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Making 'Rango' a group effort for stars

By Tim Lammers
Published On: May 12 2011 10:21:33 AM CDT
Rango, Priscilla

Paramount Pictures

Abigail Breslin and Isla Fisher have no doubt both been a part of many a-great ensemble casts, from "Little Miss Sunshine" to "Zombieland" for Breslin to "Wedding Crashers" and "Hot Rod" for Fisher. And thanks to the innovation of "Pirates of the Caribbean" director Gore Verbinski, they can also claim to have worked in an animated film among another set of prestigious performers: a luxury not afforded to most actors who lend their to voices to the genre.

Unlike most animated features, where each actor's dialogue is recorded individually, the Western-flavored "Rango" rustled up all of its talent to record their dialogue while acting out the scenes on a soundstage.

In some ways, "Rango" was filmed a lot like "Avatar," except that, instead of motion-capturing the characters' movements, Verbinski was gunning for EMOTION capture. Instead of hooking his actors up to different sorts of digital bells and whistles to record their movements, Verbinski aimed to use the actors as living, breathing reference points for his animators.

"We filmed it like a play, and since we were all together, it gave us the opportunity to play off of each other," Breslin said. "If an actor you're working with changes the way they do something, you tend to change the way you do something. It's a lot more fun than standing in a recording studio, talking into a microphone."
"Rango" stars Johnny Depp as the title character -- an identity-challenged chameleon whose wayward trail leads him to the gritty, gun-slinging town of Dirt. Living in the creep-infested, lawless town are a variety of critters who find enough hope in Rango to make him sheriff. But before Rango saves his townsfolk, the slinky stranger first needs to figure out how to save himself.

Breslin plays a curious rodent named Priscilla, while Fisher wraps herself in the skin of a lizard named Beans -- an feisty character who possesses quite a bit of Old West attitude.

"If Clint Eastwood and Holly Hunter were to have a love child, that would be Beans, vocally," said Fisher.

Having voiced one of the lead roles for the 2008 animated hit "Horton Hears a Who!" Fisher said that she was used to a completely different set of rules when it came to participating in animated project.

"Particularly with traditionally animated movies, you don't even know the story going in. You're given an overview of the plot and then a lot of times your individual scenes are rewritten," Fisher said. "And since you're a part of a process that takes place over a couple years, you often feel completely crazy since you're just talking to yourself in a booth with a director is saying, 'Do it again, but be funnier.'"

A Theatrical Setting

A veteran of the stage, Fisher not surprisingly loved the process of acting out her role in a theatrical-like setting.

"It was really refreshing to be on a soundstage and shooting it live-action, where we got to handle props and mimic like you're jumping down a well. When your character is gagged, literally they gag you, and when you're riding on a horse, you ride on a saddle on a block," Fisher said. "All of the physicality of the scenes enhances our performances. We have far more chemistry with each other because we're interacting with each other. There's more humanity to the voices because we're all experiencing things."

Among those things, Breslin added, were fake gunshots. After all, "Rango" is set in the Wild West.

"When you think about being in an animated movie, you don't think about having to wear earplugs because they're using guns while they're filming," Breslin, 14, said. "It was really funny -- about half-way through working on 'Rango,' I almost forgot that we were working on an animated movie."

While the animators and Verbinski used the actors' real-life motions as reference for the animated characters, Breslin was glad they didn't incorporate her real-life look into her character Priscilla's characteristics. That would imply to the actress that she looks like a wide-eyed rodent with a pointed nose.

"I would have been flattered if they did because I think Priscilla is gorgeous," Breslin said with a laugh.

'Extraordinary' Experience

While the actors' voices and motions where used in inform the characters in "Rango," both Breslin and Fisher admitted that, as close as they were to the project, they got just as caught up in the wonder of the story on screen as your average movie-goer.

"It was extraordinary seeing everyone's performances put together. Of course, on the day of filming, it wasn't Jake the Snake but Bill Nighy twisting his body around me and hissing at me," Fisher recalled. "But when you're sitting in a dark cinema and seeing my character experience that, it was as if I never had done the scene at all. I loved it."

Unfortunately, not all of what you see in "Rango" was acted out by the actors, most notably a big kissing scene between Rango and Beans.

"Believe it or not, the day I was supposed to do the kissing scene I had a cold, and I didn't want to infect Johnny. So I said, 'I can't do this,' and I was obviously pretty bummed about that," Fisher, 35, lamented. "But I can say I got to do a movie with him. Hey, when I was growing up, I had a poster of him in '21 Jump Street' on my wall."

On the upside, Fisher has now an incentive to land another romantic role opposite Depp. For you see, she has to get even with her husband, comedy genius Sacha Baron Cohen, for his extreme antics while filming a certain blockbuster movie about a faux-Kazakhstan reporter.

"I'm always trying to get revenge for Sacha doing that (nude wrestling scene) in 'Borat,'" Fisher said, laughing.