When the movie "Anomalisa" began getting media coverage last fall, Chris Wilkins of Minneapolis started hearing from relatives who recognized him.
"People kept telling me they'd seen my face. In the New Yorker ... in Entertainment Weekly ... in Rolling Stone," Wilkins, the co-founder of a software development company, told BringMeTheNews.
The characters in "Anomalisa" are stop-motion animated figures. And the main character's face is modeled on Chris Wilkins'. So he's not exactly in the movie. But in a way he's onscreen throughout the film.
"It's fun because I'm anonymous," Wilkins said. "I can watch it and nobody knows it's me – except my family. It's a riot and I love it."
"Anomalisa" is nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film. It follows Michael Stone, a lonely man who has become so disinterested by his mundane life that everyone else – with one exception – sounds alike. To underscore this sameness, one actor provides the voice for every character except Stone and Lisa, the woman who becomes the object of his obsession during a business trip.
Why the Minnesota guy?
Chris Wilkins' ex-wife has a brother, Duke Johnson, who directs stop-motion animation, particularly for the Adult Swim segments on Cartoon Network.
So when his ex contacted him and asked if he would send a photo of himself to Duke (and then called back later to ask for one of him without a beard), Wilkins presumed it was for a cartoon character.
But the follow-up call he got was from Rosa Tran, the animation producer of "Anomalisa."
"Charlie likes your look," Tran informed him. Wilkins says his reply was "Who's Charlie? ... and should I be worried?"
Wilkins was reassured to learn that Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay for "Anomalisa," which is based on a one-act radio play he'd written several years earlier.
Kaufman had specific ideas about how the Michael Stone character should look on the big screen but had been unable – even with the help of a consulting agency – to find such a person to serve as a model for the puppet to be used in the stop-motion animation.
Finally one day, as he listened to his co-director describe the face he wanted, Duke Johnson realized it was the face of his sister's former husband.
Wilkins says he was told part of the appeal was his middle-aged look along with an ethnicity that was rather benign, "I could be anything," he says.
Soon, while in Los Angeles on a business trip, Wilkins went to the studios of Starburns Industries to meet the filmmakers, sign a contract, and pose for more photos.
"They would tell me: 'Be mad for this one. Now be happy. OK, now look surprised,' so they could get all my facial expressions," he says.
Later came another call from Tran, this time asking for a photo of Wilkins in a swimsuit. Sensing where things were headed, he responded with the question: "Is there going to be puppet nudity?"
When the answer was yes, Wilkins said "I'll give you a swimsuit picture but nothing else," he remembers.
Most critics have been impressed with "Anomalisa." It has an aggregate score of 88 on metacritic.com and Rolling Stone called it a masterpiece. One of the few detractors was The Dagger, which found its existentialism "patience-testing."
Many of those handicapping the Oscars expect the Disney movie "Inside Out" – directed by Minnesota native Pete Docter – to win the statue for best animated film. But "Anomalisa" has its backers, as well.
The Oscars are coming up on Sunday night and feature a handful of other Minnesota connections.