We ComiConverse With Phil LaMarr
September 3rd, 2016 | by L. K. Roberts
I had the opportunity to catch up with one of her co-stars from that series, Phil LaMarr, who gave voice to The Green Lantern John Stewart. What resulted was a fun-filled chat that touched on a number of topics from his favourite episode of Justice League to the peril of a latte to ways that race comes into play.
I thoroughly enjoyed our long conversation and getting to know him a bit. His interests are as varied as his experience – both within the world of voice acting and outside of it. He has been working steadily as a voice actor in a variety of fan favourite shows and video games, such as Futurama, Samurai Jack and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. However, his career in television, movies, and theater continues to thrive, as well.
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In addition to being an experienced entertainer and an entertaining person to talk to, he also holds an impressive array of comic book knowledge. He even schooled me a bit on DC comic history – but had it been Marvel, I might have given him more of a run for his money… Maybe!
LKR: How did you get started in voiceover work?
PL: I did a cartoon when I was very young, but I wasn’t really in the business at that time. A friend of my mother’s who worked for NBC knew I did plays in high school and helped me get the audition for “MR. T.”
I didn’t really start doing voiceover until really when I was on a sketch comedy show on Fox called “MadTV” in the late 90s. We had animated pieces on that show, and they had the cast voice those characters. That was where I got to practice, and when I left “MadTV,” I began to pursue it full force and started to get work on shows like “Futurama,” “The Weekenders,” and “Static Shock.”
LKR: John Stewart’s Green Lantern was one of DC’s first black animated heroes. Did you feel any type of responsibility as you took on that role?
PL: Well, what’s funny is, he was not DC’s first black superhero. He wasn’t even DC’s first animated black superhero. I’m pretty sure that Static Shock gets the credit for that one. Although, it’s such a hard thing to parse because they had Super Volt on the “Super Friends” back in the 70’s and 80’s, which I guess sort of counts – but not really, because he wasn’t really a comic book hero, but he was, in fact, black!
I think the significance of John Stewart (starts with) Bruce Timm and the writers of “The Justice League” animated series creating their version of Justice League. This is the animated canon. These are the Big Seven. The Justice League is the Supreme Court of Super Heroes. They are The Best of the Best. If Superman needs help, these are the six people he calls. It really was the first time that an African-American face was up on a super hero Mt. Rushmore. And it wasn’t made an issue of! He wasn’t the ‘Black Lantern.’ He wasn’t there as a token. He was there because he was the Green Lantern of Earth. They had to go against the comic book continuity to do that, and yet they did it, effortlessly! They didn’t make any apologies for it; they didn’t say, “Well, Hal Jordan is in a secret dimension somewhere-.” Nope. It was, “This is just how it is.”
That to me was just way ahead of its time in the sense that he was just who it was, and that, I think, had an effect. I remember when the Ryan Reynolds movie (2011’s “Green Lantern”) came out, there were a lot of people who had grown up watching the animated series who were like, “Who is this white guy playing Green Lantern?!”
Most of the credit goes to the writing. They created a really well-rounded, real character that people invested in. I’m very proud to have been a part of it.
LKR: Did you have a favourite episode that you did as the Green Lantern?
PL: One of my favorite episodes was definitely one called, “Starcrossed” which was the culmination of the whole season and also the culmination of the Green Lantern-Hawkgirl relationship. In that storyline we find out that she’s actually a spy from Thanagar, and she was actually married to this guy who’s now trying to invade Earth. It’s great because it’s this massive alien invasion of Earth episode, but it’s also this huge dramatic breakup episode. (in John Stewart’s voice) “You lied to me!” It’s literally about betrayal and broken hearts and dealing with her crummy ex, but the fact is her crummy ex is actually trying to take over the planet, and you’ve got to fight him!
I love that one because it really played on this big, global, operatic stage, but it was real down and dirty romantic emotion at the core of it. I’ve never gotten to play anything that meaty on camera, so that’s definitely one of my favourites.
