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Hynde changes her spots to voice a leopard in 'Rugrats'

June 12, 2003|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

"I've never seen 'The Rugrats,' I've only met Bruce once, sort of in passing, and we weren't together when we did the duet." Even after all these years, Chrissie Hynde, the famously feisty leader of musical group the Pretenders, plays by her own rules. Speaking by phone from her home in London during a break between European concert dates with Deep Purple and the Rolling Stones, the topic at hand is her participation in "The Rugrats Go Wild," the third movie based on the popular animated television show.

Although she had never done voice-over work before, she helped bring to life the new character of Siri the spotted leopard. A highlight of the film is the duet "Big Bad Cat," sung by Hynde and Bruce Willis, who provides the voice for the previously speechless Spike the dog.

The seemingly unlikely pairing of Hynde and Hollywood came about during initial preparations on the project, which is anchored in the crossover between characters from "The Rugrats" and "The Wild Thornberrys," both creations of the Klasky Csupo animation company for the Nickelodeon cable network.

As executive producer Julia Pistor explains, "We were thinking of all the great Hanna-Barbera cartoons, where the Jetsons meet Yogi Bear, and since Klasky Csupo has created these two enduring animated families, it seemed like a great idea to get them together. Immediately a light went off that since Eliza [from the 'Thornberrys'] talks to animals, she can talk to Spike." In contrast to Hynde, Bruce Willis was a longtime fan of "The Rugrats" and "The Wild Thornberrys" and immediately sparked to the idea of combining forces.

"I probably wouldn't have done it if they'd ask me to do the voice of a human being, but I liked the idea of doing a dog's voice." What better way to showcase Spike's newfound voice than with a song, it was decided, perhaps even a duet. According to executive producer Eryk Casemiro, the song "The Lady Loves Me," sung by Ann-Margret and Elvis Presley in "Viva Las Vegas," was the inspiration for a playful, slightly saucy call-and-response number.

"As a counterpoint to Spike, we thought about the spotted leopard, so we needed a voice with a little attitude, and the first person we thought of was Chrissie," says Pistor.

Casemiro says arrangements were made within a matter of days, and soon they were recording their parts, Hynde in London and Willis in Los Angeles. Although Hynde had previously recorded duets without being together with a singing partner -- the likes of Gloria Estefan and Frank Sinatra -- for Willis this was a first. A "big time" Pretenders fan, he couldn't help but be a little disappointed by the setup.

"It was unfortunate that I never got to stand in the room with Chrissie," he says before adding, "The miracle of modern science." Casemiro traveled to London to oversee the recording of Hynde's tracks in August 2002, with an additional session in San Francisco later in the year. The two hit it off so well that Casemiro also enlisted Hynde and the Pretenders to record a song for the soundtrack of "The Wild Thornberrys," a cover of the obscure 1980s Intaferon song "Get Out of London."

Looking back on Hynde's maiden voice-over sessions, Casemiro recalls, "She didn't need any direction in the song. We wanted the Chrissie slinkster rock vocal, and no on does that better than her. When it came to the spoken part she was kind of insecure about it, so I went into the booth and gave her the context for each line, what was going on, and because I knew we'd have limited access to her later, I got several versions of each read from her.

"A lot of times with these cameos," he continues, "it's less about acting ability and more about attitude. I just got her really mad, and she nailed it. I made her work it up. She was at the end of a tour, which is just arduous, so she was ready, she was a little bristly." Asked for any recollections of that same session, Hynde says, "I can't even remember if I had speaking parts. I guess I did."

Though the benefits for the film of having the participation of someone like Chrissie Hynde are more apparent -- Pistor refers to her "boomer equity" for drawing in parents as well as their kids -- the attraction for Hynde is perhaps harder to pin down.

Hynde says, "It's always fun to go into different studios, with different producers, and have something to do.

"I wouldn't do any of this stuff," she continues, picking up steam, "if it was with people I didn't like or that I didn't respect. Eryk and the other people involved seemed good, and people I like said it's a good project. It's not like it was 20 years ago, when if you were involved in something it was a real endorsement. Let's face it, it's very different from what it once was. Twenty years ago, I wouldn't have put my music in an advert because it would've looked like I was endorsing that product. Now it's seen as a separate issue."

The cultural influence of Hynde's signature look, sound and attitude -- as seen in such budding groups as Sahara Hotnights and the Donnas on up to slicker fare -- remains remarkably strong. Which makes it all the more odd, in a way, that she currently finds herself involved with a family-friendly cartoon movie. Asked about the apparent discrepancy, there is a nearly audible shrug from her end of the line.

"I'm glad you find it interesting, I hadn't thought about it," she responds, allowing a withering pause to sink in to full effect. "I'm not that much of an original. Probably 90% of the female population of Ohio looks like me. It's not a hard look to obtain. All you have to do is nothing, really.

"Just sport the give-up look."

The quintessential "rock chick" is about to return to hanging her laundry. "Maybe I'm becoming the rock crone," she says. "I just do my thing. 'Rugrats' one month, Rolling Stones the next."

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