Bono and ¡®Sing 2¡¯ Director Garth Jennings on How They Breathed Emotion Into a Guitar-Slinging Lion

The musician and filmmaker teamed up for a revealing conversation for Variety's Music for Screens Summit.

Bono hasn’t taken up many offers to work as an actor despite his years in the public eye. But when writer-director Garth Jennings came calling with an opportunity to collaborate on Universal’s animated “Sing 2,” Bono embraced the challenge of becoming a leading man with a leading mane. He got into the head of his character, a reclusive rock-star lion, Clay Calloway, not just as a voice actor but as the principal writer of an original U2 song composed for the film, “Your Song Saved My Life.”

Bono and Jennings joined Variety for a keynote conversation for our Music for Screens Summit. The exchange touches on the U2 frontman getting in touch with his basso-profundo, bad-ass aspirations in the role but also what U2 fans know is his penchant for channeling grief, which informs the withdrawn character. “What would quiet a singer? What would take away their voice?” Bono asked. “I quite seriously wanted to speak about how grief can make or break a voice. It’s the Irishman in me.”

In the film, Calloway is encouraged to come out of retirement by a central figure in the “Sing” franchise, porcupine rocker Ash, voiced by Scarlett Johansson — who has the opportunity to perform a U2 catalog favorite, “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” as she emphasizes with Clay’s depression. Of course, these adult undertones offer moments of respite and reflection in a family film that is usually moving at 120 mph; it’s an interesting setting for Bono to bring lyrical gravity — and a startlingly deep character voice — to.

Watch our Music for Screens video, above, or read a text version of the conversation, below (edited for length and clarity). Or read or watch it more than once, in keeping with the repeatability of animated films generally and the “Sing” franchise particularly. “You know, this animation stuff,” points out Bono, who relishes these “witty morality tales,”  “It’s incredible seeing how people who work with me have seen “Sing” 20 times — nothing to do with this. People see these films more than they see ‘The Godfather.'” (“Sing 2,” sequel to a 2016 film that grossed more than $630 million worldwide, opens in theaters Dec. 22.)

VARIETY: Garth, I have to ask the burning question: How you go out to Bono with an ask like this? Do you ask for a song first, and then later slip in, “We want you to be a talking lion, too, by the way?”

JENNINGS: Actually, we had bumped into each other briefly over a period of years. Once I pitched a video idea, when I was a music video director, to the band. It didn’t work out for one reason or another. And then years later I made a film called “Son of Rambo,” and after I screened it for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival, I bumped into Bono backstage … I was so touched that you’d made the effort to come up and say hello and be so positive about it. So here we are years later, and I’m trying to start “Sing 2,” and had the idea for the character… but I didn’t go at that part of the process with the idea that Bono might write a song. We had this fantastic conversation right from the get-go about music and what it means and what it would mean for this character. And Bono, you can probably describe it better than me, but the song sort of came out of that conversation.

BONO: This subject is so important to me… What is it that makes a singer? And what is it that would quiet a singer? Would take away their voice? Which (is what’s happened with) the character Clay Calloway, the lion that’s lost his roar, as it were. … I love these films. These kids’ films can bring a lot out in an adult, as you know, and that’s why we all watch them all the time, pretending they’re for our children. Yes, I wanted to play a bad-ass lion misanthrope who shoots paintball guns at kids and lives behind an electric fence. I used to actually ride a motorcycle, a Harley Davidson, in my twenties. I’ve been through all the (rock star) cliches, and enjoyed them, I might add. But I quite seriously wanted to speak about — this is the Irishman in me — how grief can make, or break, a voice, and this idea that you see grief literally change a person’s shape, the weight of it. And I can absolutely imagine it closing a voice. It hasn’t closed my voice. It gave me my voice, I think, in a funny way. But that’s for another day’s story.

JENNINGS: I remember you at the end of that conversation saying, “There’s a song in this.” And I think your intention was to go away and maybe think about it. And I honestly didn’t know how serious you were about that. You know, it’s like when you meet someone and you haven’t seen them for a while, and you say, “Gosh, you guys must come for dinner,” and then you never really do it, not because you don’t like them, but because in the moment it felt like a good thing to say… And I thought, well, maybe reality will make that idea go away. But then, Bono, when we met to record (the voice role), you’d already written and recorded it. It was a gift from the gods.

BONO: Well, I shouldn’t suggest that you co-wrote the song, because you might sue. We don’t know each other that well.

JENNINGS: Oh, no, I’m definitely going to sue, yeah.

