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Alan Tudyk on making Moana’s chicken noises and his fear of becoming Rogue One’s Jar Jar

Graphic: Nick Wanserski

Alan Tudyk knows what it’s like to be a part of an iconic sci-fi property thanks to his role in Firefly. In fact, he parodies the world of fandom and conventions in his ongoing web series Con Man. Still, when it comes to massive followings, nothing can compare to Star Wars, and now he’s a part of that world too, with his role in Rogue One as the “smartass” droid K-2SO.

Tudyk actually appears in two big Disney blockbusters this fall—but you won’t see his face in either. In addition to playing Kaytoo—as he’s called—Tudyk can be heard in Moana as Heihei, a chicken The A.V. Club deemed “too stupid to live if he wasn’t also apparently too stupid to properly die.” That description pretty much sums up how brain-dead the bird is, but at least Kaytoo is more intelligent. Tudyk also has a corporeal presence in Rogue One as he gave a motion-capture performance. He talked to us about squawking, why his face got cut from Rogue One, and how Jar Jar Binks motivated his performance.


The A.V. Club: How did you get cast as Heihei?

Alan Tudyk: I don’t even know who to attribute it to. Those in power at Disney, the very generous figures at Disney Animation, have convinced themselves I’m a good-luck charm for their movies, which is great. It’s working out really well for me, and it seems to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. This movie has a very small cast, and this was the role that they offered me. I loved voicing him. It was a very interesting challenge because he’s limited to rooster-y, chicken-type noises, and he goes along on the whole adventure. It just becomes, “If that’s how you express yourself, go for it. You’re now under water. Now you’re panicked.” You go through the whole emotional gamut this stupid, stupid bird goes through but express yourself only in this very limited way. It’s a blast.

AVC: How do they lay out what you have to get done in the recording studio?

AT: It’s just like they approach things on every movie I’ve worked on, very much as if it was a live-action movie. The character you’re playing, even though he’s a rooster and is really stupid, you approach it in the same way you would approach Hamlet, which is exactly how I approached it. But they give you the circumstances. “You’re on the boat. You didn’t expect to be here. You just climbed in a boat to maybe sleep. You don’t even know why you climbed in the boat. You’re really that dumb. Every three minutes is a new world to you, so you see that you’re trapped on this boat, and you freak out. Go.”

AVC: There is a huge freak-out moment. Did your vocal cords just get destroyed from that?


AT: Yes, when we recorded, I would do all of the stuff and then save all the big screaming for last so that you can really blow it out and ratchet it up every time, get that perfect panicked pitch.

AVC: When they pitched this to you, how did they describe him?

AT: The stupidest chicken on planet Earth and mascot. The thing for me that really resonated is that when you put a pile of grain in front of him to feed him, he pecks not at the pile of grain, but at the wood plank of the boat just next to the pile of grain, happily. Just over and over and over again, smashing his beak into the boat. That’s a really dumb rooster. You have to just turn the rooster so his head ends up hitting the grain. He’s not smart enough to eat.


AVC: Was there a process of thinking, “How can I make this bird sound stupider?”

AT: No, it’s amazing how much actual chicken sounds lend themselves to stupidity. It just naturally—[Mimics chicken sounds.] They’re under duress, just the baseline rooster/chicken sound sounds like there’s an emotional issue happening.


AVC: On to Rogue One: Droid characters are often fan favorites.

AT: They have a good history, for sure.

AVC: Is motion-capture work a totally different experience than voice work?

AT: It is. I actually oddly have done another robot motion capture. I did Sonny in I, Robot, which is why I think they may have called me in the first place. But it’s closer to just acting in a film because it was a six-month commitment. We got to fly all over the world.


AVC: Those shots they’ve released of Maldives look incredible.

AT: Oh yeah. It was amazing. It was beautiful. And where we were was not a lot of resorts. We didn’t even stay on land. We were on boats. It was like camping because we were all living together on the boat, and one night we came home and there was a whale shark. I got to go swimming with her. It was a magic, magic, magical time. So that’s what the experience was. On set, I’m there with the other actors, so you play off one another. It’s not just your idea of what the character is and what the world is like it would be in an animated [film], where it all sort of exists in your head. It’s all right there, and if Diego’s performance is doing what it’s doing, it affects yours. Same with Felicity. If she goes off her lines for a bit, then you go off your lines. Now new lines have been created in the movie.