LKR: Have you seen trailers for “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and are you looking forward to the Justice League movie?
PL: I’ve seen some of the trailers for Batman vs. Superman; I haven’t actually seen any footage of the other heroes, but I’m very, very curious. I’ve seen shots of Aquaman and Wonder Woman, but I haven’t even heard how they’re supposed to fit into the storyline. Is it just going to be cameos? I just hope they’re doing the legwork because even with the quality of writers that we had, I remember in the first season, the (writers) had a really hard time. There are seven leads! It’s tough. If they’re always standing around in a half circle, then it starts to look like an a cappella group! But if you try to take each one of their storylines by itself, then the movie’s eight hours long. I do not envy them the challenge, but I am looking forward to it.
LKR: In the documentary, “I Know That Voice,” Nolan North said that in voiceover “you find that people have a little bit less of an ego” (which would definitely be helpful with seven leads). Is that true?
PL: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Your face isn’t on it, and however great you think you are, people might not even know that it’s you, so you end up having to focus more on the character and the work. Also, it’s not really a big money business. We work in volume – actually in both senses of the word! ‘I’ll do this job, and then I’ll head over to the next one.’
Most of us think of ourselves as people who go to work every week. We’re not super stars. (As a voiceover actor), you don’t have time to get wrapped up in yourself. And no one else is getting paid enough to deal with you getting wrapped up in yourself. (laughs) This work doesn’t feed that behavior the way that many other parts of show business do.
LKR: What voice you are asked to do the most?
PL: It depends where I am, but I would say, averaging it out, “probably Hermes from ‘Futurama’” (said in character). Now I don’t know if it’s because there are more “Futurama” fans or they’re just more deeply invested and just really want to hear “My Manwich!”
LKR: In addition to John Stewart, you, in fact, are known for a number of your roles. Which one has been your favorite?
PL: Whew! That’s impossible to say. I’ve had the great fortune of working on a bunch of shows that are actually really amazing and working alongside amazing voice talent and incredible writers and artists – from “Samurai Jack” to “Futurama” to “The Justice League.”
I could say “Justice League” is my favorite because I was a DC Comics fan all my life, and to be a part of that world is amazing. BUT I also got to play a Jedi in “Star Wars: the Clone Wars.” Being a superhero, is that better than being a Jedi?! I was a Jedi! You know?
I got to be with “Futurama” off and on for 12 years. We became a family, and it’s something that’s beloved by people all over the world. Is that better than being a Jedi? I don’t know! It’s impossible to pick. Maybe if I had all of those jobs in one week – “Futurama” on Monday, “Justice League” on Tuesday, “Samurai Jack” on Wednesday – then I could say, “You know what? Wednesday was my favorite day this week!” But they all came at different times in my life and different times in my career, so I don’t know.
I’m happy to say I have a ton of favourites!
LKR: A role that you voiced that I really enjoyed is likely one that many people don’t know.
PL: Which one?
LKR: I was a fan of The Proud Family.
PL: Ah! (laughs)
LKR: I know that you did several voices in the show, but I remember Michael.
PL: (in character) “Little Michael!” “Hey, Coach Dad!”
LKR: When you started with Michael, did you know that he would be used to LGBTQ kids?
PL: No! I mean, obviously when we were doing that show, the vocabulary was not that advanced, socially speaking; though, those issues predate any type of labeling or vocabulary. We’ve all been dealing with those issues for as long as people have been alive. A lot of the show was just gags, and with Michael I don’t know if they were sure that they would explore that or not, certainly at the beginning. I think really, initially, this was just a fun, fun character to play with, but as it went on, they added levels upon levels. “Who’s he going to the dance with?” “The coach is his dad!”
I think the more they added to it, the more they thought, “Oh! This is getting even more fun!” That was a very fun show, with a really good group of people, a talented, talented group. Actually, I worked with Maria Canals who played Hawkgirl. She played LaCienaga’s mother.
LKR: Does that happen a lot? Do you often work with the same people from project to project?
