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Cars 3: Nathan Fillion’s new character revs up

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Nathan Fillion has just joined a rare group — not the one comprised of actors who can definitively say they’ve voiced automotive vehicles, but the one made up of performers who have pulled double duty at Pixar Animation Studios.

In Pixar’s Cars 3, Fillion voices Sterling, a suave chief executive coupe who becomes the new sponsor of once-glorious racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson). The role is the second Pixar engagement for the 46-year-old actor, whom previously lent his voice to villainous frat bro Johnny Worthington in Monsters University, but whose character in Cars 3 is miles away.

Sterling, as you’ll see when Cars 3 arrives in theaters this June, is a charmer. He’s a marketing genius who buys the once-simple Rust-Eze Racing Center and transforms it into a state-of-the-art training facility. When a humbled Lightning McQueen rolls in, Sterling has every intention of helping catapult Lightning back to the top, so long as out-of-touch Lightning plays by the new rules of modern racing.

“While Lightning has been racing, the world has been changing, and Sterling has been at the forefront of that change and sees where it’s going and how to get that first,” says Fillion, whom the filmmakers cast for his abundance of charm (although the actor is too humble to admit it). “Anytime you say something about a quality of a character that’s ‘charming,’ I think a lot of people make the mistake and think of skeevy, but charming is someone who admires you, can disarm you, and gain your trust,” Fillion continues. “He’s not being interesting, he’s being interested. He’s not, ‘Hey there, I’m great,’ which is not charming. He’s ‘Hey there, you’re great.’”

RELATED VIDEO: Meet Cars 3‘s New Lightning McQueen

If Cars 3 posits a disconnect between traditional old-timers and the younger generation, Sterling fits plum in the middle: He’s an older car albeit with a younger sensibility and has, if you will, a tire on the pulse of the quantum shift that’s changed the way cars race (Rust-Eze Racing Center is a fantasia of sleek simulators and motivational therapy). Sterling’s charm is what helps him build a budding empire — “He’s business first, but knows that business is also about relationships,” Fillion points out — but his knowledge is what’ll keep him around. He’s also an exceptionally savvy marketing guru, eager to license off Lightning and turn him into a vehicular George Foreman.

“He’s about Lightning’s age, but a businessman’s expiration date never really comes if he’s good,” says Cars 3 director Brian Fee, who began his Pixar career as a storyboard artist on the original 2006 film. “While McQueen is facing the fact that his best days might be behind him, Sterling is at the top of his game. And I think for that reason we designed Sterling to be kind of timeless. We looked at a lot of European cars from the ‘60s. They’re incredibly stylish, with almost a dainty quality. Small, kind of sporty, extremely confident. But not in a way that he has to tell everybody how confident he is.”

Fee adds: “I think of Sterling as a ten-thousand dollar suit. He’s not a giant man that comes into a room and holds court and demands everybody kiss his ring. He’s not that kind of leader. He’s down to earth and charming and the exactly person you figure should be running this company. He’s the kind of guy that makes you think, hey, I could have a beer with this guy. Or a quart of oil.”

Cars 3 arrives in theaters June 16.