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Penguins of Madagascar: How nature's comic relief is saving the world

Tom McGrath, aka Skipper in Penguins of Madagascar, on why penguins have awkward moments – and acting with Benedict Cumberbatch

What makes penguins so appealing?

They’re nature’s comic relief and nature’s underdog. They live in desolation and survive. Your heart instantly goes out to them. I continue to learn more about them – like you can’t tell the difference between a boy and a girl penguin unless you do a DNA test, which is crazy.

Are penguins able to tell the difference?

I would think so.

Maybe there are a lot of awkward moments on Antarctica…

“Oh sorry mister… I mean ma’am…”

You provide the voice of Skipper, the lead in Penguins of Madagascar. Did their popularity demand they star in their own film?

It wasn’t really a poll where people voted. The feedback on the penguins from the first Madagascar was fantastic and in each successive movie the characters became more defined. Eventually we went, why don’t we make a penguin movie?

Not just any film but a spy thriller.

Penguins are the antithesis of James Bond, who’s personified by Agent Classified [Benedict Cumberbatch]. So it’s his character against my Skipper, being more of a John Wayne type. When penguinkind is in peril, whose is the best way to save the world?

Sounds like the best James Bond film never made, especially if it starred Benedict Cumberbatch.

Then you throw in John Malkovich as the villain Dr Octavius Brine – otherwise known as Dave.

You’re not a voice actor – you co-directed Madagascar. Was it a hard decision to award yourself a role in the film?

I originally came up with the penguins for one scene. I pitched it with my poor man’s Charlton Heston; everyone was so used to my voice that I got the part. I always refer to Planet of the Apes as a touchstone because in that Charlton Heston is smoking a cigar on a spaceship.

You’d think they’d have rules about that kind of thing.

I know! That was really funny so we started adding more smarmy Charlton Heston.

With a bigger role, was there more pressure? Especially when you’re cast opposite… I don’t want to say ‘proper’ actors but it is Benedict Cumberbatch.

You can say proper actors, I think they’re proper actors, too! I wish we could do more scenes together but we don’t in animation. But there’s a lot of improvisation. Benedict is a great improviser. He’d throw out a line and a week later I could throw something back to him. Through the course of months you get this spontaneous-sounding scene even though it took a year to create.

A film like The Hobbit will have as many computer-generated shots as Penguins. Have the lines between live action and animation blurred?

It’s a blurred line when everyone goes for realism. You see a million soldiers running over a hill in pretty much every movie since Lord of the Rings. It’s easy to be swept up making everything look hyper real but every film starts to look the same. Animation should get back to its roots. Instead of competing with live-action films it should do what it does best, be more artistic with worlds we create and transport audiences somewhere they’ve never been.

So how are you planning to do that?

I hope we get to do another Penguin film. I’d love to see Penguins in Space. That’s the next place we should go.

As long as they’re smoking cigars in their spaceship.

You know they will be!

Penguins of Madagascar is in cinemas now

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