A sassy cat and hyper hamster make a run for it in Bolt

In Disney’s latest animated adventure, Bolt, two of the funniest characters are voiced by actors you may be surprised to find are behind the curious creatures.

Best-known for playing foul-mouthed, shrewish mega-nag on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, Susie Essman positively embodies street-wise alley cat Mittens and Disney story artist Mark Walton brings a palpable passion to the role of Rhino the hamster, one that he didn’t even know he was up for.

“Some friends of mine that were working on Bolt, the director and the story people, thought that I might be a good fit for this enthusiastic, hyper, nerdy, fanboy hamster…I don’t know why,” Walton says with a knowing smirk while in Toronto to promote the film. “As it turned out, they actually decided to keep my voice in the movie. It’s very exciting. It’s a funny, broad, crazy character – lots of fun to play.”

As the titular dog’s furry confidantes, Mittens and Rhino embark on an adventure of a lifetime as they help the lost pooch navigate his way back home, and are essential in Bolt (reluctantly) realizing that his super powers are the stuff of TV fiction.

Walton exhibits the same unbridled enthusiasm in person that makes Rhino the hamster such a scene-stealing character – it’s impossible not to fall in love with the quirky fur ball who has the courage of a lion and the physique of a bloated guinea pig. The veteran Disney designer seems genuinely amazed by his good fortune and reveals that embodying the hyperactive character didn’t involve much of a stretch.

“I was all prepared to do like a hamster voice and act like a hamster but they said, ‘No, no we want you, your voice, your personality, that’s what we want.’ Since Rhino’s big thing is that he’s this fanboy of Bolt and he’s getting this opportunity, by chance, to meet his hero …and he’s getting a chance to live his dream…really, that’s kind of where I am at too. So it wasn’t that difficult to generate that kind of enthusiasm and excitement.”

And “Curb” fans may be surprised to hear something other than curse words coming out of the actress behind lippy spitfire Susie Greene, but Essman reveals she was excited by the possibility of reaching a different demographic.

“I was really drawn to the idea of having a whole new audience. My kids are all teenagers, they watch ‘Curb’, says Essman. “But I got all these little people in my life – my nieces and my nephews – they’re not supposed to watch “Curb”, it’s totally inappropriate. So now, I’m a character in their world, which is so exciting to me.”

In addition to the prospect of starring in more family-friendly fare, the native New Yorker reveals that she immediately felt a connection with Mittens, a character whom she partly helped shape.

“I loved the character. She was so sassy and sarcastic and edgy yet she had this very complicated back story, she was three-dimensional and she was interesting and she makes a real emotional turn in the movie. There were a lot of script changes along the way and they started to write it more in my voice. It kindof was a collaborative effort creating this character.”

But making the leap from Larry David’s ad-libbed, neurotic world, where the cast members are constantly playing off each other, to recording lines in a booth proved to be a unique challenge – one that she was more than willing to take on.

“I would take each line and read each line fifteen to twenty times, every possible take – fast, slow, high, low –because that then has to matched with Rhino, with Bolt and the animation. You have to give them so many options. As an actress, I found it difficult, I did. But you know, you learn new techniques.”

“I thought [co-directors] Chris [Williams] and Byron [Howard] were particularly good at setting you up – they’d show the storyboards sometimes and explain where the scene was going,” adds Walton. “They had to do a few more, sometimes it was like 60, takes – it took me awhile to get it right,” he laughs.

Although the flick does manage a few well-placed jabs at gleefully selfish Hollywood insiders, in the form of an asinine agent and delusional director, Bolt is ultimately about the special bond we share with our furry friends, an important pet cause for Essman.

“Rescue, rescue, rescue. Mittens is a stray, Bolt is a rescue dog, I have a rescue dog. I want people to watch this movie and decide that for Christmas, when they want to get their kids dogs – don’t go to the puppy store, go the shelter.”

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