PL: Yes, yes, definitely! I can’t think of how many times Jason Marsden and I have (worked together). There are a handful of people that I work with over and over again for some reason. Grey DeLisle and I have sat next to each other on a series, actually since my first series, starting with “The Weekenders” and now we’re doing it for one called “Mighty Magiswords” (on Cartoon Network).
Yeah, there are definitely people who you see time and time again, and I think that’s also a part of what we were talking about before, about why there’s no ego. In movies? People can act up because once that movie is over they’re probably never going to see most of these people again, but in our business? If you act up in your recording session from 9-1, you’re probably going to see most of those people again at 2 o’clock. (laugh) So, it’s really a low percentage choice, and it’s better to just be nice because if you’re hard to work with, it makes the work harder, and it makes it take longer, which means it costs some producer money. Eventually, that will turn into you not working.
LKR: What is the hardest thing about your job as a voice actor?
PL: Probably being conscious of your throat as an instrument. We tend to be a relatively non-pretentions bunch, but we can turn into real divas if somebody comes into a session with a cold.
(in stuffy voice) “Hey, guys-”
“Woah, woah! I have to use that microphone after you! You’re endangering my whole week, buddy!”
If you get a sinus infection, that changes the way your voice sounds. If you have to go back in and match something you did last month and (in a nasally voice) “all of sudden the character sounds like this.” That fills you with dread. I can’t do my job if this couple of inches between my chin and my shoulders aren’t at their optimum. That’s the hardest part: having to be so precious at times about having a cold or putting milk in your latte – “Oh, I should just get the soy milk; otherwise I’m gonna be a little phlegmy!”
LKR: In the documentary, “I Know That Voice,” you noted that the future of animation and voiceover has expanded to many realms, how so?
PL: It’s really, really changed. The first thing is bandwidth. The thing that killed the music industry is the thing that is blowing down the walls in voiceover. You can send audio digitally across the world in a split second; the way we’re doing this now would have been impossible years ago. There would’ve had to have been a subterranean cable running this way for us to be able to hear each other; there would have been a delay of three seconds. You know?
Nowadays, someone can be in Iowa and do a job for a company in New York in real time at broadcast quality. It opens up the doors for who can do it and how it can be done.
Plus, there are also video games and the level of performance that is just rapidly increasing. I did a game called “Shadow of Mordor” where I not only did the voice of an orc, I also acted the face and the body of this creature.
Of course, from the popularity side of it, there’s the internet. A generation ago, the work we did was anonymous. If somebody bothered to wait for the credits at the end of the cartoon, they could maybe see (the names), but they’d never have any idea who the actors were. Now, everything is chronicled on the internet – with pictures of all of us who do voiceover, so we’re much more recognizable than we have ever been before. That’s added another layer to it; you know? You talk about people like Daws Butler and Don Messick who did, literally, every character you heard as a kid growing up. But you didn’t know! You didn’t know it was all one guy! Now, people can find that out. It’s like, “Wait, John DiMaggio is Bender and Jake on ‘Adventure Time’? How is that possible?!” And people understand how impressive this work can be. We’re helping create worlds, and now we’re getting credit for it – which is lovely!
LKR: There is a UCB comedy sketch, in which actress Nicole Byers is auditioning for a role, and the casting director asks her to “be more urban,” before asking her to just “be blacker.” Has anything like that ever happened to you, especially when you were first starting out?
PL: Oh, sure. It still happens. Although, the way it happens these days is you’ll spend 5 minutes watching someone try to dance around something in a politically correct way, and finally you’ll have to say, “Stop. Do you want it ‘blacker’? Just say that.” (laughs) People are more conscious of it now. Although, in entertainment there’s always been a recognition or a consciousness of sorts, (though) it was never billboarded, but how someone looks and how someone sounds has always been important in entertainment. Ethnic sounds? Look at the Marx brothers. Four Jewish kids decided, “Ok, we need characters. – I wonder if they’re gonna be like this?” (in Italian accent) If they could have gotten away with it? Who knows? Maybe there was an earlier version in which Groucho’s moustache was painted all around his face!
