Men of Many Voices: Behind the Scenes with Phil LaMarr and Greg Cipes

Greg Cipes and Phil LaMarr roundtable at MCM London Comic Con May 2014 (Kay Ibrahim) (2)

Greg Cipes and Phil LaMarr, both well distinguished voice actors who each have a long list of characters to their name, discussed their love of acting at MCM London Comic Con on Friday, as well as memorable moments in their career, and the sound a bear makes when juggling chainsaws!

LaMarr and Cipes instantly had great camaraderie on stage, and a consistent energy that played off of each other throughout their panel. One of the first questions opened up a can of worms when asked what made the two “decide to get into voice acting”, as LaMarr responded that, for him, “there has never been any decision and it’s actually a little odd to me when people come up and say, ‘I want to be a voice actor’, because, to me, that’s like saying, ‘I want to act on the left side of the stage.’ Why do you want to limit it? Don’t you just want to be an actor?”

Cipes interjected that they do “whatever they let us”, which LaMarr backed up by saying that they do it all; act on camera, voice acting, face acting, and finally Cipes joked this included “hand acting” and began a puppet-like skit on the tabletop with his fingers, voiced by LaMarr.

For Cipes, he grew up with twelve brothers and sisters and spent much of his childhood going on family trips in a camper van where he would be allowed to play around with his father’s CB radio and listen to truck drivers. “I would do their different voices,” he explained, “and my dad said, ‘one day you’re gonna do cartoons’; fast forward years later, I moved out to California and the first audition I ever went on was Teen Titans, and that started my career.”

Greg Cipes and Phil LaMarr panel at MCM London Comic Con May 2014 (Kay Ibrahim)When asked how they’d seen the acting world change in terms of auditioning and performing, LaMarr replied, “As far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t. The job is still essentially the same. We take some imaginary circumstance and make it as real as possible. That to me is the gig, whether you’re doing that in an office, in front of some guy eating a sandwich, or you’re doing it on the stage in front of an audience; or you’re doing it in a booth to a microphone, trying to interpret someone’s writing.”

Coming up with new voices for each role seems like a staggering challenge, especially for someone like LaMarr who has a particularly staggering catalogue of gigs. The two were asked how they came up with a distinct sound for each new character and Cipes described how the inspiration comes in a variety of ways. “For Beast Boy, which was my first audition, I was handed a piece of paper with a picture of this little green dude, and then out of my mouth just came this voice,” Cipes explains, shifting into his distinct and high-pitched Beast Boy voice. “I’d never done it before, ever! I never did that voice. So, it comes from within. Sometimes it’s easier than others.”

LaMarr concurred that a lot of times it’s the drawing that offers a lot of inspiration, if they’re allowed to see it. He joked about the secrecy surrounding some projects in a deep, authoritative voice saying, “We can’t tell you any of the dialogue or tell you about the character. Go.” When he started on Futurama, the character of Hermes sounded completely different, he was simply a chubby accountant originally called Dexter, but it wasn’t working. LaMarr was stopped in the hall one day and asked if he could do a Jamaican accent, and he joked that when your role is in jeopardy, you’ll say you can do anything, just “please don’t replace me!”

Maintaining their vocal chords is obviously a critical element of voice acting and a member of the audience asked if they drank anything in particular, or had a certain method for keeping their throat healthy. Cipes quipped: “Don’t smoke. Ever. It’s disgusting. It’ll mess your voice up. Alcohol dries it up. Coffee dries it up. Green tea… But yeah, there’s vocal exercises you can do.”

Phil answered that he liked to eat a lot before a session and that helped to “lubricate” his voice, “but sometimes I’ll do scales on the piano before I go just to make sure.”

When shows are cancelled, it’s not often that voice actors will see a show get revived, but LaMarr has been called back twice for Futurama and Cipes four times for Teen Titans. Cipes explained, “I started a rumour at Australia Comic Con…” he starts laughing at the story he’s about to tell. “So, Teen Titans was cancelled, and it was cancelled for, like, a year or two, and everyone was like when is the next season? and I’m like, ‘I heard it’s coming back.’ I just said it. And Cartoon Network received more fan mail, like actual written mail, than any other show in existence and that’s what helped bring it back, this rumour that I started.”

Working in a booth can take hours to record; voice actors are stuck in a booth with each other, reading thousands of lines over and over and putting a lot of strain on their voices. Staying ‘sane’ seems pretty difficult, but Cipes said, “it’s all about being insane and sometimes, depending on the group of people, it’s difficult to finish the recording on a show because there’s so much messing around.”

Phil laughed and concurred, “I firmly believe those sessions go faster, that you get those twenty-two pages of dialogue done quicker and at a higher quality than the sessions where it’s like ‘everyone be quiet! Say the line.’ When your creativity flows, you get better work.”

A member from the audience asked LaMarr if he felt as if short lived shows like Afro Samurai or Justice League Unlimited had more story to tell, could the show go on, or had they both finished respectively. “That’s actually an interesting question,” Phil responded. “There are certainly shows that go on too long, although as an actor you never really feel that way, because it’s a job – I would like my job to continue! Justice League, which I really, really would have loved to continue, did feel fairly complete. The stuff that they were doing was so complex, the season long story arcs and all of that, which I don’t think anybody was really doing at the time. I would love for that to comeback the way they’re doing the series now, where it’s like six-twelve episode series arcs, true detective styles. Why’s it have to be this thing where every week it’s the same characters, the same story perpetually so long as anyone will tune in each? How about create a storyline that works for a certain amount of time? I mean, British television does that in the best way, like, what’s the story we want to tell? That’s how long it is. But then you get shows like Teen Titans, which die before their time and there’s more that should be said. Samurai Jack has more to tell as well.”

Things moved on to the slightly more silly as another audience member asked who they would like to work with, if it could be anyone at all. Cipes chuckled that he’d watched The Wolf of Wall Street on the flight over and that he’d like to work with Leonardo, then added, “Actually, I kind of do, don’t I?” referring to his role as Michelangelo on TMNT.

LaMarr bantered back, “You do work with Leonardo on a weekly basis.”

The next question asked what was the weirdest experience LaMarr and Cipes had ever had with a fan. LaMarr described a panel he was on that was all about Futurama returning from the dead – the show was getting revived, and one guy sitting in the front row, dressed in a cosplay that LaMarr didn’t recognise, raised his hand and asked, “Why don’t you guys make more episodes?” LaMarr pulled a face of concern, mimicking his surprise and confusion. “We are…making…that’s what we’ve just been talking about for the last twenty minutes!” He added that the same guy came to get a signing from him later on, just as an announcement said that William Shatner would be doing signings at 2pm, and the guy said, “William who?” The audience tittered as LaMarr expressed that he couldn’t fathom how a cosplayer at a convention didn’t at least recognise the name even if he wasn’t a Star Trek fan.

Cipes couldn’t think of any circumstance that was weird, so LaMarr asked him, “No one’s ever turned up naked in your hotel room?”

Cipes replied, “Well that’s normal.”

A younger member of the audience asked them, if they could crash two cartoons together to make a new one, which cartoons would they be and why? Without much hesitation, Cipes said, “I think Mickey Mouse and the Turtles would be pretty rad!”

Laughing, LaMarr said, “Mickey with a katana!” After a short deliberation on his own choice, LaMarr answered, “Actually, I keep thinking of video games and, I don’t know why, but I would love Metal Gear and King of the Hill. I’m just imaging Snake standing around in all of his clothes, drinking beers…” He went onto mimic Snake’s voice and characters from King of the Hill in an amusing little skit that reflected what would be the entertaining juxtaposition of Metal Gear Solid’s seriousness meets King of the Hill comedy.

LaMarr told a story of one particular session that was strange for him on The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, when they were asked to do an improvised episode. He and Frank Welker, who voiced a bear on the show, were given a series of scenes but told to come up with the dialogue. “The bear didn’t speak,” LaMarr explained. “The bear simply had the disembodied brain of an evil dictator on his head, but he just…” LaMarr proceeded to grunt and snuffle like bear. “We thought, ‘Oh yeah, great.’ The guy who doesn’t have to say any lines – let’s just make a whole episode. Nice.” But, accepting the challenge, LaMarr’s character said to Frank’s, “I want you to take all three of those chainsaws, juggle them in the air, and use them to cut down the fence over the…” LaMarr shook his head and continued, “And you know, [I] just [gave him] this long string of things to do that no one could ever actually do the voice of, because it’s just stuff! It’s just sound effects. But Frank then proceeds to do the sound of a bear juggling three chainsaws. You listen to him like, ‘Oh dear God, that’s what a bear would sound like juggling chainsaws. And I can hear all three.'”

 

After the panel, we managed to snag LaMarr and Cipes backstage to question them further about their experiences in the world of voice acting. They had many more stories to tell…

Greg Cipes and Phil LaMarr roundtable at MCM London Comic Con May 2014 (Kay Ibrahim)

What was your worst audition? What’s one where you came away and thought, ‘No, I can’t believe I did that’?

