Meals at McDonald's, and then he returns to regular life as a student in New York.
SPENCER FOX People were mean to me.
MICAH LOEWINGER Really?
SPENCER FOX I remember there was a day where at recess I was chased around by bullies while they were screaming incredi-fat.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's so mean.
SPENCER FOX And then that sort of like later just morphed into kids being like, what's good, Dash? Are you going to run away? Using it as an insult.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah.
SPENCER FOX But I just remember being like, why do I have to feel bad about this? And so that kind of like developed this weird gut reaction inside of me. I just sort of like associated it as like a negative part of my life.
MICAH LOEWINGER Around age 14, Spencer had to make a big decision. He was outgrowing kids roles, and once you go through puberty, it's so much harder to get work because casting agents tend to prefer adults who look and sound like teenagers.
SPENCER FOX So my agents were just like, if you want to keep doing this, you need to work like four times as hard. You need to probably not be in real school. Change your life completely and dedicate it to acting. And I was like, I do not want to do that.
MICAH LOEWINGER Why didn't you want to do it?
SPENCER FOX I think that was like right when I started developing other interests, like right when I got into.
MICAH LOEWINGER Music,.
SPENCER FOX I was not an actor.
MICAH LOEWINGER He was playing guitar in a band, he read literature. He grew up. But even as a college student, Dash followed him. Walking into a party, and you meet someone and they're like "Oh, you're Dash." You could be like, "I actually know how to fly a plane. And I just shot someone and they died" and they'd be like, "Cool, so like, did you meet Samuel L Jackson?" And that makes you feel like you don't have a lot of agency over your own life. Meanwhile, his indie pop band, Charlie Bliss was attracting press. They were racking up millions of streams on Spotify, and in 2017, they started touring the world.
SPENCER FOX I'm in England. We've just released our second record. It feels amazing. Here's this great sold out show in Manchester and in between songs people have screamed like Dash. Why are you screaming that at me right now?
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah.
SPENCER FOX Here's this entirely different creative endeavor that I've been embarking on for a full decade now and I'm still being defined by this thing that I did when I was 10 years old.
MICAH LOEWINGER Before I began interviewing Spencer for this story, I didn't know anything about the bullying or the heckling. Now I understand that his caginess was more than a fear of being pigeonholed as "The Dash" guy. It was about protecting himself from the nagging fear that maybe he'd peaked young, though we didn't start talking about any of this until...
NEWS REPORT A sequel to The Incredibles is finally on its way. And Disney has officially announced the film will arrive in theaters on June 21, 2019. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER I remember one time we talked about it, I was like, have you seen it? And you just you reacted very strongly and you were like, No, I'm not seeing that stupid movie.
SPENCER FOX The fact that I have not seen it, it's like purely just a formality of the fact that I have been touring for, like, the past like 5 years almost straight.
MICAH LOEWINGER But I guess to push back.
SPENCER FOX Yeah, yeah sure.
MICAH LOEWINGER You have had time to see it.
SPENCER FOX Am I going to go out of my way to watch the sequel? I'm just not.
MICAH LOEWINGER But OK, [SPENCER GUFFAWS] go out of your way. As if like –.
SPENCER FOX This is some gotcha journalism man. Micah showed up outside my apartment with a full news team like "Spencer Fox, the movie's been out for 4 years. What's your excuse? [MICAH LAUGHS] To hold a press conference at Town Hall. "Listen, I want to address the allegations about the fact that I have not yet seen The Incredibles 2. First and foremost, I would never do anything to besmirch The Incredibles franchise. I want the insight. You know, I feel like – okay, here, here. We can, let's let's backtrack. [SCOFFS] How can you possibly fall back on the excuse that, like, oh, I just like haven't got around to it. You're right.
MICAH LOEWINGER It seems like you've a really complicated feelings around being Dash.
SPENCER FOX Yes.
MICAH LOEWINGER It seems to me like it's kind of cursed.
SPENCER FOX I have so much guilt in admitting to that.
MICAH LOEWINGER But wouldn't watching The Incredibles to take something off your shoulders? You're no longer Dash, someone else's Dash.
SPENCER FOX That feels like. Now, this is fully, no longer a part of your life.
MICAH LOEWINGER Do you know anything about the kid they cast?
SPENCER FOX I know that his name is Huck Milner. I don't know much else about him.
MICAH LOEWINGER On one hand, you have been tormented by this thing that defined you at a very young age. And on the other hand, maybe part of the reason that you haven't watched Incredibles 2 is because you're not ready to give it up.
SPENCER FOX 100 percent. It's almost like watching someone you really care about just move on and prosper.
MICAH LOEWINGER Do you feel that Dash has been taken from you?
SPENCER FOX Some part of me feels as though I am having something taken from me. The one thing that I did know about the sequel is that it takes place directly after the first movie. And like maybe that triggers the gut reaction of being like, keep me away from this thing. It's so close to home. I think if there was more fictional space and narrative space between the first and second movie, I would maybe have more comfort in the fact that I was not cast. But this is all it all sounds so silly, because it's like, no, you sh*t weren't cast. You are now 27 and the character is 11.
MICAH LOEWINGER But you’re Dash.
SPENCER FOX I was.
MICAH LOEWINGER But I'm saying it's not crazy to identify with Dash.
