Thomas & Friends: Beyond Sodor is out on Digital HD & DVD now. Below is an exclusive Q&A with Hugh Bonneville who voices Merlin, the new Experimental Engine!
Tell us about Merlin’s character traits, how would you describe him?
Merlin is one of three experimental engines. He describes himself as a stealth engine, and his particular trait is that he has the ability to be invisible. His personality is such that he is extremely keen to be part of a gang, to help others, and he’s extremely confident of his own invisibility – even though, as we discover, he’s slightly misguided.
What aspects of his character make him enjoyable to voice?
I think the most enjoyable thing about Merlin, as a character to play, is that he’s completely confident that he has the ability to become invisible, when in fact, we the audience know that he doesn’t have that power. It’s rather enchanting to watch him sail through life full of confidence, but actually sometimes being a bit silly. The thing to remember about any steam engine is that they need lots of puff. Merlin is full of puff! He’s very confident, and so there’s a sort of breathless energy about him. Whenever he’s knocked down, he bounces back and heads off down the track. So there’s a sort of pulse about his wide-eyed energy that you try and put into the voice as well.
Merlin is a proud and confident engine – how do you inject your voice with these character traits? What tricks do you use?
I put myself entirely in the hands of Sharon, the Voice Director, who reminded me that part of Merlin’s charm is his complete enthusiasm for life. I think with many of the characters in Thomas, you find this. They live in this world of boundless optimism, and certainly in Merlin’s case that’s true.Whenever he’s knocked down he bounces back and is determined to take part in life, and in every activity that’s going on, even if sometimes he’s not very helpful.
How similar to your own every day voice is your Merlin voice?
My own voice, as you can hear, is incredibly tired and laid-back and exhausted, whereas Merlin is eternally forward-looking and optimistic, and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I wish I had that energy all the time!
What do you think Thomas fans will most enjoy about Merlin?
I think Thomas fans will enjoy Merlin’s boundless enthusiasm, and his desire to be at the centre of things, and to help, even though sometimes his help might be slightly misplaced. I think he’s quite endearing and wants to be part of a gang, and we all know that feeling.
Can you tell us how Merlin appears to make himself invisible?
Merlin is a unique design in that he has three funnels, and he has been part of an experiment. The theory being, that if you have three funnels, it will disperse the smoke coming out of the funnels more quickly and; therefore, make you invisible in effect to the enemy. In fact, this experiment failed, but no one’s told Merlin that. So, he’s convinced that a combination of the three funnels and closing his eyes, squeezing them tight shut, makes him invisible, and no one’s going to contradict him.
Do you think the ability to appear invisible would be a fun skill to have and why?
Ooh, I think having the ability to be invisible is a double-edged sword, because, yes, it could be great, because you could sneak into the cinema,and no one would notice you, and you wouldn’t have to pay. The downside is that you would also hear people talking about you behind your back, and that’s not always a good thing.
Do you have one or two favourite scenes you have voiced with Merlin, tell us about them?
One of my favourite clips is when he first meets Thomas. Thomas is trying to hide down a siding, and this mysterious voice comes out of thedarkness, and it is Merlin who is enjoying another episode of hiding, whichhe’s very good at, and he’s thrilled that Thomas can’t see him. Of course Thomas can’t see him, he’s a master of invisibility. The fact that it is just pitch dark is irrelevant. That was a lot of fun because it’s our first introduction to Merlin, and he’s showing off his great powers of invisibility. Indeed, hereaches out the hand of friendship to Thomas, who’s a bit nervous, and a bit scared.
Are there any challenges you have had to overcome in voicing Merlin?
I think the main challenge I’ve had in voicing Merlin is that I’m not a sort of 40-tonne truck with any number of wheels and three funnels, but I’ve been trying to get round that, and trying to rely entirely on the animation that’s going on behind me, and that’s going to be superb. I think the biggest, not challenge, but the biggest adventure, is to try and inhabit what these drawings are bringing to life, which is a spirit within this world, this beautiful world, of Thomas and his friends. It was created so many years ago but is still so vibrant, and entertaining new audiences. So it’s buying into all that spirit that has been fun.
It looks quite fun in the studio – how important is it to have a good rapport with your voice director and technical team?
