Elijah Kelley is the incredibly talented actor and singer who brings to life the character of “Sunny” in LucasFilm's newest movie Strange Magic, out in theatres tomorrow! Elijah is personable, charming, humble, talented, and oh so adorable. I kind of wanted to bring him home with me for some smiles when I'm having a bad day. Elijah emanates sunshine and vibrance. He's one of those people that brightens a room when he walks in and fills it with warmth. He was more than willing to chat with us in the Atrium of Skywalker Sound and take selfies with our group. He's also a quadruple threat. Not only is Elijah a singer and actor, but he's also a philanthropist and a dancer.
As part of the Strange Magic Press Day last week at Skywalker Ranch, I had the pleasure to interview him about his role in Strange Magic along with 24 other awesome bloggers. Read to to learn more about the movie and Elijah's work on it. Elijah also gave an exclusive performance of a song from the movie. It was such a great day!
Elijah Kelley is known for many roles over the years, including his work in Red Tails, Hairspray, and Boys of Abu Ghraib. But after this weekend, he'll most definitely be known as the voice of Sunny in Strange Magic. Everyone is going to fall in love with Sunny (and Elijah) after they see the movie.
Meet Sunny (Elijah Kelley) from Strange Magic
The character Sunny is Elijah Kelley's first voiceover, but you'd never know it from watching the movie. You'd think Elijah spends all of his time doing voice overs—he's that good. One of the main differences of doing a voice over versus shooting a live movie, Elijah points out, is that, “You can literally look horrible. You can look like crap. You can just go in the studio and just be the most disgusting looking person ever, but nobody will ever see you. But Hairspray, you know, you've gotta do hair and makeup. 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 voiceover 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, you know, and that's, that's really, really, really difficult.” But Elijah said it was actually a bit of a challenge for him in other ways, too.
“I thought it was gonna be a piece of cake, but I would go in there, and I would leave lightheaded and sweaty from all the running. It was like P90X. But bringing it to life, and understanding the world that Sunny lives in, and understanding that he's kind of the nucleus—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,” Elijah said.
Sunny is a very hyper character and a driving force in the movie. And Elijah sees a little of Sunny in himself. Sunny doesn't quit. He never gives up, he's hopeful, he's exuberant. Elijah definitely carries some of those qualities too in his personal life. Elijah shared a story with us about adversity and carrying on.
“Over the Christmas holidays, both my laptops were stolen; hard drives were stolen. I had to do these police reports, and literally everything that I have worked on in 2014 had seemingly vanished. And I had to sit down—I still myself this and this is a quality about [Sunny]—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.”
“So throughout adversity, throughout trial, you have to keep going.”
One of the best parts about Strange Magic is that there are themes that anyone can relate to. The characters are relatable, too. The audience will definitely connect with the theme of fighting for love, because it's a universal theme—everyone goes through that at some point in their lives. And love is a very powerful force of change, usually a change for good.
“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 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 very inspirational,” Elijah said. “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.”
In Strange Magic, there are two kingdoms that have a division between them, and because two of the characters are able to fall in love, everyone's able to come together. It's that realization that people can be different but have similar interests that allow you to find love in unexpected places. Everyone has been in some situation where they look up and realize they are attracted to someone they never expected to be attracted to.
“Love can be spawned from so many different things.”
Improvisation is always a fun thing for actors. Elijah got to improvise quite a bit during his role as Sunny. Director Gary Rydstrom was, in Elijah's words, “gracious in allowing you to bring the character to life in your own way.” Elijah mentioned the first time he went to the studio to record, all the elves in the forest were white, everybody looked the same. Elijah joked, “Somebody's going to have to get some tanning lotion and put it in a Super Soaker and just spray everybody.” Elijah knew he wanted to add a little flavor to the character, add a little swag to the character. “I think Sunny has that.”
Elijah's favorite song from the movie didn't actually make it in to the movie. As we learned in talking with George Lucas, there were about 100 songs that were originally considered for the film, but only 25 actually made the final cut. Elijah is hoping for a sequel so they can bring back some of the music and sequences that didn't make it in. His favorite song that got cut was “Hold On, I'm Coming.” His favorite song that made it into he movie is “Crazy In Love.” There's a sequence where there's a snippet of the song sung by three little birds and it is very well implemented. You'll definitely chuckle when you hear it.
On working with George Lucas
Elijah was excited about the opportunity to work with George Lucas again, since he had worked with him on Red Tails. I can only imagine how incredible it would be to work with someone like him. Just being in the same room is inspiring. “George has surpassed, I think, what we are on Earth. He's become an idea. 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,” Elijah said.
“So every time I'm around him, 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.”
On the art of capturing actors in animations
A lot of times they'll capture the actors by filming them while they're recording their voices, and they're incorporate their gestures and facial expressions and performance into the animated character. Elijah described the process a bit. “There were these two small cameras that we have had while we were filming, and so they did capture a lot of our facial expressions and motions.”
“The whole process is weird. Honestly, I'm not over it yet. Being that this is only the second time I've seen the movie. 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, they literally bring your voice to life, you know? And so all you do is talk and sing, and they do everything else. It's really amazing.”
Back to the quadruple threat. In addition to being talented, he's philanthropic. He founded the non-profit Elijah Kelley Foundation, where he acts as a liaison between underprivileged kids from where he grew up to help them achieve their dreams in arts and entertainment. Elijah gas given out four scholarships over the last 5 years to students from low-income housing that are going on to pursue careers in performing arts, some attending the Savannah College of Art and Design and some attending Gordon College.
Elijah also plans to go back with his old high school troupe and take the K-12 students for two weekends to go see the movie Strange Magic. Each weekend they'll do Friday, Saturday, Sunday viewings and fund it for the community. Whoever wants to come out and see it, can come. He's also trying to develop a performing arts school for them.
Every community needs someone to come back and do that, to bring the artistry or your talents full circle. When someone like Elijah Kelley is a able to do that that's awesome and critical to continuing the arts, especially with the ever-increasing cuts for music and arts in public school systems across the country.
“I have really, really, really big dreams, and sometimes we don't even start because we feel the dream is so big. With the school, I went from trying to find land to going back to some of my old friends and saying, ‘What's this warehouse about? Can we clean this up? Can we put a couple classrooms in here, even if we start with fifty students?' Whatever it takes to get it started, that's what I wanna do,” Elijah said.
Watch a Clip from the Exclusive Performance by Elijah
Fun Facts About Elijah Kelley
- Elijah is from LaGrange, Georgia. He's full of Southern Charm
- He has been performing since he was a child, in one capacity or another. Elijah grew up singing in the church, as his mom and dad were both in the ministry. They were part of a traveling singing group that would travel to different churches in the Southeast. That helps explain some of his Southern charm, too.
- He's currently producing an album for a Somalian duo called FAARROW, signed to Warner Bros., and Elijah's producing it.
- Elijah is also working on his own album.
Strange Magic Trailer
STRANGE MAGIC 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, which created the CGI animation for 2011’s Academy Award®-winning film “Rango,” bring to life the fanciful forest turned upside down with world-class animation and visual effects.
STRANGE MAGIC, a new animated film from Lucasfilm Ltd., will be released by Touchstone Pictures on January 23, 2015!Disclaimer: I was selected to attend an all-expense paid trip to the San Francisco area courtesy of Disney to experience these incredible events, along with a group of 24 other bloggers. All opinions, excitement, and smiles are my own.