Nathan Fillion Gets Down to Business in Cars 3

The Firefly and Castle favorite plays the Elon Musk of automobiles in Cars 3.

In Cars 3, Nathan Fillion voices the role of Sterling, a billionaire “businesscar” who has purchased Rust-eze — the sponsor of racing star Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) — and opens a state-of-the-art training center to bring up a new generation of race cars while intending to leverage the Lightning McQueen “brand” as an endless source of merchandising and licensing opportunities. He doesn’t see racing in Lightning’s future though — a view that puts him at odds with the still-hungry yet aging McQueen who very much wants to stay on the track.

Sterling is not the standard “big business” villain in the Pixar movie — he does seem to sincerely have what he believes are Lightning’s best interests at heart, even as he also keeps his eye squarely on the bottom line. The attention to character is one of the strengths of the third Cars movie, and Fillion’s smooth, subtle and charming delivery goes a long way toward keeping Sterling from being a stereotypical “bad guy with a lot of money.”

But Fillion has always brought a lot of nuance to his characters, whether it be Richard Castle on the just-ended series Castle, Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly and Serenity or even his voice work as Hal Jordan/Green Lantern in the DC Animated Universe. Being that he’s close friends and has collaborated with both Marvel Cosmic Universe guardian (no pun intended — well, sort of) James Gunn or recently anointed DC Extended Universe director Joss Whedon, it seems like only a matter of time before he gets to appear in one of those two shared cinematic franchises as well — a subject that came up when we sat down with Fillion at a recent press junket for Cars 3 in Anaheim, California.

Den of Geek: What I find interesting about Sterling is that usually the big business character is pretty villainous, but he doesn’t fit that kind of stereotype.

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Nathan Fillion: No. He’s the new kind of Elon Musk sort of CEO that we’re seeing now. This is the more modern conception of CEOs, I think what we’re seeing.

Was that refreshing in a way, that he’s not secretly out to rule the world or something like that?

Yeah. It makes the drama in this particular film a little more real. Sterling is there to protect his investment. He’s a businessman. He’s invested in Lightning McQueen’s brand. And to protect that brand and usher him into this incredible world of promoting products and all these kind of crazy things, it means pulling him out of racing. It means taking him out while he’s still at the top. And obviously, racing is what’s in McQueen’s heart, so…I mean he becomes a bad guy in that sense. I think he’s short-sighted. I don’t think he’s ruled by his heart. I think he’s ruled by business. Which doesn’t make him a bad person.

Did it take a while to find the right tone and nuance for the voice?

He was an evolution. As the movie goes on, they’ll be like, “Oh! This seems to be working great” or “This isn’t working as well, but it works better when we do this, so we’re gonna do more of that. We’re gonna change these two scenes to be more of this way.” You come in, you do three or four of these recordings. And as I did, the end of the movie got a little darker, and a little darker for Sterling.

Is your approach to voiceover any different from your approach to live-action?

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Honestly, you have to prepare less. When I prepare an audition, I’m thinking about choices. I’m thinking about where I’m looking, when I look there, what has my attention. It’s my whole entire body. I’m orchestrating everything. When I do a voiceover, you don’t have to care. You don’t worry about the body. Somebody else takes care of the body. It’s a team effort at that point. Somebody else is taking care of that. You just give that up.

In a case like Pixar, you give it up with absolute trust. They’ve got it. They’ve handled it. You only have to worry about the voice stuff and in there you rely very heavily on the director because you’re working in a vacuum. There’s nobody around you to do the scenes with. It’s you by yourself in a recording booth so he helps you with the tone of the scene, the energy of the scene…I rely incredibly heavily on the director. More so than in a live action film.

Did you get to see the car before doing the voice? Does that impact you in any way as you’re doing your recording sessions?

When you do a film and you get dressed up in your costumes it helps you and informs you as to who the character is, absolutely. So when I see Sterling and I see he’s got some real clean lines, he’s got some kind of a business color going on, some nice smoothness to him…yes, absolutely, it becomes like a costume at that point. He’s upper class, but nothing too fancy.

What do you think is the appeal in particular of this series? A lot of Pixar movies are either human or humanoid characters or animals, while these are not organic creatures, yet people really empathize with them.

