'Madagascar' Director Polishes His Penguin Voice Tom McGrath, an executive producer of Penguins of Madagascar who also co-directed the first three films in the franchise, says he came to voice the part of the penguin Skipper kind of by accident.
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'Madagascar' Director Polishes His Penguin Voice

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'Madagascar' Director Polishes His Penguin Voice

'Madagascar' Director Polishes His Penguin Voice

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TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

Big players in Hollywood always hold out hope that someday they'll make it past the walk on. Instead of an extra, they'll be the star. Well, nine years ago in the DreamWorks animation film Madagascar, four penguins inspired other animals at a New York zoo to break out and run free.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR")

TOM MCGRATH: (As Skipper) We don't belong here. It's just not natural. This is all some kind of whacked out conspiracy.

VIGELAND: All those penguins had small roles in a couple of Madagascar sequels, but stardom eluded them - until now. Their first feature film, "Penguins of Madagascar," is out Wednesday. This time they're hunting for an evil octopus who is abducting penguins around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR")

MCGRATH: (As Skipper) Penguins are our flesh and feathers. If anyone's going to save us, it's us.

VIGELAND: Skipper leads the four Penguin team. He's voiced by Tom McGrath, who also directs the first three films in the franchise. He talked with Arun Rath about how he ended up behind the mic in the first "Madagascar" film.

MCGRATH: For me and my partner Eric Darnell, we wanted Robert Stack. You know Robert Stack, of course.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

People probably know him more now for being in the "Airplane!" movies. But he had a lot of kind of serious...

MCGRATH: He was just that '50s tough guy and he had a...

RATH: Yeah.

MCGRATH: And so the character was kind of one-note, at least for my character Skipper. And he would just say, you, status report. And what I had done was the temporary track, the scratch track, to fill in until Robert Stack was - we were able to get him. And, unfortunately, he passed away. And I think people got so used to hearing my voice, Jeffrey Katzenberg just said, you got the part, kid.

RATH: So is that the inspiration then? Were you trying to channel Stack?

MCGRATH: Yeah, in a way. And as we went into, you know, a second and a third movie, I always loved Charlton Heston in "Planet Of The Apes" - the original version. And he would sit on a spaceship - on a spaceship - and smoke a cigar. He goes man's still waging war against his brother.

RATH: (Laughter).

MCGRATH: And so to me, you know, he was - he was such a caricature in that movie. And as Skipper grew as a character, there was more Charlton Heston. I think in the second movie he says I'd like to kiss you monkey men. And so it's my poor man's Charlton Heston or Robert Stack.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR")

MCGRATH: (As Skipper) Time to get creative. Start grabbing boxes, boys. Now we're talking. Let's get to work.

RATH: The penguins were originally just a plot device in the first "Madagascar" movie. Did you have any idea that they would become as popular as they have?

MCGRATH: Well, as a matter of fact, Arun, they almost didn't make the first movie because they were just in that one scene. A way to give them job security was to embed them in the story, so we thought, OK, they can inspire the zebra to escape the zoo, and then they're forever in the story and they can't be cut.

And, you know, as each film went by, people really loved the penguins. And it was easy because they were just pure comic relief and they didn't have to support a story. But as we did three films and did three shorts and then they had their own TV show, we were able to develop the characters. And it became - each one of their personalities became much more distinct.

RATH: I appreciate this as somebody who watches a lot of stuff with my kids. There's stuff in there - as much stuff - for the adults as there is for the kids.

MCGRATH: Well, that was the whole idea because, you know, I remember in the days of Saturday morning, you could get up at 5:30 in the morning, eat your cereal with your dad and watch "Bugs Bunny." And he would laugh at some jokes and you would laugh at others. You know, there's no reason like a family can't go to a movie together and enjoy it. And so parents aren't watching their watches. There's something for everybody in it.

RATH: So you had done some voiceover work here and there but never really lived with a character this long for this many years. So Tom, what have you learned about yourself by being Skipper?

MCGRATH: Well, you know, it's interesting to be behind the mic, 'cause usually I'm on the other side of the glass. And stepping into the shoes of an actor really taught me what's important and what kind of direction people need.

'Cause when we record animated films, I don't know if most people realize this, we do all the voice work before hand and then the animation is done afterwards based off that performance. So you're working in, you know, isolation. You're in a booth with no sets. There are no costumes.

And you're kind of vulnerable as an actor and you kind of need to know the context of the scene. You know, you're being chased by 30 octopi. You know, you enter the scene this way because this just happened. And so, in a way, it taught me to be a better director just from stepping in the shoes of recording voiceover.

RATH: Tom, before I let you go, would you indulge me and record something as Skipper for my kids?

MCGRATH: Oh yeah, what would you like?

RATH: How about - Arjun (ph) and Mira (ph), go to bed. That's an order.

MCGRATH: Arjun (ph) and Mira (ph), go to bed. That's an order. Obey your parentals. I don't know, Arun. Was that good?

RATH: That was awesome. No, I'm like dad of the year now. Tom McGrath is the executive producer of the new movie "Penguins of Madagascar." And he's also the voice of Skipper. Tom, thank you so much - real pleasure.

MCGRATH: Thank you so much, Arun. Or should I say thank you NPR and thank you Arun, if that is your real name.

RATH: Awesome.

MCGRATH: Skipper out.

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