Longtime fan of comic books and their various adaptations. Aspiring writer who works in advertising for nonce.
We at ComiConverse are pleased to present an interview session with Jim Cummings, the prolific voice actor who famously played Darkwing Duck, and who has brought to life countless other beloved Disney characters in the last three decades. Amidst samplings of his many spectacular voices, he also offered heartwarming anecdotes and some useful acting advice.
TH: Thanks for taking time to ComiConverse with us!
I know you were originally in a band and worked in a video store before booking your first role. What pushed you into becoming a voice actor?
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JC: Well, I knew I was gonna do that probably since I was around four or five. I’d seen Mel Blanc and Paul Winchell on TV, and they were doing things that would’ve gotten me in trouble – kicked out of class or the dinner table. I thought, ‘They’re doing it. They’re having a good time and making a living.’ I didn’t have a specific aim, but I knew I was gonna do something like that.
I just made a demo tape and showed it around to a few people, and a customer at the video store said he’d show it to Don Bluth. At first, he said he didn’t have anything but he’d keep the tape just in case. And he actually did. A few weeks later, the guy calls me up and says, ‘Well, you don’t suck. Why don’t you come up and audition?’ So I auditioned on my day off, and I got the role. And I just never looked back. Since then, I sing, act, paint pictures for a living – all those things, but no dancing. You don’t wanna see me dance.
TH: How do you approach the work that you do as opposed to live-action performance?
JC: It’s the same thing, only you don’t get to use your face. You’re cheating when you can use your face. We’re all actors in the voiceover world. But the thing is we’re character actors, you know? People say I do all these voices, but it’s only because I’m doing the characters. And that’s just how they sound.
TH: So you approach it by building a character first and then creating their voice from there.
JC: That’s the nuts and bolts of it, yeah. You use the artist’s vision, the director, the producer, the voice director, and you just kind of put it together and form the character from there with his personality and physical characteristics. Then you just swallow that up, stir it around in your head, and something comes out hopefully.
TH: Do you ever consciously worry about making your current character different from previous ones, or do you focus on the creation process and expect the outcome to naturally be different?
JC: I don’t really think about it. That happens. It’s kind of a corny word, but it’s organic. Just built into how he sounds. You conjure up that guy, and there’s his voice. If I stop to think about it, I’ll probably mess myself up.
TH: One of your most iconic characters is Darkwing Duck. How did you feel stepping into a show built around a character you helped create from scratch?
JC: You know, I didn’t really think of it that way. He was Darkwing, and he just evolved. Tad Stones had a great character and vision, with great writers and Ginny McSwain, the voice director. It’s alchemy, a little bit. You stir it around, see what you want it to be. We knew we didn’t want ‘quack quack quack!’ Enough of that. He had a big ego and acted like he had tons of superpowers, but he didn’t have one. He was all gadget-based, and he was all Batman-esque. But he did it with bravado, and he certainly did it with style. So he was enormous fun.
TH: Would you say his Batman qualities were part of Darkwing’s lasting legacy? How did the kids of the day react to your show and character?
JC: It was so fun. My eldest daughter was in 5th grade at the time that Darkwing became really popular, and she would go to school where kids would tease her and call her Gosalyn. She wasn’t real pleased about it, but I said, ‘It could be a lot worse.’ How bad is that? That’s only just so bad.
I remember one Halloween, it was my turn to take my daughters trick-or-treating while Mom stayed home and passed out candy. So we got back, and these two little boys came up. She gave them the candy, and their eyes were wide open, peeking their heads in the door and looking around. Then they look at her and go, ‘Does Darkwing Duck live here for real?’ And she says, ‘Oh! Yes, Darkwing Duck does live here for real. He’s out protecting the other trick-or-treaters.’ And the little one punches the big one and says, ‘I told you! I told you, you dumb booger!’ Cute story, right?
TH: Who were your favorite characters other than Darkwing Duck? And your favorite villain, was it Negaduck? Please say it was Negaduck.
JC: Negaduck was certainly up there. And I used to get a kick out of Herb Muddlefoot, the next door neighbor. He was just straight out of the trailer park – a big glad-handing, used car salesman sort of a guy. It was fun to play Darkwing and also Darkwing’s annoying neighbor, because I got to annoy myself.