“I’m the Groucho!” (in a voice similar to Mr. T’s)
“Thaaaat’s not gonna work in the South!”
LKR: For “Inside the Legend,” you played multiple historical characters and added different physicality in addition to different voices. When you are voicing a character in the studio, how important is physicality? You’re stuck with the microphone; do you have to stay still or can you incorporate some of that?
PL: Physicality in the sense of movement is a non-issue because, yeah, if you move, the sound (is distorted). Physicality in the sense of what the sound communicates is super important.
“Do I want the character to sound hollow? How do you make someone sound hollow?” (in a slow, empty voice)
“Or, well, (deep, wheezy breath) if a character’s supposed to be (wheezy breath) very overweight, what (breath) things can (breath) you do (breath) to suggest that vocally?”
You add maybe an adenoidal thing or you just do that shortness of breath that someone who is super heavy might have. Or, sometimes, you don’t do that, and you play against that and simply let the visuals work for themselves. That’s generally decided in collaboration with the creators.
When we did “Futurama,” Hermes was just a bureaucrat who happened to have these little twists or short, dread-type things. It wasn’t until I think the third or fourth episode that somebody said, “What if you were Jamaican?” It wasn’t conceived that way, but then we added that and ended up having to go back and re-record the first three episodes to add the accent. It really gave the writers more to work with.
LKR: How much input do you have when you’re collaborating? Have your ideas ever changed the way a character is drawn?
PL: Generally, in American animation, the visuals are pretty set before the voice actors are brought in. It’s very rare that we will have input on the way something looks because it is a conveyor belt. The first thing done is they design the characters. Once they design the characters, they come up with a story. Then, they storyboard it out, so the motion and the movement and the visuals are there by the time they bring in voices.
The influence that actors have is a little less direct. When a writer writes a joke or a tone to a character and you’re able to make it really pop, that writer is more likely to go back to that well again. “Oh! I remember I wrote this line for him that one time. Let me do this again in this episode!” (This happens) especially where there’s comedy, but I think also with character. With “Justice League,” (in John Stewart’s voice) “the hardness of John Stewart, the military-ness” that they wrote, I tried to convey. When that works, it makes the writing easier, and the writers tend to go toward that path of least resistance. They’re not going to go against what’s working. So you find yourselves creating the path as you guys walk it. “Well, we were going to go this way with the character, but now it feels like it works better when he does this kind of thing.” And stories might start to turn in a direction.
We were talking about ethnicity earlier. They cast Maria Canals as Hawkgirl, and Maria does not have a highly pronounced Latin accent at all, just a little bit of a hint of something. but once the Thanagarian invasion storyline came about, they said, “Well, we’ve already established that we’ve got a Latina actress playing Hawkgirl. What if all of the Thanagarians are Latin or Hispanic?” It became this wonderful little subtext that they all had something in common that separated them from the Earth people, and I don’t think that was something that was planned. They got Maria, and she was great for the part, and it expanded from there. She affected the writing in that way.
LKR: Are you still a comic book guy?
PL: Oh yeah, yeah. I buy new comics every Wednesday.
LKR: What is your typical pull list?
PL: Well, FABLES just ended so that leaves, SAGA, CHEW, POWERS, LAZARUS, AMERICAN VAMPIRE, THE WALKING DEAD, INVINCIBLE, BUFFY, plus whatever else I might try out in a given week. I’ve found the number of DC or MARVEL issues I read drops every time there’s a big crossover event.
LKR: For some comic book fans, the story is the most important thing to rouse and maintain interest, and for others it is the art. Which holds your attention more?
PL: I used to follow artists like Neal Adams, George Perez, Bill Sienkiewicz, and John Byrne; now I follow writers like Mark Waid, Gail Simone, Robert Kirkman, and Greg Rucka.
