Imagine walking into the gorgeous Technical Building at Skywalker Ranch and hearing a boisterous voice yell ‘Hello Mommies!', as you see the one and only Actor Elijah Kelley heading your way embracing each and every blogger with big, warm hug and taking an official ‘Elijah Kelley' selfie everyone. So awesome!
Photo credit: Jana Seitzer
That's exactly how our day at Skywalker Ranch kicked off, but the excitement didn't stop there. Next, we would screen ‘Strange Magic' with Elijah Kelley, Executive Producer George Lucas, and Director Gary Rydstrom, participate in a Q&A with Elijah Kelley, Executive Producer George Lucas, and Director Gary Rydstrom, and watch Elijah Kelley perform ‘Say Hey (I Love You') live just for us! It was truly an awesome way to celebrate the upcoming release of Strange Magic, on January 23rd, 2015.
Elijah Kelley (voice of Sunny) received widespread praise for his role in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which was nominated for a SAG Award® for best ensemble cast and an NAACP Award for best film.
Kelly first exploded on the big screen in the New Line musical “Hairspray!” in 2007, earning a Critics Choice Award for Best Ensemble in a Motion Picture, as well as a SAG Award® nomination for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture. He starred in the George Lucas-produced film “Red Tails” about the famed Tuskegee Airmen opposite an all-star cast that included Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr., and was also in “Boys of Abu Ghraib,” a highly-acclaimed independent fi lm starring Sean Astin.
Kelley’s credits also include New Line’s “Take the Lead,” “28 Days,” “Heaven Falls,” “Rome & Jewel” and “Fled.” He’s attached to star in Cindy Chupack’s indie “Whatever Makes You Happy,” which is set up at Mandalay and awaiting additional financing. Kelley received a test off er for Lee Daniels’ “Empire” for FBC. Other television.
Check out our interview with actor Elijah Kelley below, and watch Elijah's live performance from Skywalker Ranch.
Interview: Actor Elijah Kelley (Voice of Sunny)
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to voice Sunny?
Elijah Kelley: I've never done a voice-over before in my life, so it was a little bit of a challenge because he's hyper and super into everything that he always does, so I thought that it was going to be so easy. I thought it was gonna be a piece of cake, but I would go in there and guarantee you, I would leave lightheaded and sweaty from all the running and everything. It was like P90X. Bringing it to life and understanding the world that Sunny lives in, and understanding that he's kind of like the nucleus of trying to get everything together, and pulling everybody together, and trying to save the day, and messing up the day, it's a lot like me.
Q: When we were developing genuine characters, we wanted to make the characters relatable to audiences of all kinds and all ages. Are there any themes in the movie that you relate to or think people will connect with?
Elijah Kelley: I think that people will connect for fighting for what you love because as you can see, everybody goes through a lot of trouble to be able to grasp the love of their life, and I think that love is so complicated. I think that it's the wiring of love is just so weird, and the fact that people can go to the ends of the Earth to capture something like that is, you know, that's very, very inspirational. And I think in a time like this where we are in the world, it's an animation, but the subject matter is universal and it's timeless.
Whether we're talking about a divide in America, or we're talking about what's going on over in Paris, not to be so serious, but love eradicates a lot of those issues.
Q: That's a great point. I think what we see happening in the movie is love is a really powerful force of change. We have these two kingdoms that have this division and this kind of beef between them, so to speak, and because two of the characters are able to fall in love, everyone's able to come together.
Elijah Kelley: Understanding and conversation. It's like when the Bog King finally had a conversation with his mom, set up the whole place, and they went in and they were all, we hate all the same things. So now we can love all the same things with our common interest in what we don't like. You know, love can be spawned from so many different things.
Q: Right, and that was one of the best scenes for us to work on, and with Gary, is that scene because they really let their guards down. Then they're able to connect and heal, essentially, after what they've both been through which is heartbreak, and then bring everybody else together. It's just so great seeing what Sunny and Dawn go through.
Elijah Kelly: I think that was the most human characteristic of the movie. I know probably everybody in this room has been around somebody that you just look up and you find yourself attracted to; you don't even know how to say it, or what to say, or you know…
Q: And you're a little out of your league.
Elijah Kelley: Right, you know what I'm saying? It's like, I don't even know how to function in this relationship, but give it time and, obviously, you know, Sun got his little kiss at the end, his little groove on at the end.
Q: So you're a quadruple threat, Elijah. You're not only a great actor, dancer, and philanthropist, but today we experienced your amazing singing. Can you tell us a little bit about your background as a singer, and what was your favorite song to perform in Strange Magic?
Elijah Kelley: My favorite song, actually my favorite song in Strange Magic isn't there anymore. But maybe if we do a sequel we can put it in there. [Audience Laughs] George? George? Can we blog hashtag sequel?
No, it was a song, it was a song called ‘Hold On, I'm Coming' [Sings]. But my favorite song in the movie is not even a full song. It's when the little birdies sing ‘Gotcha Looking So Crazy Right Now.' I love how we incorporated, or you guys incorporated the beat. That's seriously my favorite part.
My musical background started in church. I grew up in church all my life. My mom was in ministry; my dad was in ministry, so we had a traveling singing group that would go all around the southeast to different churches and we would just sing and congregate. That's actually how I met the guitarist, when I first moved out here in 2000- 2005 or 2006, I came here, I found a church, and I wanted to keep playing drums.
So I played drums at this church for a year and a half and he was the music director. But now he's doing big things. He's producing the album, The Baby Face right now as we speak.
