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Charlie Mackesy Helps Tom Hollander Find His Voice For ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’

This article first appeared as part of Jenelle Riley’s Acting Up newsletter – to subscribe for early content and weekly updates on all things acting, visit the Acting Up signup page.

Charlie Mackesy always thought Tom Hollander would make a great mole.

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More specifically, the artist who wrote and illustrated the bestselling 2019 book “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” felt the British actor was a wonderful match to voice one of his characters in the short film adaptation he co-directed with Peter Baynton. The film, now streaming on Apple TV + has charmed audiences worldwide and is nominated for an Academy Award for animated short film.

Mackesy describes Hollander’s voice as a “velvety, rich cake-like sound” and was thrilled the British actor got involved. Notes Mackesy, “His voice is rich, and has a great range, and can move between comedy and pathos very easily. His voice is so diverse, that was the fascinating thing about it.”

The story follows the sweet and unexpected friendship between a lost young boy (voiced by Jude Coward Nicoll) who wanders through the snowy wilderness looking to find a home and learns life lessons while encountering the other titular characters. Idris Elba lends his voice to the fox, while Gabriel Byrne the horse. Mackesy says he wanted the characters to work musically together, like a quartet. “The boy being the treble, the mole being the alto, Gabriel Byrne being the tenor and the fox being the bass. All of their voices worked so well together.”

Hollander, most recently seen killing it literally and figurately on “The White Lotus,” is a journeyman actor who has played a wide variety of roles already — from the manager of Queen in “Bohemian Rhapsody” to a clever henchman in “The Night Manager” to multiple nobles in “The King’s Man.” He’s lent his vocal talents to projects before — he can be heard as Tabaqui the jackal in “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” and currently voices Batman’s butler Alfred Pennyworth on the subversive HBO Max cartoon “Harley Quinn.” The actor was charmed by the story and illustrations and the idea of continuing to work in the animated medium as a kind, cake-obsessed mole.

“In a way, voice work is the least stress of all jobs,” Hollander notes. “Because you’re so free and you can do it in your pajamas. And you don’t have to learn anything. Also, if you do it badly, it’s very easy for them to cut your mistakes.” He notes this is different from ADR work, in which you’re trying to exactly match a performance that’s already laid down and can be exhausting. In this case, Hollander downplays his contribution, noting “the real achievement is clearly Charley and the animating team, who just did the most brilliant job.”

Asked if he approaches a voice role the way he would a part on stage or screen — working up a backstory, preparing a character — Hollander replies, “I don’t tend to do backstories, even with live-action things. Other than what’s in the script, I don’t invent backstory, I go with what’s on the page.”

While Hollander says he didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, he did spend hours in the recording booth trying many different things. Especially the first session, which involved “a lot of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what stuck.” The Mole is the first animal the Boy meets and while he’s prone to dispensing advice, there was some question as to how worldly he should be. “He should be worldly but not cynical or world-weary. And enthusiastic and courageous.”

Mackesy echoes, “We tried so many different things with Tom and each line he did, he must have offered us 30 different approaches to it. And bit by bit, we all learned what we were looking for.” For each session, the voices would be narrowed down and then played back for the actor until they honed in on a final voice.

Hollander had the book’s gorgeous drawings to work off, but says he really didn’t know how the final product would turn out. While there were some stage directions such as the Mole nearly falling off a tree, he was tickled to see the way the Mole moved in the final film, how he pushes the snow with his face and the way his legs wobble around. “When I first started doing animation it always surprised me to learn the voice comes first,” he says. “And the animators add a physical life to the character and can be inspired by what they hear. And that’s the genius of them.” Asked if he recalls acting out the Mole physically while in the booth, and Hollander says he doesn’t think so, but that Mackesy would know better.

“They all acted out, they all moved,” Mackesy says. “They were all very animated and got into the parts by moving. It was lovely to watch.”

Mackesy adds that all the actors elevated the characters in ways he didn’t predict. “I think Jude of all four brought so much because there’s such an innocence to him, and some of his intonations and tones in answering questions were so much purer and innocent than mine, and I was overwhelmed sometimes by how he spoke,” he says. “Tom’s range and humor is greater than mine. Idris was darker and more malevolent than I could imagine, and Gabriel, I think, sounded more horse-like than I imagined. You know, when he says ‘Hello,’ it sounds like a horse’s chortling neigh. So you know, they all brought things that I hadn’t expected in different ways.”

The film has already won great acclaim and it’s not unusual to hear audible sniffling at screenings; asked why they think the story has resonated so much with audiences and the two artists have a similar take. “We’re in hard times, so maybe the film speaks to people and makes them feel a bit better, a bit more connected, a bit less alone, a bit more hopeful about each other and about relationships and about, you know, that we all have an arc,” says Mackesy. “That when life is difficult, it might not always be that way, and we’re there to comfort one another.”

Hollander points to the way the story makes big statements — “the sort of things that people write on their mirror to keep them going” — but the story is incredibly simple and the things they say are generalized in a way that suits a universal appeal. “The world has become, in many ways, quite frightening in the recent past. I think humans as a race are feeling pretty jumpy,” says the actor. “And this story is like a balm, its healing and it cheers people up with its kindness and its simplicity.”

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