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Interview: Benedict Cumberbatch on "Penguins of Madagascar"

Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t even have to appear in a movie to make an impression. With a voice that once was famously described as sounding like “a jaguar hiding in a cello,” the British actor best known for his portrait of Sherlock Holmes on PBS is heard but not seen in two upcoming films: as a foxy undercover wolf who goes by the name Classified and oversees the North Wind,  a covert group of animal agents, in the animated spy comedy “Penguins of Madagascar”  (opening Nov. 26); and as Smaug the dragon in the finale of “The Hobbit” trilogy,  “The Battle of Five Armies” (Dec. 17). 

“At Comic-Con in San Diego, women were quite audible when the wolf appeared in the clips,” says Penguins co-director Eric Darnell, who also shared helming duties on the “Madagascar” film series that began in 2005.

But, obviously, witnessing their idol in the flesh is always preferable. Not to worry, Cumber-fans. In "The Imitation Game" (Nov. 28), you get the full Benedict, as it were, when he stars as code-breaking World War II hero Alan Turing—a role that has been gathering Oscar buzz for weeks after making the fall festival rounds.

Because of his heavy schedule, Cumberbatch (who just  announced his engagement  recently) did some early press for the 20th Century Fox/DreamWorks release while attending this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Joining him was Tom McGrath, the co-director on the three previous “Madagascar” adventures who reprises his role as Skipper, the macho leader of the black-and-white foursome in the franchise spinoff.

The resulting chat, though entertaining, was a little disjointed, not unlike Skipper’s penchant for paranoia-induced conspiracy theories. The fact that a human-size costumed version of Skipper was waving his flippers about in a nearby room just added to the unusual atmosphere. 

Therefore, I turned to Darnell and Simon J. Smith, his “Penguins” co-director who originally hails from England, to provide some coherent basic intelligence on these two talented gents. That includes how McGrath originally came up with the penguins for the first “Madagascar” outing and why they thought one of hottest actors in the world would deign to be a secret-agent foil to a flock of waddling scene stealers. 

“He invented the penguins,” says Darnell  of McGrath. “We both had come off other movies that were penguin-related before we started up to do “Madagascar.” I was doing a penguins movie for DreamWorks—with the Beatles actually.  And we couldn’t quite get it together. And Tom was working on another penguins movie. We both had penguins on the brain. He went home one night and came back in with some story sketches he had done. It was the penguins on the boat in the first “Madagascar,” coughing up that paper clip. And breaking out and taking over the ship. We put that in the film.”

How did McGrath come to provide Skipper’s voice? “I think there is a little bit of Tom in Skipper,” Darnell says. “He can slide into that role. He gets it. Or you might even say those four penguins are different aspects of his personality. The four guys together kind of create this unified personality that has commitment and chutzpah and brains and heart. That’s Tom.”

As for Mr. Cumberbatch? “We saw him about three and a half years ago,” Smith says. “In “Sherlock.” And our editor is an Australian and he saw him before we did, because they ran “Sherlock” before they ran it here. He said, ‘You’ve got to see this guy, Benedict Cumberbatch.’ We thought that was an interesting name. Lara Breay, the producer, and I both saw him and it was like, ‘Oh my God, this guy is amazing.’ And we campaigned to try to get him in for casting, specifically for the character of Classified. We liked the juxtaposition of a James Bond type, suave and sophisticated, to go against the crazy John Wayne-like, shoot-first-ask-questions-later Skipper and the boys. We asked him to do the movie and he said, ‘Absolutely, I’d love to do it.’”

Smith and company were impressed by the actor’s conviction to his role, silly puns and all. “He is such a professional. He just dove right in and was willing to do anything,  even giving the Benedict Cumberbatch treatment to lines like, ‘No one breaks the Wind.’ That is the only reason we named them the North Wind, by the way. Just for that gag.”

Without further wind-related ado, here are Cumberbatch and McGrath.

I work for although I am based in Virginia near Washington, D.C. The website has contributors from all over.

McGrath:  I just went to Washington for the first time.

That’s almost un-American.

McGrath: I know. I’m working on a project with Kevin Spacey. Do you know Kevin?

Cumberbatch: Oh, yeah.

McGrath: He’s a kick.  He is doing a voice for this other project. And I had never been to Washington before. I loved it when I was there. Have you been?

Cumberbatch: No, I haven’t. And I really want to. Yeah, it’s on the bucket list for me.

