In addition to our conversation with Phil LaMarr, we had the pleasure of joining fellow fans for a Q&A panel with the prolific voice actor at Baltimore Comic-Con.
After being greeted by uproarious applause, Mr. LaMarr immediately displayed his famous voice talents by channeling legendary comedian Richard Pryor. “Look at y’all clappin’. I ain’t done nothing yet!” It was evident right from the start that Phil was ready to have some fun with his fans by doing voices and telling stories. Before he even took any questions, Phil launched into an anecdote from one of his many convention experiences.
“I was once at a Futurama panel where there were a bunch of us from the show right after it had come back from cancellation and it was just announced that we were making new episodes. There was a kid sitting in the front row and he asked the question, ‘How come you guys don’t make any new episodes?’ [laughter] ‘Uh…we will. That’s why we’re here…’ It was really strange. It was actually the same person who, later on, came up to the table for the show he didn’t know anything about. During that time, there was an announcement over the PA that said, ‘William Shatner will be signing at 2pm in Room 106.’ And he goes, ‘William who?’ [laughter] And this guy was IN COSTUME at a comic book convention. I was like, ‘Wait a minute… You may not be a Star Trek fan, or even like Shatner, but you have to at least recognize the name!’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know who it is.’ ‘Ok, let’s just work out what your baseline of knowledge is. Does the name Jesus Christ ring a bell?’ [laughter] He says, ‘Yeah, of course.’ ‘Ok, good! Good! We’ll start there.'”
Having successfully warmed up the crowd, Phil highlighted his on-screen acting career, citing his time as an original cast member on MADtv, as well as his minor, yet “mind-blowing” role in Pulp Fiction. One fan shouted out an inquiry about Phil providing the voice of Osmosis Jones, only to have Phil correct him with the fact that he was the second Osmosis Jones. This, of course, caused Phil to bust out his Chris Rock impression.
“They did the movie, where Chris Rock did the voice, and then when they decided to do the TV series, apparently they didn’t want to pay Chris a million dollars. [laughter] So then I became [as Chris Rock] Osmosis Jones, number one germinator from the city of Hector! [applause] It’s funny, because I’ve actually done Chris’s voice in a couple of things. Basically, anything that has Marty, the Zebra from Madagascar that’s not the movie is probably me. [as Chris Rock] I’m gonna be fresh! Tasty fresh! Freshalicious! Straight out the ground! [laughter] Alex! You bit my butt!” [laughter]
With the floor now officially open to questions from the fans, Phil made one last request of his adoring public.
“I will not answer any question that starts with ‘What’s your favorite…’ or ‘What’s the best…’ because who cares? I’d rather you come up with a question about something that really interests you because that’s something I’m interested in answering and something everyone else is interested in hearing. I guy sat down with me to do an interview and he said, ‘How would you hide an elephant?’ [laughter] ‘What are you Barbara Walters with a bad beard? No, ask a real question.’ And eventually I got him to ask a real question. There was a show that he had watched of mine that he actually wanted to know about. And that was the most interesting question he asked.”
With his friendly ultimatum in place, the fans fired away with some interesting inquiries, to say the least. One fan asked about Phil’s role on the Mister T animated series.
“Yes, there was an animated show in 1984…? No, 83. The Mister T cartoon. That was my very first professional job ever. That was when Mister T was very, very popular. Like Kardashian popular. [laughter] He was so popular they said, ‘Well, let’s give him a cartoon to go with his cereal, why not? We only got three channels. Gotta fill ‘em with something.’ So they made a very bad cartoon. You know how the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons used the same background over and over again? These were made by the company that was cheaper than Hanna-Barbera. [laughter] Just conceptually, it was bad. Mister T was the coach of a kids gymnastics team that travelled around the country in a van, solving crime. Oh, not a van, that would have been a copyright infringement. It’s more a lift, not a steal: They traveled around in a bus, solving mysteries with a dog with a mohawk. [laughter] It was bad. My character, Woody, was the smart kid. There was one time they found a clue… [as Woody] ‘G-O-A-L. That’s how they spelled ‘jail’ in the old days.’ [groan]” [laughter]
As the panel progressed, and assuredly free of “What’s your favorite…” questions, the crowd turned to the more creative side of Phil’s career as a voice actor. One fan asked about a few episodes of Static Shock and Justice League where two characters voiced by Phil shared screen time.
