The animated adventure Spies in Disguise opens on Christmas Day. It spotlights super spy Lance Sterling (voiced by Will Smith) and young scientist Walter Beckett (voiced by Tom Holland). They are two characters who couldn’t be more different – Lance is brave, suave and debonair – Walter is… well, not.
To Lance’s chagrin, the geeky Walter, an expert gadget man behind-the-scenes, creates non-destructive weapons, like a grenade that explodes into a visual, adorable kitten, causing the enemy to feel happy instead of fighting. When Lance is unintentionally turned into a pigeon by one of Walter’s inventions, he has to depend on the nerdy scientist to survive. Now, together, as boy and bird, they must save the world.
I sat down with the movie’s directors, Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, along with actor Masi Oka (Heroes), who voices one of the villains in the film, Kimura, to talk about the animated feature.

How did this project come about?

Nick Bruno: There was a short called Pigeon Impossible by Lucas Martell that was a simple, funny little idea of a spy trying to have his lunch and a pigeon keeps getting in the way.

That was basically the inspiration to build off of. The idea was what would be (even) more annoying than having a pigeon interrupt a spy’s lunch? That was if a spy got turned into a pigeon. You’re always looking for ways to make things get bigger and bigger.

We both read a first draft of the script in 2013 and fell in love with the idea of getting to make a big, fun spy movie. At its heart is was a story about these two characters, this odd couple, who have to save each other in order to save the world.

How did you get two of the biggest stars today, Will Smith and Tom Holland, to get on board?

Spies in Disguise - Tom Holland and Will Smith
Spies in Disguise – Walter (Tom Holland) and Lance (Will Smith) © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox

Troy Quane: That’s a very good question. When we were coming up with the character of Lance Sterling, we knew we had to have somebody that would stand up against James Bond and Jason Bourne. We looked back to the heroes we had growing up and Will Smith was one of them. So we made this character like Will Smith and when it came time to saying who do we want to get, we were like, ‘I’d love to get Will Smith. Can we do that?’

We got a meeting with him and I’ll tell you to this day we were about to pass out. Obviously, it went very well, but it’s because of the message we had. We know that this is the first time many kids are going to see a spy movie and we felt there was a responsibility to say something with that in a world where everyone is fighting fire with fire; this movie is really about people despite their different philosophies working together. I think he was really touched by that.

Spies in Disguise - Will Smith with Tom Holland
Will Smith with Tom Holland © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox, photo by Eric Charbonneau

What about casting Tom Holland?

Nick: Walter, his gadget guy who’s a little socially awkward, is a little shy but super smart, but a little naïve. You don’t want him to come across being silly, so that was a really complex conglomeration of ideas we had for the character.

Tom brings such sincerity, and I think that’s Walter’s superpower. He’s such a sincere character. He really does believe in something and he’s willing to go the distance for that. It was really important to find someone who is charming, funny and sincere, and as soon as we heard Tom we thought, ‘That is the guy.’ So we pitched him the idea and he loved the comedy of it, he thought it was ridiculous, but he really like the (concept) of we’re stronger together. Even though Lance is amazing on his own, he’s better with a team. Both Will and Tom have been amazing collaborative partners ever since.

Masi, tell us about your character, Kimura.

Spies in Disguise - Masi Oka
Spies in Disguise – Masi Oka © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox, photo by Eric Charbonneau

Masi Oka: Kimura is kind of the middle boss. He’s a brilliant, dark web hacker, and he can get whatever he wants. But at his core, he’s teddy bear.

That’s what’s really fun about this character, where you can play a gruff villain but you get to see a different side of him. The worst thing he’s ever done in his life was pee in the pool. That makes him really endearing.

Troy, I don’t remember ever seeing an animated character that looked so much like the actor doing the voice – did you wait until you got Will Smith before designing what Lance looked like?

Spies in Disguise - Tom Holland and Will Smith
Spies in Disguise – Walter (Tom Holland) and Lance (Will Smith) © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox

Troy: No, the characters were designed before we fully locked all that stuff into place.

The animators at Blue Sky are an amazing team and when you have those actors they study their mannerisms and the movies that they’re in. When we record them they’ll do a little bit of acting on screen too. We’ll bring that back and the animators will find those mannerisms and put them in so the characters will feel more like the actors than they actually look.

Masi, you have a background as a digital artist. Did that help you when doing this film?

Masi: It’s so fascinating. First of all, I worked at ILM and worked on Star Wars 1, 2 and 3. You can find my name in the credits. I love both being a digital artist and an actor because they are both very collaborative and creative. I love the idea of using computers to solve creative problems [and] think that’s a fantastic thing.

What it allows me to do is be more technical in terms of my acting, because of my understanding about what goes on behind-the-scenes. I understand the process so I technically can adjust my acting to make the process easier and better for the animators.

What life lessons does your character learn in this movie?

Masi: Never trust a talking bird. Last week I was in Santa Barbara and I saw this guy talking to a pigeon. And then he told the pigeon, ‘I know you’re with the FBI and you’re spying on me.’ I said, ‘Oh my god, the Disney’s marketing must have gone viral.’ Or I’ve been thinking about the movie too much and I’m starting to hallucinate!

Spies in Disguise - Masi Oka
Spies in Disguise – Masi Oka is hacker Katsu Kimura © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox, photo by Eric Charbonneau

Judy Sloane

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