As frontman and producer of the multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning group The Black Eyed Peas, rapper will.i.am is already a big success.
But now he’s bulked up his profile with a scene-stealing turn as the voice of Moto Moto, the amorous but romantically challenged hippo in “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” the sequel to the $500 million-grossing 2005 hit, which debuts on Friday.
Stylishly attired in a tweed jacket, hat and gold shoes, will.i.am talked to Reuters about the film and co-writing, with Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, his first movie score which includes Moto Moto’s love song “Big and Chunky.”
Reuters: Is it true that you got this gig because of a sleepy phone message you left on Justin Timberlake’s voicemail?
Will.i.am: Yeah, we were working on his album, and when he heard my message he called me back in a silly little voice, so we started doing all these voices. Then I bumped into Jeffrey Katzenberg at a Grammy party who asked me if I’d like to do the music for this, and Justin who was also there said to Jeffrey, “Man, you’ve got to hear this dude do voices.” So they asked me in to read for some characters, and I got the gig, and I was so happy as I loved the first film so much.
Reuters: Why do you think kids and adults loved “Madagascar”?
Will.i.am: Because today’s kids want to be older and today’s adults want to be younger. And it’s smack right in the middle for both of them.
Reuters: This was your first voice-over gig, and you were joining experienced stars such as Chris Rock, Ben Stiller and Sacha Baron Cohen. Were you nervous?
Will.i.am: I was very nervous when all the executives like Jeffrey were there in the studio, and there’s no music and you have to imagine it all. So I was real stiff the first few times. To be honest, I sucked. Then the more we goofed around and I got to know all the guys, the more I relaxed. After I saw Sacha work, I got it. “Oh — that’s how you do it!” He goes in there and messes around, and that loosened me up.
Reuters: It sounds like you’re channeling Barry White for Moto Moto. Where did the voice come from?
Will.i.am: I do impressions of friends, and one friend, Jay Curtis, talks exactly like that. He plays guitar for The Peas, and he always breathes heavily and has this really deep, raspy voice. So I just stole his voice and it was perfect for Moto Moto.
Reuters: Was it hard coming up with Moto Moto’s clueless love song to Gloria the hippo, “Big and Chunky”?
Will.i.am: No. I began hitting my chest and the table and getting this rhythm going, and then it just all came naturally. “I like ’em big, I like ’em chunky, I like ’em round, I like ’em plumpy,” (he sings in Moto Moto’s voice). And everyone started laughing, but it didn’t fit the scene. So they rewrote the scene to fit the song. Moto Moto starts singing it in the pool when he sees Gloria, and he swaggers across to meet her, and it worked great.
Reuters: Now you’ve done your first movie score and soundtrack, you’re also branching out as an actor, right?
Will.i.am: Yeah, I’m in the new “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” I play John Wraith, a mutant, and I’m very excited about it as I’m a huge “X-Men” fan. We shot it in Australia and all my scenes are with Hugh Jackman. I have a pretty cool role — it’s not big, but it’s not small. I had a great time with Hugh and I definitely want to do more acting, as long as I can contribute to the creative process. That’s what I’m good at — dreaming and imagining.”