While we’re talking about this, both of us refer to that poster (gestures to a nearby Cars 3 poster). We’re both looking up at it, because we see the mouths, we see the eyes, and we understand that these are cars personifying characters. The way I think about it is, the concept of Superman doesn’t work unless you forgive the idea that once he puts on his glasses, you won’t recognize him. Once we give that up, once we forgive that, everything else works. For cars, when we buy a ticket for this movie we are saying, “I’m willing to believe in a world of cars.” So we already suspend that, we already forgive and walk in with and open heart saying, “Now give me the story.” And I think that’s what Pixar does so very, very well, is story.

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I think that’s why we care. I mean, there’s a rusty old tow truck and he’s super funny, super cool, but if you watch the movies you know that you can always count on Mater to be himself. You can always count on him to be loyal and happy. You can always count on that truck. Which is goofy to me. I mean it’s weird and funny and happy and wonderful to me. I’m looking at a tow truck knowing I can count on that guy.

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I would be remiss to not ask you if you had any thoughts on Adam West and what if anything he meant to you (West’s passing was announced a few hours prior to this interview).

Absolutely, I mean, the whole concept of climbing the side of the building on the bat-hooks, all the bat-devices they had…I bought a book that categorized every device that they had and had every action word that was flashed on the screen during the fights. And had every “holy bat-whatever” Robin ever said was in this book. I used to watch it on TV and it was everything I ever wanted to do in real life as a kid when I safety-pinned a towel around my neck to be a superhero. I was able to meet Adam West a couple of times. He was always a pleasant, fantastic guy. I’m gonna miss him very much.

You’re in tight with Gunn, you’re in tight with Whedon, so when is your live action superhero ship going to come in with one of those guys?

Yeah, right? You’re not the first person to ask that and I get it.

And a lot of fans want that to happen.

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I get that. For me, when you talk about James Gunn and Joss Whedon, you talk about two friends of mine that I am super happy that I get a chance to hang out with, and although you’re not seeing any movies that we’re doing together immediately, don’t think that we’re not hanging out and having a great time together, cause we are, we’re having lots of fun. Those two guys have done so much for me. Single-handedly. Those two guys. I mean, it’s crazy what they’ve done for me and my career. The last thing you would catch me doing is coming up to either one on them and saying, “You could do a little more.” You know what I mean? When I see them it’s to hang out and laugh and have fun and that’s what we do.

Having said that, what was the story with you and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2?

The story was James loves to put his friends in his movies. Period. And if we were all growing up saying “When I’m a director, and direct movies, I ‘ma put all my friends in it.” That’s what we would say, and that’s what James is doing. So my part in this particular film was during a scene, another one of James’ long-time friends, Greg Henry, is standing in front of a movie theater, and in back of the movie theater all the movie posters were a Simon Williams movie festival, so we mocked up a bunch of movie posters for Simon Williams, and I was Simon Williams. The scene caused some confusion, so the scene got cut. Which happens in films, but out of that I got an afternoon in Atlanta, got to hang out with James. I got to meet Chris Pratt, I got to have a wonderful time, so I still had the fantastic experience. And there’s some still some pretty awesome posters out there.

And the picture of you with the long hair in the spaceship?

That was because the spaceship was right next to where we were shooting those photos, and my brother and I sneaked inside and just snapped a few on our own. But people were going crazy.

What’s the legacy of Castle now that that’s come to a close, if you think back on the eight years of that show?

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Thanks to the wonders of social media and Instagram and Twitter, I can still get messages about people who are still watching it in reruns or in their country where it’s just wrapping up. And people are saying amazing things, like “It’s something I do with my family, it’s my family time together, this is what we do, we gather, we laugh, we cry, over this show, it’s important to me. Or this is something I do with my mom, and she’s no longer with us, but this would bring us happiness together.” The fact that people would enjoy the show, or enjoy the work I did is fantastic to me. The idea that it would bring families together and let people laugh and cry together as a family really warms my heart. And if there’s a legacy for Castle I would hope that would be it.

Cars 3 is out in theaters Friday (June 16).