Mr. Beaks Rolls Out An Interview With Optimus Prime Himself, Peter Cullen!
Published at: Aug. 28, 2008, 6:37 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
Though Michael Bay didn't exactly go out of his way to placate the TransFans during the production of the first TRANSFORMERS, he did make one very wise concession: he brought back the inimitable Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime. Regardless of what Bay and his team did to the design of the character (I had no qualms with any of their alterations), it would've been wrong to hear anything but Cullen's baritone rumbling forth from the leader of the Autobots.
I didn't get to chat with Cullen prior to the theatrical release of TRANSFORMERS last year, so it's nice to catch up with the veteran voice actor as he makes the press rounds in support of the Blu-ray (which hits shelves on September 2nd). Cullen's got a reputation as one of the nicer guys you'll ever interview, and he certainly lived up to it as he spoke warmly and enthusiastically of the fans' tireless support, the enduring appeal of the animated show, and what we might be able to expect from the second film. Though Cullen's enjoyed a long, successful career as a voice actor (stretching back to his days as an the announcer on THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR), he's especially proud of his work as Optimus Prime. The fans are lucky to have a class act like Cullen.
Here's the MVP of the TRANSFORMERS universe...
Beaks: The fans played a huge part in getting you in the film. Are you still sensing an appreciation from them now that the film has been made?
Peter Cullen: Oh, absolutely! To tell you the truth, Jeremy, I was knocked out by it. It gave me a whole new perspective on the work that we all did. I tried to let that fan base know that I was extremely grateful for their lobbying efforts, and that I didn't want to disappoint them or have them be disappointed in any way.
Beaks: It's very rare that a voice actor gets to feel that kind of connection with their audience. You do your work in relative isolation, and it goes out into the world, and you know it connects with people in one way or another. But this is kind of unprecedented.
Cullen: It took me by surprise, I must admit. Of the conventions that I have been to, the amount of people is another surprise; to think that anyone can muster that from the voiceover world... it's strange and wonderful.
Beaks: Have you ever had a moment where you're... I don't know, ordering a coffee or something, and someone recognizes your voice?
No, not really. (Laughs) But I have had serious reactions from some people who've been told in my company, "Oh, he does Optimus Prime." They'll do a double-take, and, and because I know what's taking place, I'll immediately respond (in Optimus's voice), "Cool it!"
Beaks: (Laughing) That's great.
Cullen: I'll give them a look, and say (as Optimus again), "Calm down! Not here! Not now!" And they'll go, "Oh, my god! That's so great!" That is a real gift. If you can receive anything in your life that's bigger than that, I couldn't conceive it. That kind of feeling that you get from people appreciating something you've done is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Beaks: As a working voice actor, I can't imagine that you know, one show to the next, whether your work is going to make a deep imprint in the popular culture. Was there any inkling when you took on the role of Optimus Prime that this character was going to leave a deeper groove than the others?
Cullen: I think so. When I saw the character breakdown, I said, "This is indeed a real hero. This is not like any hero we've ever seen before." He penetrated different zones. There was a sense of him. He wasn't just muscle and strength. He went beyond that. There was dignity and courage, and a soft spoken honor and integrity about him. Very well written. So to apply those traits... they weren't necessarily implicated in the script; I just did an impression of my brother Larry, who served in the Marine Corps, and lowered the voice. I think we nailed it. The scripts were wonderfully written, and there was so much to absorb in a half-hour. Don't forget, Jeremy, that was how many years ago? 1984? '85? Gee whiz, I was just a child! (Laughs)
Beaks: I was in grade school at the time. Transformers hit right at the right time for me. The toys and the cartoon came out when I was in fourth grade, and the animated movie was released in the summer of '86. That was right before I entered junior high, so it was the perfect sendoff. You couldn't have toys or be watching cartoons like that in 7th grade.
Cullen: In this day and age, with the electronic stuff you can get off of DVDs and the internet. And now the Blu-ray. Have you heard about that?
Beaks: Oh, yeah.
Cullen: Oh, yeah! I went down and saw it, and it's incredible. You don't have to buy toys anymore. Just buy the Blu-ray, and there's about a hundred toys right there on your screen.
I think about all of the options that kids have available to them now. If I would've had some bells-and-whistles Blu-ray when I was twelve, I probably would've never left the house.
Cullen: It's huge.
Beaks: And the Blu-ray is only going to stoke more anticipation for TRANSFORMERS 2, which is shooting right now. Have you had the opportunity to visit the set, see any footage or chat with Michael Bay?
Cullen: I've had one work day with Michael. We did the opening. But I didn't have the opportunity to see any real footage - until I was leaving. I hate to use the word over and over "knocked out", but I was stopped in my tracks. "Whoa! Can I see that again!?!?" It's going to be huge.
Beaks: Just when you thought they couldn't top the spectacle of the first movie?
Cullen: No question. He's excited, too. Bay is really excited. He's animated. He's such a creative guy and a perfectionist. He's got a high energy level that's really cool.
Beaks: He gets a bit like a little kid when he's working.
Cullen: You can see his brain working. What goes on in that head of his is indescribable. (Laughs) He's amazing.
Beaks: How much of a connection have you been able to form with the human actors? Now that the first film was a hit and you know you'll be making more, have you had the opportunity to interact with Shia or Megan?
Cullen: Nope. None of the above. I have not met anyone. I know Charlie Adler [the voice of Starscream], but aside from the voiceover people... I didn't even meet Hugo Weaving. I admired his work, but... I haven't had an opportunity to be with the real actors. During this year, I'm sure there will be a time where I'll be able to go to the studio and see some of that. I'm looking forward to that.
Beaks: It's amusing how you can go from the epitome of a strong leader in Optimus Prime to doing the voice of Eeyore. That's a compliment to your range as an actor, I would say.
Cullen: (Laughs) Well, thank god they're in the same vocal area. I just apply the baritone. Eeyore requires a lot more air; he's actually deeper in another way. It's a chest resonance more than anything else. He never yells, and he doesn't laugh. Neither one of them laughs. Optimus doesn't laugh. They chuckle, but they don't laugh.
Beaks: But I watching TRANSFORMERS over the weekend on HBO, and I was noticing how you subtly changed your vocal performance from the cartoon. You gave Optimus a little more lightness. We get to see a funnier side.
Cullen: Right. I think you'll see more of that. His relationship with humans demands that he be more human. When he's one-on-one with Sam or the other characters, there's an opportunity for more humor and sensitivity, not just stone-cold metal. Coming into that human element... it's different; it's a little challenging because you have to be more conversational without stepping out of his character or losing any of his ingredients. We'll see more of that, I think. I don't want to speculate, but it seems to be going that way.
Beaks: Well, I don't need Michael Bay's ninjas breaking my windows again, so let's not talk about things that we're not supposed to talk about.
And there ya have it! You'll be able to show off your home theater setup with the Blu-ray of TRANSFORMERS starting September 2nd.