“Yes, I was Virgil on Static Shock and John Stewart on Justice League. There were actually three episodes, I believe, where they appeared together. It wasn’t easy. The Static voice and the John Stewart voice are very separate. The Static voice is basically my 14-year-old voice. [as Static] ‘My name is Static and I’ll put a shock to your system!’ And John Stewart is the whole other end of the range. [as John Stewart] ‘My name is John Stewart, Green Lantern of Sector 2814.’ So there was an episode where John guested on Static. [as John] ‘You know, Static, I can see you being quite a handful once you join the League.’ [as Static] ‘Wait a minute… Did you say ‘once’ I join the League?’ But the tough part was when Static guested on Justice League, when they went into the future and it was 60-year-old Static. That was really a challenge because I couldn’t do my 14-year-old voice. I had to find an older voice that didn’t sound anything like John Stewart because they talk to each other. [as Static] I started here with the Static voice and then tried to figure out what this guy sounds like 50 years later? [deep voice] Not everybody’s voice gets deep as they get older. [as Static] Maybe he’s one of those guys whose voice stays in [as older Static] the upper register their whole life, even as they grow up and become an adult. Some people have higher voices than others. And then you add a different energy level as he’s gets a little older. [as 60-year-old Static] And then you add some texture from being 60. And he begins to sound like this. And John Stewart comes up to him and says, [as John Stewart] ‘The last time I saw you, you weren’t even driving yet.’ [as 60-year-old Static] ‘Well, things have changed.’ [applause]
On the subject of his roles as superheroes, Phil also talked about providing the appropriate voice for that type of character.
“It’s the same process to do the voice or a hero or a non-hero. You can’t ‘play’ a hero. There’s no such thing as ‘Do the voice of a hero.’ There’s, ‘Do the voice of someone brave’ or ‘Do the voice of someone who would dive into a vortex in the middle of the galaxy.’ ‘Hero’ is sort of an abstract. That’s what other people are saying. For me, [as John Stewart] John Stewart was someone who had a military background, was chosen for this job, and he had his own attitude. [as Wilt] And Wilt is an imaginary friend who’s there to make people feel good. He’s got his own attitude. [normal voice] The process in the same, but where you end up is different.”
Phil also answered a fan’s question about whether or not he finds himself repeating a sound or dipping into a character from the past in order to find the voice of a new character.
“A lot of people respond to the John Stewart character and want something like that. I try not to directly repeat. There’s a character in a series called Jak and Daxter called Sig, who’s [as Sig] a big black guy. It’s very similar to the John Stewart voice. ‘Alright, let’s get goin’! We’re gonna grab us some Metal Heads!’ [normal voice] I don’t think anybody hears the difference but me, but [as Sig] Sig’s here, [as John Stewart] but John Stewart is slightly different. John is more of a smoky barbeque thing.” [laughter]
In a similar vein, Phil was also asked if he ever forgets how to recreate a voice.
“Absolutely. It’s actually a problem for me. I find that until I see the finished animation and hear the voice with it, I don’t really know the character. For a lot of voice actors, there will be a line that you say to yourself to remind you where in your head, mind, or body that voice sits. The term that somebody came up with that I really loved was ‘pitch pipe.’ Like when you’re in a singing group and you have that little thing that gives everybody their note and it tells you where to start. There’s a pitch pipe line for every character. Once I have that line memorized, it’s usually easier to get back to where the character was. Aren’t these questions much better than ‘What’s your favorite…’?” [laughter]
Phil was also asked about the potential future of his character, Jack, from Genndy Tartakovsky’s immensely popular series, Samurai Jack.