Photo: Disney

AVC: Was the filming process open for these little divergences from the script, and who was leading that? Director Gareth Edwards?


AT: It was Gareth. Gareth was very open to just shaping the performances and the scenes to fit what was happening with the actors and the storytelling that was emerging. He never wanted to force anything that wasn’t true. He’s very much an actor’s director, and it was loose. There are several moments in there that just played out of what was happening on that day between actors and new lines. It’s something I didn’t expect, actually.

AVC: Yeah, you don’t think a Star Wars movie has room for looseness. So you were surprised that that was the vibe on set?


AT: Absolutely. This is reverent. This is Star Wars, damn it. You don’t screw around with it. The things that were improv’d or added that developed on set weren’t huge departures as far as storyline or anything like that goes. They just were clarifications in character or, at the best moments, they spoke to the moment in the story in a way that, at least with Kaytoo, tended to be funny. He has humor to him. Not in trying to be funny, but just in his own way, the way he reacts to the world around him. I like comedies, and my brain sort of spins in that direction. So I’m really happy to say there were several smartass comments that come from me.

AVC: Kaytoo sounds like he’s a droid with a bit more of an attitude than we’ve typically seen before in Star Wars movies.


AT: Yeah, he definitely is self-possessed. R2-D2 is like that, but I think because he doesn’t speak actual words, his jokes don’t land. It’s really a hindrance. And the same with BB-8. But Artoo is a lot stronger. There’s a cute factor to BB-8. Artoo’s a badass.

AVC: But he can’t really come back in quite the same way.

AT: His accent is so thick. You can’t make out a damn word he says. C-3PO is flappable. [Kaytoo is] very unflappable compared to C-3PO, who is just flapping all over the place. [Puts on C-3PO accent.] “What’s happening? Oh my God. We’re going to be in danger. Everything’s going to be terrible.” Kaytoo is more even-keeled. And he’s a badass. He comes from the Empire, and he’s a security droid. Some people call him an enforcer droid. He has the ability to enforce things. That was what he was built for. He’s tall. He has an intimidating frame.

AVC: BB-8 popped up last year and instantly was a sensation. Did that make you nervous at all? Did you think, “I hope my droid will be as beloved as BB-8?”


AT: No, I don’t think I had a handle on this at any point in time. I’m still trying to catch up to it. It’s like an actor-hired-for-a-job kind of approach to it: “Let’s get into it, figure out who this character is.” And then it was about making it and finding where I was dissimilar from the character, but also where we could play around and what was that line because it is a very gritty story. My fear was always, “I don’t want to go Jar Jar.” You didn’t want to be the character that comes on screen, and you’re like, “Oh my God, kill it. Get somebody. Shoot or at least muzzle that thing.” That was the one thing in my head. It wasn’t, “Oh, I hope I’m as good as these other characters.” More like, “Dear God, I hope I’m not as bad as that one character.” Much more negative, I guess. I put negative pressure on myself.

AVC: Did you have to go back in and do any of the reshoots? What was it like stepping back into the film?


AT: It was great. We knew we were going back when we finished the movie. It was such a big movie. They knew they wanted to grab some other stuff. So going back was like a reunion for all the cast. We were all there. It was weird to have been away from it for a few months, and then, “Hey look, here we all are. I can still walk on these stilts. Wow, we all still fit in our costumes.” It was nice to connect again, and then we went to Star Wars Celebration right after that. It’s neat.

AVC: Did you have any stilt training beforehand, or was that a totally new skill?


AT: I had walked on stilts in a little clown show off-off Broadway a few years ago, and I did salsa in stilts.

AVC: What was the show?

AT: It was called That Beautiful Laugh. It was so much fun. [I’m] a huge defender of clowns around the world. They’ve gotten a really bad rap in the last few years. People have really given into their own fears and have celebrated their fears in that way. American Horror Story didn’t help. I have a very close friend who is a brilliant clown, and I always wanted to do a show with him. So I did one year at La MaMa Theatre. I had not done stilts before that show, and I had about two weeks to learn how to do that, and they were just made with off-off Broadway money. The ones that I had in Rogue One were made by [Industrial Light & Magic]. So they were really easy. They were made with actual prosthetic feet on the bottom. They were athletic, in a way. I could run in them. There was a bounce to them that I could use.


