will smith and tom holland's characters

Going Undercover with the Guys from Spies in Disguise

By Zach Johnson

Before your family flocks to the local movie theater to see Spies in Disguise on Christmas Day, we chatted with directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane and voice actor Masi Oka about the inspiration behind the animated adventure from 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios. “Originally there was a short called Pigeon: Impossible by Louis Martell,” Quane said. “It had a simple, funny idea of a spy trying to have lunch and a pigeon getting in his way. We built off that idea and asked, ‘What would be more annoying than a pigeon interrupting a spy’s lunch? If the spy got turned into a pigeon.’”

For the last six years, Bruno and Quane have been shaping that idea into a feature-length film, which centers on two characters: spy Lance Sterling (voice of Will Smith) and scientist Walter Beckett (voice of Tom Holland). “At its heart, this is a story about an odd couple who must save each other in order to save the world,” explained Quane. “For as much fun and action as it has, it also has a great, heartfelt message behind it.”

Spies in Disguise

Smith was always at the top of the directors’ list to voice Lance. “We knew we had to have somebody who could stand up against characters like James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Ethan Hunt,” Bruno said. “We looked back to the heroes we had growing up, and Will Smith was one of them.” Smith agreed to a meeting, much to the delighted directors’ surprise. Soon afterward, he joined the Spies in Disguise cast. “I think it’s because of the message we had,” Bruno said. “We know this is the first time many kids are going to see a spy movie. We felt there was a responsibility to say something with that. In a world where everyone is fighting fire with fire, this movie is about people—despite their different philosophies—working together. I think Will was touched by that.”

“Lance is a guy who flies solo. He’s strong, he’s amazing, he’s capable… There’s no one better!” Quane added. “Turning him into a bird strips all of that away. He will eventually learn he’s stronger with the help of the other birds in the flock and Walter.”

Spies in Disguise

The role of Walter required an actor who could be awkward and optimistic—someone like Holland. “It was really important to find someone who was funny, charming, and sincere,” Quane said, “and as soon as we heard Tom, we were like, ‘That is the guy!’”

“Walter is a guy who can come across as a little weird. He’s got big, crazy ideas. I mean, you watch him turn a man into a pigeon!” Quane said. “But weird is only weird until it isn’t. Weird is only weird ’til you go, ‘Wait a minute… That’s actually a great idea.”

Oka voices the dark web hacker Katsu Kimura, whom he described as the “middle boss.” Despite his criminal character’s “tough exterior,” Oka added, “He’s a teddy bear!” Rounding out the voice cast are Rashida Jones as Marcy Kappel, Ben Mendelsohn as Keller “Robohand” Killian, Reba McEntire as Joy “Joyless” Jenkins, Rachel Brosnahan as Wendy Beckett, Karen Gillan as Eyes, DJ Khaled as Ears, and Carla Jimenez as Geraldine. “We’re seriously lucky on this movie to get all of our first-choice casting for every character,” Quane said. “It’s a rare thing and we’re so excited to have all of them.”

Spies in Disguise

After working on the Star Wars prequel trilogy at Industrial Light & Magic years ago, Oka approached this project with added appreciation for what it takes to make an animated film. “I love the idea of using computers to solve creative problems,” Oka said. “I have a respect for the process, as well as the ability to communicate and understand it. So, I can technically adjust my acting to make everything easier and better for the animators.”

“After seeing this film, I wish I could have done the stunts, but…” Oka said with a big laugh. “The spy stuff is fun! It’s escapism. It’s why we love watching films—to see the things you would never get to do in real life. I always enjoy these spy films. It’s fun for the whole family. Maybe kids will want to be spies one day… or pigeons! One of them!”

All jokes aside, the directors described the animated adventure as a “love letter” to the spy movie genre. “One thing I’m really proud of is that my sons will go into this movie wanting to be a Lance,” Bruno admitted, “but leave very proud to be a Walter Beckett.”