Getting into their inner raccoon and skunk in the DreamWorks Animated film

The animation world is all about getting the best voices to play the characters. Well, I have to say, DreamWorks definitely did a number on their latest flick, Over the Hedge. For their leads, they found Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling, Steve Carell, William Shatner, Thomas Haden Church, Wanda Sykes, and Avril Lavigne (just to name a few; believe me, there's a whole lot more).

Bruce Willis plays RJ, the raccoon; after steeling some food and waking up a hibernating bear (Nick Nolte), RJ has to pay him back by finding some new snacks for the bear. RJ lands himself plop in the middle of suburbia - well, just outside in the forest where he meets a new group of animals who he tricks to help him gather his food stash.

We had the chance to talk to Bruce and Wanda Sykes, who plays Stella, the skunk, about their roles and getting into their inner animal. Check out a lively Bruce and hilarious Wanda:

When did you first see the animation of your character?

Bruce Willis: It was pretty far down the road; it was at least a year in until I saw any little two-minute segment of animation. We've been talking about this for awhile, but you guys are our new audience and what can I do? It was by far, and I speak for us both, the hardest thing that we've ever done because it's hard to be funny, it's hard to make people laugh anyway; it's hard to do that when you are working with other actors and they are in the same room, in the same space, in the same scene and you've got props and things, and a script that doesn't change and doesn't continually change. We didn't have any of those things; we were in a dark room, by ourselves with an audience of five people: the director, the writer, the producer and the guy actually in the control booth, and were actually there by ourselves and none of the actors ever worked together. So, for it to be as funny as it turned out to be from what I'm told. I saw a rough screening of it that still had animated cards on it that say, "Here's a sketch of Steve Carrell's character and my character doing something," because it wasn't done yet. For it to come together and be as funny as it turned out to be, for both kids and adults is a miracle I think, unbelievable that it worked.

Wanda Sykes: He's Bruce Willis so they showed him more; I got stick figures on a piece of paper and, "This is you."

Bruce Willis: That's it.

Wanda Sykes: "And something's gonna come out here;" that's what I got.

Well, you said this was the greatest movie of all time.

Wanda Sykes: Yes, the greatest movie ever made.

Until Barnyard?

Wanda Sykes: I'm not gonna say; this is the greatest movie ever made.

Bruce Willis: It's going to change the course of history I think.

Wanda Sykes: I think so.

Bruce Willis: There may actually be a cure for cancer in this film.

When did you come on board?

Bruce Willis: About three years ago; I think everybody got hired about three years ago, I dunno, you can ask Jeffrey Katzenberg or the writer or director. They had worked on it two and a half years before that to start and work on the story and pre-produce a lot of things before it even got to the actors. But, it's scary, and it's scary to try and be funny. I asked every day when I came in or at the end of each day, "Is that what you want? Are we going in the right path?" And I think that once I found out that they - and they said it casually, but I'm sure some thought went into it. They said, "Why don't you try and do this character like David Addison?" And I fooled around with that and I finally found the voice of this raccoon - this scheming kind of guy and there were some parallels with that character; he's a lonely little raccoon, though. And no girl raccoons in the movie, no guy skunks in the movie; although Stella has a little romance.

Given your comedic background, was there any sort of improv?

Wanda Sykes: Yes, actually all of us did; we all got to improv and I'm aware of that because the script kept changing. You'd go in and record and then a couple of months later they call you back in and you're doing the scene again, but it's all changes because maybe Bruce added something or Garry added something and changed it all around. But, early on, yeah we did get to play around a lot.

With the script or while you were in the booth?

Wanda Sykes: While we were in the booth.

Bruce Willis: And what we do in the booth affects what the other actors do and vice versa. So, we come back and the script kept getting funnier and better and more focused. At the same time, the animators are working as fast as they can. Sometimes the animation got ahead of the script and sometimes the script got a head of the animation, but it's like an incredibly hard math problem that no we are talking about it and it's done and it's successful and it's funny, but at the time you never know if it is going to work, but DreamWorks is very pleased.

Have you ever been able to go over your own 'hedge' in your career?

Bruce Willis: What is the final frontier? Can we come back to that? I'm stumped, stymied. What is my hedge?

Do you prefer the challenge of animation as opposed to being on set with other actors?