“Genndy Tartakovsky says he wants to finish the story with an animated feature film in the style of the show. 2D animation but on the big screen. The trick has been getting someone to pay for it. For a while, JJ Abrams was supposed to have been interested, but that has not come to anything yet. It is true, but it’s Hollywood true. So it’s true but not real.”
As a fan of Samurai Jack, I’m hoping this project gets off the ground sooner rather than later. Phil then talked about his work on the stage, as opposed to onscreen or behind the mic, when he filled the boots of actor Laurence Fishburne in the role of Cowboy Curtis in Paul Reubens’s Pee-wee Herman Broadway show.
“I knew Paul Reubens because we were both members of the Groundlings at different times. We had mutual friends and we had done a stage show together a few years back. When he got the idea to do a new version of the Pee-wee Herman show, which was the original stage play where he launched the character in 198…1? He actually wrote that show after he didn’t get hired for Saturday Night Live. He was depressed on the plane back and said, ‘I have to do something.’ So 30 years later, he decided to bring the character back and take the original stage show and fit in all the characters from the world he had created for the Saturday morning show. The original show did have Puppet Land. The original show also had a character called Captain Carl, played by Phil Hartman, who also co-wrote the show. Paul didn’t want anyone to have to play Phil’s character because no one could. He’s someone who’s irreplaceable. So they took the Cowboy Curtis character, who had been created for the Saturday morning show, and put it in the place of Captain Carl. [Paul] called me and said, ‘There’s nothing definite yet, but I’m thinking about doing something and I wanted to know if you’re available.’ ‘For what?’ ‘I can’t say.’ ‘Ok, yes.’ So eventually, I auditioned, got the part, and it was such a blast.”
Back on the subject of animation, Phil was asked about the difference between recording solo and recording with the cast of an animated production and how common each method is.
“It depends on the producers and how they like to do it. I’ve done a few episodes of Phineas and Ferb and they like to do those separately. Disney shows tend to do that. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that half their casts are always in other Disney shows, so they make the kids come over on their lunch breaks to do the cartoons. [laughter] And then get back to the ‘Suite Life’ or whatever. [laughter] I think shows that are really writer-driven, like Futurama or Justice League, like to have the entire cast there. For a show that has comedic timing, like Futurama, they need to hear the lines together to make sure they work. You can do a lot of things in editing, but you can rarely make something funny if it’s not. For Justice League, there was just so much character interaction and emotion that it made more sense to hear the characters bouncing off each other. When you say a line in response to someone, you’re going to say it differently depending on how they say it. If someone says something really forcefully, you may answer back forcefully. But if they say something calmly, you may answer back in that same energy. People respond to each other that way and when stuff is written more realistically, they need to get the realistic performance.”
Returning to the subject of finding the right voice for a character, Phil displayed a true example of his talent when he was asked how he developed the voice of Vamp in the Metal Gear Solid game series.
“I had begged Chris Zimmerman, the casting director for Metal Gear, for an audition because I loved the first game so much. I think I auditioned initially for the DARPA chief, so random functionary in the game. [gruff voice] ‘Ugh, Snake! I’m dying!’ [laughter] But then they told me they had this other character, but they weren’t really sure what they wanted. They had a lot of ideas about what he kind of was and what he kind of wasn’t. ‘Well, he’s not necessarily, actually a vampire and he’s not from around here.’ ‘Ok, so foreign and maybe possibly undead… What else?’ ‘And vaguely ambisexual.’ [laughter] So basically, I latched onto the ‘may-or-may-not be a vampire’ thing and thought, ‘Well, if you’re a vampire, you’re dead and don’t really need to breathe. So what does somebody sound like if they don’t need to breathe?’ So I tried to take as much of the air out of the voice as possible. [as Vamp] ‘My queen, you won’t believe what I found. 5 today, or rather 6. I’ll be there in a minute. Goodbye, Snake.’ [applause] So basically, what they should have said at the beginning was ‘He’s just really creepy.'”[laughter]
Since John Stewart is one of Phil’s most notable and popular characters, he kept coming up in the questions from the audience. One fan inquired about the initial inclusion of John Stewart in the Justice League lineup, as opposed to fan-favorite Hal Jordan.
