How John Cleese Found His Planes Voice

The comic actor rather enjoys doing animated movies

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images

John Cleese announces Just for Laughs at Sydney Opera House on Aug. 31, 2011, in Sydney

In the upcoming Planes, Disney’s take on what goes on “above the world of Cars,” Monty Python legend John Cleese voices Bulldog, a veddy British airplane. The move should come as no surprise to his fans: his voice has become a bit of a shorthand for Englishness. And the actor has also been gravitating toward voice roles lately. Aside from Planes, he’s done several Shrek installments and narrated  2011’s Winnie the Pooh.

“I love doing animated movies,” Cleese tells TIME. “I think if radio were a bit better paid I’d have probably spent my life in radio. You don’t have people rushing up to you and dabbing you because there’s a spot of sweat on your nose or a little bit of fluff on you. It’s just about the script and the performance. That’s lovely.”

(MORE: The Wishful Environmentalism of Cars 2)

Of course, the actor is aware that the movie’s producers don’t want John Cleese to sound exactly like John Cleese. “There’s an awful lot of variation, even in an ordinary middle-class English voice,” he explains.

So how did Bulldog’s voice come about?

After reading a script, Cleese doesn’t do a huge amount of preparation until he gets to the studio. “The most important work is done in about the first hour, because that’s when you find the voice that they want.; they probably don’t know exactly what they want,” he says. “That’s the most time consuming bit but also obviously the most important bit.” He looks at storyboards that show information—like the location of his character relative to other characters—that help determine how he will deliver a line.

But in Bulldog’s case, there was a very specific inspiration. “I went and did the sort of voice that the RAF pilots did during the Second World War, or at least the way they were portrayed in British films of that time, and that seemed to be pretty much it,” he says. So, rather than taking an hour to find the voice, Cleese estimates that it took 20 minutes.

For example (the guy in the chess game is a pilot):


Could become:


Cleese says he’s always been able to do accents—though an American one is the hardest, he says, because Americans don’t stay in one place long enough to get pure regional voices—but there is one thing he’s not planning to do any time soon: actually piloting a plane.

“I’m one of those people who leaves things like that to the experts,” says Cleese. “I have absolutely no desire to be able to fly a plane. I detest flying. That’s the politest thing I can say about it.”

(Q&A: Cars 2 Director John Lasseter)