SAN DIEGO — Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich are birds of the same feather.
They play enemies in the animated film The Penguins of Madagascar (due out Nov. 14), but in real life they’re quick friends even after knowing each other for only a day. That’s long enough for Cumberbatch to bum a cigarette off his new pal just before doing a photo shoot together.
And not only is this weekend the first San Diego Comic-Con for each — they were part of a Penguins presentation Thursday — they’re both actors who are much more familiar with the theatre stage than a recording booth.
You wouldn’t know it by the hilarity that ensues that they’re voicing characters in an animated feature for the first time. In the movie, Cumberbatch’s wolf, super-spy Classified, is pitted against Malkovich’s Dave, a nefarious octopus with evil plans for the four central Penguins..
Penguins challenged these major-league thespians and taught them a thing or two about patience and molding a role in an unorthodox fashion.
While recording lines in various locales over three-and-a-half years, “I learned how I like to act with other actors and how I miss that,” Cumberbatch says. “I really am a theater creature — I’m used to seeing the whole shape of things, the production and also my character’s journey in the story.”
The Sherlock star admits that he didn’t have much to go on when he started recording for Classified, the leader of the animal crew protecting the North Windsquad, other than early artwork of his character.
There are moments in that long period of doing an animated film “where you kind of go kicking and screaming into the booth for the 350th time,” says Cumberbatch, 38.
“At first you think, ‘Why? This is such a waste of everybody’s time and effort and money,’ (but) actually it is genuinely really enjoyable. Soon you shed the schoolboy sulk dragging your satchel to school, and once you’re there, it’s great.”
Malkovich also had some early issues with voicing his role, as well as a minor crisis of confidence after a multitude of takes.
“It got to the point where I’d kinda be like, ‘I’ve done now 87,000 variations of this line ‘Dave’ in 16 countries. Am I not good or is there something that’s not happening?'” says the 60-year-old actor. “Sometimes that was frustrating, but mostly one is challenged by it. It’s a lot like a play, which is what Benedict grew up doing and what I grew up doing. You revisit the same thing over and over and over. But that’s only partially bad news.”
Penguins executive producer Tom McGrath, who co-wrote the movie and stars as the birds’ military-minded leader Skipper, found that Cumberbatch and Malkovich’s theater background helped them understand their characters — in one case, through over-the-top means.
“When you see John Malkovich being an octopus behind the microphone and he’s throwing his arms over his head and he’s allowed to be physical, it’s really funny,” McGrath says. “That physicality is perfect for animation.”
Cumberbatch played many roles in the time he was perfecting his secret-agent wolf — including voicing Necromancer and Smaug the dragon in two Hobbit movies, Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness and famed British code-breaker Alan Turing in TheImitation Game (out Nov. 21).
He thinks of it as a repertory ensemble of characters, and says some have rubbed off on Classified.
“There’s a tinge of Sherlock in the sense he’s arrogant and he gets his comeuppance by having to admit he needs help,” Cumberbatch says. “He’s a Bond figure who thinks he’s got it all sorted and it’s all about squaring everything away and looking cool. Sherlock has a bit of that — (though) he’s not as much of a poseur as Agent Classified.
“While I do jump from one character to another, they’re so different I don’t fear the bleed.”