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Toon Zone Interviews Elisa Gabrielli on Being Nana in "Madagascar 2"

by on February 24, 2009

Elisa Gabrielli sure ain't no little old ladyOne of the breakout characters of DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar series is Nana, the little old lady who serves as the lion Alex’s nemesis, popping up at inopportune times to deliver a world-class butt-kicking to the dancing lion. Nana was brought to vocal life through the talents of Elisa Gabrielli, a long-time on-camera and voice-over actor who has provided the voices for Dr. Ashley Kafka in The Spectacular Spider-Man, Detective Sonia Alcana in Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman, Virginia “Pepper” Potts in the direct-to-video Invincible Iron Man movie, and Maria Chavez on Gargoyles. We were able to speak with Ms. Gabrielli via e-mail about her role as Nana, and her other assorted voice acting roles as well.

TOON ZONE NEWS: How exactly did you get into acting?

ELISA GABRIELLI: I was interested from an early age. My mother was a singer and an artist, so I was exposed to those worlds at an early age. I loved the storytelling aspect of it all. The total immersion in other worlds. I always juggled an interest in Medicine and the Arts, and I still do.

TZN: It looks like you started doing voice acting pretty early in your career with a part in 3×3 Eyes. How did you discover cartoon voice over?

GABRIELLI: Actually it was earlier than that. I did Gargoyles for writer Greg Weisman and voice director Jamie Thomason, and Greg called me in for 3×3 Eyes. My very first cartoon audition ever was for Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? I booked the lead and was almost immediately replaced by Rita Moreno! My first exposure to the ups and downs of the biz.

TZN: Your resume shows quite a bit of formal training as an actor. Do you have a particular philosophy or approach to your roles?

GABRIELLI: No, not really any one specific thing. It’s all grist for the mill. I love to immerse myself in the characters I take on, which I seem to do pretty easily in general. When it’s a challenge, it’s nice to have the tools that training provides to draw upon.

TZN: Did you find something in your acting classes that was particularly helpful or unhelpful in doing voice-over work?

GABRIELLI: I have to say, I have a strong background in improv and sketch-comedy and for me, it all starts there.

Tastes like chicken!TZN: How did you get the original role as Nana in the first Madagascar movie? Did you just audition for the role, or is there a great story of Hollywood skullduggery involved?

GABRIELLI: No skullduggery, but a good story. I was working on the first Madagascar doing some of the smaller character and background voices and singing. It’s something I’ve done a fair amount of on movies like Shrek, Shark Tale, Kung Fu Panda, and Bee Movie. I was working with a really talented group of actors called the LA Madd Dogs, who were there doing the same thing. On that particular day the directors and producer asked if anyone wanted to take a crack at voicing this Little Old Lady. She was still just a black and white sketch at the time. When I got up to give it a try, this crazy character just kind of appeared. They cracked up and said it would be really fun to animate to that voice. The rest is history. Honestly, I never thought I’d get to keep the character . I went home and told my husband (actor/musician Floyd VanBuskirk) “I’m sure they’re going to give her to Harvey Fierstein!” Lucky for me, I was wrong.

TZN: Were you surprised at how popular the character turned out to be?

GABRIELLI: Thrilled is a better word! She seems to be kind of infectious. I know I like her. She’s such a loose cannon. Someone you would love to know.

TZN: Other than the greatly expanded role, what was the biggest difference between being Nana in the original movie vs. being Nana in the sequel?

GABRIELLI: It was really fun being able to play with her more and to take her in different directions. You know, bring her to life and give her depth. It was very cool watching her have such an impact on the story line!

TZN: I read somewhere that Nana was inspired by your own grandmother. Can you expand a bit on that, and was there anyone else you were modeling or channeling when you were performing the character?

GABRIELLI: Actually, both my grandmothers: the Russian one, Lilly, who was tough and smart, and my Hungarian granny, Elsa, who I adored and was all of that and had a wicked sense of humor. And Lenny, my stepfather, who is the scrappiest, most street-smart person I know. He used to manage boxers and I hung out at the ring with him when I was a kid. That definitely made its way into Nana’s character!

schthwakTZN: Do you do anything physically to get into character as Nana in the recording booth? Did you notice that the animators had borrowed any of your mannerisms in Nana?

GABRIELLI: Sigh! Yes…I’m sure I made all sorts of faces, tightened my throat, shook my fist ….all caught on tape! As far as her mannerisms go, although I know my vocal delivery had an impact, Nana’s visuals continue to spring forth from the brilliant collaboration of the animators at DreamWorks. I got to meet some of them recently. They’re awesomely talented. It’s incredible how much is involved in all of it!

TZN: Did you get the chance to work with any of the other actors while recording?

GABRIELLI: I didn’t get to work with the other actors, that rarely happens with animation. But it helped knowing who they were and how they were playing their characters. It made it possible to imagine and adjust Nana’s performance accordingly.

TZN: What was the funniest thing that happened to you while you were working on Madagascar 2?

GABRIELLI: It was all such a blast, really, I can’t pinpoint any one thing really.

TZN: So where can we see or hear you next?

GABRIELLI: Well, it’s pilot season right now, so I’m auditioning for both live action and animation. I’d love to do more live-action or even theater! I love them equally and they give me such very different opportunities and ways to step into a character. Beverly Hills Chihuahua is coming out on DVD soon, and hopefully The Spectacular Spider Man will have its second season starting soon. I play Dr. Ashley Kafka. And I’m attached to a really fun script, Ten Shots of Tequila, that’s being shopped around. I actually collaborated on the screenplay, which was so much fun for me!!! It’s getting a really good response so far. Fingers crossed! The Penguins of Madagascar are coming soon to Nickelodeon, so who knows? Maybe Nana will make an appearance.

Toon Zone News would like to thank Elisa Gabrielli for taking the time to talk with us, and also Paula Gould and Mac McLean for making it possible. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is available now on DVD and Blu-ray disc; read Toon Zone News’ reviews of the theatrical release and the DVD here.

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