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He feeds lines to the animals

Stephen Kearin gave the 'Madagascar 2' voice actors someone to play off. His reward? Being a giraffe.

November 16, 2008|Cristy Lytal | Lytal is a freelance writer.

Stephen Kearin grew up wanting to be a vet, but he now works with animals in an entirely different capacity. For "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," Kearin read lines opposite members of the all-star cast, which includes Ben Stiller, Chris Rock and David Schwimmer, most of whom would record their dialogue alone in a sound booth. During those sessions, Kearin was there, working off-microphone, to give the performers a real-world counterpart with whom to engage.

"I'm there to make them look good," he says, "which is what my original training in improv is about."

Born in Los Angeles in 1962, Kearin majored in literature at the College of Creative Studies, a grade-free division of the University of California, Santa Barbara. "By that time, I realized that my scores in science would probably keep me away from working on your pet," he explains.

After graduation, he worked a series of odd jobs before trying his hand at improv at Bay Area Theatresports in San Francisco. He soon transitioned into a life as an actor, improviser and teacher, but he also has another unique credit -- Kearin was called upon to help create a new language for a computer game franchise: "The Sims."

"They were trying to merge Cherokee and Swahili for these characters to speak," he says, "and so they had me in to try and just play with those two languages and graft one onto the other to make up this nonsensical language. That's been remarkable training for what I do now."

These days, Kearin is a big man on the DreamWorks Animation campus, where he has worked as a "reader" ever since his former student, director John Stevenson, brought him in for this year's "Kung Fu Panda." Since then, he has done voice work and read for the "Madagascar" sequel and the upcoming "Monsters vs. Aliens" and "Shrek Goes Fourth."

Reading the room: The job of reader is sometimes more physical than phonetic. "While I was working with Ben Stiller on 'Madagascar 2,' there was a scene where he was trying to apologize to Chris Rock's character, Marty," Kearin recalls, "so I turned my back on him. It worked in that sense, because he really wanted me to do something that I didn't want to do. He was almost pleading, you know. I was feeling what he needed right there or wanted."

Getting physical: Once in a while, the job of reader can even get a little violent. "Everyone's process is different," says Kearin. "Yesterday, I worked with Cameron Diaz for the next 'Shrek' movie, and she was great, because she was really very athletic about the way she approached her character, even though on screen you would never imagine that. She would almost punch the air sometimes or do a side kick in order to get somewhere emotionally."

Turning the tables: Kearin embraces a level of improvisation that goes well beyond the occasional punch line. "When we were working with, that character he does in 'Madagascar 2,' Moto Moto, is sort of down here [in his vocal register]," he says. "I think he calls it 'dark chocolate.' But it was so musical, the way he was doing it, that he looked up at one point and said, 'Does this character have a theme song?' And that turned into him improvising one over the next 20 minutes.

"Vocally, he would do sound effects, and then at one point, he played the coffee table in the room. And once he got about six tracks down with different things, he went in and improvised with the vocals. Everyone applauded him when it was over."

Going solo: While most actors enjoy having a reader, Rock prefers to isolate himself in a booth. "He came in and wanted to do his stuff on his own, because that's what he's so good at," explains Kearin. "He is more of a lone wolf, which is the life of the stand-up, and well it should be. And same with Eddie Murphy. On 'Shrek,' he'll come in and knock it out on his own, because it makes sense that his rhythm is his rhythm. That's his lifeblood."

Welcome to the jungle: Occasionally, Kearin gets to read some lines of his own. "I'm the Gong Pig and Grateful Bunny in 'Kung Fu Panda,' " he says. "In 'Madagascar 2,' at the end, they named a giraffe after me. I'm Stephen the Giraffe, and I'm also Staten Island Joe. I'm at the back of the jeep videotaping everything. So that's been a really wonderful, unexpected surprise in all of this -- that I've been able to be a part of it behind the scenes but also on screen, if just for a little bit."


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