Interview with Peter Cullen by Whitney Matheson

May 4, 2009  |  Articles, Audio Technology

Hmmm… as a followup to my Transformers post I decided to go see if any significant interviews were made with Peter Cullen in case there wasnt and I can go do one myself.

Alas there was one done by Whitney Matheson of Pop Candy (part of the USA Today conglomerate) and here it is:

A chat with … Peter Cullen, aka Optimus Prime

Oh, how I wish the younger version of me were here to read this interview …

Even if you don’t recognize Peter Cullen‘s name, you’ve probably heard him — the actor has voiced husky Transformers hero Optimus Prime for 20 years, and he appeared in nearly every popular cartoon during the ’80s: The Smurfs, Snorks, Gummi Bears, Ghostbusters, G.I. Joe, Voltron, the list goes on. In recent years, he has also voiced Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh cartoons.

Recently I chatted with Cullen about what it’s been like to play an Autobot for two decades, and what he thinks of the upcoming live-action Transformers movie, in which he’ll reprise the role. If you’d like to meet him in person, he’ll appear at this weekend’s BotCon in Lexington, Ky.

Me: I grew up hearing you in several cartoons — how did you get into voice work?

Cullen: For me, it goes back to my early childhood. I had a penchant for doing sounds. … I could do dogs and cats and cows and horses and little things like that. When I became an actor, I studied with the National Theatre School in Montreal, Canada. As a young actor, I would be invited to the CBC radio drama department to do voices for different chraacters, and I found that I could do quite a few of them. I wasn’t a visual presence, and I found it easier to construct a voice from the written page.

That easiness never left me, and when I did television, I would do impersonations. On The Sonny and Cher Show, I did Peter Falk as Columbo, John Wayne, Kissinger, Nixon. When I got out of the television part of the industry … (an agent) said if I committed to just voiceover, he would give me 100% of his time.

Do you remember the first big paycheck you got?

I did a radio drama with some very important people — Christopher Plummer, Julie Harris — it was called The Lark, which was a Joan of Arc story. I got a check in the mail for $90. This was back in 1959 … and I was walking by a travel agency and saw a sign that said, “Bermuda: $90 return.” (Laughs) I said, “Oh, my god, I can go to Bermuda and back just by talking?”

So what was your first cartoon gig?

It was Mighty Man and Yuk with Frank Welker, a silly little cartoon that I transformed into a little superhero.

How did the role of Optimus Prime come along?

It was a cattle call, really. I rememer being very, very confused. I said, “What is this? A toy?” I had no idea what it was all about. Then I read the character breakdown, and it was pretty straightforward. One of them was to be the lead of the Autobots, and his character was described as a leader … I had always kind of kept in the back of my mind the idea of what a hero would sound like if I ever got the opportunity. It fit really well.

So they didn’t give you any instruction on how he should sound …

No. Like all characters, they’ll give you the words, and they’ll give you a picture of what the character looks like, and it’s up to you to come out with what you think it would sound like. When I do animal cartoons or funny cartoons, I always look at the body structure to see how big a frame they have or how small … would he sound like tuba, or would he sound like a trumpet?

I think Optimus was more — his voice came more of substance of character. I kind of modeled Optimus Prime’s voice out of many people I had known over the years, my family especially. My brother was a captain in the Marine Corps, and a very big hero in my life. His approach to serious situations was always calm and controlled an authoritative. So my brother is in there. Even my dad, too, (and) former friends who have now departed but are strong in my memory.

What did you think when you saw the script for Transformers: The Movie (1986) and realized they were killing off your character?

(Laughs) I was in the studio with the guys, because we sight-read most of the time — we go through our parts, and then we start rolling. I was reading through it, and I turned to Frank Welker, and I said, “Frank! These guys are bumpin’ me off! I’m gettin’ smacked!” He says, “What?”

“Yeah! Look at this! I’ve got a death scene here! Geez! Ah, well. There go the car payments.”

Wow. Not even a warning. Nothing.

Not a bit.

And what about the reaction from fans?

I don’t remember any overwhelming reaction from anybody. But then I wasn’t really in any way aware of what the kids were thinking. I didn’t have any thermometer to tell me how popular the show was. I do remember that the movie was not a very big financial success.

Though you must’ve gotten fan letters …

No, that’s one thing about that series. I never saw a fan letter. I don’t know who got them. That’s why I was so surprised so many years later to find out that he was so popular. I didn’t know.

And now you’re working on the live-action Transformers movie. Were you approached for the part right away?

No. I (heard) the movie was going to be done, and then I heard rumors that big actors … were being considered for the role. And that’s when I found out about (my) fan base — I was very, very surprised. That’s when I started thinking, “Gee whiz, I hope these guys get what they want. Then I started saying, “Boy, I hope I get it, too!”

I finally got a call from my agent. I met with Michael Bay, the director, and I didn’t hear anything for a little while. And then when I met with Michael again. I guess he had a few feelings that he wanted to rectify in his own mind, and then go over a couple of scenes, and then he realized that, yes, I could in fact act.

What work have you done so far?

I haven’t done a thing. I’ve signed a contract, and that’s all. But I don’t anticipate any work for at least a couple of months.

And here’s the big question: After all these years, why do you think Optimus Prime has stuck around and resonated with so many people?

Rather than stick my foot in my mouth by saying I’m a real authority on the entire history of the Autobots and Ultra Magnus and Cybertron and the Matrix and everything … I’m not. I’m really not. I’m more atuned to what my character represents, and I play it accordingly. I played each scene for what it called for.

The only thing I can say is that my character remained constant. I applied a sense of my own interpretation of what I would’ve liked a hero to have sounded like in my life, rather than screaming and big guys with attitude, pretending to be tough and all that stuff.


2 Comments


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