Don’t go in the summer.

Cumberbatch: No, it’s very swampy I hear.

Tom, when I was still at USA TODAY, you did these postcards written in the voice of each of the four main characters in “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.”

Cumberbatch: That’s like Uncle Fraggle from “Fraggle Rock.” We should have done that for this movie. It’s never too late.

Are you too big of a star now, Tom, that you can’t direct and talk anymore?

McGrath: I got a taste of what it is like to be talent. Which is good. It’s the first time I’ve had a hotel suite.

But you also are an executive producer.

McGrath: Yeah, these characters are so close to my heart, it’s fun. And with Simon and Eric, the movie is in great hands. And I had other projects I was doing. So it was great just to be the voice talent. And I was talking to Benedict about this, just being behind the mike really gave me a great education of how to direct people behind the mike, and what’s useful to know or giving context to the situation. Being on the other side of that was great for me to grow even as a director.

You had the most memorable line from the first “Madagascar,” “Remember, cute and cuddly, boys. Cute and cuddly.” I had a stuffed penguin that said that when you squeezed his stomach.

McGrath: Oh, yeah. I gave one to my mother so I didn’t have to call her as much.

You are probably going to be a talking toy now, too, Benedict, if you haven’t been already because of “The Hobbit” movies. Is there a dragon toy with your voice?

Cumberbatch: I don’t think it would be proper to have a dragon who would say, “I am fire. I am death.”  I just think of the slightly younger ones going (puts on a hysterical crying-kid voice), “He said he’s death!” They would have to be heavily sedated to sleep. I think there are some toys are there that have a striking resemblance to me, but I think they are otters.

(Laughter all around) Well, if you think so …

Cumberbatch: I don’t, but apparently the Internet does. It’s a picture of my face and an otter’s [see it here]. And how similar they are. That was in 2013. There are other memes now. I look more like a wolf these days.

Did you have a say who would be the voices of the new characters, Tom?

McGrath: I wanted Leo…actually I wasn’t around then.

Cumberbatch: They were English people, so I think they were a bit biased. Was it always going to be a Brit character? It could have more like Bourne or some kind of American.

McGrath: It was a flat, one-dimensional character and it was hard to figure out in the process of developing the story until Benedict stepped into the role. All of a sudden, the character sprang to life and became this three-dimensional character. And it really helped me to know who I was playing off of. They would play me Benedict’s voice just in the scene because he would improvise a lot. I can’t think of anyone else who could play the role. And the great thing is, many people know Benedict’s dramatic side but they don’t know how funny he can be.

Have you ever made a straight-up comedy movie?

Cumberbatch: Yes, “Starter for 10.” There are issues to do with relationships and growing up. But that was a straight comedy. And a lot of “Sherlock,” I think, is just genuinely funny. Also, there is a BBC radio comedy called “Cabin Pressure,” that is just very funny. John Finnemore writes that beautifully. It’s a great character I play in that.

McGrath: And you have secret things now.

Cumberbatch: Secret things coming out…maybe. It’s always tempting and I’ve been very flattered by some of the offers I’ve had in the past for cameos. I’d love to do straight comedy where you see me.

Some of us would like to see you in a romantic comedy.

Cumberbatch: A romantic comedy? Make you laugh and fall in love with her? Yeah.

What about voice work?

Cumberbatch: I’ve done an episode of “The Simpsons.” I did Smaug with motion capture. This was some motion capture. 

McGrath: We videotaped Benedict. The animators used it as a tool.

Cumberbatch: And after that, it got a little more extrapolated because I took off for Yellow Stone Park for a little while to get in touch with my inner wolf. I was in a pack. Quite a tame pack to begin with. I tested myself.

McGrath: (in a whisper) Method.

Cumberbatch:  Method, yeah.  I became native. I then realized the members of the pack were three other actors. Christian Bale, Tommy Lee Jones … it was a crazy pack of wolves and a great party as well.

Um, he has a wild imagination, doesn’t he.

McGrath:  He does. You need that when you do animated voices because you don’t have any sets or costumes to look at. Not many people can do it. And Benedict is one who can imagine a world around him and bring a great performance.

Cumberbatch:  I am just a huge fan of this type of film. I’ve always have been. I love the “Madagascar” films. And I love the penguins and I think Tom’s Skipper is genius. It is utter genius. I hear bits of James Mason. Others hear John Wayne. It’s a beautiful thing and it makes me laugh every time.

