If you were a child of the 80's - or at least, the parent of a child of the 80's - then you've probably heard Peter Cullen's voice many times, even if you didn't know it. In his forty-plus year career in the voice-over industry, Peter Cullen has voiced many classic characters in 80's cartoons such as "G.I. Joe", "Voltron", "Dungeons & Dragons", "Heathcliff", "Rainbow Brite", "My Little Pony", "DuckTales"... just to name a few. He has also narrated many movie trailers, and done voices for characters in films such as the "Predator" films and "Gremlins". Furthermore, since the late 1980's, he has been providing the voice of Eeyore in all the "Winnie The Pooh" cartoons.
But despite this varied pedigree, Cullen is still best known as the voice of Optimus Prime, the beloved robot hero of the "Transformers" TV show and 1986 movie. And fortunately for the many fans of "Transformers", he got the opportunity to reprise his creation and voice Optimus Prime in the new "Transformers" movie, which is set to open nationwide on July 3rd. In anticipation of the film, Comics2Film recently spoke to Peter Cullen about this and other things from his long, distinguished career in the often under-appreciated (but very valuable) voice-over industry.
Laura Ellison for Comics2Film (C2F): You have said in interviews that of all the voices you've done, Optimus Prime is your favorite. So I think that's really fantastic that you got to be the voice in the "Transformers" movie as well. How did that come about? Were the producers a fan of yours and ask you to do it, or did you have to lobby for it?
Peter Cullen: Actually, a lot of both. I had to audition for it. And one of the reasons they finally did give me the opportunity to do it is because of the stubborn and powerful support of the fans, who lobbied very hard for me to get the role. The fans made it very clear to Paramount and Michael Bay that they had power and muscle behind them, to the point where they could not be ignored. And as a result, I got to audition for the part.
C2F: That's fantastic!
Cullen: Yeah, they're a wonderful, wonderful bunch of people, and I love them for it, I really do. They dedicated a part of their lives to stick up for me, and I am very grateful to them.
C2F: Well it's nice to know that fans actually can make a difference! So how was the experience of making the film? Was it similar to other voice-over work that you've done? Or was it a much longer process?
Cullen: Yeah, it was a long process - many, many, many sessions with Michael Bay. Unlike a normal cartoon where I just go in, do my thing, and then go home, this lasted over a period of several months. Sometimes I would only do a couple of recordings a week, sometimes the sessions could last about 3-4 hours, and other times the sessions would be shorter. Sometimes it took longer just to drive there! But beyond that, the believability factor that comes into play is different in film than in cartoons, so we had to make that transition for the film. Michael Bay worked very closely with me on this, and took it very seriously. He always had many notes, and if it wasn't believable enough, he'd say, we're going to tweak this, and we're going to get Peter back and redo this line, etc. So it was a really exciting creative process, and I was very glad to be apart of it.
C2F: That sounds great! So, how do you create voices for characters? Do you prefer to create your own voice, like with Optimus Prime, or do you like imitating other voices, like with Eeyore?
Cullen: In Eeyore's case, I had to imitate the actor who did it originally, who has now passed on. So that was very interesting. When I'm creating characters, I look at the character breakdown, their weaknesses and strengths, what they look like physically, and try to get impressions from that. Then I vocally try to represent all of that. And then I try to make it funny - that's the hard part.
C2F: So did you receive professional voice-over training somewhere, or did you learn on the job?
Cullen: Well, I'll try to make this brief, but it's a long story. I've been doing sounds and voices since I was a child. I could do animal sounds, farm noises, I could impersonate anything I heard. I don't know where that comes from - I may have been dropped on my head as a child... I don't know why some people can do this - I feel like a mina bird! But just to be able to do a sound without even thinking about it? I don't know where that comes from. Eventually, I started impersonating people I heard - how they would talk, what kind of an accent they had, their mannerisms... people laughed at it, and I enjoyed the laughter... It's all I know, and here I am in Hollywood. It's funny, you know... my kids say, "My dad makes sounds for a living", and I go, Oh Boy! "What does your dad do?" "He builds bridges" "Oh..."
C2F: Hey, there's no shame in being a voice-over actor! So what is your favorite type of voice over work? Cartoons? Commercials? Movies?
Cullen: I like challenge, and something that isn't interrupted by a director every ten seconds (that's commercial work). I like a challenge that requires dramatic interpretation, that demands me to focus on phrasing, phraseology, and that also requires me to maintain a sense of drama, tension, or light-heartedness. I love that. I love reading, and doing pieces that are mixed with a lot of different emotions - that's always fun. I've done a lot of trailers for movies over the years...
C2F: That was actually going to be my second question - so who set the deep throat talking standard for trailers? Would you say that you were a pioneer in that?
Cullen: Well, I think the first trailer I ever did was Firefox (1982), with Clint Eastwood. Up until that time, there were only a few people in control of the entire trailer industry. They were actors, and I admired them, because they had a lot of believability - and I think that's all gone today. Most people today are disingenuous, and have gimmicky sounds. It works, and if it works, fine - but that's not the way I approach it. I approach it as an actor. Personally, I find that I don't believe a lot of what I hear today. I'm not trying to be judgmental, but times have changed, and perhaps it's just what audiences want.
C2F: Well, I don't know if it's what we want - it's often made fun of, so that's not a good sign.
Cullen: Well, I'm just going to stick to my guns. I read what is written, and I try to be as truthful as I possibly can. I try to believe in everything I have to say, and just hope that they like it.
C2F: You voiced Commander Hawkins in "Voltron", which was one of my favorite shows as a kid.
Cullen: [does voice] "Voltron, Defender of the Universe!"
C2F: Exactly! So please tell me about that experience, and do you think there will ever be a "Voltron" movie? "Transformers" got one, what about "Voltron"?
A) Well, I don't know. I talked about that just a little while ago, and I was amazed to find out that there are a lot of old series that are being considered for recycling. I don't know whether or not "Voltron" will ever make it to that level. It's hard to say - "Transformers" took a long time to get to the screen, so who knows about "Voltron".
C2F: Well, we (the fans) would certainly lobby for you to do it.
Cullen: Aw thanks, that's sweet.
C2F: Absolutely! So did you enjoy doing "Voltron"?
Cullen: Sure. You know, it's hard to say how much I enjoyed a particular show because for me, it was all about the connection to the other actors that I was working with, which was always a pleasurable experience. You don't find yourself in a room with egos in this industry; you're in a room with people who are there to work. I really enjoy it.
C2F: Now I know that you did voices for the original "G.I. Joe" cartoon series as well - have you happened to see the re-dubbed PSAs of the "G.I. Joe" cartoons, and how do you feel about them?
Cullen: Well, I haven't seen them, and I'm afraid I have a shortage of information on this subject because it's going back so many years. It's hard to recollect because it's a jumble in my mind - quite frankly I can't even tell you the characters I played on that show! And that's bad, that's terrible. But I think the re-dubbed cartoons sound fun, and I'm glad that people are still having fun with it.
C2F: Well, thank you so much Peter for talking to me today, and congratulations again on "Transformers"!
Cullen: Thank you, it's been a pleasure!