I’m sitting at a kitchen table on the set of the Disney XD show Crash & Bernstein talking to a puppet about the upcoming second season and the only thing weird about it is that it’s not weird at all.
I admit I was a little apprehensive when I first heard I’d be interviewing Crash, one of the show’s two lead characters, who just happens to be made out of felt and foam. If you’ve never seen the show before, it might help to explain that the premise centers around a boy named Wyatt who has three sisters and desperately wishes for a brother. That wish comes true when he visits a store called Build-a-Bestie and his creation comes to life.
“Will I be interviewing Crash in character?” I ask the show’s publicist in between chats with the other members of the cast. I’ve done interviews with non-human characters before, and it can be tough to get past the schtick to the real person inside. I’m interested in talking about the process of bringing characters to life, especially if they’re lifeless to begin with, not engaging in an extended improvisation exercise.
“Whatever you want to do,” she says. “Tim’s great to talk to, either way.”
“Tim” is Tim Lagasse, the veteran puppeteer who performs Crash on the show. On set he is never without his alter ego, even in between takes. Like me, the show’s cast was a little nervous about how to interact with him when they first began filming season one last year. But now with an entire season under their belt and a new one about to launch, it’s become completely natural.
“Crash is a real person to us now,” says Landry Bender, who plays Wyatt’s overachieving sister Cleo. “Even the grips and the lighting guys, everyone looks at Crash instead of Tim. Like, he’s just this random guy sitting on the floor talking and we’re listening to Crash. Just the way he communicates with us, it’s real.”
As Wyatt, Cole Jensen has had the most experience working with Lagasse and Crash. The 12-year-old actor says they’ve developed a sort of rhythm in their scenes together. Crash acts on impulse, searching out fun, and reacting to situations without concern for the standard rules of behavior while Wyatt is usually the one who tries to rein him in.
“Tim and I are in almost every scene together,” Jensen says. “Every scene that he’s in, I’m in. Every scene that I’m in, he’s in. So we’re always working together. We just kind of know each other so well.”
Not only has the cast had to adjust to acting opposite a puppet, they’ve also had to get used constantly answering questions about it from fans and nosy journalists like me.
“Oh yeah, I get asked that all the time,” says Oana (pronounced “Wah-na”) Gregory, who plays the oldest Bernstein sibling, Amanda. “And I usually give a similar answer that it’s weird. It’s so weird. But it’s so much fun. … At first I was like, ‘Who do I talk to? The puppeteer or the puppet?’ But I’m super used to it now. It’s funny.”
When I finally get around to sitting down with Lagasse I decide to go with the flow try not to be thrown off by the little purple guy on his hand. It’s a good thing, too, because he tells me he is automatically drawn to anyone who displays an aversion to the puppet.
“If anyone walks on set and they’re not playing with me, they are my best friend,” he says.
Then Crash takes over. “Me! Me! Me! Over here! Talk to me!”
“I will drag you kicking and screaming into playing my game with me,” Lagasse finishes.
The transition between them is seamless. It’s not a ventriloquist act; Lagasse doesn’t make any attempt to disguise the fact that he’s the one doing the talking. But when Crash’s mouth opens and that voice comes out, something kind of magical happens.
“Kids will come in and they’ll buy it right away,” Lagasse says. “And people bring little kids to visit and I’ll just stand here like this with the puppet on and they don’t see me. [In Crash’s voice] ‘Hi kids! How are you?’ [Resuming normal voice] They might look at me once and that’s it. Because they want to play. They have that sense of play. They haven’t lost it yet.”
Before landing the role of Crash, Lagasse had previously performed mostly for younger children–he’s worked on Sesame Street and other PBS shows–but he was thrilled to get the chance to do something with a more mature (well, at least comparatively) sense of humor.
“Having done preschool for most of my career and then coming here it’s like swinging three bats. Like, ‘Wait, I can say that? I can do that? You mean I can hit the kid in the face and that’s fine? Really?’ Things that you’re never able to do in preschool.”
There’s a bit of the more playful, even mischievous perhaps, elements of Crash’s personality evident in Lagasse himself. When we talk about the show’s new set–an overgrown field in front of an abandoned fireworks factory, just across the stage from the apartment set where we’re sitting–he lights up. It’s not exactly the kind of place a parent would prefer for a hangout, but it’s an ideal playground for a precocious 12-year-old boy. Or, as Lagasse puts it, “Heaven.”
“You can do jumps and break things. There’s a fake car sitting around. You can pretend you can drive a car, sit on the hood. No one’s going to get mad at you for ruining the paint job. Who knows what’s left inside. We’ve actually never opened the warehouse. I’m hoping an episode comes up where we go in the warehouse and find some things.”
In addition to the new set, the second season of Crash & Bernstein will feature more action, new characters, and a brand new nose for Crash. The season premiere, “The Nosejob Job” will reveal the results of an online poll which allowed fans to “Pick Crash’s nose.”
In true adolescent-boy fashion, Lagasse thoroughly enjoyed the pun. “I said it as many times as I could in the short period time we had,” he says, and then demonstrates with Crash. “‘Hey everyone, pick my nose! Don’t forget to pick my nose! Only you can pick my nose!'”
Where Lagasse ends and Crash begins isn’t always easy to tell, but one thing is for sure, despite the inherent difficulties and physical demands of the role, he’s having the time of his life.
“It is challenging,” he admits. “I get a lot more massages. I take a lot more Advil. I’m getting weird muscles on my legs. But that’s the gig. I knew what I signed up for when I first went to school for it. This is not easy. But I didn’t do it because it was easy; I did it because it’s fun. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
Crash & Bernstein returns with all new episodes beginning Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m., ET/PT, on Disney XD.