You can’t really do something like this unless you have a good rapport with the Voice Director and the technical team. Sharon, who is the VoiceDirector, has been aligned with Thomas for many, many years, so she knows this world and these characters better than most people. That depth of experience that they bring – she and the team bring – you can taste it throughout the recording process. I’ve learnt a lot in a very short space oftime, to plunge into the world of Thomas, and to become one of the gang.
How physical do you get when voicing a character like Merlin? How important is it to use physicality when voicing?
Physicality, actually, strangely, even though you’re talking into a microphone, becomes very important, because you are trying to bring to life nuances of the basic designs that are here, that will be brought to life further in the animation. So you really have to, without appearing too over the top,you do have to demonstrate the words, somehow. Someone like Merlin is quite expansive and expressive. He’s like a sort of old Victorian actor/manager, who’s very grand and thinks he’s rather mysterious andextraordinary, even though he’s rather ordinary, actually. So I’ve been waving my arms around quite a lot and trying not to hit the microphone!
Do you have any anecdotes from your time in the studio voicing Merlin?
Well, it’s a strange process because on cue you have to either cough, orgrunt, or snore, or appear shocked, or laugh, and so it’s like tumbling headover heels with all these different expressions, but that’s a lot of fun. Can you make you’re anxiety about half a second shorter? Can you make your enjoyment about 20 seconds longer? So, being a bit like a performing sealactually, and that’s been a lot of fun.
Have you had to do any singing for the new film? If so how did you find it? Favourite song?
Yes, Merlin takes part in a song with two of the other engines, which basically, sort of, describes his own characteristics and his ability to appear invisible, but how it’s all-important that everyone gets along and has a go together.
You’re known for so many fantastic roles, what is special about voicing a new character in Thomas & Friends new movie?
To be part of the Thomas family has been a lovely thing, because it’s been around all my life and I never thought I’d be one of those puffing engines going along the tracks, so it’s very nice to share some railway lines with Thomas at long last.
Can you put into words any similarities or differences in playing a role like Merlin in Thomas & Friends to a role like the one you are most recently famous for, Robert Crawley in Downton Abbey?
Well, I suppose they both think they’re quite important, that they’re normally right – that they’re definitely right – and that everyone will agree withthem, and that’s entirely wrong.
What do your friends/family make of you being in a Thomas & Friends movie?
I have one nephew, in particular, who is a train nut, and he will be delighted, I know, that his uncle is appearing with Thomas & Friends, so finally I’ve made it in his family.
Thomas the Tank Engine is an enduring character, loved by children for over 70 years, why do you think he’s so special? Did you love him as a child?
I was quite familiar with the Thomas books when I was young. I think the reason they’ve endured is because there is a world that young children, who are just beginning to learn about stories, and indeed begin reading, there’s a world that they can completely inhabit and understand. At the heart of it, there’s a character that they identify with: Thomas. But they recognise the character traits in all the others, particularly James, I think. We’ve all been in the playground with someone like James, who is a real naughty pain, but actually you can’t help adoring him at the same time, and I think that is the great value of all these characters, and all these stories. There is at the heartof it, these simple tales of friendship and loyalty, and the spirit of adventure, but while keeping on the railway tracks.
What positive messages do you think children get from Thomas & Friends?
I think the adventures that Thomas goes on, and particularly this one, for example, when he goes off to the mainland, and he’s being a bit cheeky bytaking the trucks that James thought he was going to be taking, and you know slightly putting James in his place. So, he takes a risk and actually runs into jeopardy, and is then helped out by his friends, and it all ends pretty well in theend. So, I think those simple tales of trying to do right by others, trying to work as a team. In fact, reading this really reminded me of working on a film set. You can’t do it on your own. You need to have a team and you need to listen to others. You need to give everyone their space and not plough your ownfurrow too much; else nothing will ever get done. So, I think those sorts of simple tales are really at the heart of so many of these stories, and they are as true now as they were when first written.
How do you feel about being involved in Thomas and Friends with its 70-year history, and a long list of talented voice actors and contributors?
What can I say? To be one of the engines in one of Thomas’s adventures, it’s a big thrill for a little boy in a grown up body!