Q: And where did you grow up?
Elijah Kelley: I grew up in a small town called LaGrange, Georgia. It's about forty-five minutes south of Atlanta, right on the Georgia/Alabama line.
Q: That's why you have that southern charm thing.
Elijah Kelley: Some call it charm, some just don't call me anymore after, you know, it takes its toll. It's a blessing and a curse.
Q: How much did you, did you improvise in the roll?
Gary Rydstrom: A lot! [Audience Laughs]
Elijah Kelley: It was a lot, but it was a lot because Gary was so gracious in allowing you bring the character to life in your way. The funny thing was, the first time I came up here all the elves in the forest, everybody looked the same. They were little white elves, and I was like, okay, somebody's gonna have to get some tanning lotion, [Audience Laughs], put it in a super soaker and just spray everybody.
So you know, when that happened, it's just like, you want to put a little flavor in there and put a little swag in there; I think Sunny has that.
Q: Seeing your personality right now, you're so upbeat and everything, and your character Sunny is very hopeful and stuff. What other characteristics you found similar to your character.
Elijah Kelley: Sunny doesn't quit. I'll tell you a bit of personal information.
Over the Christmas holidays both my laptops were stolen, hard drives were stolen, all of this stuff, and I had to do these police reports, and literally everything that I have worked on in 2014 had seemingly vanished. I had to sit down, and still myself. This is a quality about him. Once you understand that there's a task at hand, you can't stop until that task is finished. So throughout adversity, throughout trial, you have to keep going, and I think that's something that Sunny carries.
Q: Was it weird seeing your facial expressions and such on a character that doesn't look like you?
Elijah Kelley: The whole process is weird. I'm honestly not over it yet. This is only the second time I've seen the movie, and on film you get used to yourself. You can see yourself in a different character, but as far as somebody bringing your voice to life, that's, they literally bring your voice to life, you know? So all you do is talk and sing, and they do everything else. It's really amazing.
Q: What's the difference between doing a voice for an animated feature, versus what you did in Hairspray, or even singing?
Elijah Kelley: The difference between doing a voice-over in a movie and a real movie is you can literally look horrible [Laughter]. You can look like crap. You can just go in the studio and be the most disgusting looking person ever, but nobody will ever see you. But Hairspray, you've got to do hair and makeup. Red Tails; I wore a big, thick mustache for Red Tails, and that's pretty much the difference.
The aesthetic of the work that goes into it. I really feel like voice-over is a bit more difficult because you're creating a universe, and you're reacting to a universe that you don't get to see, and that's really, really, really difficult.
Q: How did you get involved in the project?
Elijah Kelley: I begged [Audience Laughs] and pleaded. The first time I heard about it, what was it, like, four years ago? Maybe five? I heard through the grape-vine that Mr. Lucas was doing this movie and he sent me to an audition. I couldn't even call him like, hey man, can we just bypass this whole process? [Audience Laughs] I know we know each other, you know?
Can we just go ahead and get it started. But no, I auditioned and I think I auditioned maybe two or three times, and that was it and I made the cut. I'm here now. I'm glad I'm here now.
Q: Piggybacking on that question, since you worked with George on Red Tails, what is it that you love working with George Lucas?
Elijah Kelley: I'm glad you asked that question because, I never really get to tell him, but George has surpassed I think what we are on Earth. He's become an idea. It's like every time I come here, I get so inspired because everything that we're sitting on, everything that we drove up on was spawned from an idea. And when you have an idea, and when you have an idea that you're convicted about, and you can change the world from that idea, you don't stray away from it, and you dedicate your life to that idea.
Every time I'm around him [George Lucas], it reinvigorates the passion for art in me that it only takes one thing. It only takes one idea. It only takes one thought to pretty much change your universe, and that's why I love working with him, because I'm constantly reminded of that. Thanks, George. [Audience Laughs]
Q: I know that you're a philanthropist, but I don't know much about what your philanthropy work is. Can you explain?
Elijah Kelley: I have a foundation, the Elijah Kelley Foundation, and basically what we do is trying to be a liaison between underprivileged kids and their dreams in arts and entertainment. During the tenure that we've had the non-profit, I've given out four scholarships over the last five years with students from low-income housing that are going on to pursue careers in performing arts from the Savannah College of Art and Design to a very small, great art school in Georgia called Gordon College.
Exclusive Elijah Kelley ‘Say Hey (I Love You)' Skywalker Ranch Performance
Before the interview Elijah treated us to a private acoustic performance of one of my favorite songs from the movie, ‘Say Hey (I Love You)'. His enthusiasm and love for this movie shined through his performance, as we danced and sang along with him. Thank you Elijah for an amazing performance!
Photo credit: Jana Seitzer
(This is the raw video from the performance because well, Elijah is pitch perfect through the entire performance.)
About Strange Magic
“Strange Magic,” a new animated film from Lucasfilm Ltd., is a madcap fairy tale musical inspired by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Popular songs from the past six decades help tell the tale of a colorful cast of goblins, elves, fairies and imps, and their hilarious misadventures sparked by the battle over a powerful potion. Lucasfilm Animation Singapore and Industrial Light & Magic bring to life the fanciful forest turned upside down with world-class animation and visual effects. Directed by Gary Rydstrom (“Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation,” “Lifted”) from a story by George Lucas, “Strange Magic” will be released by Touchstone Pictures on Jan. 23, 2015.
‘Strange Magic' Official US Trailer
Portions of the material and expenses for this event has been provided courtesy of Walt Disney Studios, all opinions are my own.