The woman behind the pencil behind Netflix’s brilliant BoJack Horseman talks to editor Mickey Noonan about horses, chickens, why it’s important to give a fuck and how she initially said no to BoJack.
Lisa Hanawalt is a proper love. She’s charming, smart, funny and green-makingly talented. Her art has joyously childlike qualities underlined with a knack for subversion and absolutely no fear of the surreal.
For the past four years she’s been the lead illustrator on BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s hit about a depressed, alcoholic, middle-aged has-been horseman, which is at least three million times funnier than it sounds and boasts voice work from some of showbiz’s finest (including Will Arnett, Stanley Tucci, Amy Sedaris and Aaron Paul).
She also found time to illustrate a new book. Hot Dog Taste Test is a delightful bangers and mash-up of Hanawalt’s thoughts and oddball creations, loosely themed around food.
Let’s get the serious stuff down first. Would you like a horse and would you call it BoJack?
I’d love a horse, but oh hell no! I go riding to forget about work.
Take us back in time. How did BoJack come into your life?
My friend Raphael [Bob-Waksberg] came up with the idea of BoJack the depressed talking horse. I said, “Cool, it sounds a little too depressing though…” And then he said he’d pitched his idea to Michael Eisner’s company, Tornante – and attached my animal people drawings. About a year or two later, they asked me to design the main characters and I said no…
Woah there, pickle! Why did you say no?
I’d just finished working on a children’s book so I was hesitant to start on another big collaborative project and wanted to go off and do my own stuff. And I was a bit intimidated: I’d never done TV.
OK, sorry for interrupting. Please carry on.
About six months after I’d said no, they said, “But will you? Please?” and I said OK. The whole process was about three years of development and then it came out about a year after Netflix had bought it.
BoJack season three is out on Friday: how are you feeling?
I’m really excited about the season. I can’t say much because I don’t want to spoil it. We definitely push the boundaries with what we like to do. It’s going to have that same surreal mix.
When did you start drawing animal people?
I’ve done that ever since I was a kid. I have artwork from when I was five, six years old – it’s animal people wearing patterned sweaters.
Who’s your favourite character?
I really like Mr Peanutbutter personality-wise, because he reminds me of my boyfriend.
Well, I didn’t come up with the idea until I’d already done the work, which is how I put books together. A lot of what I’d done over the past few years was food related, so I added stuff and filled in the gaps.
You sort of review a day working in a posh restaurant kitchen: is that real?
Ha! Yeah, that was a real assignment for Lucky Peach. That’s part of why I like doing work for them, because it takes me to some interesting places.
What’s your favourite food?
Szechuan: food that’s really really spicy. That’s what I like right now.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
An artist or a veterinarian.
What cinched it for drawing?
Drawing was the thing I was best at. And I didn’t want to take that many math classes.
What was your first job?
I’ve had loads of jobs. I worked in a dog kennel for a while, and for a while I was just moving furniture in my pick-up truck.
So when was the move into being an artist?
I’d saved up money and was finally starting to get illustration work, so it was the right point to jump off. I was lucky. There was never a point when I couldn’t get any work or sell comics or paintings. But I did what I had to. I would paint pet portraits, which weren’t my favourite thing to do, but brought in money. I graduated college in 2006, so it’s taken me 10 years to get to where I am now.
Is drawing catharsis for you?
A lot of my work is based on very personal experiences, so there’s an element of catharsis, but I’ll disguise it and make it anthropomorphic or surreal, but there are a lot of elements of me in there.
My sense of humour comes across, which is good because art directors want someone with a point of view. I’ll respond to a story with something that’s not necessarily the most straightforward approach. I’m smart and funny, although it feels weird to say that. But I think that’s been more important than technical skills. One of my execs on BoJack said that my work is “very specific”, which I think is my best compliment.
How do you relax?
I go horse-riding and do weight-lifting and go trekking: anything that’s really physical takes me out of myself. My brain doesn’t shut off, which is very annoying. I do wake up and scribble ideas down – I’ve dreamed a lot of solutions to story problems.
What’s your proudest creative moment to date?
I did a chicken voice on BoJack last season and I got to read it at the table and when I first made the chicken noise the voice actors gave me a standing ovation. I’m usually so quiet and shy, I think they were really impressed when I bust out the chicken noise.
Can… can you do the chicken noise please?
Bok-bakaaaw! [check it out at 1.39 here:]
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve ever been given?
One of my photography teachers in college – Walead Beshty – walked up to my photos and said, “OK, why should I give a fuck?” I think I cried. His point was: this is personal to you, but when you put a piece of art out there, you can’t stand next to it and explain so it needs to stand on its own. There has to be something that makes people give it a second glance. It’s become something of a mantra: it forces you to pull your head out of your ass.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to do what you do?
To not worry about style so much, but to just make as much work about what you care about most, what interests you most. All the artists I like best tell stories that nobody else could tell.
Hot Dog Taste Test, published by Drawn & Quarterly, is out now.
BoJack Horseman season three is available on Netflix tomorrow.
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Aged five, Mickey Noonan shoved an apple pip up her nose to see what happened. Older, wiser but sadly without a nose-tree, Standard Issue's editor remains curious about the world. Likes running, jumping and static trapeze.