Seth MacFarlane is not exactly sure where he is. He knows he is in a car going somewhere. Assuming he hasn’t been kidnapped — and if he has, he’s very chipper about it — it’s no surprise that MacFarlane is a little fuzzy on the details. With a laugh, he calls himself a “drone who is directed from one appointment to another.”
The Connecticut native is currently juggling the three primetime TV shows he created — the Fox Sunday night cornerstone animated series “The Cleveland Show,” “Family Guy,” and “American Dad!,” all of which also feature his voice work — and promoting his feature film directing debut, “Ted.”
In the past few years MacFarlane, a lifelong fan of musicals and the Great American Songbook, has also recorded an album (“Music Is Better Than Words”) and played with orchestras and worked on an update of the late Carl Sagan’s famous series “Cosmos” with Neil deGrasse Tyson that is scheduled to air on Fox.
“Ted,” which MacFarlane also co-wrote and which opens Friday, stars Mark Wahlberg as affable slacker John Bennett, a Bostonian with a serious case of arrested development enabled by his best friend, a pot-smoking, trash-talking, playboy teddy bear named Ted (voiced by MacFarlane), the result of a childhood wish come true. Shot in the Hub, it features many local landmarks as Bennett races around partying with Ted while also attempting to save his relationship with his incredibly patient girlfriend, Lori (“Family Guy” regular Mila Kunis). The film is raunchy and profane in ways MacFarlane fans will no doubt expect, and sweet and sentimental in ways they might not. MacFarlane chatted by phone with us about the serious and complicated side of funny business.
Q. You grew up in Connecticut and went to the Rhode Island School of Design. Why did you decide to shoot in Boston as opposed to Providence or Hartford or New Haven?
A. From a comedic standpoint, Connecticut just doesn’t have that unbelievably distinctive accent that Boston does. Connecticut where I’m from is this phonetic oasis in the midst of this colorful forest of dialects. We’re surrounded by Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, all these places that have these thick accents, and here you have Connecticut, the eye of the storm that seems to be dialect-free. The Boston accent has always made me laugh. So many members of my family have it, it’s ridiculous and lovable at the same time; and that’s how I wanted John and Ted to sound, so it seemed perfect. And it’s one of the most beautiful cities in America that you can shoot in.
Q. “Ted” is a story of a man being told that he needs to put away childish things. I’m imagining that’s something you’ve been told at various points, but it seems to have worked out pretty well for you.
A. Yeah. (Laughs.) Luckily my parents never really ordered me to give up my toys at any age. I think that just sort of happened naturally. But I certainly know plenty of guys who have been in John Bennett’s position.
Q. Technically speaking, it’s surprising how quickly you get over the fact that you’re watching a walking, talking stuffed animal. Was there ever anything in the shot with Mark?
A. One of my biggest goals for the movie was for the audience to forget early on that they were looking at an animated character. They should look at him the same way they do any of the other actors. That was something that we can attribute to the motion capture technology that has been perfected by people like James Cameron for movies like “Avatar” and Peter Jackson for “Lord of the Rings.” But no one had ever used it in a comedy and so it was nice to have that technology available to make this bear as human as possible.
Mark was extraordinary because a lot of time he wasn’t acting against anything. He was acting against empty space. And occasionally there would be a little stand with a pair of eyes on it in the place where the bear was going to be. But that’s about all he had to work with and when you see how invested he is in that character and how well that interaction works you really get a sense of what a talented, focused actor he is. That’s the other reason the bear is so believable — because Mark really guides the audience to the reality of the bear’s existence.
Q. Certainly during the fight scene, that’s some pretty impressive choreography for an actor working against empty space.
A. Wahlberg did groundbreaking work in that sequence. It was supposed to be the single-most realistic fight scene between a live actor and an animated character. We wanted it be as real as something you’d see in “The Bourne Identity.”
Q. He’s very different in this film; there’s a lightness to his performance that we don’t see from him often. What did you do to elicit that?
A. He embraced the movie. It’s in part due to the fact that the script — I think and I hope — was different and unique and bizarre enough that it calls for a different type of performance. But he’s also a versatile actor who can adapt himself to different genres very well. I think even within the context of the movie you see a lot of that. He’s doing physical comedy, broad comedy, subtle, verbal comedy, and he’s doing drama and he does it all seamlessly. I think a lot of that is talent and experience. I’d love to take credit for pulling something out of him that’s brand new but that’s all Wahlberg. (Laughs.)
Q. Is it some kind of law that when you shoot in Boston you have to end up at Fenway Park at some point?
A. Yeah, it’s funny, that sequence was originally supposed to be on the [USS] Constitution. But I think there were some content issues with the script, understandably, where the Navy was concerned and we couldn’t close the deal, but it ended up working out for us very well because Fenway was a great playground for us. There were a million different labyrinthine corridors and passageways that were a lot of fun to light and shoot.
Q. How freeing was it to work in a live-action environment, or did it feel constricting because you can do anything in animation?
A. If anything it felt like I had a lot more control than I do in animation, mainly because of the immediacy of it. You’re not relying on a hundred different people just to make one action that lasts a few seconds work the way it’s supposed to. I found it to be very liberating.
Q. It’s an R-rated film with a fair amount of cursing. Was it also nice to be free from the television constraints of Standards and Practices?
A. For me it’s not so much the giddiness of being able to say [expletive]. It doesn’t even have to do with the jokes. It has more to do with the frustration in television — unless you’re working with HBO — of not being able to write the way people talk, which is the way “The Sopranos” worked. They used the word [expletive] every eight seconds but that’s the way those guys talk and it doesn’t feel gratuitous or self-indulgent, it feels real. That was where it was advantageous. We were conscious of being self-policing as far as the language was concerned. There was a cut at the beginning of the editing process in which the use of language was far more blue than the final cut. There was an overuse of the word [expletive] and we, believe it or not, trimmed it way down because it was starting to distract from the sweetness of the story.
Q. And ultimately it is very sweet and romantic. That might not be a sensibility that fans are expecting from you.
A. That was the intent of the movie. It’s not supposed to be a “Family Guy” episode. It’s supposed to be, in a perfect world, to us, our version of an R-rated “E.T.”
Q. There are going to be people under 17 interested in seeing “Ted.” What do you think is an appropriate age?
A. My take on that is it’s an R-rated movie but it’s not a hard R. The only thing that’s R about it is language. There’s no sex, there’s probably a second and a half of brief, nonsexual nudity and that’s it. It’s a movie that if I were a kid my parents probably would’ve taken me to see at 12 years old. But then again, my parents took me to see “Poltergeist” when I was 8 so what the hell does that tell you? (Laughs.)Interview has been edited and condensed. Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.