When Pixar set its latest movie in the evergreen tree-covered hills of Scotland, the animation studio recruited several Scottish actors to flesh out the cast for its story of defiant princess Merida. Kelly MacDonald, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, and Billy Connolly were among the actors who got to use their natural Scottish brogue for their voice performances in Brave, which opened in theaters in June.
In anticipation of the movie’s DVD release this week, EW talked with Billy Connolly, the voice of Merida’s massive but sweet father, King Fergus. The actor/comedian is known both for his work in such kid-friendly fare as Pocahontas and Muppet Treasure Island and for roles in movies like Mrs. Brown and The Last Samurai. Read on to learn about how Connolly’s Scottish roots contributed to the movie, what unconventional trick he uses in the recording studio, and what it’s like for his kids and grandchildren to see him or hear his voice on screen.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You had done plenty of voice acting for animated films before Brave, but this was your first Pixar movie. Was stepping into a world of such a revered animation studio what you expected?
BILLY CONNOLLY: Oh, they were brilliant. They were absolutely brilliant. Animation people are very, very nice. They don’t have the big-shot thing that some feature filmmakers have. They’re much more artistically driven.
And I was amazed at how thoroughly they had researched this stuff – the people who wrote it in the first place had been up at my house in Scotland because there’s an annual parade called Lonach. There’s a pipe band with 163 players and they carry axes and spears and things, and they march up your driveway and make speeches and all that kind of stuff. Well, they’d been there! When I met them to talk about the movie, they showed me all the pictures, and they’d been outside my door, filming the pipe band.
Were you able to provide any input for the film’s Scottish influences?
Sometimes I would say, “Listen, I know a good Scottish word for this, and you can stick it in.” And they trusted us completely. I stopped and changed a few words to Scottish words, and they loved it. They just accepted it right away.
Do you remember any specific words you suggested?
No, I don’t. But sometimes it can be very musical, Scottish language. For instance, a turkey is known as a ‘bubbly-jock,’ and that’s exactly the noise it makes. Bubbly-jock, bubbly-jock. And an owl is an ‘hoolut,’ and a pigeon is a ‘cushie do’e.’ So when you sprinkle your language with these, it sounds all exotic and foreign, but it’s actually onomatopoeic. The name of the animal is the sound it makes.
Fergus is a massive hulk of a man. What did you do with your voice to fit the size of this character?
Oh, golly, I had to sort of open my throat in the back. Do all that pseudo-Henry VIII stuff.
There’s a really fun moment in the movie when Fergus imitates Merida, so you had to do this high-pitched voice for that. What was the reaction like in the studio when you recorded that?
It’s a bit embarrassing, these things. The studio has a window to the control room, and I think you’re supposed to record facing that, but I always do the exact opposite. I turn the equipment ’round so I have my back to the control room. So I can’t see people either giggling at me or squirming in embarrassment at me. So I just deal with the director, who’s on my left, sitting at a little card table.
Have you always turned away from the window when you’ve done voice recording, or is that something you discovered worked best for you later in your career?
I’ve always done that. Even when I was doing music and I was in a band, I would always face away from the control room. Some people are better at it, facing the control room. They want to see every move, every emotion. Some people, when they’re making a movie, they want to see that day’s rushes, they want to see themselves. I want to see nothing of the sort. I want to run away because I’m always disappointed. I always expect it to be Robert De Niro and then it shows up, and you go, “Oh, Christ, it’s me again.”
Did your two grandkids get to see Brave?
They went with their mum. They loved it.
Did they tell you any more about what they thought of it or what it was like to hear your voice coming from that character?
Yeah, it’s always a bit creepy for the young ones. My own kids that are adults now – the youngest one’s 22 – they just hate it when I die in movies. Anytime I’m doing a movie, they say, “Do you stay alive?” It’s weird watching your father die.
Brave is the first Pixar film with a female lead character. Did you feel like you were making a bit of movie history while you were working on it?
No, it didn’t. I didn’t realize it until we had actually made it. I was just concentrating on my own guy. But I noticed the [crowd of fans] at the premiere in Sydney, Australia, the number of girls and women in the line was extraordinary. And lots of them were wearing red wigs, like Merida.
What did you enjoy the most about the voice for Fergus?
I just love to shout a lot. The screaming and shouting is my favorite. All those ‘Rahhhh! Hurahhh!’ When you’re on your own and you lose your inhibitions and go for it, it’s a great feeling.
Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyNRome