Who better to star in a film about aliens invading Earth than three actors from completely different worlds?
There’s not a whole lot that connects pop star Rihanna (“Umbrella”), sitcom star Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) and comedy icon Steve Martin. And in the new DreamWorks Animation film Home (out March 27), that’s exactly the point. Martin’s Captain Smek is delightfully pompous in his avid pursuit of a fugitive fellow alien, Oh, played by Parsons. Oh’s crime: inadvertently sabotaging his race’s colonization of Earth. Like Parsons’ TV character Sheldon Cooper, Oh is endearingly oblivious to the chaos around him until he’s eventually rescued and taken on a globetrotting journey, by seventh-grader Gratuity Tucci–call her “Tip”–who’s as wry and fresh as the Barbadian pop diva who provides her voice.
The result is the rare animated film that’s informed by but not overwhelmed by its actors’ offscreen selves. “The upcoming tour should be good,” quips Martin as the three stars sit down to chat with TIME. Rihanna, less experienced a thespian than her co-stars, relied on the energy of Martin’s and Parsons’ performances to guide her. “With Steve, I was inspired by how effortless his improv was–he just goes! And I got to see some of the footage of what he did. It’s really special to see him really comfortable and not fearful of anything.”
Then she gestures to Parsons. “Him, on the other hand …”
Risk and Reward
The chemistry among these sharp, well-matched stars could be immensely valuable for DreamWorks. Last year the studio attempted to extend two franchises with The Penguins of Madagascar and How to Train Your Dragon 2, but both were box-office disappointments. The studio has so much riding on Home that President Obama was brought to meet Parsons and Martin on his 2013 tour of the studio. (“I think he’s going to watch it with his children, and he’ll enjoy me best,” Martin says.)
Despite the star power, Home–based on Adam Rex’s 2007 children’s book The True Meaning of Smekday–is in some ways a risk for the studio. It has an elaborate, bordering on baroque, plot in a genre where the biggest hits can be described in a sentence: “Sisters bond over adversity in a wintry clime.” “An ogre and his pals have adventures.” “Toys learn what it means to be human.” Yet its underlying theme of forming unlikely bonds to overcome feeling out of place–in seventh grade or the world at large–shines through.
The movie already has its eye on a multiplatform audience, with Frozen-like sources of ancillary income. Rihanna helped produce an eight-song album of music for the film, including contributions from Jennifer Lopez and Charli XCX and three new tracks from Rihanna herself–catnip to famished fans who’ve been waiting for a new record from her since 2012. “Everything was curated with the audience in mind,” Rihanna says, “with the characters in mind and most importantly with the emotions and what we want everybody to feel.”
While parsons brings to Oh the same wide-eyed sincerity that’s won him four Emmys and Martin tosses in his familiar, easy-to-deflate egotism, Rihanna makes Tip an assertive, fresh heroine for our current age. On their journey between continents in a slushie-powered flying car–hey, if biodiesel cars can be powered by french-fry oil, why not?–Rihanna gives voice to the human side of this cross-species friendship, teaching clueless Oh how to tell jokes and getting a few good ones in at his expense.
It’s also noteworthy that Tip, like Rihanna, is an immigrant from Barbados. “When I saw what she looked like,” Rihanna said, referring to the character’s dark skin, voluminous curls and bright green eyes, “I was really intrigued by how realistic she was and how much I felt like I could be her.” This makes Home one of a small, though growing, set of animated movies and shows that provide nonwhite kids with a protagonist who looks like them, along with Disney’s Mulan, The Princess and the Frog and the forthcoming animated series Elena of Avalor.
It helps that Home boasts the voice of one of the kids’ real-world idols. Rihanna is 27, and as she says of her younger fans, “we live two different lives.” This movie could bridge the gap, just as it will continue to introduce youngsters to a star beloved by their parents. Citing his 2006 Pink Panther remake, Martin says, “I just love the idea that somebody can take their kids and everybody can enjoy it, and it’s interesting for the adults as well.”
Parsons, meanwhile, identified with Home’s theme of finding one’s place in a topsy-turvy world: “I was always eager to do theater and acting because of course there are other ways in which life felt misplaced and you feel out of step.”
Before the conversation ends, TIME asks the stars about their favorite animated films. Peter Pan is Martin’s pick: “He could fly, and that just really enticed me. And Wendy I felt really attracted to.” Rihanna offers Antz–which was made by Tim Johnson, the director of Home–and Beauty and the Beast, an oblique reference to her tumultuous, now concluded relationship with abusive paramour Chris Brown. “I fell in love with the Beast,” she says. “That’s pretty much my dating record so far.”
But then she and Parsons dissolve into giggles. “Let’s go there, shall we?” he asks, as the moment is defused. A singer famous for owning the stage is more appealing than ever toning down the provocation and sharing the spotlight.
This appears in the March 30, 2015 issue of TIME.