SPENCER FOX It just feels crazy to me because I feel like I've been trying my entire life to be like, oh, I'm better than this. I don't I don't need to be defined by this. And now the second movie comes out and I'm like, I can't look at it. But I think that's the truth behind any strong attachment that you retain during your adult life. Is there's always going to be these conflicting emotions about how far it drifts away from you, and the, you know, the question of like how much control do you have over this relationship.
MICAH LOEWINGER And the one bit of control that you've had is just not watching the movie.
SPENCER FOX Absolutely.
MICAH LOEWINGER So...should we watch it?
SPENCER FOX Let's watch The Incredibles 2.
MICAH LOEWINGER We put on the movie. As supervillains continue to threaten mankind, The Incredibles families struggle to find their place in a world that doesn't seem to want their help. [CLIP]
DASH We want to fight bad guys.
ELASTIGIRL No, you don't. From now on...
VIOLET So now we have to go back to never using our powers.
DASH It defines who I am.
- INCREDIBLE We're not saying you have t– what?
DASH Someone on TV said it.
ELASTIGIRL Superheroes are illegal. [END CLIP]
SPENCER FOX This is just funny watching this movie.
MICAH LOEWINGER How so?
SPENCER FOX It's just crazy. All of this imagery and all of these things are so like weirdly tied to like my experiences in life. It's like seeing family photos that you're not in or something.
MICAH LOEWINGER I wish I could say the movie moved Spencer to tears or provoked deep disgust or something dramatic like that. But this is a Pixar movie. It's built on emotional conflicts that set up satisfying character arcs with slapstick hijinks for comedic relief. Leading to a carefully paced, action packed crescendo and a heartwarming ending.
SPENCER FOX It was great!
MICAH LOEWINGER Really?
SPENCER FOX It was super fun. Yeah, it was so fun. What could you say wrong about that lovely film? Besides that, there's like a little bit of magic that was definitely there in the first one that just for some reason, it wasn't in the sequel. [MICAH LAUGHING] I can't...
MICAH LOEWINGER What did you think of Dash?
SPENCER FOX I think that Hulk Milner crushed it. Did an amazing job. It's silly that it's taken me this long. Just straight up silly.
MICAH LOEWINGER Before we started the movie, I told Spencer I had a surprise for him when it finished. So I reached out to Hulk Milner.
SPENCER FOX I knew, I knew it. [MICAH LAUGHING]
MICAH LOEWINGER And I asked him if he would be willing to talk to you, and he was like, Yeah, he really wants to talk to you.
SPENCER FOX Oh... wait to me?
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah.
SPENCER FOX Oh, my God. I would love to talk to Huck Milner.
MICAH LOEWINGER A couple of weeks later, I get them both on the phone.
SPENCER FOX It is nice to finally meet you, man.
HUCK MILNER Yeah. Nice to meet you, too.
MICAH LOEWINGER At first it was a bit awkward, so as an icebreaker, I had Spencer tell the story of Brad Bird making him run all those laps around Pixar Studios.
HUCK MILNER Well. That kind of happened to me, too,.
SPENCER FOX No way!
HUCK MILNER Except I kind of decided to run around the studio.
SPENCER FOX It was your choice?
HUCK MILNER Well, during a lunch break, I just decided that I wanted to, like, get more into the role or whatever.
SPENCER FOX Oh, my gosh.
HUCK MILNER So I just ran around the studio once. I remember that day, I think I was wearing, like, an actual Dash costume.
SPENCER FOX No!
HUCK MILNER It's funny.
SPENCER FOX Oh, my God. Well, I applaud your dedication to the role of man.
MICAH LOEWINGER Huck do you have any heroes? Are there any actors that you really look up to? Well, I definitely look up to Samuel L Jackson and I looked up to Spencer Fox a lot when I was like 5 or 6 because I remember watching the movie a lot and a lot.
SPENCER FOX Oh, my God, that's wild.
MICAH LOEWINGER Huck, what was your audition like?
HUCK MILNER Well, what I did was I did first an MP3 audition, which was like you had to record it and then send it in. And I actually listened to Spencer Fox in the movie like a billion times...
SPENCER FOX Oh my goodness.
HUCK MILNER ...beforehand, because I wanted to get it completely correct. Yeah. My mom just found the original audio of me trying to imitate...You.
SPENCER FOX No way.
MICAH LOEWINGER We have to, we have to hear this.
SPENCER FOX Oh, my God. Yes, please.
HUCK MILNER My name is Huckleberry Arthur Milner, Stuart Talent, Dash. Could somebody say Fast? Fast is my middle name! [SPENCER LAUGHS]
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah. We got to get you two together in real life.
SPENCER FOX So true.
HUCK MILNER That'd be cool.
SPENCER FOX Post pandemic. We're going bowling.
MICAH LOEWINGER After the Huck meeting, I called Spencer back. Is there room for 2 Dashes in your life?
SPENCER FOX Yes, absolutely. My relationship to the character, it was like under lock and key, super guarded, very hesitant to talk about it, but I think this process has been all about opening that up. And especially after just seeing the second movie, my relationship towards all of this has changed so dramatically, which has been like kinda beautiful. Dash is in good hands, man.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show on the media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Lowinger, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender with help from Alex Hanesworth. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter, and our show was edited... By Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week with Sam Bair and Adrienne Lily.
BROOKE GLADSTONE On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone
BOB GARFIELD and I'm Bob Garfield.
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