And Gosalyn, God bless Christine Cavanaugh. She was amazing. A true character, a great actress and a beautiful person. But I got along with all the characters, especially the ones I played. Negaduck especially was a lot of fun.
TH: How much influence did you have over the writing and direction of Darkwing? Or did you just play what was given to you?
JC: I played around, and I ad libbed a lot. I didn’t write any stories, but I had a heck of a good time making up some lines. Whenever Darkwing got ready to do battle, he would say, ‘I am the terror that flaps in the night!’ And then there would always be one spot in the middle where another line would go in, and then it would end, ‘I am Darkwing Duck!’ I realized that would be his signature early on, so five or six shows in I started ad libbing the middle line.
I am the bug that splatters across the windshield of crime!
It got to the point where the writers would write, ‘It doesn’t matter what I write here, Jim will say something else.
TH: Darkwing Duck was originally going to be more James Bond and less parody. What do you think that would have been like to play?
JC: I know it would’ve been great either way, but I like where Darkwing landed. The funny thing is, he still had elements of that. For instance, J. Gander Hooter was basically J. Edgar Hoover. So he had a relationship with the law enforcement agencies, of course. They relied on him rather heavily to get their job done. And Darkwing was always there to help, whether they wanted it or not.
TH: There have been some comic book versions of Darkwing out, and in a recent Funny or Die video you joked about coming back via Kickstarter. Do you think Darkwing will ever make an actual comeback?
JC: Yeah, if they want to redo it. I always thought they should make at least a made-for-TV movie. The Dark Duck Returns – just do it the way they did with Batman. I would do it today; I would do it right now. It would be so fun. They’re not waiting on me, that’s for sure. There’s plenty of ways they can go about it.
TH: Looking back on your career, what’s been the most challenging role for you?
JC: Boy, oh, boy. Maybe Winnie the Pooh. Making sure that he’s on point. As it was an established character, you have to make sure it at least sounds right. I always say that one way to make sure you’ve got it down is to cough or sneeze or sniffle. Do a hiccup or a groan, and if people hear that and know the character, then you know you’re on the right track. You want to recognize the character from a sneeze rather than dialogue. ‘Hello, my name is Winnie the Pooh, and I want a smackerel of honey.’ Well, now you’ve given it away. Everybody knows who that is.
TH: What’s next for you? What should the ComiConverse community keep an eye out for?
JC: I’m doing a bunch of Puss in Boots episodes as El Guante Blanco. I’m Puss’ mentor, a la Anthony Hopkins in the original Zorro they did years ago. A couple of episodes are out on Netflix now, and we just did a few more last week.
Goldie and Bear is a new series coming out, which marks the second time I’ve been cast as the Big Bad Wolf. The actor who originally voiced him is the same one who did Pete, so I’ve done both his roles. Goldi and Bear is a continuation of the Goldilocks story, in which she and the youngest bear become friends and have adventures in the forest. Jack and the beanstalk’s there, the three little pigs are there, and one of them’s a girl! It’s all very well-written and coming to a TV near you.
There’s gonna be a cool show called Mickey’s Roadster Racers. I’m Pete again in that. He’s great, one of my all-time favourites I jokingly say he’s tied for first place as the oldest Disney character, because he was in the first Steamboat Willy cartoon.
I’m also going to be in Smallfoot, the legend of Bigfoot told in reverse. The yetis try to find out if there really is such a thing as Smallfoot. There’s also a movie called Charming, with Wilmer Valderrama as the prince. I play his dad, with Avril Lavigne, Demi Lovato and Ashley Tisdale as the princesses. He really is charming, he just charms their little guts out and it turns out it’s a curse instead of a blessing.
One really nice thing that’s coming up, which I can finally talk about because it’s in the trailer, is the return of Hondo Ohnaka. He was a Weequay pirate in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and it turns out he’ll be in Star Wars: Rebels now too. I’m glad he’ll be back. Everybody likes a loveable rogue!
TH: Looking forward to all of those. Thanks for taking the time to ComiConverse with us!
Jim Cummings is a legendary voice actor who has helped build incredible stories in franchises from Winnie the Pooh to Star Wars, but to many he will always be the iconic voice of ‘the Terror that flaps in the night’ – Darkwing Duck.
Follow him on Twitter: @JimCummingsAcme
Tatiana Hullender is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @MyrcellasEar