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Hi, Hugh. How are you?
Very well, thank you. I’m in Dubai playing golf with other angry middle-aged men. I just got home and now I’m lying on my bed, sipping whiskey and eating dates.
Amazing. So, The Pirates! Band of Misfits is your first time voice-acting in an animated film. How was that experience?
It was truly an honor, because I’ve watched Aardman Animations’ films all my life and adored them. My biggest fear was that I was going to screw it up.
Has that fear been allayed?
Now that I’ve seen the film, it has. But I like to live with a lot of fear; it gets me up in the morning.
Then you might make a good buccaneer.
I’m not sure that I would, actually. I can’t even travel in a car for five minutes without puking, so the idea of being on a ship for a long period of time is unthinkable.
Was voicing a pirate more fun than playing the prime minister in Love Actually?
The prime minister was rather a frightening part as I recall, because I had to dance, and I hated that. But in a cartoon, the animators—especially if they’re geniuses like they are at Aardman—do 90 percent of the performance for you.
What was it like having Aardman cofounder Peter Lord in the studio directing you?
Because the stop-animation process is so painstaking and slow and finickety, I found [Lord] to be incredibly finickety as well. I’m accustomed to doing eight takes maximum, and we would do 28 takes. So I did want to cosh him for the first few sessions, but I have now learned to love him.
In his production blog, Lord wrote, “There are always embarrassing moments when you realize that, for example, you’ve asked Hugh Grant to read the line ‘And?’ in excess of 40 times.”
Yes, I gave him a hard time for that. But as I say, if you are the kind of person who’s accustomed to moving a character’s mustache 24 times for each second of film, your attention to detail is not entirely normal.
Did you get to see your character, the Pirate Captain, before you voiced him?
Oh yes, and it was slightly alarming because he was so physically different from me. There’s a habit in a lot of animated films nowadays, especially Hollywood ones, of making the character look a little bit like the actor. But Aardman is old-school, and they just design the character as they think is best and then they get someone to play it. So I was confronted with this big barrel-chested, bearded pirate who couldn’t look less like me. I had to actually do some acting to produce a voice that matched.
Did you get any mementos from the set?
I have to say, no one’s given me anything and I’m rather bitter about it. The trouble is they might make a sequel, so they need all the puppets. But I did have something like 175 different mouths, after all. Just one mouth would be nice.
The film is very British. My favorite scene is when your character is dunking a biscuit in a cup of tea, and the biscuit breaks in half and falls into the tea.
Yes, quite. And I think it’s a custard cream as well.
Do you think that will translate outside of the U.K.?
Well, that joke may struggle. But the thing is, Aardman—or Peter Lord at least—has the attitude that to give something an international appeal, you actually make it as local as you possibly can. The most disastrous thing you can do is try to cater to an international audience; just do what you think is funny, and people will find it strangely charming.
As a child, did you ever dream of becoming a pirate?
That was never my fantasy. I really wanted to be in the U.S. Cavalry, and I still haven’t entirely given up hope.
On a separate topic, you’ve been very outspoken about the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal, having been a victim of phone hacking yourself. How is that cause progressing?
It’s progressing well in the sense that our big ambition was to get a judicial public inquiry, and that has happened. It’s ongoing, and stuff is being revealed that I and my fellow campaigners had always suspected. It’s much bigger than just phone hacking. It’s about corruption of the police and emasculation of five successive British governments; about the fact that certain sections of the newspaper industry were running the country rather than elected politicians.
Why do you think this issue is finally been dealt with now?
Quite simply—although it was a scandal that a certain number of people were aware of—most people were too frightened to speak out about it, because of the power—and notorious viciousness—of certain sections of the British newspaper industry. The watershed event was the revelation that News of the World had hacked into the telephone of that young girl who had been abducted. That finally made the issue bigger than just something that worried a few people in London. It sickened the whole country, and we as a group we were able to press for a public inquiry.
Public opinion may have galvanized the authorities into action, but aren’t tabloids just catering to the public’s appetite for the personal details of celebrities’ lives?
The private lives of celebrities is really a relatively minor issue in all this. It’s much more about the corruption of the police and the pollution of the democratic system. I don’t think any member of the public would think that tapping the phones of murdered schoolchildren, or families who have lost people in the war in Afghanistan, is justifiable.
But they might think that tapping your phone is alright.
There may be a few, but on the whole, it looks like people agree that it’s not ethical.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits opens Apr 27.