CANNES, France – It's taken an animated trilogy about a gang of zoo animals to bring Ben Stiller and Chris Rock together.
Two of the most influential comedians over the last two decades, they have seemingly always orbited in the same world — both New York performers about the same age — but have hardly ever collaborated.
"We cross paths," Rock says of their roles in "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted." "We're cowboys. We see each other at the saloon."
Speaking from Cannes, where the two New Yorkers are promoting the latest installment in the popular DreamWorks Animation franchise, Stiller says: "We've each been doing our own things, but after a while, you have that sort of shared history, which you really value."
On leaving school, Rock pursued stand-up, while Stiller started in sketches and directing.
Rock, 47, and Stiller, 46, both married around the same time and have kids about the same age. They each had a stint on "Saturday Night Live," tried Broadway last year and now live in the suburbs of New York.
They nearly collaborated in the early 1990s, when Stiller was briefly attached to direct "CB4," a 1993 rap group parody that Rock starred in and co-wrote.
"It was a long time ago," says Stiller.
In "Madagascar 3," which opens June 8, the two return to voice their now familiar characters — Stiller as Alex the lion, Rock as Marty the zebra — each Central Park Zoo performers who travel from Africa to Europe and join a traveling circus.
Earlier this year, Rock said at the Oscars' ceremony that voiceover work is comically easy: "UPS is hard work. Stripping wood is hard work," he said, grinning broadly. Whereas voiceover acting, he continued, is saying few lines in a sound booth, "And then they give me a million dollars!"
"You must have known you were going to have the press for 'Madagascar 3' after that," Stiller asks his co-star.
"I don't think that far ahead!" Rock replies. "There's a task at hand: Get some laughs at the Oscars."
Rock certainly accomplished that, in what was generally considered one of the best moments of the ceremony. But he was also criticized by some in the industry and has seen his comments frequently brought up in animated movie releases.
"Jeffrey did call me up and say, 'Are we paying you too much?'" says Rock, referring to DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.
"Madagascar" has now been around for 7 years, which has led to the characters becoming "pretty well defined now," says Stiller. "That makes it easy to find the humor within the situations because Marty is who he is and is who he is. It makes the possibility for it to be funny in a way that's character-oriented as opposed to just jokes."
Rock, whose stand-up has never lacked for profanity, likes to stretch PG boundaries. Somewhere, the filmmakers have a very funny R-rated reel, he says. He approaches his final takes by asking: "How far can I go in a kids' movie? How close can I get to saying f--- in this scene?"
Both have taken time out of their schedules to come to Cannes: Rock from promoting films "2 Days in New York" with Julie Delpy, and "What to Expect When You're Expecting," while Stiller is fresh from shooting "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," a comedy he's starring in and directing based on a James Thurber short story.
Contact Jake Coyle at: http://twitter.com/jake_coyle