Q&A: Truckin' with Optimus Prime
Voice actor Peter Cullen talks about the origins of the legendary Autobot's voice, the upcoming Transformers games and movie, and his work as Eeyore.
If you're over the age of 25 or so, you know Peter Cullen. Or at least, you know his voice. The respected voice actor has portrayed roles in everything from Winnie the Pooh movies to a few episodes of the old Saturday morning Pac-Man cartoon and, more recently, was the narrator in the IGPX anime series.
His voice is perhaps best known as the leader of The Transformers, Optimus Prime. Today, Activision announced that he would reprise his role as the Autobot for the upcoming Transformers: The Game. We recently had a chance to speak with Cullen (and also to Welker) to find out how he got started, his first impressions of Optimus Prime, and the kind of work he put into the upcoming Transformers video game.
GameSpot: Peter, I wanted to start off with a little bit of background. I'm curious how you got into the voice business and what you remember about taking the role of Optimus Prime in the beginning.
Peter Cullen: Well, I don't know whether we should start at the beginning. My gosh, that goes back forever. Ordinarily, I think a voice actor begins as an actor. Not so much today I guess. People just go straight from school into a voice class or something. But my background was acting. I graduated from the National Theater School of Canada back in the late '60s, which gives you a time capsule. And I pursued legitimate theater, a lot of Shakespearean work and contemporary authors and older authors and stuff, and eventually got into comedy, radio, television.
That led me to a successful show called Funny You Should Say That, which came out of Montreal and ran nationally on radio. And we did a lot of sketches whereupon all of us, four of us, played multiple characters--pretty much like Second City or any of the other great improv places. It created some attention in Hollywood, and we had a lot of Hollywood comedic stars come out of it, especially from Laugh In. But one in particular, Jonathan Winters, he talked us up quite a bit and so did the Laugh In crowd, which brought me to Hollywood to do a special...and it bombed.
They needed an announcer for the new coming Sonny and Cher Show, and there was a little opening animation, a talking ball, and I was there and they said, "Do you mind just counting beats--it'll be a 16-bar intro, with the kettle drums, and then you'll see this little animated ball. So if you want to do anything before that, fine, and then when the kettle drums start after that, it's "Ladies and Gentlemen, Television City in Hollywood, Ladies and Gentlemen, Sonny and Cher." So I did the little guy in the ball just for fun and then I did the "Ladies and Gentlemen, Sonny and Cher," and they kept it. It was done to a live orchestra and I just had fun. I just did it. And got the job.
PC: [I] went on from there to several other shows in Hollywood on camera doing comedy and became disenchanted pretty much with the Hollywood scene. [I] bought a ranch...about an hour and a half away from LA, and I pretty much decided that I wasn't going to do anymore on-camera [work]. It was a major decision. I was a little disgruntled. I had an agent approach me and say, "Listen, you do great voices and I'm a voice-over agent. I'll give you a hundred percent if you give me a hundred percent." I said, "You got a deal."
We finally broke the ice, and that led to a lot of hard work and then I finally got into the cartoon business and eventually into dramatic narration for the networks and feature film trailers and stuff.
One of those auditions was back in the early '80s for Optimus Prime and the Transformers. And the rest was history.
GS: I'm wondering when you went in for that initial audition, how they described the character to you--as a giant robot who was also a Mack truck? And I'm wondering how you visualized that and what were your impressions of the character at first? Was it something that you could easily picture?
PC: No. To see the truck, a freightliner, a big old flat-nosed freightliner--I'd never done anything like that before. So I think basically I studied the character analyses, which gave me the only clue I had. Because normally when I look at a cartoon character I will look at its neck and body, chest cavity, and what kind of a sound would come from it, whether it would be a trumpet or a tuba or whatever. But there was none of that. It was really confusing, believe me. I had no idea of the concept of the show and of course years later we find out how just involved it was, and god, it's just incredible.
So the leadership qualities led me to Optimus Prime, and I just went from there and that's how that happened.
GS: Was the voice something you came up with fairly quickly or were you directed to?
PC: I never had an opportunity to do a real hero, not a Superman or a Batman or any of that stuff, because I'd done many [auditions] for stuff like that and never got it. My brother Larry, who is [a] former captain in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, had seen a lot more of life than I had ever seen, and I could see it. But it was in his voice and in his mannerisms of voice and his overall attitude, a quiet reserve, tremendous strength and a fortitude--a man, a solid man. [He was] really trustworthy and dependable and a leader. And I took [those elements] from him. We're only 13 months apart, and we have very similar timbre. So it was pretty easy for me to slide right into it, and I just remembered some of the things that Optimus would say in that audition, and I just gave it a very, very controlled and dignified, noble character--all the feelings that I had for my own brother. Very much of a personal experience--it's hard to relate, but that's how it happened.
GS: Did you ever expect the series to explode in popularity and become something that has really--for folks my age--become a touchstone for our generation?
