Zookeeper - Kevin James
Gorilla and Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) © 2011 Columbia TriStar

In 2007, Kevin James completed and nine-year run as the star and executive producer of the successful sitcom The King of Queens, effortlessly moving on to a thriving movie career, starring in such films as The Dilemma, Grown Ups, Paul Blart: Mall Cop and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

He’s a tripled-threat with is new movie Zookeeper, co-writing, producing and starring in it as Griffin Keyes, the kindhearted caretaker at the Franklin Park Zoo. When he decides to leave his post to find a more glamorous job, the animals panic and decide to break their time-honored code of silence and reveal their biggest secret – that they can talk. And speaking through them are such stars as Adam Sandler (Donald, the monkey), Cher (Janet, the lioness), Nick Nolte (Bernie, the gorilla) and Sylvester Stallone (Joe, the lion).

Kevin James spoke of his new venture at the press day for the movie in New York.

Can you tell us a little about your character in this?

Zookeeper - Kevin James
Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) © 2011 Columbia TriStar

Griffin takes a lot of pride in his job, but after flaming out in his latest relationship, he thinks he’s got to make a clean break and move on. But the animals think he’s the best zookeeper they’ve ever had – they can’t risk losing him.

That’s when they reveal they can talk. It’s risky for them, because things tend not to go well for them when people know they can talk, but they’re in dire straits. They have no other choice.

As concepts go, this is pretty out there. What inspired it?

Todd Garner, our producer, came to me with the idea and I was immediately not into doing an animal movie, because it just felt so goofy to me.

Then as I started thinking about it more, [I thought] if we got a great story that we didn’t need animals and these animals are just kind of buddies that you could put in later, and they could add to the film, I started getting more and more interested in it.

Zookeeper - Kevin James
Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) in flight! © 2011 Columbia TriStar

I wanted them to be like his buddies, but they just happen to be bears and lions. I went a little too far, I wanted flies on them, I wanted them all really dirty looking and mangy, but they steered me off of that.

We wanted it to be a funny movie for everybody, where you can feel comfortable bringing your kids. I’ve gone to movies with my kids and I’m just bored out of my skull sometimes because there’s just no comedy or anything for adults. So I wanted something where it had comedy for everybody.

What about the voices of the animals? Did you get to have the ‘star’ voices in your head, because those voices really helped with the animal characters?

Absolutely, we knew pretty early on who we had [for the voices]. They enjoyed the script and they thought it was going to be a good movie, and they were excited to jump on board. It makes it much better, in writing for a character, when you know who is playing the part.

What was it like working with Bernie the gorilla, was it CGI?

Zookeeper - Gorilla and Kevin James
Gorilla and Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) © 2011 Columbia TriStar

We had two guys in the suit, because one guy’s legs were really long. He was probably the better actor, I would say, but we couldn’t use him anytime on the move because he was like 7 feet 9 inches.

Gorillas don’t have long legs apparently, I didn’t know this. So we had to switch them up, but they were great, they were awesome acting with me, it was great to play off of them.

It was insane what they could do with the movements and the face of this gorilla. I’ve literally gotten more emotion out of them than other actors I’ve worked with. At least there’s something there and it’s not just a tennis ball.

You and Bernie become quite good friends in this – was that fun?

This is my first buddy comedy in which my buddy outweighs me, so that makes me feel very happy. I can throw them all the same stuff I’ve been receiving over the years: ‘I wouldn’t be hitting the craft services now if I were you.’ It’s nice to turn the tables.

Were you scared of any of the animals?

Zookeeper - Elephant and Kevin James
Barry, the elephant and Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) © 2011 Columbia TriStar

The bears were close to us, and all I would do was plan my escape route. It was scary at times. The bears were big and goofy and they felt sweet, but when that lion came on set, and when it was done working, it was done.

What are the challenges doing a project like this?

It’s not like when I did the TV show where you get that immediate reaction, you know if something works or doesn’t work right away, and you can change it. You don’t know on a film set, because they can’t laugh and you go, ‘Is that funny?’ You just start doubting yourself.

What was the best experience you had doing this movie?

Every day on this movie was the best day. I got to work with a great cast – everyone was so funny and really raised my game. And even after we were done shooting, it was great to go into the editing room and see things come together, see the animals actually start to talk, and develop those relationships.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.