Phil LaMarr: A Man of Many Voices

Phil Lamarr

At the MCM London Comic Con this May, voice actor Phil LaMarr took to one of the more intimate stages to talk about his career and wow audiences with the range and talent he’s showcased in the past 20+ years.

Comically defying the invitation to take a seat at the offset, LaMarr showcased a cheerful playfulness one hopes many stars possess. Easing into his conversation on stage, he’s reminded that while he’s become such a great presence as a voice actor, some may also recall his infamous role in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where John Travolta accidentally shoots his character Marvin in the face.

“It was a small part, maybe five or six lines, but I knew I could not get cut out of the movie. They cut me out and they lose the entire 45 minutes of ‘Why are they covered in blood?’ ‘Where did all that blood come from?’” He said joking about how integral his small role actually was in the cult classic.

When asked about the leap from “actual acting” to “voice acting”, LaMarr went all faux-serious, quipping: “Oh damn. You did not just say ‘actual acting’”. As the discussion expanded, LaMarr began to describe how voice acting is no different to face acting, other than what’s actually being seen on screen. “Everything else is the same. You’re still using your body. A singer uses their body just as much as a dancer does, just in a completely different way.”

On a question posed contemplating the range of the human voice and how there can only possibly be a finite amount of voices a voice actor can do, LaMarr explained, “I spent many years trying to come up with new voices every single time and then I realised ‘Oh wait a minute, the voice is only one small section of the character. The writing and the animation make up most of it.’”

Samurai Jack“It’s funny, because on the show Samurai Jack most of the time I was working with Mako (Iwamatsu), who was the voice of Aku, the evil demon wizard. And Mako has a very distinctive voice. [Imitates] ‘Mako sounds like this! In everything he does!’ So once they cast him in a Samurai Jack episode as another character, and me thinking ‘Voice acting’s about playing as many voices as possible, he’s going to sound like the same guy! That’s crazy, you can’t cast him as a different character!’ and he proceeded to not mask his voice, he just acted the character in a completely different way than how he acted Aku, and when you watch that episode, you can’t tell it’s the same person.”

“And I was like, ‘Oh. It’s voice and acting! It’s not VOICE and acting…’ It’s not about metamorphosing every single time, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you just have to play this character. This character is going to be different than the other character.”

LaMarr then went on to explain how two different characters he played – Sig in Jak and Daxter and Jon Stewart, the Green Lantern – are on similar footing voice wise, but the real difference is in the acting. Sig is more upbeat while Jon Stewart is “a little more serious; he’s a military man. So even though they’re similar voices, they are completely different characters.”

On the subject of preparing for roles, LaMarr said that he didn’t tend to do much deep character study, but rather he reads the material, talks with the creators, and tries to figure out what they are trying to get across. “The hardest thing to do is something that’s badly written,” he said.

One of his favourite roles to voice is Vamp in the Metal Gear Solid franchise. After doing one fantastic piece of dialogue as Vamp on stage, LaMarr went on to explain that he loved doing it because it was a series he was already into before he was cast. When Metal Gear Solid 2 came around for casting, LaMarr said “I just want to audition for anything. I think I also read for the DARPA chief.”

VampSome of the most interesting things to hear about from a voice actor is the different processes and methods they’ve used recording voice work for video games and cartoons and the like. Metal Gear Solid 2’s sounded interesting. LaMarr described how the Japanese voice work and animation was already done, which left LaMarr and the others to dub over the lip synch. On that project, they saw the wave patterns of the Japanese voice cast’s speech and they had to match that with the English lines before the line stopped. “So you’d be sitting there watching this voice going ‘Well…I–[Rapidly speeds through the rest of the line]’ You know? It’s a difficult kind of acting, it’s like ‘Act, create, build the character, make it your own…Just be done by the time he’s done.’ A challenge in many aspects, but it came out incredibly, incredibly well.”

Many other projects LaMarr had worked on were discussed, including having to re-record lines for his character Sam B in Dead Island, because after the amazing trailer that was released for the game that was dark, emotional and serious, the developers behind the game realised that the more comical game they had swiftly needed to change. Which also meant that LaMarr’s lines became less and less about comic relief. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember the rap that he did as the character, which would have made for a great performance.

But he made up for that tenfold with all of the impressions that he did. LaMarr showcased so much of his voice acting talent and impressions that panel, and a highlight was tone perfect impressions of Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Chris Tucker, Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, and Chris Rock.

When things got kicked over to the audience to ask questions, a lot of inquiries involved requests for voices for LaMarr to do, including his roles as Hermes in Futurama, Ollie Williams in Family Guy, as well as more Vamp, Aquaman, and more.

For a voice actor who was not one for coming up with a range of voices for his characters, one truly got a sense of the breadth of his skills, disappearing into his characters one by one, then re-emerging with a smile on his face and soaking in the joy and laughter from the audience.

Other questions that didn’t lead into requests for voices garnered interesting answers, such as discovering that LaMarr’s influences and heroes growing up included, in the following order: Sidney Poitier, Humphrey Bogart, and Bugs Bunny.

But the final question and answer resonated. In a world of sequels, remakes, adaptations and the like, it’s inevitable that characters are to be portrayed by other actors at some point. For example: Peter Parker/Spider-Man and The Joker.

JazzIn relation to LaMarr’s career, a question was posed about his role in Transformers Animated, to which LaMarr went on a tangent to talk about having a tough act to follow. He spoke of how Scatman Crothers originally played Jazz – a character LaMarr was later cast to play. To him, Crothers’ Jazz was a voice so ingrained in memory that LaMarr didn’t want to be an imitation of that. He went on to talk about how they worked to build a whole new voice that only harkened back to the original, rather than being a carbon copy.

After this, LaMarr then went on to discuss Scooby-Doo, and how the originator of the voice of Shaggy – Casey Kasem – had his lines temporarily filled by a really good impression by Spongebob voice Tom Kenny. Once Kasem arrived to record the actual lines, LaMarr discovered that “The difference between Tom Kenny’s really, really good Shaggy, and the real Shaggy was that when you heard the real Shaggy, it made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It made you ten years old sitting in front of the TV again. It’s like your parent’s voice. Your mother’s voice now does not sound like the same it did when you were four, but it kinda does. If you hear your mother’s voice, it’s her voice, no matter what. The same thing with Scatman Crothers, with Shaggy. When you hear the real thing, it gets a visceral reaction in your body that even the best imitation can’t.”

And he’s right. And when you heard each and every voice that Phil LaMarr originated, you’re instantly transported back to those worlds, those moments in your life.

Which isn’t bad coming from the man whose biggest role 20 years ago was getting shot in the face by John Travolta after a handful of lines.

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