Disney’s ‘Planes’ allows John Cleese’s inner Bulldog to soar

Actor John Cleese.
(IFC / AP)

John Cleese is on the phone from London, frightfully apologetic for being late for an interview. “My wife and I flew back from a little holiday today. We had a little problem with one of our bags.”

Cleese, 73, who came to fame along with Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Eric Idle more than 40 years ago as the outrageously inventive comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus, rang up to talk about his latest gig: supplying the voice of an airplane called Bulldog in Disney’s new 3-D movie, “Planes,” which opens Friday.

John Cleese: An article about actor John Cleese in the Aug. 8 Calendar section said he lives off Stone Square in London. He lives off Sloane Square. —

The family comedy revolves around a plucky crop duster named Dusty (Dane Cook) who dreams of not only entering but winning a competitive race. Bulldog is a ramrod traditional British plane who has been racing longer than anyone on the circuit. And though Bulldog initially doesn’t take Dusty seriously, he soon realizes the little plane is overflowing with courage and bravery.


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So you are now living in London? You lived for years in Santa Barbara.

I moved back here the beginning of this year. I live off Stone Square in London. The weather is very nice at the moment. But I don’t know how many English winters I will be able to survive at my age. English winters are a bit like the First World War. You really wonder if it’s ever going to end.

What prompted the move?

For some strange reason, I started discovering I was getting so much work from the rest of the world, places outside of America. It wasn’t necessary for me to be in America. It’s also so I could spend a lot of time with my daughter [Cynthia]. It was a culmination of reasons.

Besides Bulldog, you have done voices for several animated films, including the king in the “Shrek” films and the narrator in the 2011 “Winnie the Pooh.” Why do you like doing animated films?

I did a lot of radio at the start of my career. I think I did about 120 comedy radio shows back in the days when they did proper, scripted comedies.

So there are a lot of similarities between radio and animation?

It’s all about the script and the performance. I have good verbal technique. If you want me to do a line a little bit fast or a little bit slower or higher or whatever, I can do it straight away. It seems to me American actors concentrate so much on the emotion part of acting — and they are very good at that — but their [vocal] technique is often not as good as the English actors. But English actors are not as good at expressing strong emotion.

But Bulldog, who is very stiff upper-wing, so to speak, becomes very emotional when Dusty saves his life.

The British obviously do feel, but they used to be taught to freeze their emotions early on because if you have an empire to run, you can’t spend all of your time being depressed.

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Very funny! Do animation directors give you full rein when you create a voice like Bulldog?

No, they are usually very specific about what they want. Of course, if they haven’t worked with you — and 90% of the time they haven’t — they want to hear if you can kind of approximate your voice to what they have got in their mind. So you spend the first hour trying to find the voice. They don’t know exactly what they want, but they know it when they’ve heard it.

IMDB lists a movie called “Absolutely Anything,” which is to be directed by Python Terry Jones and lists the rest of the gang as doing voices of extraterrestrials. What’s the status on that?

The truth is, I don’t think any one of us knows what’s going on. Terry rang us about 18 months ago and said, “If we make this movie and I direct it, will you do a voice for it?” As far as I know, everyone said yes, and that’s the last we heard about it.

Has there been any talk of a Python reunion?

It is too difficult geographically. Dear old Mickey Palin — as I call Michael Palin — is forever traveling. He is always away doing his travel programs. Gilliam is either racing around the world trying to raise money or at film festivals or shooting something. He loves directing films — it seems almost to be a perverse pleasure. Jonesie is always doing the most extraordinary mixture of things. I think a few years ago he was directing an opera in Lisbon about carpet cleaners. And Eric is very much based in L.A.

We only get together occasionally. It’s fun when we do. We always say we laugh more when we are together than we really do any other time.