BONO: I’d made notes earlier, over the years, on this idea of: Some people sing for a living, some people sing to stay alive. … There are all kinds of reasons people sing, And I’ve had this in my head. But only when I got this character, Clay Calloway, did I think, “Okay, this is the guy who can talk about it, and I can use this vehicle of this character.” And so maybe in our second session voicing the character, we are sitting outside, having some kind of libation, and I produced the song, and said, “Look, this is it. You probably only use… songs that are familiar to your audience. But this is Clay’s song.” And it might’ve been that we drank two bottles of whiskey, but Garth got quite emotional about it.

JENNINGS: Yes, I got very dewy-eyed… not just because I loved the song, but it was like: This is the end of the movie. Everything we’d talked about had been distilled into this song, and that just never happens. So I was very moved by it on many levels — and yes, probably drank too much, too, but it was quite a wonderful moment I should never forget.

Let me ask just a little bit more about the lyrics of the song, because it does produce a moment of melancholy in the verse before you get to the uplift of the chorus. And there is a strain of melancholy in the film that informs the character, even though no one is going to come to this movie and think it’s a bummer. In the verse you’ve got things that are kind of touching: “Why are you hiding behind those eyes? There’s no one looking for you there.” That’s kind of a scary thing to think: “I might retreat so far into depression that people just give up on me.” And then you say, “I don’t sing so I can just get by, I sing to survive.” That speaks to different ways people experience music; for some it’s escapism, and for other people, it’s a complete lifeline, maybe, between life and death. How did you pack all that into one song that’s going to come in the middle of a lot of animated mayhem?

BONO: Maybe to talk about it outside of the movie for a second, if I might. Are you familiar with Sinead O’Connor’s cover version of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”? So, you know, Sinead, I’m not sure she likes me very much anymore, but she’s really an extraordinary talent and one of the great singers of the age. And when she sings, she’s not singing for a living. And when you listen to that song, or if you watch the video, you just feel that. And so it was very revealing; even if it’s a cover version, people write themselves into any situation.

Now, I don’t have a lot of the characteristics of a recluse, my friends might say. I do like to go out, and I do like to meet people and I’m interested in people. And I do like to go into crowded bars, and I do like to get lost there. But it’s a different kind of lost. … You can lose your way to silence. You can lose your way to noise. And people who disappear from view always want somebody to come after them. And I think that’s the secret of this whole film is this beautiful love story between Clay Calloway and Ruby, his deceased wife. My wife is very much alive, I’m very pleased to report. But I understand grief, as I said earlier, and I understand the reason why people sing to fill that void they feel. Sometimes it’s grief that opens up that, or a missing brother or a missing friend, or people who just left the country or left the state. But some people just sing to fill that void, and I am definitely one of them. And, yeah, I wrote that song from a very true place. And yes, clearly I am – shock! breaking news! — not a lion. Wife very much alive. Drove a Harley Davidson— in his twenties. Not bad-ass. Not a misanthrope. But actually, there’s a lot of me in that character.

It also struck me that you sing “darling” in the chorus. So in a way, it’s also maybe music as a metaphor for love? It could be a love song, as well as a song about music.

BONO: I know you’re interested in the minutia of music, so you will have spotted the ‘70s influence in that song. There’s a little bit of Elton John in everybody, and I have surrendered to my inner Elton John in recent times, and you can feel it in the Edge, (playing) that piano part. But there’s a little bit of John Lennon that has been with me all my life. And when I sing “darlin’,” I hear John Lennon. And in my wildest dreams and fantasies — and I have many of them — in my sort of megalomania, I always want to impress John Lennon with a song…

Voice acting is a pretty new realm for you. And even though I knew you were playing the role in the film, I was thinking, “That’s not Bono.” Listening closer, I’m hearing it’s you. But it kind of reminded me of Robby Benson in “Beauty and the Beast,” where he goes that low, and you’re thinking, “Oh, that’s not that kid actor I used to see on TV.” With this, is that a voice you already had in your repertoire that you save for people who piss you off? Because you go really low.

BONO: Well, let me tell you how my process (works)… you know, I checked into the Stanislavski method years ago. By the way, these actors… and you’re talking to one of them here, with Garth; he can do every voice in that film. He’s an amazing actor, and that’s how he can write so well for actors. But listening to Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett (Johansson), Reese (Witherspoon), any of them, you know, they’re just incredible… I’m not an actor, but I have spent some time with lions — just saying. It’s not like Garth sent me off on safari, but I’m fascinated by lions in the mythic sense and in the very real sense. And you’ll notice they have this really low rattle, this low sort of purr. Its bass frequencies are extraordinary. I mean, it’s very frightening to be around. And I wished to try and bring my tenor voice down through baritone and into bass. And I spent a lot of time in the Dublin zoo.

