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.”