AVC: K-2SO is the right-hand man for Diego Luna’s Cassian. What was it like establishing your relationship with him?

AT: Oh, it’s so easy. I love Diego. Diego is very funny. He’s a very cool guy. I’m looking forward to doing all the press stuff and getting to hang out with him and everybody again. Felicity’s fantastic. But [Diego’s] quite a smartass, and I really appreciate smartasses. He used to make fun of me for the stupid backpack I wore. There were a few situations where I couldn’t [wear the stilts]. [When] I was on a cliffside or running in water and stuff like that, I had to wear this backpack with a telescoping head that came off the top, and it was really stupid looking.


AVC: To create the sight line with him?

AT: Yeah, they would know where to look. And the first time I wore it, it was like the first day we shot in Jordan. And he said [Puts on Diego Luna accent.], “Something terrible has happened. Ever since you put on that backpack, you have depressed the entire crew. It’s very sad.” He just went on about, “Please, for God’s sake, please take it off. For the love of God.” Anytime I put it on, “Everyone respected you just one moment ago. But now, it is evaporated.” Very, very funny.


AVC: Has being part of Star Wars influenced your webseries Con Man at all now that you’re involved in pretty much the ultimate level of fandom culture?

AT: I haven’t been to too many cons since Star Wars, and I don’t think it’s really going to change until it comes out. I’ve signed a few Kaytoo photos and things and a couple of action figures, but really it’s not that many. I feel like it’ll change after the movie comes out, if it does. It’s really the other way around, surprisingly, as far as Con Man goes. Because I wrote and directed and acted in it and produced it, every job I have since that—and Star Wars included—I look at it completely different now. Now that I’ve seen how it gets made, I can appreciate the jobs that people are doing, and it’s also become a different learning experience for me to work on things because I’m watching pros at the top of their field do their jobs and just picking up on their tricks and all of their expertise and stashing them away in my brain. And then also I feel much more comfortable as an artist collaborating with others because I feel more mature.

AVC: So you’re not looking at it in the context of, “What kind of satire can I draw from this”?


AT: That’s there, right? Wray Nerely, the character in Con Man, he actually had a role in Rogue One, but he got cut. It sucked. John Swartz, the producer, is a big fan of Con Man. I even got to screen Con Man while we were shooting Star Wars. They had a theater there, and they let me screen one of the little 10-minute episodes for everyone. What sucked was I had to follow Star Wars. Gareth was very much about including everyone in what we were making, so he would cut together different scenes to show us what we were making. And the crew, cast, everyone would go into a theater there at Pinewood Studios and watch 10 minutes of what we were making. It was always so exciting. It looked amazing, and the music was huge. Then they said, “Alan, why don’t you show them one of yours? You’ll go, you’ll put yours on, and we’ll watch Star Wars.” It was like, “What? Are you fucking kidding me? I’ve got to follow the new Star Wars movie?” And everybody stayed. I’m very happy everybody watched it. It was well received. Got good reviews.

Because I’m CGI, [John Swartz] gave me a role of an Imperial pilot in one scene, so I had a day where I was on camera dressed as a black suit and a little cap that they wear. I was going to be credited as Wray Nerely, my role in Con Man. It got cut in the reshoots. I was like, “Wait a second. I’m cut.” It’s a better telling of the story, but unfortunately, Wray Nerely gets cut, which is actually exactly right because if Wray Nerely was ever in Star Wars, he wouldn’t make it to the final edit.


AVC: Are you going to include the fact that he got cut from a Star Wars film in future episodes of Con Man? Are you allowed to?

AT: I’m sure I could, but I wanted the footage. We’ll see. I would if I could get the footage somehow. I don’t think that will ever happen. We’re talking about season three, because we’re just putting the finishing touches on season two. There’s nothing that’s off limits, and that’s a big part of my life. It will feed in. There’s no way to ignore this. It’s part of the sci-fi world. I’m going to start going to more cons that are Star Wars-based cons, which right now, I don’t do. So I’m going to be introduced to a whole new fandom, which I don’t know anything about right now.


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