Garth, did you know he was capable of sounding like that?

JENNINGS: I always thought … that you had that voice. But it wasn’t until we got together that first time… Do you remember when we were just sort of playing with it… because the thing was, it had to be low. It had to feel like it could fill that body. But also, really importantly, it had to feel authentic. It couldn’t feel like Bono doing a voice… And you found this tone and this shape that allowed all the feeling to come through, and yet it was still this really kind of widescreen-sounding sort of tone. It was just terrific when we found that. And to have the confidence to just take our time with it, add the breathing, not rush through any lines. The movie goes at quite a pace, but Clay Calloway can have his own rhythm and his own sort of much slower, more considered way of delivering all of his thoughts and feelings.

BONO: To be in a room with Garth is quite fun, because one of the keys to his creativity is he is able to make any room a playpen. We were like 6-year-olds, swapping characters, swapping ideas. But he wants something in the end of it. He doesn’t want to laugh or be impressed. He wants to be moved… This is a big song-and-dance extravaganza. But I guess he wanted some emotion out of me. And I much preferred being the bad-ass, rather than doing the Irish melancholy. And I had my perfect Jack Nicholson ready for him. [He breaks into a Nicholson impression.] I was trying to be Jack and, and you were like, “Yeah, that’s very funny, but that’s not Clay.”

You know, it was a real holiday for me from the first-person. Or at least I thought it was. With U2, there’s so much kind of moral baggage we kind of get to carry around. And it was just great fun to be a kid in the playpen, and yet explore these kind of interesting themes.

I’ve been writing, actually, about the jeopardy of being a teenager who didn’t know what he could do, who didn’t know if I had anything to offer the world. And music was a liberation for me; rock ‘n’ roll was liberation for me. When I discovered the Ramones, it opened up a whole world for me that I might be able to songwrite. These songs are so simple, even I might be able to play them. Because I couldn’t play the piano and all of that. And I felt trapped as a teenager. And I still think that’s what you’re hearing in my voice when I sing is somebody who’s just escaped the life that they was supposed to have. I escaped it, and it wouldn’t have been much of a life. And I’ve been given this incredible chance to express what’s going on around me in the world and in the band and in my life and in my marriage. It’s mad freedom I’ve been given by people… That might not have happened for me. I wasn’t in a family [that encouraged music]. It’s just the funniest thing — my father and my mother gave me the greatest gift you could give a budding megalomaniac: They ignored me. [Jennings cracks up.] And so (that’s why) I’m singing at the top of my voice, because I can’t believe I’m a singer!

And I was going to find a way into this “Sing” phenomenon one way or the other. Because [singing is] everything to me. And I love pop songs; I love the punk-rock songs. When I heard the Mercury Rev song “Holes” in the soundtrack, I had tears running down my face. That song means so much to me. And these songs, even though they sort of by piss by you, each of them connects with different people in different ways. And it’s an extraordinary format you’ve created, Garth, and thanks for letting me play in your playpen.

There is other U2 music in the film, not always sung by you. There is Scarlett Johannson singing “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” and thinking about what songs in the U2 catalog are closest to the new one you wrote, that is about being stuck in a depression, like the character is in this movie. So that seemed like a very deliberate choice to have it be kind of a twin to your original song.

JENNINGS: Well, for us making it on the film side, we couldn’t think of another song that would be better than that to hold that scene, because there’s no dialogue. It’s just two and a half minutes of Scarlett and a guitar. … What was amazing to me in that session was she’d recorded it maybe three or four times to a backing track, And then I just thought, “Could we just try one live, where the engineer’s got a guitar, and I’ll dim the lights, so just the two of you watch each other? Let’s just try and really go for that feeling that you get when you’re trying to do it on the spot.” And it’s that take that’s in the film. … And before I’d even met you, Bono, that song meant the world to me. I’ve always, always loved it. It’s always resonated beyond just being a song I like. And just that the fact that you allowed us to do that in the middle of the film really means the world to me in so many ways, not just for the movie, but me personally as well.

BONO: Yeah. I hold onto that song quite tightly myself. Scarlett, when I met her years ago, when she was a kid, she was always obsessed by music… And she was doing work with Dave (Sitek), the guy from TV on the Radio… She’s very plugged into music and it keeps her, I think, very porous as an actor. And I couldn’t get over her version of (“Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”). And the real shock was playing it to the band and hearing the band also be so knocked out by it, because people don’t know that side of her.

