HBO’s Animals. creators Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano talk to Awards Daily about their favorite vermin, managing an eclectic group of guest voices, and what’s in store for Season 3 of their animated comedy.
There are a ton of animated series out there, but there aren’t many like HBO’s Animals.
The adult animated seres follows a rotating group of animals in New York City, all facing very human situations, including city politics and humanity-ending virus. But Season 3 (which premieres Friday, August 3 on HBO, HBO Go, and HBO Now) is a real game-changer for these creatures: no more humans.
Ahead of the new season, I sat down with creators Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano, who fans will know as “Phil” and “Mike” on the animated series, for a conversation about the show’s extraordinary list of guest voices, improvising with animation, and what the show really says about people.
Awards Daily: The animation is beautiful and interesting, but the show seems to be dependent on the voices to drive the story. What kind of direction do you give this diverse group?
Phil Matarese: Direction-wise, for this diverse cast, Mike and I try to get everyone in the room recording at the same time. We’ve had up to 8 people recording at once, to give it this texture that’s conversational and natural. Our show isn’t tightly scripted. We work off an outline, so inherently what you’re hearing is people’s naturalistic responses to questions or some sort of answer. Mike and I’ve had 220 guests on this show, and it’s been musicians, not people who are traditionally in front of the camera, improvisers, more traditional actors. We’ve dealt with every sort of stripe of performer, and I think we’ve gotten really good at creating an environment that’s fun and really relaxed. Even if they’re not a traditional performer, they feel like they can be silly and be themselves. A lot of that also comes to fruition when we edit it down. There are a lot of things that get thrown into the soup that we work hard to make sound smooth and natural at the end of the day.
AD: This show has an incredible cast, with so many voices. Is it challenging to manage them all?
Mike Luciano: For the most part, everybody who we’ve had in, we’ve been lucky enough to have people enter our domain of where we do the show in our studio and everyone’s kind of down for it. They know what they’re getting into. Especially early on, that was a great thing, having Mark and Jay Duplass [executive producers] be the gateway in, especially in our first season. It signals an untraditional animated show. You’re getting into a maybe-not-as-refined production, but creatively interesting. Early on, that’s really where we had people come out of the sessions really excited by it. For the most part, everyone’s been pretty game. When you have people come in, so much of it is just collaborating, so you have to work off of each other. That’s part of our job, what we’ve gotten pretty good at over the years, getting that environment to be really open.
Phil: I’d like to say that Mike is incredibly hard to work with. He’s very difficult to reel in. It’ll just be us, but he still needs an avocado spread and he’ll just be chewing on the microphone. We’ve been the main characters of 30 episodes of an animated show, and you’re chewing the mike?!
Mike: Oh, my god. It’s my process Phil! I need an avocado.
Phil: Get your hands off of me!
Mike: I will not!
AD: I picture you both as rats by the way, doing this back and forth.
Phil: Yeah, we get that. And we get that when people are looking at our faces!
AD: I read somewhere that some of Animals is improvised. How much is scripted versus improvised?
Phil: You know, we kind of like to keep that little line a mystery. All of our live action stuff is traditionally scripted, so those episodes are 100%. I will say Season 3 is a 10-episode story, so Mike and I did write a lot for this season, and there are bread crumbs and a bigger tapestry of a story for those 10 episodes. This season has gotten a little more “written,” but dialogue-wise—I don’t know. What do you think, Mike?
Mike: All of the good jokes are written, and everything else is improvised.
AD: The first and second seasons had a big story arc, like the corrupt mayor and the virus outbreak that ended humanity in New York. What is Season 3 going to be about?
Mike: Season 3 begins three years after the end of Season 2, so what’s happened since is that there are no humans in New York City. It’s been cordoned off by the rest of the country and what have survived are the animals. The animals have been left alone to make of the city their own habitat.
We begin by seeing all of the different neighborhoods they’ve formed. Each species has its own neighborhood: Rat Town, Pigeon Heights, Democratic People’s Republic of Kitty City, Poor Horseville and Rich Horseville, Squirrel Square. They all have their little societies going on and as we enter it, it’s a very fractured city for animal kind. Over the 10 episodes, you begin to see those walls come down as they figure out ways to communicate with each other. That’s really where we had a lot of fun this season, getting to concentrate on just the animals and getting to put the humans aside, whereas in previous seasons, it was the animals living in the shadows of the humans. Now we get to see what the animals do by themselves.
Phil: There is also a live-action human storyline. Every episode this season begins with a live-action intro that’s this really funny weird story starring Phil and Mike as human beings, so you’ll get to see our rat faces.
AD: Are there any new voices being featured this season? New animals?
Phil: Tons of peeps. Bob Balaban. Lucy Liu. This is the first time where we’ve had characters that are in two or three episodes, which has been really funny and silly. Steve Dildarian is a recurring character.
Mike: Anthony Mackie as a talking horsey.
Phil: He’s in a number of episodes.
Mike: That’ll be explained later in the season. We had a lot of great actor-actors come on this season. Edie Falco and David Harbour as this couple of bad guys who are hilarious.
Phil: Tom Noonan.
Mike: People like Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Jared Harris. Michael Sheen. Really just filled out these little characters with the full brunt of their acting abilities.
Phil: And of course tons of funny people we’re forgetting. John Mulaney, Tracy Morgan, Lauren Lapkus, Jon Gabrus. All of our fun improviser friends who’ve been on the show before end up coming back, too. Probably our most eclectic actor-improv-musician season
AD: Which group of animals do you most identify with? On the show or otherwise?
Phil: I think on the show. I’ll speak for Phil—the Phil rat. He’s just this neutral that I really like. Ah, shoot. I really do like Mike and I as a pair of lizards or geckos, right?
Mike: Geckos, lizards. We’re not scientists, OK?
Phil: Those guys may have shot up to top of my favorite characters to play. I wouldn’t quite identify with them, but I love them dearly.
Mike: All the different animals we get to play are different shades of us in a way. Some of them are way more turned up and ridiculous. One of my favorite ones to play, not necessarily to connect with, is our horses episode this season. The Mike horse is a tiny—
Phil: –A miniature horse.
Mike: Who is very rich and not a good guy, the antagonist who’s self-conscious, and it was fun to lean into that. I also do a terrible British accent. It was fun to offend the British a little bit.
AD: I know this show is about Animals, but since they have human personalities, what do you think this show says about humans? Are we all rats or fleas or pigeons?
Phil: It’s about building up walls between species. It’s sort of saying we’re all kind of the same. We could all be friends if we could just talk to each other, if we get past these little superficial things that are different about us. We could all come together if we just talked it out a little bit.
Mike: I think much of the show from the beginning was the very simple premise of hey, those pigeons over there, those fleas. In my daily life, those are things, objects I see on my way to work that are in my way. It’s the simple act of going, What’s their deal? Are they actually communicating? What’s going on in their heads? What do they think of the craziness around them in New York City? It’s a fun wave-length to get on the rest of the season. We don’t think about it too much in terms of lofty ideals. We’re trying to make a show that’s funny first and trying to do things a little differently.
Phil: But we address xenophobia and nationalism!
Phil: For sure!
Mike: But it’s there!
Phil: It’s there.
Animals. Season 3 premieres on HBO on Friday, August 3 at 11:30 p.m. ET.