In "Cars," this summer's entry from the Pixar animation powerhouse, Wilson's distinctive tones animate the exuberant and cocky sports car Lightning McQueen, as he makes his journey from the rough-and-tumble world of Piston Cup racing to the sleepy backwater of Radiator Springs, and from selfishness to finally understanding the value of friendship and generosity.
Pixar has a long history of ingenious voice casting, where a performer's idiosyncratic inflections turn their animated counterparts into true cinematic alter egos.
Tom Hanks lent "Toy Story's" cowboy Woody his good-natured sense of outrage, while Albert Brooks imbued "Finding Nemo's" Marlin with his distinctive flavor of perpetual nudgenik worry.
From Wilson's perspective, his casting as Lightning McQueen was purely serendipitous. He and his dad happened to sit by Pixar guru and "Cars" director John Lasseter at the 2002 Oscars, the year Wilson was nominated for co-writing "The Royal Tenenbaums," and Pixar's "Monsters, Inc." was nominated for a slew of awards. "He was talking. He has five boys, and they had liked the movie I had done with Jackie Chan, 'Shanghai Noon.' He was saying he had an idea for an animated movie," recalls Wilson. Lasseter gauged the actor's interest, and a couple of months later, he asked Wilson to work on the movie.
"That was a long time ago," Wilson says. "They take forever to do." On "Cars," he spent a couple of years, recording dialogue every few months, first at Disney stages in L.A., and later at Pixar's Northern California headquarters.
This said, he was a little cautious, given that it's a lot easier to dump an actor from an animated movie than a live-action one. He'd been cast as a llama herder opposite David Spade in Disney's "Kingdom of the Sun," but then had his part excised when the film morphed into "The Emperor's New Groove."
While Wilson is well-known for his ability to improvise, to riff like a jazz musician but with words, on "Cars," with its elaborate production schedule and the need to synch voice and picture, he says, he stuck more or less to the script. But Lasseter has said they were still able to pull some little gems out of Wilson's crowded mind. He once asked Wilson the sound he had for thunder as a kid, and the actor began screaming "Kachow! Kachow! Kachow!" The phrase became the rookie race car's joyous catchphrase.
Wilson sounds like he'd be up for another tour in the world of computer animation. Voice recording, he says, is a lot more relaxing than on-screen acting. "You don't have to worry about the way you look, going in and doing hair and makeup and having everybody looking at you and judging you in wardrobe. You can roll out of bed, clear your throat and go to work."