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LI kids meet ‘Emoji’ star T.J. Miller, director Tony Leondis

Actor-comedian T.J. Miller and director Tony Leondis met

Actor-comedian T.J. Miller and director Tony Leondis met with Kidsday reporters (left to right) Natalie LaFata, Michael St. Angelo, Lauren Pallaci and Mikayla Sydnor. Credit: Newsday / Pat Mullooly

“The Emoji Movie” opens Friday, but we had a chance to see scenes in late May. The movie is directed and co-written by Tony Leondis and stars the voices of T.J. Miller, Jake T. Austin, Patrick Stewart, Maya Rudolph, Sofia Vergara, James Corden, Anna Faris and Christina Aguilera.

The movie is about a boy named Alex (Jake T. Austin) who is always on his phone. He always uses emojis when he texts and needs to learn how to socialize. This movie is also about a particular emoji named Meh but called Gene (T.J. Miller). Gene has only one job, like all emojis, but he wants to express himself more.

Alex wants to use the Meh emoji to respond to a girl, and it is Gene’s first day as a Meh emoji. He gets himself ready to be sent, but at the last second freaks out and makes a nervous emoticon face instead. Gene is then known as the malfunction. The only way to get a permanent Meh face and make him a favorite is to find a Hacker. The Hacker is a rebellious girl emoji who can hack into anything. Her name is Jailbreak. They journey through Alex’s phone and all his apps trying to make Gene useful again.

After the clips we met with T.J. Miller and director Tony Leondis. (In a separate interview, we met actor Jake T. Austin, who does the voice of Alex. You can read our interview with Jake T. Austin at

T.J., what was your favorite part about playing Gene in the movie?

There is something funny to me about a character who is always “meh.” Who cares, whatever . . . which is what a lot of people who act cool do, right? They are sort of unimpressed by everything. But he is so excited about things and gets scared and gets very sad. There is something very funny to me when Tony pitched it to me. It seemed to me it would be a very funny and fun character to play.

Tony, what is the biggest challenge you had while making this movie?

The biggest challenge was trying to decide what emoji to put into this movie because there are so many emojis, and everyone has a favorite one.

Tony, did you have any hard decisions picking the actors?

Tony: When it came to Gene, there was only one person [pointing to T.J.]. If you know T.J.’s work, he is irrepressible. He can’t help but express himself and be himself all of the time. He loves life, and he gives that off in everything he does — when I see his stand-up, his movies and TV shows. When he said yes, it was a big day for us.

T.J.: This is the first movie where I am the star. So I wanted to be careful and make sure it was a movie I could add a lot to, and what I am good at would work in the film.

Tony: A lot of the lines in the script, when T.J. gets them and he starts to perform them, he rewrites them and performs them to make them funnier, smarter and different.

Tony, is it easier to direct a realistic movie or an animated one?

I think both have their challenges. The difficulty with the animated movie: You have to create the movie in your mind first. For “The Emoji Movie” we had to create all these different app worlds. So what does Spotify look like? And what does Candy Crush look like now that you are in the game?

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