Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Ben Stiller for “Madagascar”

What do you get when you combine the likes of Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Ben Stiller as they meet and greet the press? Garth Franklin tried to find out in wintry San Francisco. There is often a great deal of reluctance for comic actors to want to deal with the press, or at least the print media. Even if the location is San Francisco’s oh-so-elegant Ritz Carlton Hotel, there is a degree of reluctance on the part of Messrs Rock and Stiller, in particular, to do much talking. In between the pair, is the slightly ,more gregarious Jada Pinkett-Smith, while DreamWorks head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg is a visible presence, ensuring that the horde of gathering journalists is well behaved and confines itself to the specific task at hand: Discussing the trio’s work as voice actors on the studio’s latest CGI cartoon, Madagascar.

This movie focuses on four residents and “stars” of the Central Park Zoo in New York City who are also best friends: a lion (Stiller), a zebra (Rock), a giraffe (David Schwimmer) and a pregnant hippo (Smith). When the Zebra goes missing, the other three break out of the zoo looking for him, and eventually all four are captured and put in boxes to ship them back to the continent their species are originally from: Africa. An accident at sea, however, strands them on the shore of Madagascar. Having had humans take care of them their entire life, the four know nothing of surviving in the wild, or that one of them, the lion, is genetically predisposed to eat his three best friends. Exploring their surroundings, the four friends soon meet the Malagasy locals (a type of lemur given to having loud “rave-like” dance parties) and their carnivorous enemies, the fousas. As the two sides try to use these four new, strange (and large) friends to their benefit, our heroes are also confronted with the reality of their predestined roles in nature.

While the trio of actors, movie stars in their own right, may seem press shy, there is at least a sense of camaraderie, especially between Rock and Stiller, with the former coming into his own, as a strong Hollywood presence. After all, Rock’s biggest competition this summer is with himself, as he also turns up opposite Adam Sandler in The Longest Yard. “Hopefully everyone will see Madagascar in the morning, or in the afternoon, and at night, they’ll go and see Longest Yard,” quips the 40 year old Rock. But when asked to compare the two movies, it is clear Rock is hear to talk up Madagascar, but responds in true Rock style. “They’re very similar except in The Longest Yard, I actually had to wear pants,” says Rock, amidst peals of laughter. “I’m a guy, I get hired, and I ask: what do you need me to do? I’m like a fix it man. I don’t ask any questions. It’s like okay, huh, what? I’m a zebra? Okay. I’m a zebra. What’s a zebra say? Okay, I’m going to say it. You like that? I’ll do it again if you need me to do it again. Higher, lower. Jeffrey directed me in a couple of scenes. I do whatever they tell me to do and then I go do The Longest Yard. Huh? I’m in jail? All right. Whatcha’ need?”

As for getting into a zebra, Rock briefly retorts “How did I get into my Zebra? I didn’t even know it was a zebra until yesterday, he says laughingly. “I thought I was doing a Musk Rat, but Jeffrey cut it and it looks great.” Asked if he could relate to his character undergoing a mid-life crisis, the actor laughs. “Hey man, I just turned 40, so it’s easy to relate. I am old, because 40 is only young if you are dead.” But there is one aspect of his character, Rock could understand. “My character bores very easy, and as a guy who wanted to get out of Brooklyn immediately as a child, so the same thing that takes him out of the zoo, took me out of Brooklyn.”

Stiller, who stars as the film’s lion, is more circumspect on his vocal approach to his character. “It was a weird process because it does go on for a long time. In the beginning it sort of felt like trial and error, as you just try things and sort of feel sad cause you are alone in this studio with the microphone and nothing exists yet expect some pictures that you see. So six months or a year into the process you start to see scenes coming back then it really helps because you start to see what the character is,” explains Stiller. “That is one of the things that I liked about the movie is that the characters are really unique and are not just based on the voices but really are their own, character.”

Pinkett-Smith, the more serious and demure of the trio, agrees. “It is just kind of throwing a bunch of lines out trying different stuff, and is a pretty challenging process, just cause there is no one there and you don’t have any sets or props, so you are trying some different lines, or interpretations, and then they put it together so fantastically.” Pinkett-Smith laughs when asked her reaction to being offered the role of a pregnant hippo. “I keep getting asked that question and it never occurred to me. When Jeffrey showed me the picture of Gloria you know: yeah she is a hippo, but I thought she was adorable so it just never occurred to me that it was something that I should be thrown back about.”

Both Pinkett-Smith and Rock said they were attracted to Madagascar because of their children. As the former recalls: “Well they actually told me, I didn’t say anything. they saw a clip of Madagascar on a video and he said ‘Mummy you are playing a hippo’ and I was like damn it I was trying to wait and make it a surprise, so they are very excited. I told them I was coming here today, they thought that we were having the premier and they were all upset, ‘You are suppose to be taking us!’ I said it is just press, it is not going to be the movie it is next week. So they are very, very excited.” Adds Rock “My kids can’t see my movies now until they are 30, so it is nice that there is something that they can see right now!”

While the three had a ball lending their voices to Madagascar, Stiller admits that singing show tunes in the film, was a less wonderful moment for him, laughingly recalling his “lack of talent in the voice department”, referring to a point where he belts out New York, New York. “That was really one of the most uncomfortable moments and was horrible,” Stiller recalls. “And they kept on putting it off. I think for months and months they kept on saying, ‘Oh, New York New York, we’ll do that next time, do that next time. Then it came the day to do it and it was like well, it could be bad, and it was. I guess everybody’s singing together kind of in the movie, but when we were recording it, it was totally alone on different days.”

Beyond Madagascar, none of the three were interested in elaborating on future projects -except Stiller, who merely admitted that during this summer he would be working on his next important production. “We’re going to have a baby.” As for the perennially reserved Rock, he has no idea if he’ll return as Oscar host next year. “Nobody’s asked me yet, but I’m discovering that to many, the Oscars are a religion.”