PC: Not at all. It came as a very big surprise to me. My daughter insisted that I go to this first convention, many, many years later, in the '90s, because I had mentioned to her, I said, "Why would somebody want me to go to Rochester, New York, to talk and sign autographs as Optimus Prime?" She said, "Oh, Dad, you have no idea!" I said, "No, tell me." "You've got to go Dad, you've got to go." So I went and to my surprise I saw this wonderful following of people that impressed me with the fact that I had made a dent in their lives, and I was humbled, and I still am to this day by it. It's a very rewarding piece of my life now to think of it as having had an effect on people like that, in a good way.
GS: What was it like to return to the character in terms of the Transformers video game?
PC: Well, whether it's the character in the movie or just returning to the character himself, [it] was indeed an honor and certainly a joy to work again with [voice of Megatron] Frank Welker. To be truthful I was very, very surprised that I was brought back to do it after the original movie. We did a couple of episodes and never clearly understood why I was brought back, but that was all explained to me years later.
GS: Earlier you mentioned that your method for approaching characters is based on their physiology. With the redesign of Optimus for the game, has that affected how you've approached him this time around?
PC: No, not at all. I've maintained the consistency of the character regardless of the series, regardless of the first movie, regardless of the game, and regardless of the July 4th opening for the movie. No, Optimus is Optimus and he's not going to change under any circumstances. Because he's worked so well, it's evident that the character has engineered such a great attraction and followers that it would be an injustice to change him. I couldn't imagine doing that.
GS: They want to hear that classic Optimus voice.
PC: [in the voice of Optimus Prime] Autobots transform!
GS: There you go.
PC: Yeah, there will be a lot of that. The game has an awful lot of action. And I think what I got from the game was [Optimus] talking to a player one-on-one, and talking to him as if he were right there and giving him advice or telling him to slow down, or get focused. I think that's going to be very, very special. I really do. Because I think back as a kid if I had ever had a superhero talking to me on a one-on-one basis like that, I would have gone into my own imaginary world, would have been sucked in!
GS: You mentioned Frank Welker earlier. We interviewed him last night, and I had a chance to listen to the interview this morning, and he just sounded like a one-of-a-kind type of person. He seemed like he'd be a lot of fun to work with. I'm wondering if you can tell me about what it was like working with him again for the game?
PC: Well, number one, my opinion of Frank Welker is so high--my words would be hollow in trying to describe his talent. I just think he's one of the most special, talented people in the world. And the opportunity to work with Frank over the years has always been one of the greatest delights I've ever had as a professional. And to be with him reunited on the game is just the crowning of it all. He's more fun to work with than any five people combined. He is such a great human being as a person.
So we're very, very good friends that way. We don't associate a lot in general because of geography, but when we see each other again over the years it's heartwarming. Just a great, great guy. And to work with him has been truly, truly fabulous.
GS: So how is the voice work process different for video games as opposed to cartoons? Is it more days in the studio, less?
PC: Well, if you're looking at it from a recording point of view, when we did the series we were all together in one room. And in this particular case I was working alone and in front of a microphone with just my copy and nothing else. So, to relate to other people was missing. And although it wasn't totally necessary because we all pretty much were [settled] into our characters and we know how they would react to anybody, that was the only thing really missing. But it worked out. I mean, it worked out fine. Memory is a wonderful thing!
GS: Are you getting a lot of context when you're doing your lines in terms of what's happening at a certain point in the game? Or is it more of a matter of the producers trusting your imagination?
PC: I think you take a little of each, to answer that. There are certainly descriptions, context descriptions that would allow me to generate some form of emotion. But for the most part, [the director] gave me insights as to a variety of different reads that might work differently, and I respected that and followed through with it.
GS: I have to admit that I looked over your resume this morning on IMDB and I notice that you played another character that will be pretty dear to people's hearts, and that's Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.
PC: Right. [In the voice of Eeyore] Hello!
GS: I'm wondering, how do you approach such different roles? Optimus is obviously this leader of men and robots, and Eeyore is this slinking, sunken-eyed donkey.
PC: Oh, just character breakdown as an actor. I study the significant qualities of each character, and with Eeyore we're not talking Shakespeare, for sure. And I think Optimus Prime was much more of a challenge. But the wonderful thing about Eeyore is that he makes a lot of people happy even though he's the saddest sack in the world!
GS: OK, so final question. What do you think gives the Transformers such a lasting appeal?
PC: I think it was the first [series] to break away from the ordinary--things we had seen that gave your generation an opportunity to imagine far beyond anything else that was out there. In the game you're going to find that you're being led down that imaginary path that you could only watch when you were a kid, but now you can participate in and actually become a part of the form and function of the plot and the outcome.
There was that needle in the haystack and the writers [on Transformers], they were brilliant and they found it. And I think it has lasted so many, many years, simply because of its imagination and some of the little messages that come out of it. The writers are amazing. They're just fantastic. What great imagination.
GS: Absolutely. Well, I think I can speak for everyone when I say we're really looking forward to seeing your further work in the series this summer, and it's a real pleasure for me to talk to you. Thank you very much.
PC: Well, thank you for that too. And a pleasure talking to you, believe me.
GameSpot also spoke with Frank Welker, the voice of Megatron.
GameSpot may get a commission from retail offers.