Monsters' Kiefer Sutherland voices a general with a heart

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Kiefer Sutherland, one of the voice stars of the upcoming 3-D animated sci-fi spoof Monsters vs. Aliens, told reporters that he responded strongly to the film's themes of tolerance and acceptance.

"The main thing that resonated with me was this idea that you can tell children that it's all right to be different," Sutherland said in a news conference last week in Los Angeles. "I certainly remember growing up as a kid and that terrible moment when you decide to make a fashion statement at 7 and you decide to wear your socks outside your pants, and you think it's cool, and you go to school and it's not cool. I remember those times."

In Monsters vs. Aliens, Sutherland provides the voice of General W.R. Monger, the commander of a team of monsters who are enlisted to rescue Earth when it is invaded by aliens.

Following is an edited version of Sutherland's news conference. Monsters vs. Aliens opens Friday. (Some minor spoilers ahead!)

Your performance as General W.R. Monger is amazing. Do you have voices like his rattling around in your head?

Sutherland: You have no idea. The great comedians of our time have a natural gift for timing, physical comedy and all of those things. It's not what I was drawn to when I started working as an actor. I think one of the reasons why I did an animated film was that I got to leave my physicality at the door, and the animators could make that physicality charming, or what it is. I've always been drawn to the more dramatic dynamic of the human condition, and that's why I do what I do. But certainly in the context of this, I was doing 24 at the same time I was doing Monsters vs. Aliens, and so for five days a week, 14 hours a day, I would do that, and then six hours a week I'd get to play this character and let loose and, you know, be 5. That was a fantastic counterbalance.

Co-director Conrad Vernon said you got a lot of inspiration from Yosemite Sam.

Sutherland: For the military part of the voice, I loved the sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, because he was just so relentless, and then to counterbalance that with humor, I loved the voice of Yosemite Sam. He always started off the Bugs Bunny cartoons with the same line, and the producers laughed, and we kind of took the voice in that direction.

This character seems like he could have been just a belligerent chicken hawk, but he's actually more complex and even sympathetic. How did that evolve, and did he start out that way?

Sutherland: Well, it was the writers. But it lends itself towards the kind of general point of the film. I've never chosen a character as an actor; I've always kind of been drawn to [an] entire story, and however I fit in, great. This was no different. I loved the idea that they were making a movie that was geared towards young children, telling them that it was all right to be different. And not only was it all right to be different, but that thing that might make you feel awkward about being different could be your greatest quality. In the context of our movie, it allows Ginormica [voiced by Reese Witherspoon] to save the planet, so I don't think there's a more important message that you can actually send to children. ...

My character is the same: He has this responsibility to run this prison, but he says it in his first speech that these monsters are not vicious or dangerous and maniacal, they're just simply different, and we have to keep them away from society because society won't understand. But even when he's putting Ginormica in her cell, and she starts to cry, he's like, "Please don't cry," and he starts to go because he can't handle that, and he does feel bad for them. And then all of a sudden he gets this opportunity to kind of show how special they are, and I think he's very proud of that—and pretty excited about getting out of that prison, too.

Your character has all of these throwaway lines about how he's 90 years old that he never explains. Is there any backstory that you or the writers came up with?

Sutherland: No, I threw those in hoping there would be a sequel. Um, no, I think one of the things in their perception of the general, Conrad, the writers, these guys are just so eccentric and they probably shouldn't be doing what they're doing. So he talks to himself, I think, constantly; half of his sentences are to the characters, and the other half are to himself about what he's just lied about.