Now fans can hear him voicing superspy wolf Agent Classified in Penguins Of Madagascar.
Thankfully, the star found time to tell us about his latest role:
Q: So this is your first animated feature…
A: …and it’ll probably be my last!
Q: Now why would you say that?
A: Well, I hope I’ve done a good enough job to get a gig again. It was fun.
Q: Why did you choose this as your debut?
A: It kind of chose me. They approached me and that’s the way it goes with your first animation, I guess. It was nearly three years ago, and the project seemed very appealing to me and that’s why I wanted to be a part of. I thought they were richly comic characters from the Madagascar films, and this Agent Classified character sounded intriguing as a spoof Bond, and I thought it would be fun. I have friends who have children – one of whom is my Godson, who’s going to be about the right age to enjoy the film – so I thought I’d give it a go. I’ve never done this type of work before, so I wanted to see if it was enjoyable.
Q: Who is Agent Classified, and how did you develop the character?
A: He’s basically someone who takes himself incredibly seriously – as he should, because he’s the head of The North Wind, which is this elite task force that looks after animal welfare around the world. They’ve got the cracking motto, ‘No-one breaks the North Wind’, or ‘No-one breaks the Wind,’ as it’s abbreviated. I just thought the fantastic metaphor in the film is that he’s a well-organized, slick professional, but through clashing heads with his polar opposite penguins – no pun intended – he learns that you have to be a little bit penguin in life. You have to sometimes just run with the problem rather than trying to solve it with hi-tech wizardry and lots of planning. There are comic vulnerabilities in him being quite cool – there’s a lot of comic potential, and they didn’t make me hold back, which was great.
Q: What is his journey?
A: Well, from a position of smug arrogance and control and professionalism, to infuriation, disbelief, and the begrudging realization that he actually has something to learn still. There’s a nice little journey there and it’s very funny the way that pans out.
Q: He seems quite Bond-like…
A: In his mind, and also in his voice, which was part of the development, that suave, English delivery. There was a moment of seduction, there is definitely gadgetry, there’s a lot of action and he’s quite adept at what he does. He’s commanding, but then he can also be a complete and utter pillock as well. That’s a counter-intuitive version of Bond, which I found quite funny.
Q: Did you have a particular Bond in mind – do you have a favourite?
A: No, I don’t do favourites – I can’t. It so depends on the film as well. There are classic Connery, Moore, Timothy Dalton and Craig films – it’s really hard to distinguish.
Q: Why do you think the filmmakers thought you’d make a great Agent Classified?
A: I guess in the way that John Malkovich has played lots of villains, I’ve played lots of slightly arrogant anti-heroes. I imagine there’s fluidity there, but I hope it’s not just that. Initially, I thought it was an amalgamation of lots of things I’d done before, but I wanted to find a way to make it original. I started putting my two cents worth in, and they were really thrilled by that. The last few sessions have been very good on that front. I try to make them laugh with improvisations every time. I try to shape it so that it’s not me doing something expected. That stuff I love.
Q: Is that something you do in your work anyway?
A: No! It’s very crazy to think that I’ve just done a gig with John Malkovich and not only did we not meet, but he’s playing an evil octopus and I’m playing a mock-heroic wolf! That’s not the way I pictured it, but there we go. That was the only downside – I love getting ideas from other actors. I had great actors reading with me so I wasn’t completely blind. I wish there’d been a moment where we were all in a semi-circle goading each other on to out-funny. But it never happened, sadly.
Q: How was it for you to remove yourself physically from the process, freeing or frustrating?
A: It’s frustrating. It’s difficult, to be honest – because of that disconnect. You’re not with the other players, and you’re not even with your own performance – you’re doing it to a blank screen. You’re not following an image and you’re not doing it with a movement that is extrapolated into something that resembles that movement. The movement you do is recorded, but it’s usually just so you can vocalize the character as you need. You have to lose your sanity and inhibitions and any kind of dignity and just throw yourself around a bit.
Q: Does it make you feel self-conscious?
A: I always get self-conscious about what I look like in a film, but less so if I’m a character very far removed from who I am. Then I just worry about the performance, and that’s equally an odd experience. But with this, it is very much my voice modulated a little bit to be a more Dalton-esque, or Bond-esque, and a bit more pompous than I hopefully normally am. This wolf is nothing like the way I look, with lots of raised eyebrows, but because they film you, you do get the idea that the artist has tried to take something of what you do live in the room. It’s a very disjointed experience. It’s like dubbing another actor’s performance.
Q: Can you see any of yourself in Agent Classified?
A: Hopefully a little bit, yes. Mainly the sort of hangdog expression, and some of the raised eyebrows and cup-of-tea moments. He’s always got his little finger up – not that I do that in real life, but I definitely did that in the sessions to try and influence the animation.
Q: How familiar were you with the Madagascar series?
A: Oh very. There’s an element of Dad’s Army to the penguins. You’ve got Captain Mainwaring somewhere in there with Skipper… I can recognize the types, but they seem completely unique as well. You get a great deal of them in this film that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. There’s a great origin story too, a fantastic cameo of a very serious filmmaker which is a scream. There’s a great deal of sophistication as well as good slapstick, great capers that would appeal to the kids. They’ve very loveable, very cute, accidental heroes, yet there’s a human element to both them and North Wind.
Q: Madagascar capitalized on everyone’s love of actual penguins, and it seems that this movie alludes to that love.
A: It does, yes – the overriding theme is ‘aren’t penguins cute’, and there you have a reason for an arch villain and all the other hell that ensues. So yes, it’s a very smart inversion of the stereotype about penguins. You mix their cuteness with human foibles and characteristics and you’ve got a very potent combination, and that’s really down to Tom (McGrath) and the others who voice those characters. They’ve created a really strong dynamic – the speechless but brilliant and eating-everything Rico, the innocence of Private, Skipper’s incredible delivery that’s somewhere between John Wayne and James Mason… it’s brilliant.
Q: That’s quite a good impression you’re doing of them all there…
A: I’m alright. It pains me to see this movie sometimes because I want to do more than they’ve asked me to do – maybe this is a way into doing more. But yeah, I love those characters – they’re very funny.
Q: You have voiced an animated character before with the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit; was this a very different experience?
A: Did I observe dogs? No. This dog stands on its hind legs and drinks espressos and lifts its little pinky up on its paw! It’s beyond anthropomorphic; it’s a very surreal, alternate world of animals.
Q: What do you think makes a good animated movie?
A: Being able to balance adult and knowing in-jokes and also just out and out funny things that make all people laugh. The idea that it’s actually something that will appeal to a family, that’s the trick. Beyond that, it’s great to get in subversive messages about morality and how to make a slightly better life for yourself and others and the world. If you can do that without too much syrup coating, all the better. Animations are really powerful for that – it’s not just entertainment. It’s a very cunning way to get good ideas across.
Q: Madagascar has become almost a two billion dollar franchise – feeling the pressure on this one?
A: Well hang on… the penguins are in nine minutes of those first two films, so if we turn the minutes of both of those films into one whole sum, figure out what percentage nine is, that’s the only amount of money we have to make on this one. That really takes the pressure off: if I buy a ticket, we’ll make our money back.