McGrath: And a poor man’s Charlton Heston

Cumberbatch: In “Planet of the Apes.”

McGrath: I always listen to “Planet of the Apes” at least once a year. It’s all those actors from the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Cumberbatch: There is a delicacy of wit in it as well, which is very, very funny. It’s brilliant. So I’ve always wanted to do this kind of stuff. And you don’t want to just  turn up and be a name on the cast list. You want to actually have fun with the medium.  That is what made me want to do it. I had never done an animation before.

I do think that some actors give their best performances doing animation.

McGrath: And when you see them, it’s always a disappointment.

No, no. But it is freeing not to be on camera. Ellen DeGeneres was OK as an actress but she was amazing as Dory in “Finding Nemo.” Even Robin Williams as the genie in “Aladdin.” That is where it started, when studios started hiring bigger name actors to do voice work. And actors realized it isn’t a bad gig.

McGrath: They always say now it’s all just star stuff. But Hans Conried, when he did Captain Hook in “Peter Pan,” was still a huge star.  It’s weird how people perceive these big-name actors.  How we really cast animated films is by voice, not necessarily by the marquee. And Benedict’s range is so incredible.

Cumberbatch: And it was three years ago as well. It was before a lot of the stuff I’ve done had actually come out even. I’m not saying I was an unknown.  “Sherlock” had happened. So that was a big thing. I was really only happy about it. 

McGrath: With a lot of people, it’s surprising.  They are great on screen but then their voice can be flat.

There is a tradition of animation directors doing voices. Even Walt Disney did Mickey Mouse. But did you think that almost 10 years later, you would still be doing the voice of Skipper.

McGrath:  I had hoped so. It’s fun. Even though I wanted Robert Stack’s voice originally. It’s fun for me with my nephews and kids. Benedict has godchildren that now they get to hear him as Agent Classified.

Tell me about Agent Classified

Cumberbatch: We can’t really discuss it. It’s kind of classified.

Stop it.

Cumberbatch: Yeah, he’s great. He is the professional in the movie. Everyone else is just sort of happy-go-lucky amateurs really. He is incredibly pompous and secure in his wonderful position of leading this elite team of expert animal welfare protectors.

McGrath: We join forces because the penguins are like grit, spit and duct tape. They usually take the wrong approach.

Cumberbatch: Like James Bond, we have an organization. It’s all very high-tech kit.

What is the plot, exactly, because the movie hasn’t screened yet?

Cumberbatch: Good question, Tom.

McGrath: Dave the Octopus, who is played beautifully by John Malkovich, is resentful of penguins and anything cute and cuddly. Agent Classified is called in because he works with the North Wind, which helps all these helpless animals.

Cumberbatch: And he realizes that things have been going wrong for penguins around the world. They have been disappearing from zoo enclosures. And their worlds collide.

McGrath: They go around the world to Shanghai, Venice. And everyone thinks of penguins as cute and cuddly. But our guys, the thing is, they don’t realize the package that they are in. They are these big personalities in this cute and cuddly package. And so, in a way, they are proving themselves to the world that they are capable. And the way they look at Private, the youngest member of the group, they realize they have been treating one of their own members the way the world has been treating them. So there is a heart to this comedy. They have to save the world and Skipper has a different approach than Classified.

Cumberbatch. It is fun to watch them clash while trying to achieve their objective and getting Private back. And taking down Dave.

McGrath: I love how you say that.

Cumberbatch: I think I have a lot of Steve Coogan in my performance.

I am sure he will consider it an honor. I do want to ask you a non-penguin-related question, however. Where were you on Emmy night this year when you won best lead actor in a miniseries or movie for “Sherlock”?  The show ended up with seven trophies.

Cumberbatch (with a slight defensive tone):  I was working. And Martin (Freeman, his co-star who won a supporting Emmy for his Dr. Watson) was working. We were both working. We weren’t at home, filing our nails, thinking, “We’re not going to be with that lot.” He was onstage doing “Richard III.” And I was playing Shere Khan in “The Jungle Book” for Andy Serkis and Warner Bros. We couldn’t make it.  We would have loved to have made it. Our team was there and we had a great time the last time we all went together as a team. And we had a clean sweep, which was just beautiful. I woke up to a phone exploding.  I thought, “I think I might have won an Emmy. I think I might have left the oven on.” You know. It was this surreal thing that happened to me in my sleep. 

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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