Alan Tudyk–beloved for his supporting turns in Firefly, Dodgeball, A Knight’s Tale, and other screwy, delightful entertainments–has always been an animated character actor. Nowadays, though, that description rings doubly true: Many of Tudyk’s best performances are as cartoons.
If you track IMDb, or have exceptionally attuned hearing, you may know that Tudyk has voiced small but memorable parts in all of Disney Animation’s recent hits, from Frozen (as the Duke of Weselton) and Zootopia (Duke Weaselton–very different guy) to Wreck-It Ralph (King Candy) and Big Hero Six (Alistair Krei). And 2016 might be his biggest, most vocally inspired year yet. After playing a linguistically limited rooster in November’s Moana–nothing but variations on “Ba-kawk!”–he now joins the Star Wars universe in Rogue One. Not as a flesh-and-blood human, of course: Tudyk plays the main droid, K-2SO.
He got the job, in part, because of his role more than a decade ago as tender, fiercely loyal Sonny in I, Robot–one of the first motion-capture bots in film history. (The first, really, unless you count some background droids in the Star Wars prequels, and who does?) Rogue One director Gareth Edwards knew he wanted K-2SO to be a mo-cap performer, so he called up Tudyk for advice. “I’m the go-to robot guy,” Tudyk says.
At the time, Tudyk was hanging at the house of a certain famous friend. (OK, it was Firefly BFF Nathan Fillion.) “Hold on, buddy,” Tudyk remembers saying. “Let me take this real quick.” Over the phone, Edwards told Tudyk he was looking for someone to give a subtle performance, full of mistakes and imperfections.
“No no no,” Tudyk replied. “Jesus Christ, man. Don’t hobble yourself right from the top!”
Rather brazen in retrospect, perhaps, but Tudyk just wanted to be honest (and get back to Nathan). So he proceeded to explain to Edwards that, with motion capture, the key is to test and re-test everything, precisely so there aren’t mistakes. The walk, the hand gestures, the way K-2SO holds his head, the distribution of weight in the body–those are the details that must be worked out in advance, not in the moment. They chatted a bit more, and then hung up. “It was a great conversation, and I guess I thought it was over,” Tudyk says. It wasn’t: Soon after, he was asked to audition.
And so, at home in a T-shirt, with his girlfriend (now wife) filming him on an iPad, Tudyk acted out a scene in which Kaytoo’s circuits get scrambled by a planet’s magnetic field. Edwards must’ve liked what he saw, because at Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim last year, he offered the role to Tudyk in person. “That’s not how things are normally done,” Tudyk says.
While you won’t see that drunk-droiding scene in the finished movie, you will see plenty of Kaytoo, as the droid is known for short. For one thing, he’s big: Tudyk had to perform on prosthetic limbs to reach the character’s height of 7′ 1?. For another, Kaytoo’s in many of the scenes with Diego Luna’s character, Rebel intelligence officer Captain Cassian Andor, who liberates the droid from the Empire. Newly reprogrammed, Kaytoo offers his honest assessment of just about everything–in the crisp British accent we’ve come to expect from our droids. So you might not even know you’re listening to Tudyk, let alone looking at him. But he’s in there, all right.
And Kaytoo is a bit more Tudyk-like than, say, Sonny from I, Robot. With that performance, Tudyk perfected what he calls an ergonomically proficient walk and a kind of deliberate computer-speak, largely devoid of emotional extremes. Kaytoo, by contrast, “is allowed expression.”
“You’ve got this giant that has a simplicity to him,” Tudyk says. “It’s not Lennie in Of Mice and Men, but there’s something about him that’s very sweet and fun.”
That Steinbeck reference, by the way, isn’t entirely random. In 2015, Tudyk created Con Man, a semi-autobiographical series about an actor who played a supporting part in a beloved but short-lived sci-fi show and, a decade after its cancellation, still finds himself signing posters at conventions most weekends (Spectrum being the stand-in for Firefly). In the second season, which premiered on the Lionsgate platform ComicCon HQ last week, there’s an Of Mice and Men musical episode, with Tudyk playing George opposite Lou Ferrigno’s (surely indelible) Lennie. “It’s moving by the end,” Tudyk promises.
Con Man is, of course, live-action–a welcome opportunity to appreciate this multitalented actor in the flesh. But in a move so fitting it seems fated, Tudyk also released the mobile app Con Man: The Game earlier this year, in which he’s doing voiceover once again–for the animated version of himself.
A shorter version of this article appears in the December 2016 issue. Subscribe now.