Interview with Peter Cullen14/09/2008
What do Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots in Transformers and Eeyore, the tail-challenged donkey from Disney’s Winnie the Pooh have in common? On the surface, absolutely nothing.
However, Peter Cullen has lent his distinct, regal voice to both characters over the years.
The Canadian-born voiceover specialist participated in a chat with ARTISTdirect on the eve of the Blu-Ray release of the 2007 blockbuster film about all things Optimus Prime, discussing how he prepares for roles and what precautions he takes to protect this larynx.
And no, he doesn’t speak in the same voice he uses for Optimus Prime when out of character. A note of caution for the fanboy contingent: we didn’t ask Cullen a slew of fantasy questions about the past and future of Optimus Prime. Rather, we focused on Cullen’s relationship with the character that he effectively brought to life.
What made you want to reprise the role of Optimus Prime for the 2007 movie and its upcoming sequels?
When I heard about the fanbase being so tenacious and how hard they lobbied for the studios to bring back the original Optimus Prime, I started to want it myself, but overall, I wanted it for them. I was disenchanted with the system at this time. I had put effort into creating a character that eventually got bumped off and it was hard to say goodbye. But I was elated by the impact the character had on the fans. I wanted to make sure none of those fans were disappointed again. Lo and behold, the character came back. I owe them entirely. I appreciate them for their love for the character.
The fans and their ardor for Optimus Prime were the impetus for you stepping into his shoes again.
They were and still are the impetus for me. I enjoy going to the conventions and meeting them, and these fans are like kids that have grown up. I remembered that I was a kid once and I had that same feeling that they have. I wanted to have the chance to thank someone when they impacted my life and I didn’t always have that opportunity. I want to make sure this generation—what is it, generation three that we’re into?—knows that I appreciate their fandom.
Is it true that you chose not to lend your voice to an episode of Robot Chicken since it was parodying the character of Optimus Prime?
Hmm…I don’t remember that story at all.
Why do you think the character of Optimus Prime has endured over the years? He is certainly a beloved character in pop culture, especially for people who grew up in the 1980s.
I think the character traits that are applied to him are not your average “hero” traits. There is more of a sense of integrity, accountability, and a sense of honor with him. I use these words to describe him, because he had such courage and he was able to lead through example and I tried to apply those traits to him through my voice. He has lasted that long because people believe him. He’s not over the top and he is not out for himself. He is unselfish, understanding, and strong.
Like a grandfather! In what other ways do you use your distinctive voice to portray those traits?
I impersonate my brother Larry. He served in Vietnam in the Marine Corps and he was a true hero. When he came home, I noticed that there was a big change in him. He was strong and powerful without having to do anything to convince anyone that he was strong and powerful. It was all in his mannerisms and I applied those traits to Optimus and the fans bought it. I based it on a real person and a real Marine, a true Marine, not the media construct of a Marine.
You’ve voiced Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh and a host of other characters in your career. Who is your favorite and why? Let me guess. I’m going to go with Optimus Prime, and yes, that is my final answer!
Yes, he is my favorite. His success and the impact that he has had over the years takes me back to when I became aware of how much influence he has had on individual lives, namely the fans. I am grateful and humbled by that. I think to myself how lucky I am to have had an opportunity to create the voice of a character that has done good for people outside of the show. That is why he is my favorite. Not that Eeyore isn’t a favorite, since he makes children very happy and that fact also makes me happy. They are just like two different people.
Eeyore is a trooper. His tail falls off, but he keeps on trucking!
He hasn’t given up yet. [Note: Here, for the only time in our brief interview, Cullen steps into character and speaks in Eeyore’s trademark, rumbling, low voice.]
Can you talk a little bit about your life as a voice actor? Animated films are extremely popular among adults and children, but a lot of times, the fans and viewers aren’t well-versed in the methods of voice actors. Shed some light for us, please!
Well, it’s acting. What you are doing is trying to make a sound from a picture and you give birth to that. Actors do that well if they really think about it and they have a talent with their voice. Voice actors are like singers. Your imagination will tell you whether or not a character should have a high voice and or a silly-sounding voice. You try and think of someone in your life and impersonate a friend or relative and that all comes together as the character’s voice. That’s what makes it so much fun.
Do you have any rituals you undergo in order preserve your voice, since it is your moneymaker?
I don’t do monsters anymore. No more monster voices! I did the voice of King Kong before and I coughed up blood after 15 reels of doing that voice. I don’t yell at football games, either.
Lastly, is there anything you’d like to say about the Blu-Ray edition of Transformers that is coming out [available on Blu-Ray as of September 2]?
I saw the Blu-Ray of the new film and I was knocked to the floor. That’s how good it looks. I saw it at the studio, but now I am excited to see it on screen in my house.
By Amy Sciarretto
Source: Artist Direct