Greg: There are so many! I mean, immediately, if you have a bad one you’ll just be like, ‘Oh!’ (Greg flips his hands in the air dismissively). You win some, you lose some, and you’re auditioning so much.

Phil: And, you know, you can’t take it back. I do remember a session that was bad, I don’t remember an audition… We were doing a show called Ozzy & Drix where I had to do a Chris Rock voice, which is really up a register, and the recording studio was at the old Warner Brothers. There was a spa in the same building, but I made the mistake a scheduling a massage before my session. I thought, I’ll come in nice and relaxed, but not so much. What happens is you come in as if you have just woken up, and your voice is like… (he pretends to wheeze, then continues in a Chris Rock voice) Not really the best time to try to be doing this! And it was horrible. It was as if I’d just woken up from a deep sleep. I started to sweat; it was frightening. I was like, I’m going to get fired. I’m going to get fired because I can’t do the voice – I can’t do the job. That was scary.

Greg: That’s happened to me before. When you’re voice goes and you can’t do anything about it, those are the worst auditions. That’s why you’ve got to take care of yourself. There have been nights where, in the past, I’ve partied and then had a job [the next morning] and it was a high-pitched one and I was like (Greg undulates in a croaky, high-pitched voice). It just wasn’t happening.

Phil: Right! We’ll do this one syllable at a time. (High pitched voice) I. Am. (Grumbles and coughs.)

Greg: And they’re like, ‘Can you bring in Phil please? We’ve had enough.’

Phil: Well see, Greg, that’s where you have a really good place because you have such a unique, distinct voice and sound. ‘Is there anybody who could fill in? No. We’ll just let Greg take five – warm it up,’ because you can’t get nobody else to do that! Listen to him!

It is quite distinct. You would recognise it as soon as you heard it.

Phil: You would.

Greg: You too, though! I always recognise your voice.

Phil: No, I am Duvall to your De Niro.

Greg: Alright, alright. I’ll take it.

Phil: It’s like [with Greg], Oh, it’s him! I just blend in.

Greg: I was given it, I can’t take credit for it.

Have you ever had fan mail, or met a fan that really sticks in your mind? Someone who’s left a nice lasting impression.

Greg: I’ll show you a picture! My agent called me and said you’ve got a really big package at the agency. And I come in, and there was this in a box. (He shows us a photo of a large painting of his own face.)

Phil: Oh my god, is that…a life size –

Greg: That’s me next to it.

Phil: That’s like a 4×5 painting…

Greg: Of my face.

Is it above your fireplace?

Greg: No, it’s more I pull it out to joke with people. Like, I go, ‘Look, I got you something.’ But it’s beautiful, I mean he did a great job.

Phil: That’s wild.

What kind of painting is it?

Greg: It’s oil. He really nailed it. I mean, my eyes are like…you can’t tell, I don’t know why this picture’s in black and white.

What about you, Phil?

Phil: I remember going to a convention once in Florida and there was a kid who seemed really young, and he said, ‘I just got back from touring the military and I have to tell you that the thing I looked forward to the most was getting these packages from home with Justice League DVDs in them. As the seasons came out, my family would send them to me, and just watching that was my tether to home.’ It was really cool to know that this cartoon that we work on for four hours at a pop, actually did somebody some good in their life.

Greg: That’s the best part.

Phil: I mean, I’m under no illusions, it’s not brain surgery, I’m not saving peoples’ lives, but it is nice to know – to remember that entertainment can serve a purpose other than just burning up an hour of somebody’s life.

Greg: Very often I talk to kids in hospitals now because of the Turtles, so they want to talk to Michelangelo, and it makes them feel so much better; you feel different and you feel it through the phone, they’re like, ‘Oh my God! Thank you!’ and you can hear their sick little voices… I mean, it’s a great responsibility and a great gift. I’m grateful for all the fans.

What performance or show do you least get asked about? What’s something that you’ve done and it just seems to have been forgotten by the wayside?

Phil: There are a lot that I’ve done that are forgettable. I’ve forgotten about them! But I would say there was a show, one of the very first ones I did, called Weekenders, which was my first regular gig I think. It was me, Jason Marsden, Kath Soucie and Grey DeLisle playing these four kids who got together every weekend. It was a really sweet show, it was on Saturday mornings, we did it for a few seasons and then it went away, but it was really good and it was also really special to me because it was my first series. It was with people that I’m still friends with and who I still work with constantly to this day. Every once in a while, someone will mention it, but rarely.