LKR: What is your favorite comic right now?
PL: Right now, I am deep into LAZARUS by Greg Rucka; it’s just a great book. It’s my favorite book this week.
LKR: Do you have a role that would be a dream role to voice from the comic book world?
PL: That’s so funny! I think because my comic book reading predates my voiceover work, I’ve never really connected the two. Oddly enough, I don’t hear the voices of the characters when I read the comics. I’ve had people say to me, “Whenever I read John Stewart, I hear your voice,” and I’m like, “Oh really?! Oh yeah, ok, that’s weird…” (laugh) There are a bunch of books that I love, and I’d love to be a part of any of them, like THE WALKING DEAD. That’s a comic that I just love to the point where I called my agent and tried to get an audition for the show when I heard there was going to be one! And there are certainly books now if they were going to do an animated INVINCIBLE or CHEW– wait; what am I talking about! Yes, any comic that I love, I would love to be the voice of!
LKR: Are you enjoying voiceover work more than other types of acting or do you maintain a balance between the various areas?
PL: I still do theater, film, television, as well as animation. Whatever comes along. I think in the last several years, I’ve done more animation than the others, but part of that is that it takes less time. To do a movie takes months. To do a tv show takes at least a week. In animation, you can do a half- hour show in 4 hours, go and have lunch, then do another one.
LKR: You mentioned that you enjoy doing theatre and I know that you have significant experience in Shakespeare productions. Do you have a favourite role or play from the canon?
PL: I used to love the comedies, but I did a production of “The Tempest” and got to play Caliban, and I’m still in love with that character. There are a lot of productions that sort of gloss over it, – “Oh, he’s just this animal type of guy!” – but when you really dig into that play and that character, he is the wild child; he is the slave. He is also the mother’s son. There are so many levels there. It’s very unlike a lot of Shakespeare’s other characters. He’s neither the hero nor the villain, really, although I think a lot of productions play him as the villain, like Shylock, but he’s not. How is he the villain? He’s oppressed! It’s a really complex, and I think, underappreciated character.
LKR: When you’re performing Shakespeare the use of rhythm and breath and tone is so important. Do you feel like you use that when you’re creating a new character?
PL: Absolutely, because one of the things that they depend upon us for in television animation is being able to do multiple characters. In order to do multiple characters, you’ve got to be able to distinguish between ways of speaking. How can I make this character sound different form the other character? I only have the vocal range that I have, but then you find that with pitch and rhythm especially you can change the approach to the character almost completely just by slowing down or speeding up. Personally, I’ve always found that fascinating. In terms of accent (for example), someone who’s from the South but doesn’t have a Southern pronunciation, but still has a Southern rhythm to their speech. That’s something I always try to catalogue in my brain and use that when creating characters. Approaching Shakespeare is wonderful in that way because learning it makes you conscious of how you speak. You’re not just saying words on a page; there’s a rhythm to them, and that rhythm connotes meaning and emphasis in ways that you have to be aware of, and it makes you aware of it in normal speech, too.
LKR: You play a straight-laced anchorman on “The Weekly Show,” which premiered on August 25th on TV One. It’s being described as “The Daily Show” meets “The Larry Sanders” show. Has working with this ensemble been similar in any way to your time on MadTV?
PL: It’s been very different. First because it’s unscripted, so there’s much more improvisation than MADTV and also because the group of us have been working together for years on stage in The Black Version improv show rather than being pulled together by some producers just for this show.
LKR: Can fans find the show as a part of TV One’s regular Tuesday night schedule?
PL: That’s up to TV ONE.
LKR: Thanks for talking to ComiConverse!
I, for one, sure hope that “The Weekly Show” gets put into the line-up! While we wait for that, check out clips from the show and let TV One know what you think!
Phil Lamarr is a well known voice in modern animation, but we will always think of him as the iconic voice of Green Lantern John Stewart on the Justice League Animated Series. Follow him on Twitter: @phillamarr.
L. K. Roberts is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @Lyderary