NEW YORK — Picture a couple of gnarly, cutlass-wielding, Victorian-era pirates of the high seas, and the last pair you'd probably envision would be urbane British actor Hugh Grant and pixyish, bespectacled animator Peter Lord.
But they are two of the primary scalawags behind Aardman Animations' newest feature-length comedy, “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” a stop-motion cartoon spoof of all things scurvy and swashbuckling.
During a jovial, back-and-forth news conference for the movie at the Regency Hotel hosted by Columbia Pictures, the two — Grant, the handsome, rascally leading man with his droll Brit wit, and the rumpled Aardman co-founder Lord, looking like a whimsical college don — waxed on about buccaneers, stop-motion animation, the quirks of British humor, Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin and the pleasures of voice acting.
“The Pirates! Band of Misfits” follows the seafaring misadventures of the luxuriantly bearded Pirate Captain, a bumbling but boundlessly enthusiastic brigand who leads a ragtag crew on a quest to amass a shipload of booty and win for himself the much-coveted title among fellow thieves as Pirate of the Year.
Grant readily admits he looks nothing like his big, buff, bearded animated character, Pirate Captain. But while he might have doubted his ability to play a pirate, he relished the challenge of giving voice to such a vivid, oddball comic character.
“When I saw the script, I panicked really,” the actor said. “I read it on the page and thought, ‘Oh, that's not very me.' And then I looked at the character model they'd built and thought, ‘That's really not me, at all.' And then I realized I was going to have to do some acting. So I just started experimenting with silly voices. It sort of happened that way. But my touchstone was always the beard. I always felt if I stroked my imaginary beard I became the Pirate Captain. And so I did a lot of beard stroking.”
‘They did it all'
Lord, directing his first film since 2000's “Chicken Run,” admitted Grant is not the first actor who comes to mind when you utter the word “pirate” but said he brought qualities to the role that were intangible.
“Hugh is the perfect person to play (Pirate Captain),” Lord said. “He's rot at being a pirate, and he's up against some selfish and dangerous people. But the character's essential cheerfulness is what wins through.”
For his part, Grant wryly confessed that voice acting is a pretty easy gig.
“That was the whole joy of a film like this,” Grant joked. “Things like physical comedy — I don't really do that. But I didn't have to. I just left it to the animators. They do the whole thing for you. In fact, they did everything for me — things I can't do in films. Like I can't do physical comedy, I can't do stunts, I can't do emotion — but they did it all.”
Did he ever want to be a pirate when he was a kid?
“I can't say I did,” Grant said. “No, I really wanted to be in the U.S. Cavalry. And I still haven't given up that hope entirely.”
Lord allowed that pirate movies have a long and storied history in Hollywood, but beyond a few iconic nuggets of gold, he said it isn't such a treasure trove of spoof-worthy conventions as one would think.
“At the start we looked back at old pirate movies to see what great larks they were,” the director said. “But once you've done the big sword fights and the swinging on ropes and the sliding down the sail with a knife, that's kind of it then.
“But we tapped into a general sense of this ridiculously over-the-top jollity and good humor. The funniest one was ‘The Crimson Pirate' that Burt Lancaster filmed, completely hilarious. They were having such a good time the whole time, bounding and leaping from place to place. So that was nice. But it's not really such a terribly rich genre. We were just referring to some idealized folk memory of what pirate movies ought to be like, that was the idea.”
In that vein, the script by Gideon Defoe (drawn from his comic novel “The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists”) plays fast and loose with history and has cheeky fun making villains and fools of Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin.
“That was always a big plus for me,” Grant quipped. “I hate those two. Actually, there are people who have fixations on historical characters. Doing ‘Love Actually' with Billy Bob Thornton, who as you know is unusual, we learned that he has a proper phobia about 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. He's terrified of him. And I remember on that set, we had a set of No. 10 Downing Street, I found a picture of Disraeli, and I used to slyly push it in front of Billy Bob. And he would just break out in a sweat.”
Degrees of humor
Which brought the conversation around to the differences between British humour and American humor.
“People have asked me about that for years,” said Grant, “and honestly I don't think there are such big differences. I guess the only place where there's a little more emphasis in Britain is sometimes on profound silliness, just almost surreal, childish silliness like you see in Monty Python or in a lot of Aardman films, I think. But otherwise I don't think there are profound differences.”
Lord added, “I find it impossible to answer when people ask, ‘Is your humor very British?' I have no idea. And the big question is, if it is different, does it matter really? Because we in Britain, we drink in the American humor by the gallon-load. In all sorts of different styles and tones, we take it all in and laugh at half the antics.
“I'm sure there are some things we don't get. Cultural references and such. Like when people make jokes about American high school. I know there's a whole world of experience that American high school kids have had that I haven't had.
“But I don't mind. I laugh along, I get bits of it and bits I miss, and that's fine. So I kind of hope American audiences will be similarly broad-minded and just enjoy something with a slightly different tone.”
Added Grant: “And it is always true that the more you try to be international with your humor or your entertainment, the more you'll fail. And the more you try to be local and indigenous and just do what pleases you the more you're likely to succeed internationally. People like it. They like something different. They don't like homogenized stuff.”
So, how do they hit that sweet spot with humor for kids and adults?
“It is very difficult … well, in fact it's very easy actually,” Lord said. “I really think — I'll say the corny thing — you just make it for yourself. Because what else can you do except what amuses you? If it doesn't amuse you, you aren't going to do it. So you do what amuses you.
“But we're not idiots,” he continued. “We know, of course, that it's for children as well. For example, the writer, Gideon Defoe, writes hilarious dialogue but would never leave any room for action at all. So we had to force his dialogue aside and said, ‘No, no, we've got to get some action in here. This has to be visually entertaining, as well.'
“That was my role, just to make a space for the purely visual and just trust the audience that they will like humor up and down the scale. And I think that's what we've done — we've got some quite smart humor for the sophisticated adults and ludicrous schoolboy humor for children and everything in between, I hope. It seems to all fit together rather well.”