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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Raising their voices

Animation work calls on actors’ vocal strengths

Roger Moore McClatchy-Tribune

In Hollywood, it’s the ultimate “nice work, if you can get it” job.

“You’re not limited or judged by what you look like,” the actress Lake Bell, gorgeous enough to be cast for what she looks like, says. “It’s the ultimate acting.”

“I like it, because you can be any height, and you don’t have to shave or bathe,” cracks towering funnyman Brad Garrett.

With animated movies increasing in number and gobbling up a bigger and bigger share of the box office, voice acting is entering a sort of golden age – appealing to stars young (Josh Hutcherson, “Epic”) and old. Some players are cast because of their name. Others, because their voice is their calling card.

“I had this voice when I was SEVEN,” booms Garrett, famous for TV’s “Everybody Loves Raymond,” immortalized in such animated classics as “Finding Nemo” and as an Easter Island statue in the nonanimated “Night at the Museum.” “Animation has, for years, been about hiring who you are.”

Cast Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy for their manic energy, Ellen DeGeneres for her vocal dizziness, Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek for their Latin sexiness, Owen Wilson for the laid-back qualities that his voice embodies.

“Back in the day, they’d hire veteran voice over guys who could do a plethora of voices,” says Garrett, who next voices a fuel truck in Disney’s “Planes,” which comes out Friday. Now, we’re starting to see big name actors do the same thing – disguising their voices, slinging wild accents.

Check out “Despicable Me 2.” Taking their cue from star Steve Carell, who does a semi-Slavic riff for the mad scientist Gru, co-stars Russell Brand, Steve Coogan and Kristen Wiig color their voices and “hide behind the mike,” as Garrett puts it.

Wiig could just “be myself,” she says, playing a secret agent in that film. “But where’s the fun in that?”

Bill Hader is unrecognizable as a very funny French Canadian Indy car racer in “Turbo.” “A lot of the fun in doing that is seeing where you can take it and how hard you can make it for people to realize that’s you in there,” Hader says.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus voices a French-Canadian plane in “Planes,” “but until I saw the credits, I didn’t know it was her,” marvels Garrett. “And I’m in the movie!”

“Planes” director Klay Hall followed Disney Animation chief John Lasseter’s edict of “no ‘stunt’ voice casting” for the film. Hire the right actor and they’ll bring the right voice is their philosophy.

“It’s very old school, to hire somebody and get them to go really out there with their voice,” Hall says.

“Old school” as in the Golden Age of Looney Tunes, when the rubber-voiced Mel Blanc, Bea Benaderet, Daws Butler and others could “hide behind the mike” and become anyone the cartoon called for. Bell, an actress known for such films as “No Strings Attached” and “What Happens in Vegas,” was intrigued enough by her first forays into voice acting (“Shrek Forever After,” “Robot Chicken”) to build an entire indie comedy, which she wrote, directed and stars in, around the profession.

“In a World …” is set in “that tiny club” of full-time voice-actors and voice-over artists, the so-called “voice of God” crowd who make a living voicing over commercials and movie trailers. It started with Bell wondering “why no woman ever gets to voice-over movie trailers” and led to this grand exploration of a world she, like the character she plays in the movie, would love to be a part of.

“In my movie, Gustav, the big-time voice actor, is constantly on speaker-phone griping to his big, fat old Jewish agent,” says Bell, who has been playing around with accents since childhood. “And that’s me, my voice as the agent on the phone. Would I ever be cast in that part? Never. But actors LOVE doing stuff like that.”

And while the ultimate voice actor honor, as Bell suggests in her film, is earning the right to use that immortal movie trailer phrase, “In a world …” on movie trailers, real immortality for voice work comes from cartoons.

“As long as we’re breeding, as a species,” Garrett says, “there’ll be little kids dragging their dad to the sofa to watch ‘Finding Nemo’ or ‘A Bug’s Life’ for the 44th time.”