Madagascar 3
Credit: DreamWorks Animation

In Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (in theaters June 8), our 6,000-pound quartet of displaced zoo animals — Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) — finds itself joining a traveling circus in Monte Carlo as a way to hide from a relentless animal-control officer. EW can exclusively announce who’s voicing three of the new characters from the circus: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (voiced by Bryan Cranston), Gia the jaguar (The Help‘s Jessica Chastain), and Stefano the sea lion (Martin Short).

“The characters are like the three components of the circus’ attitude,” explains Eric Darnell (Madagascar), who directed the movie with Conrad Vernon (Monsters vs. Aliens). “Vitaly is this very conservative tough guy who doesn’t like any change or any outsiders coming into his world. Stefano is this hilarious comic character — he’s always bubbling with excitement and enthusiasm and is up for anything. And Gia is a little more thoughtful, and she’s beautiful. Alex can’t help but be swayed by her.” Adds Vernon: “Gia acts as a moral compass for the circus. She protects [her friends] but also opens them up to new experiences.”

When it came to casting these characters, Darnell and Vernon first listened to audio recordings of various actors’ prior work and considered whether he or she meshed with that animal’s personality. “When we create these characters, we have a personality in mind,” says Vernon. “We give them quirks and foibles that make them interesting, and we automatically look at other actors who have portrayed these types of quirks in other movies. We found folks that we thought had the right qualities, like the resonate tone of Bryan Cranston’s voice.”

There was also the additional hurdle of making sure the actors could convincingly pull off the characters’ accents — Vitaly is Russian, while Stefano and Gia are Italian. Chastain and Short worked with an Italian coach to ensure their accents sounded authentic. Cranston, on the other hand, had little trouble locating Vitaly’s deep, growling voice. “Bryan came in, and we said, ‘Tell us what a big Russian tiger would sound like,'” recalls Darnell. “He read a couple of pages, and it was like, wow, that’s it!”

For more about Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted — as well as peeks at dozens of the year’s most anticipated movie, TV, music, and publishing projects — pick up the special Forecast issue of EW, on stands Jan. 13.