Zach Braff’s new movie “Wish I Was Here“ gives us plenty to talk about here at Kveller–the film covers everything from the (too high) tuition of Jewish day school to dealing with aging parents. But there was one aspect that was impossible to ignore: among its cadre of impressive actors is Josh Gad, perhaps best known for his voiceover work as the snowman Olaf from Frozen. I was lucky enough to sit down with Gad–a Jewish dad himself–and talk about life as a famous snowman.
Are your kids obsessed with Frozen?
My 3-month-old doesn’t know what the word “frozen” is, let alone the movie. But my 3.5-year-old is obsessed, like the rest of the world.
And she knows that you play Olaf?
She knows I’m Olaf. What’s interesting is that I never needed to tell her I was Olaf. I took her to go see “Monster’s University,” the first movie she ever saw, and they played a teaser for “Frozen,” and it featured me as Olaf, laughing. There was no dialogue. She looks up at the screen and she goes, “Daddy?” She was 2.5 at the time, and I literally turned away and was like, “Yeah, it’s me,” as I started crying. I was like, I can’t deal with this.
But it’s so funny, because whenever you ask her who her favorite characters are, they’ll always be in some order like this: Elsa, Anna (or Anna, Elsa), Christoph, Sven, and always dead last on that list is Olaf. He’ll even sometimes come after the secondary characters.
What is your life like right now?
In terms of how “Frozen” has affected my life, it’s crazy. And what’s fascinating about it is the fact that I wouldn’t be able to tell you who the actor who played Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid” is if I had to pick him out of a crowd. These kids know exactly who I am, and I think it’s the age of social media. I think it’s this ability to take out a phone or iPad, type in Olaf, and see my face pop up. That has been a game-changer. In a great way, and also a very overwhelming way. Idina, Kristen, Jonathan, myself, and the rest of the cast have seen this thing spread like wildfire in a way we never could have imagined.
I didn’t realize how big it was until I went to Disneyland with my family. It was like Beatle-mania. It was the first and only time I’ll ever have sympathy for Justin Bieber. I really felt in my heart that this is a whole new level of insanity. I’m not that guy–celebrity is not what I’m doing it for; it’s much more about loving the work–but it’s been a game-changer.
It’s really funny because you almost don’t want kids to know that a 30-something-year-old guy who’s just kind of a schlubby guy, is playing this snowman. You want them to live in this bubble where they believe that a walking talking snowman who loves summer is really out there somewhere.
But the coolest part about the whole experience is I get phone calls all the time, allowing me to have some sort of effect on a kid’s life. Unfortunately, all too often, it’s because a kid is dying. But the fact that we have been given this gift to put a smile on a kid’s face for the first time, or one last time, that’s everything. That’s as good as it gets. I feel blessed that I get to be a part of something so profound and influential. And it’s crazy. Unexpected.
What’s your relationship to Judaism?
My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, so I take the tradition and I take the religion very seriously because I know what was sacrificed on behalf of it. By the same token, my grandfather who is now 95 still questions if there is a God, why did he allow his family to be slaughtered in front of them. It’s a question that won’t have an answer in this lifetime, and I hope there’s an answer in another place, because it is a very valid question. It’s that thing you always struggle with–in the face of great adversity, you have to really dig deep and find that inner spirituality and that inner faith. So yeah, it definitely had a profound impact on my own relationship. Just working on [“Wish I Was Here”] and calling into question some of my own issues over the years, and some of my own variables, in a way I’ve become closer and it’s been an interesting ride.
Are you raising your kids with any Jewish traditions?
Yes, I’m raising my kids with traditions in general. So they celebrate Yom Kippur, they celebrate Christmas. Not Kwanzaa yet, we haven’t introduced that in the household yet. But my wife is Catholic, and so we really want the kids to get as much of a worldly experience as they can and make their own choices. My daughter’s been to temple, she’s been to a cathedral, and she loves both experiences and welcomes both experiences. We try to teach her as much as we can about all sides of the equation.
My wife’s father comes from Iran and had a Muslim background, so when you put all of those things into the melting pot, it’s amazing. These seem to be the central themes that have kept us at odds as a species for far too long, where we have factions and wars over these very things. When in a little microcosm, you can have all of these things coexist in such a beautiful manner, and you can learn so much from each other.
I remember one Christmas where you had to take names out of a box and give a gift to somebody else in the family. And I got her dad, and I said, “I think this is the only time a Jew has had to give a Christmas present to a Muslim.” I think that’s what’s so great about living in the time that we do. Everybody’s hopefully learning tolerance and learning that there’s so much to give and learn from each other.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Be sure to check out Josh in “Wish I Was Here” in select theaters on July 18th.