Greg: Astro Boy. I’m Atlas. Again, sometimes kids will say ‘I love Atlas!’ but…

Phil: But not often, right?

Greg: Yeah, because it was never super big in America or, I don’t know, there’s other little roles like W.i.t.c.h.

Did you ever enjoy doing W.i.t.c.h.?

Greg: I did enjoy it.

It’s got two sides of the fandom on that one, where you have fans who are split over the comic and the animation. Have you ever come across that?

Phil: It’s not really the real W.i.t.c.h.!

Greg: No! No I haven’t. Everyone always loved Caleb.

Rebel leader, of course.

Phil: Oh my God, that’s funny.

Do you ever get voice acting requests, or is it all auditions? Does anyone say to you, ‘No, I definitely want Greg Cipes or Phil LaMarr to do this role’?

Greg: Those come, once in a while.

Phil: Usually the things that don’t pay any money.

Greg: It comes from directors that we work with. They’ll be like, ‘Oh, let’s just hire him because we know what he can do.’

Phil: Yeah, the first time I did an episode of Scooby Doo, it was like that. A director name Colette Sunderland, I think she called the night before they were recording like, ‘Can you do a Scottish accent?’ And there was no audition, I just got to show up and do an episode of Scooby Doo with Casey Kasem, Frank Welkem, and the cast of Scooby Doo.

With a Scottish accent.

Phil: (laughter) I think it was me and DiMaggio playing Scottish brothers.

Greg: I’m doing a role in Legends of Korra. I had an audition for that. It usually comes from within the network. When you’re working on a show, the network, they put you in more shows.

Phil: Right, [for you] that’s both Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.

Greg: Yeah, I just did Robot Chicken—

Phil: You did?! Was it a Turtles parody?

Greg: It was! What’s that other Nickelodeon…robot something…? Robot Monster. They come about. It’s nice when you get those calls.

Is there an accent that you find really difficult to do?

Phil: South African is so hard, because it’s got so many variations within it. A little bit more Dutch, a little bit more British… Usually when I hear someone with a South African accent, I’m not really sure.

Greg: Wait, is that Jamaican or…

Phil: Right, right, like, if I can’t classify it I’ll ask, ‘Are you South African?’ and they say ‘Yeah’. It’s like aaah, see! Because I couldn’t tell. Yeah, I can’t do it at all.

Greg: I think all accents are hard. Especially if you’re not using them. For me it’s like a muscle. I gotta really practice. I gotta speak in those accents. Even my English accent, but it’s easier being around you all.

Do you do it do for a couple of days beforehand, or do you just wander around doing the accent for the entire day?

Greg: (in a soft RP accent) Yes, if you have the chance to do that.

Is there an archetype that you find challenging? You’ve got the comedian, or the serious guy, or the angry brave man – is there any that you find really challenging? Some of them can be quite draining, especially if you’ve got to keep up the more stoic characters.

Phil: I would say, for me, any archetype is challenging because it’s impossible to play a type. Well, not impossible, but it’s really challenging because it’s something that’s not specific. So it’s like, he’s the hero! O…kay… (in a deep, bold sounding voice) I’m the hero! You know, what does that mean? It’s so much easier to play a character. Like, I’ll be this guy, you make him the hero. If you have him win, then he’s the hero, right? Because how do I sound (he does the deep, bold voice again) hero, or villain? This guy could be a villain as well. I’m going to crush your head.

That just comes back to good writing, like, good writers don’t write archetypes, they write people, and that’s so much easier to play.

Greg: I find comedy to be a lot easier, for me. I love comedic roles. Straight roles are harder. Maybe because it’s a little less entertaining to do. Straighter roles are a little harder for me, to stay focused on and to have fun with it. I like having fun with it; I like goofing around.

Phil: Can you imagine being Clancy Brown and playing all of those heavies? He’s almost always the badass…

Greg: He does it so well and he enjoys it. You can tell he enjoys it. Straighter roles, like, ‘We just want your [normal voice]’. (Phil laughs hard) Well, there are so many sides to me. That’s so confusing.

Phil: Yeah! ‘He’s just, you know, the guy in the centre, who everything revolves around. Just keep it nice and simple.’

Greg: Especially when they say, ‘It’s just you,’ but the character is like some person in Japan in the 1800s and he’s half dragon, half ant.

