In the animated spy comedy adventure Spies in Disguise, super spy Lance Sterling (voiced by Will Smith) finds his life taking an unexpected turn that forces him to team up with scientist Walter Beckett (voiced by Tom Holland) for the ultimate mission. In order to succeed, the otherwise suave and debonair spy must allow himself to be transformed into a pigeon, so that the duo can save the world. The film also stars the voices talents of Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, Rashida Jones, DJ Khaled, Reba McEntire, Ben Mendelsohn and Masi Oka.
At a roundtable interview during the film’s Los Angeles press day, actor Masi Oka talked about how he got involved with Spies in Disguise, bringing a middle-level villain like Kimura to life, keeping things PG-friendly while trying different jokes, whether he took any inspiration from previous action movie villains, and what he thinks of the film’s message.
Question: How did this come your way?
MASI OKA: The casting director, Christian Kaplan, invited me to audition for a different movie, actually, as a voice actor, and then said, “You know what? I think you’ll be perfect for this other thing that we have germinating. Would you mind just reading and doing a test?” I was like, “Sure, why not?” That’s how it started.
How was it to channel your inner Bond villain?
OKA: It’s fun ‘cause I actually don’t get to play villains that much. He’s a middle boss. He’s not the last boss. You think he’s a villain, but then he turns out to be a teddy bear. I loved the fact that I could play with that duality of thinking he’s mean, but then, the deepest, darkest secret he ever had was that he peed in a pool. That was a fun juxtaposition.
Were there more takes and variations of that?
OKA: We did a lot of takes. The great thing about animation voice-over is that I get to improvise a lot. When you know it’s a joke line, you just try saying different things. I would say something, and then they would laugh, or I would see them laugh. Then, they’d ask me to try something else. We would feed off of each other. We actually had a lot darker lines, but because it’s a Disney feature, we had to keep it a little less Blue Sky Studios. We definitely have a lot of lines, but that one made it in. I think it was cute, and it kept it PG-friendly.
Were there any other variations on the voice that you tried?
OKA: Not really. We played around with it, but decided to use a lower register. Maybe I need to go smoke, or something. I don’t smoke, but I could lower my register. Next time, I’ll get wasted the night before, so I’ll sound pretty rosy. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do that, and they were cool with it.
How did you approach playing a character who’s very physically different from you?
OKA: Maybe eating a lot of pizza and trying to fill that up. I think it’s just more of a mentality. If you’re big, you’re not gonna be intimidated by anything. You’re the boss. I just would think of a POV where it’s like, “Okay, I’m not gonna care about what anyone thinks, so maybe I’ll be able to take my time, a little bit more, and everyone’s gonna have to listen to whatever I say, so I don’t care.” That’s helped me. The visualization of that physicality informs my perspective on how I talk to other people. It’s fun playing a villain, but villains are the same as good guys. It’s how they view the world. It’s just a matter of POV. In the villain’s mind, what they’re doing is right. They think they’re doing right in the world. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Did you draw any inspiration from any famous action villains?
OKA: Not really. Kimura is not really an action guy, per se. He tells what to do. There are all of these Japanese westerns, where you have the big boss, who sits in the back and tells all of his henchman, “Go get him!” That was pretty much my inspiration. He’s the guy who doesn’t do anything. He just watches all of his henchman do it. And of course, all of his henchmen die, and then he’s like, “Okay, I’ll take care of you, myself.”
Did you work out a backstory for Kimura?
OKA: I definitely always wanna try to give depth to the character, especially because of what happens with the truth serum. So, yes, I did have a little bit of a backstory. I don’t remember it, right now. As an actor, with any character that I approach, I definitely do that.
What are your thoughts on the message of the film?
OKA: What’s great about this film is that there’s so much great messaging, like the idea of embracing your weirdness, which is just embracing your uniqueness. Everyone should follow their dreams and everyone should, in this day and age, be free to say what they want, but what makes you unique is you. I wanna thank everyone for being themselves, and I think people should be proud of who they are. You don’t have to be anyone else. Just really embrace your weirdness. That’s the theme of the film, and that’s a theme that resonates with kids and adults. That’s what’s great about this film. It’s not just for kids. There are so many adult themes. The humor targets both kids and adults. The whole family can see it. I grew up, raised by a single mother, and I was able to pursue my dreams and had all of that support from my mom. So, there were a lot of things that I related to, with the main character, in particular. Embracing yourself and embracing your weirdness is a really important message, especially in this day and age, where you could easily be influenced to give up who you are.
Villains notoriously use violence to achieve what they want. Do you think it would help, if they just found a better way to communicate?
OKA: A lot of times, violence or like a fear comes out of a lack of understanding. I hate to use the word xenophobia, but when you don’t understand another culture, you immediately reject it and you say that it’s bad, but most of the time, you just don’t understand it. If you get to know more of that culture and more of that person, you realize that they’re just a lot like us. So, communication is important, in terms of being able to express your ideas and who you are. You don’t have to agree with them because there are so many different ways of thinking about the world, but the idea that different ways of thinking exists, it’s important to be open to that. That’s where communication happens. We can agree to disagree, but at least I know I’ve heard where you’re coming from, and that allows me to understand that. It goes back to embracing your weirdness. I teach kids improv and stuff, and I always tell them, “You are enough. You don’t need to be more than who you are because you are special yourself. You are enough.” That’s like embracing your weirdness, and that goes with the theme for Spies in Disguise.
Spies in Disguise is now playing in theaters.