By Eric Kelsey
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif (Reuters) - He's pure green evil and save for a big mole on the side of his face, he's a dead ringer for genteel Kermit the Frog.
"Constantine, bad guy," he introduces himself in his Russian accent, wearing a face that hardly knows how to grin.
The newest member of the Muppets family of puppet characters, and easily its most villainous, gets his star turn in "Muppets Most Wanted," a romping musical caper that hearkens back to satirical 1960s international heist films, like Peter Sellers' "The Pink Panther" series.
The film, which is set to be released in the United States on Friday by Walt Disney Co, also has a strong host of stars, including British comedian Ricky Gervais, and Americans Tina Fey and Ty Burrell, along with dozens of cameo appearances from the likes of Lady Gaga, Celine Dion and Christoph Waltz.
But Constantine himself, who was born in a Russian pond, is hardly inept in his plot as the world's "No. 1 Criminal" to steal the Crown Jewels in London, while turning the Muppets' variety act into his unwitting accomplices.
Evil plotting comes naturally to him.
"It is how I was born and created. I was bad guy from little tadpole," Constantine said in an interview with Gervais by his side. "I am for the one. I am just for myself."
First, he gets the world's "No. 2 Criminal" Dominic Badguy (pronounced the French way), played by Gervais, to convince the Muppets to be their manager for a European tour as he escapes from a maximum security gulag deep in Siberia.
"He's a serious guy," Gervais added. "So he says things that he doesn't know are funny that make me laugh."
All the while in a dingy Berlin canal he slaps a fake mole onto Kermit's cheek, and Kermit is quickly mistaken and arrested as the wanted criminal. The evil frog, with the help of mole-hiding makeup, poses as Kermit, leading the Muppets across Europe at the time he and Badguy pull off heist after heist.
The rookie actor said that despite their differences in on-screen experience and disposition, the mild-mannered Kermit was gracious to his malevolent doppelganger.
"He give me lot of acting advice," the frog said. "He tell me, 'Say your line.' He say, 'Look at other actor when saying line.' He say, 'Do not try to be too funny.' He say, 'Go to craft service, get me coffee.'"
'FASTER ON THEIR FEET'
The film - which is directed by James Bobin, who also directed 2011's "The Muppets" - stays true to the model of the early Muppet movies and TV programs that aim to hold the attention of children while also appealing to the sensibilities of the adults who must sit through them.
"The Muppets from the beginning have been walking that tightrope," said Burrell, a star of ABC comedy series "Modern Family," who plays Interpol inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon alongside Sam the Eagle, a Muppet.
Although the early reviews of the film have been generally positive, its opening weekend box office haul is expected to be a modest $17 million, according to boxoffice.com. That is less than half of what animated film "Rio 2" from 20th Century Fox is expected to bring in its opening weekend starting April 11.
Burrell's character takes its cues from Sellers' Inspector Clouseau in "The Pink Panther" films. He is also used to contrast the stereotype of effeminate Europeans, drinking an espresso from a thimble-sized cup and six-week vacations, to the overly serious and self-satisfied all-American of Sam the Eagle.
For an experienced actress like Fey, who plays gulag boss Nadya, acting alongside a puppet was no different than a human.
"It's all the same weirdnesses you have with humans, and if anything the Muppets are a little faster on their feet and better improvisers than most humans," said Fey.
It was putting on a Russian accent that proved most difficult for the former "30 Rock" star, known for her impersonation of former U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
"I tried very hard to do a Russian accent and tried to sing. It was really a lot of trying," Fey said chuckling, adding that her accent coach gave her one key tip, albeit a bit gross.
"'You have to pretend like there is little piece of poop on your lip, and you are disgusted by it,'" the comedian said imitating the coach's Russian accent.
In the end, she had one wish.
"I wanted a Meryl Streep-quality accent."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Stephen Powell)