Phil: You’re absolutely right, that is the hardest direction, because of what that requires when a director says, ‘Just do you, use your voice.’ I’m like, ‘Okay…who am I to this person?’ You basically end up having to read their mind—

Greg: And then you could disappoint them, too!

Phil: Right! Is this me? Yeah, nine out of ten times I’ll sort of make a subtle character choice. In Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends there’s a character named Wilt and they said, ‘It’s just your voice,’ and it was the same thing. He’s a nine foot tall, one-eyed, red, imaginary thing. So I had to think, if I was a nine foot tall, red one-eyed, imaginary friend, I would sound like this… And I just could not do my own voice. Otherwise it’s weird.

I know you said that you try to forget an audition as soon as you’ve done it, but is there one that you’ve been so excited for that you think, ‘but I really wish I could get this role’?

Greg: The Turtles were such a huge part of my life growing up. They got me into meditation, surfing, martial arts. It was my favourite show. I dressed up as the Turtles for…I don’t know how many Halloweens. So to have the opportunity to even audition for it I was like, ‘Whooa, this is amazing; I would love to be a turtle.’ My best friend is the creator of the new one, so when he’s like, ‘Dude, you’re Michelangelo,’ I go, ‘Really? Are you serious?’ but I still had to go through a year and a half of the auditioning process. I had, like, ten auditions.

Phil: Of something that you wanted.

Greg: Oh yeah. And then finally I got the call. I was like, (he raises his hands and mimics a holy choir). That was amazing. I could feed my dogs for a while.

Phil: It’s funny because there were a couple of times where I’ve had to audition for iconic characters. A couple of times over the last five years, there’s a man named Wayne Allwine, who was the voice of Mickey Mouse for many, many, many years, and he got sick and so they were looking for people to apprentice under him. It was so tough because I knew Wayne, and he was the sweetest, most amazing man in the world, and I was just like, I can’t do that. I can’t do what he does. And I tried to audition anyway and it was like, ‘Ah, it’s not right!’

Then another time that was several years before, Warner Brothers sent out a thing saying, ‘We’re looking for the Looney Tunes characters,’ and they sent out a CD of Mel Blanc doing all the characters. I listened to it and just…yeah, no. That’s like, ‘Here’s the Bible. There’s a character named Jesus, can you do that?’ No! I can’t. And I didn’t even audition, just because I knew that anything I did was not going to sound right to my head. Even if they hire you to do something, but you don’t think it sounds right, it’s going to be torture.

Well, last question of interrogation for you: is there any seriously memorable prank that you’ve ever played on other actors either in the booth, or on the director?

Greg: We do it all the time, we’re always joking around, especially on TMNT.

Phil: There was that time I described in the panel, where I tried pranking Frank Welker by describing something impossible to do and he just went ahead and did it. The only other time that comes to mind is we were working on – it was with a bunch of Family Guy people – and we were doing this thing that Seth MacFarlane called Seth’s Calocade of Comedy; and they had another voice actor, who was also one of the writers, doing a George Bush impression and the bit was… It was George W. Bush doing a press conference about international happenings in the country of Niger, but mispronouncing it over and over and over again with a hard ‘g’. They said [to me], ‘Okay, the guy who’s doing George Bush is from Kentucky and he’s really sensitive about racial stuff. When he comes in to do this, can you walk into the booth and from the other side of the glass just stare at him and be offended.’

So this guy’s doing the thing and I come in as he’s saying the N-word over and over again, and I’m just like, (Phil pulls a deadly glare and folds his arms). And he can’t hear me but he sees me talking to other people, and I look angry and I’m pointing at him – and he was so upset. Finally, when it was over, we told him that we set it up. But yeah, that was a big prank that really worked.

Greg: Actually, on Ben 10, I would always throw in little curse words in between. I would say things right before Ashley Johnson would say her line. I’d be like, (whispers) ‘Balls in your mouth.’ And then it starts like – because she can’t do the line! Or you just say a bad word. You throw out a little detour before someone’s line and it takes them out of it.

Phil: Especially if they think they’re the only one who heard it – if it’s not on mic.

Greg: Tennis balls in your mouth. Tennis balls.

Phil: Right, tennis balls in your mouth. Which is pretty impressive.

 

Phil LaMarr and Greg Cipes are both talented and friendly actors. It was a pleasure to have them at MCM London Comic Con this year, and if you ever have the chance to attend one of their panels, don’t miss out next time! Their personal stories are as entertaining as their shows.

 

Photos by Kay Ibrahim

 

 

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