Bruce Willis: I prefer working with other actors in the room; this is really hard and difficult and I couldn't imagine a harder way to be creative and funny. And how this film, how these animated films get made, none of the actors ever work together. And there are what - 8, 10 major characters in this story. No one ever worked together; it's impossible, I never thought it would be as successful or funny as it turned out to be. Now, that I've done it, I would do it again; I would do "Over the Hedge" 2, it's a funny character. I sort of know what the realm of comedy is. What the genre of the comedy is, it's satire; if there is a message it's about telling the truth and ultimately doing the right thing. And friendship and family is more important than lying and cheating and scheming. But, the point really was to entertain people, it's just about entertaining people. If there is a message, it's an afterthought. It's just about being funny.

So, this was a different experience than Rugrats then.

Bruce Willis: Yeah, that was a character that was already established and on the show for a long time, and the novelty of that was that Spike speaks in the film. This new character was created from scratch and it's not based on any character that already existed; so, difficult.

What about the role of Stella attracted you?

Wanda Sykes: Um, it was hard at first finding Stella and giving her a voice; I never wanted it to be 'There's Wanda Sykes,' because comics, we do that. A lot of the time we're just used to delivering jokes, a lot of times it's too loud it's almost like it's turning to camera doing - delivering a joke. And I never wanted to take people out of the movie and go, "Oh, there's Wanda Sykes." So, it took awhile and I really needed to think about it, so I think my first few sessions, I don't think we used any of that. It was like, "This is not right, it just sounds like me." So, it was thinking about Stella. Ok, so Stella has a lot of attitude, but why? In other words, trying to get in touch with that stuff, "Oh, ok, it's kind of like being a woman." Always judged by our looks and that's what Stella is faced with, so it was about getting to why she was angry. Once I got there, then it was a little easier I think, so just not be angry and pissed, but have a reason behind that.

Bruce Willis: I think I threw away a lot of my early stuff too; it's a process of going through not necessarily cliché stuff, but the stuff is your first take on the material. Six months, I was doing the character a completely different way and I think as actors, especially actors who come out of comedy and trying to make people laugh, you're still working on trying to ground your character in some kind of human - even if you're trying to be funny, you're still trying to ground it some kind of human thing. You're trying to make a human connection like Wanda just said, to this character. This animal character has parallels in the human world and that's kind of the metaphor of the film. That animals as humans and behaving in human ways and talking to each other like humans would talk to each other. And, the satirical part of it is holding a mirror up to society and the stupidity of what can be stupid about suburban life style.

Why should a family go see this film?

Bruce Willis: I haven't seen any of those other films, so I don't really know. I don't have any way to compare it. I know that just from the testing that this studio has done. This film has tested higher than any other animated film that's ever been done.

Wanda Sykes: It tested higher than The G-dfather!

Bruce Willis: It tested higher than The Passion of the Christ, I'm just kidding. But, I don't know how to answer that. I think it's just miraculous that it is on funny on a broad a range of audience members that it can possibly be. There are jokes in there that were specifically written and meant to make kids laugh, there are jokes meant to make teenagers laugh and there are jokes that are specifically there to make the adults laugh.

Wanda Sykes: Also, I think, like Bruce says it's funny. That's the first thing up front. I think if a family goes and sees this movie, they will walk out and talk about it later on. Kids will have some questions and, y'know, that's what I think makes a good movie, when it sticks with you and it sparks some kind of conversation. I think this has all those things in it.

Have you been approached about a sequel?

Bruce Willis: Any time a film has the potential like these animated films have to make a ton of money, of course the option is there to make Over the Hedge 19 until all the blood is drained from my body, but as hard as it is, it's rewarding. Because my favorite part of the film is not any particular scene, but the first time I saw the film with an audience to hear kids laughing and to hear adults laughing is what the goal was when we were first hired was to try and make people laugh. And there were a lot of times when I said, "Is this funny?" I'm asking the writer and director, Tim (Johnson) and Karey (Kirkpatrick), because you'd be so lost. And sometimes I would go into the studio after I had worked all day on a film that was completely different than the realm of trying to be funny. I was shooting 16 Blocks which is this very serious dour, alcoholic, beat-up character and I'd go into the studio and have to leave that outside and try to be R.J. and be funny, wheeeee! It makes you feel vulnerable, because it's like standing in your underwear in front of the principal. And of course you don't have anything to work with, but your imagination and the template of the story and a director and a writer who go, "Oh, that's funny, let's try something like that." And they'll come up with lines and different things, but continually for the better, I think, and the funnier. But ultimately, you must feel the same way when you're on stage doing stand up - is that when you hear people laugh you go, "Yeah, thank g-d they are laughing." There is nothing worse than trying to be funny and people just go, (says nothing) - devastating, devastating.

Over the Hedge hits theaters May 19th; it's rated PG.