To kick off our coverage of this year’s New York Comic-Con, we interviewed legendary voice actor, performer, actor, and comedian Phil LaMarr. Phil was an original member of the sketch comedy show Mad TV and has performed in countless animated shows and movies including Futurama, Samurai Jack, Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends, Jimmy Neutron, Justice League, and recently, The Incredibles 2. He’s also lent his voice to a great deal of video game series such as Final Fantasy, Marvel’s Injustice, Metal Gear, and Jak and Daxter. These titles are just a drop in the bucket of his extremely extensive career.
Otter Lee (AsianCrush) We are here with Phil LaMarr, a man of many voices.
Phil Lamar: And three faces!
How are you doing today, Phil?
I’m doing great. How are you, Otter?
I’m good, I’m good.
Well, you’re much better dressed than I am today.
Haha. Thanks for organizing this. I wanted to ask: What was it like returning to the role of Samurai Jack after 13 years?
It was amazing. I mean, the best thing about it was it was all of the same creative people. That’s what you worry about these days because there are a lot of things that are being rebooted. Sometimes, it’s just a cash grab and it’s just like “We own it, so we’re just going to do another version of it.” But this was Genndy Tartakovsky, the original creator, and he called us up and said: “We’re doing it again. We’re finishing this story!” Which was needed.
It says right in the song, he’s gotta get back, back to the past. He needed to do it, so I was so excited to know that Genndy was coming back to finish the story, and then when it was finished, I was blown away. So amazing.
When you come back to a role, you had a similar situation with Futurama—newer seasons later; do you find you have to re-rehearse the part again or is it all in there?
Well, no, because the thing you have to remember about animation is it’s all recorded, so they can play back what you did before, and you get it back in your head. Plus, there are also certain characters, especially when you’ve done them long enough, like Hermes, when you’re doing Hermes or when you do the samurai, those characters I had done enough, that they were deep in there. It’s not like I’m going to forget. Smaller parts, like there are some parts on Futurama you did one episode and they try to bring it back six years later, I’m like “I don’t remember what Hair Robot sounds like.” That, you need a refresher, but for the real, signature characters, they’re still there.
And you’ve had the opportunity to voice just about every male superhero for both Marvel and DC. Do you have a favorite one?
Actually, it’s funny because I think my favorite heroes growing up were Batman and Spiderman, and I’ve worked with people playing those characters, but I actually haven’t voiced them. ‘Cause the guys doing them are really, really good. They don’t need me to do it.
But yeah, as far as favorites, I’ve been lucky enough to get to be a part of the Justice League, to be a Jedi, to be a part of Samurai Jack, and so many others, like I got to be Gambit, I got to be the Dread Dormammu. I don’t need to pick any favorites. I’ve just got wonderful things to look back on.
And I just found this out the other day, but you were actually Bolbi in Jimmy Neutron.
Bolbi worship Giant Space Rock.
Where did that voice come from?
We were working on the show and they said “We’ve got this really weird character,” and he was just so out there, and I started to do this strange voice with a weird accent, and they were like “That’s weird—we love it!” It was basically be as weird as possible.
And there’s that one episode where he’s like auditioning for MacBeth.
And it’s funny because they were saying “Well, we’ll have someone else come in and do the other voice,” and I’m like “I can do it.” And so Bolbi became this like Kelsey-Grammer-esque Shakespearean voice. But they were both me.
Such a delightful character! What’s been your experience of playing lots of different characters of different ethnicities been like? That’s something you can do in VO that doesn’t necessarily happen in other mediums. OR, it does, but it’s not as okay.
The whole thing: your job as an actor is to portray a character believably for an audience so that they get the experience of the piece. Now, the vast majority of on-camera cross-racial casting, it gets in the way of the believability. If someone is playing something that they’re not, it takes you out of the story. Now obviously with animation and VO, it’s a different thing because there is no ethnicity that is vocally specific. There are tendencies and accents, but you can’t say that this is a black voice or this is a Chinese voice. There are languages but not voices, so it comes down to can someone believably portray somebody? But then there’s also the problem we have with representation in that the vast majority of the characters in the stories being told are white dudes. So it becomes problematic when a white dude starts playing someone that’s not a white dude. It’s like “Yo, mother****er, you got all the jobs already. Let us have this!” One part of that discussion is in principle and ideal and should actors be allowed to play whatever they can believably portray, and the other is a pragmatic thing. It’s like, now you’re taking jobs away from someone else.
And when did you realize you could successfully go for white dude roles?
Basically, I’ve always had an ear for accents impressions, and it’s just been something I’ve always been able to do. And I know there are a lot of people of whatever background who cannot transcend their own tone and voice, be they white, black, Asian, whatever. There are some white guys who can believably portray black characters and there are some ethnic actors who can believably portray white, and then there are others who can’t. In principle, I believe in voice especially, casting should be colorblind, just whatever is believable. But in the real world, until we get to an ideal world where representation is equal across the board, you have to think of it pragmatically.
You voiced two characters for The Incredibles 2. What was that experience like?
Well, actually, I came into that very, very late. I mean, feature films, animation goes for three-four years. I think I came in and voiced those characters maybe three, four months before opening.
He-Lectrix. I do things electric-ally and …. Krushauer. And those characters had already been voiced and animated, but they weren’t happy with the way they were being portrayed. And they said [to me] “Can you take a crack at this?” And they liked my takes on two different characters.
And they couldn’t have been more different.
I know, and I was so excited! A bunch of us tried those characters, and then I found out later, “Yours actually made it in the movie.”
Describe the process of voicing characters for the Final Fantasy video game series!
The only weird thing about that was there was a good ten years in between, and they didn’t actually believe I could do the voice. I had to reaudition the second time for Dissidia. They were like “Can he still do that Ramza voice?” And yes, so I laid out the audition again. “If it can be said, it can be done.” And they were like “Oh. Okay. Sorry!”
How have you been enjoying your convention experience so far?
It’s great. New York is huge, but it’s always a good time. AND THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE. So many people in the crowd, so many guests. I get to see a lot of friends too.
What advice do you have for young people seeking a career in VO?
The first thing is you have to learn how to act. You have to be an actor. It’s called “voice-acting.” It’s a misnomer because the acting comes first, but to call it acting-voicing would confuse people.
What was it like working with Del Close? This one’s for me, as a comedy nerd that’s taken, like, all the improv classes.
Oh. I started doing improv in college, sophomore year, so I was 19. It made a huge impression on my soft brain. And then to get a chance to travel to Chicago and work with, well y’know if improv was Christianity, that would have been like going to the Last Supper. I’m like “OHMYGOD, it’s the dude!” It was mind-blowing, just his approach to it was once informed, by at that point DECADES of thought and experience. And to just get a whiff of that. I just spent a summer taking workshops with him, just a glimmer into his brain and watching him build forms in our class. It opened up my mind to what improv and by extension what performance could be. I think that’s when I realized that this can be an art. It isn’t necessarily, but it can be, if you do it right.
Thank you so much, Phil!