“It was interesting because, to me, the way they developed Justice League and what they did with the show represents some of the best work you can do with comic book characters. It’s one of the things I’ve loved most about the New 52. When they announced the New 52, I was like, ‘What?! No! You’re insane! You can’t launch 52 titles! Stan and Jack just did 3 at a time! And even then you wound up with a f***’n Ant Man once in a while!’ But the thing that I loved about it was they were throwing out continuity. I don’t think you should be a slave to some bad idea just because somebody did it 25 years ago. With Justice League, they threw out all the bad ideas and took all the good ones. Regarding the cultural diversity of the Justice League, I asked Bruce [Timm] about it when we started. He said, ‘I didn’t want to do a show where it’s 7 white people saving the world.’ So they made the choice to make John Stewart THE Green Lantern. Not, ‘Oh well, Hal Jordan’s out in space so I’m just going to be here in the Justice League in the meantime.’ [laughter] No, he was Green Lantern. He was the one that the Guardians said was the best Green Lantern in the Universe. The one that they had legends about. And they made the decision to make Hawkgirl latina, which wound up playing into the series in a really cool way. It gave Thanagarians a Spanish feel. Many episodes later, they got to the “Starcrossed” storyline where Thanagar invades Earth and they cast actors with Spanish backgrounds as the Thanagarians. It was amazing. All of a sudden, you had a feeling of ‘other’ to the Thanagarians that wasn’t just the wings. I think it really fed into the storyline in an amazing way.”
With work on such projects as Justice League, Static Shock, and Young Justice, Phil was asked if he was always a comic book fan.
“Oh yeah. We would have Justice League sessions and there would be guest stars playing superheroes, and they would ask, ‘So, who am I? Shining what?’ ‘Shining Knight. He’s part of the… Hold on.’ And I would reach in my bag and I would have the books. ‘See? He’s medieval, but he’s modern, and he’s got a flying horse. See? This is what he looks like.’ [laughter] I would be the guy with the reference.”
Another fan re-approached the subject of the technique used in creating character voices by inquiring about how a voice actor uses their body to bring about the desired sound.
“You use your body however you can. Dee Baker does these monster sounds and says, ‘I just close one of the chambers in my sinus.’ And I’m like, ‘WHAT?!’ First, I didn’t know that I had chambers, and I certainly don’t know how to close them! [makes a growling sound] He’ll do a voice like that and talk. So you have to figure out the pathways within your body. I think it’s the same thing you do as an actor on camera, but that’s knowing your emotional pathways. I remember working on Pulp Fiction and watching Samuel L. Jackson. Here was a guy who had been doing it a while. He could sit there, drink his coffee, and talk about golf and when they say, ‘Hey Sam, we’re ready to go’, he would get up and the person you were talking to 30 seconds ago was gone, and you were looking into someone else’s eyes. Same body, but a completely different person inside. And it was effortless. He knew how to get from where he is relaxed and comfortable off set to where that character lived within his mind or heart. I liken it to using to map to get from one place to another. You may need a map to get someplace you’ve never been before, but if you’re driving home, you just go there. And he knew how to go there. With voices, it’s the same thing. Over time you usually end up learning the map routes within yourself – knowing what’s in your head, what’s in your chest, what’s in your throat, and what hurts and what doesn’t.”
To close out the Q&A session, the final question from the audience was a rather simple one, asking if there was a type of character for which Phil had always wanted to provide a voice. His response was equally simple.
“I don’t think so. I like the challenge of somebody handing you a script – their idea, their vision – and trying to bring those words to life.”
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our one-on-one interview with Phil LaMarr.