At first I said to Garth, when I saw that scene back, “Wow. Clay Calloway looks really broken. Are you sure you want him that broken?” And since that conversation, Garth … I’m sorry to bring down a really fun conversation. Back to grief again! Typical Irish, crying into their beer. But I was at a funeral recently, not so long ago. And when the hearse arrived, the young family, when they took the coffin out– I hope it’s OK to say this — the family all fell over. They literally fell. And I’ve seen this before, in far-off places in Africa and places like this, and it’s the weight of grief. It literally changes the shape of somebody. And so I think that’s what that scene has. And I kind of objected to it, because I’d rather be a bad-ass lion that’s shooting paintballs at kids and revving up his Harley Davidson.

But actually, the clever thing about these films is you really draw them so carefully, and so lovingly. And you know, this animation stuff, they’re like sort of witty morality tales. People see these films more than they see “The Godfather.” I mean, it’s incredible seeing how people who work with me have seen “Sing” 20 times — nothing to do with this. These films get under the skin of a young family, but it’s the older ones that really pay more attention. And we should really understand their position in our culture. It’s like Hans Christian Andersen fairytales or Grimm’s fairytales. There’s great storytelling in them and they’re very essential. And the famous fairy tales that you used to tell your kids, those, if you look at Grimm’s fairy tales, they’re so serious.

Sorry, I’ve just completely gone back to Ireland there. Buy the next round, someone! And a whisky chaser. Thank you!

JENNINGS: Do get one for me as well. But I agree with you. One of the great joys of making a film like this is just how many levels it works on and how you can connect with people. And it’s why those performances are so important, that they resonate. They can’t just be splashy. There are moments of comedy, of course, but when you go for those emotional parts, you really have to feel it.

BONO: Have you seen yet that we made a video for this song with this incredible woman, Aya (Tanimura)? It’s about the real stories of people whose lives were turned around by a music teacher… At first you’ll think, “Oh, is this a bit cute?” But it’s not at all cute. These are all stories that really matter to people about how music set them free. It’s my story. And we’re connecting it with Education Through Music, which is this thing that’s in California, it’s in New York, it’s growing around America — getting people music lessons who for whatever reasons didn’t get access to them. But I liked the idea that as well as the movie being about singing, and somebody who wants to sing or [he adopts a diva voice] “be a stah” or “go on the stage,” it’s also have a round in the culture of getting people to play music who wouldn’t normally do it.

We have to wrap up, but it seems like a good time to wish a happy 30th birthday to the great U2 album “Achtung Baby,” which just occurred. I keep thinking, what would MacPhisto [a persona that Bono took on during the “Achtung Baby” tour] think of fellow rock star Bono going into animation, playing a lion rock star?

BONO: Well, he’s a character. MacPhisto is a creation partly of C.S. Lewis, who loved children’s stories and loved characters like that.

And I generally don’t listen to U2 music, for all kinds of reasons. It puts me off me breakfast, dinner and tea, because I think of all the things I should’ve/would’ve done differently. But, this very day, Chris, I listened… Jo Whiley from the BBC did a special on “Achtung Baby,” and I heard the songs. I haven’t heard them for almost three years. And there’s something going on on that album. It’s a sprawling kind of single song, you know. But what a glorious sound and clatter-bang wallop of emotions and feelings. I feel lucky to be a part of it. And yeah, happy birthday to “Achtung Baby.”

As a filmmaker, can I tell you this, Garth? We called the album “Achtung Baby” because it was a line in “The Producers” — at least we thought it was a line in “The Producers,” where he comes in and says some joke about the fuhrer and somebody goes, “Achtung, baby.” But it was a member of our crew was telling the story, but he added the “Achtung, baby.” And we heard the story so many times, I just thought it was in the movie. So I used to tell people, “Ah, yeah, it’s in ‘The Producers.’” And it’s not…

JENNINGS: It sounds like it would be something that would be said in “Springtime for Hitler.” You can imagine Mel Brooks writing that line. So I would have believed it too.

BONO: Anyway, good to be at the end of this awfulness called coronavirus, and hope to see you in person soon. And thanks for keeping an eye out for our band. We’ll have some more music for you before too long.

We’ll look forward to the 30th anniversary of “Sing 2” and do some celebrating then, too.

JENNINGS: Achtung, baby!