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Voicing the robotic father figure of a generation: Optimus Prime

Activision

Optimus Prime is more than just another Saturday morning cartoon character. He is an icon. With his calming voice and commanding presence, he is a robotic father figure to a faction of transforming androids  ... and to many a gamer. 

We all have voices from our childhood that we remember — James Earl Jones’ threatening voice as Darth Vader in “Star Wars,” Kevin Conroy giving depth to the Dark Knight in "Batman: The Animated Series." But Peter Cullen’s performance as the wise and benevolent leader of the Autobots in "The Transformers" animated TV series from the mid-1980s was so seared into our brains that no one else could possibly have voiced the character of Optimus Prime when the films came to theaters decades later.

And now, after leading the Autobots to survival and freedom in both TV  and film, Cullen has  given life to Optimus Prime in video games — including the new "Transformers: Fall of Cybertron" game which is the best thing to happen to the franchise since the cartoons first came out.

Activision

I recently had a chance to talk the prolific voice actor, who has voiced more characters than I can possibly list here.  And though Cullen is obviously not a nurturing, two-story robot defending the earth, I have to say, he did have an uncommonly kind and fatherly demeanor during our interview.

Here's what he had to say about his unexpected inspiration for Optimus Prime and the power of the voice.

Q: Being who you are, do you end up having a lot of friends asking you to do their voice mail greetings?

Cullen: I have on occasion; it is usually a very, very impromptu moment or perhaps a more formal gathering. I couldn’t do it on a regular basis for sure, but I will do it for someone who expresses a real deep enthusiasm for it, and it’s a pleasure to make someone happy in that way.

Q: What was your inspiration for performing for Optimus Prime?

Cullen: I impersonated my brother Larry who was an officer in the Marine Corps who fought in Vietnam. He was a bronze star recipient as well as earned a couple of purple hearts. We were very close all of our lives, and he was the one who inspired me to be a leader without shouting.

I applied his advice on the day I went to interview for (Optimus Prime). He asked me where I was going and I said I was auditioning for a truck and he laughed and asked "what sound are you going to make?"

I said, "No he is a hero, he actually speaks." And he said, "Well if you are going to be a hero, Peter, be a real hero. Don’t do all the flashy Hollywood stuff, do it from your gut." And so I just did him ... what else am I going to do? I just impersonated Larry. And about seven days later I got the part.

All those many years ago that still sticks in my mind as one of most important moments in my career.

Q: Have you ever resented the character that you have been so well known for?

Cullen: On the contrary, you know Todd, he is such a special character to me because he represents so many great qualities. And he had had such an effect on a lot of kids lives back in the earlier '80s and especially for latchkey kids.

I’ve heard over the years, at a lot of the conventions I've gone to, "Mr. Cullen, you know you raised me." My heart starts pumping in my chest. It's a gut feeling, you know, because they are totally sincere and I realize the affect I had years ago. So it becomes a responsibility to never sway away or to vary the characterization. 

Q: What are some of the challenges of expressing a character with just voice?

Cullen: It’s not really that difficult. All I do is identify the traits and maintain them. I don’t venture very far from the concrete stable platform he has been conceived of. That makes it relatively easy. I think, of course, there are times you have to be emotional about it, but I’ve always believed less is more. And if I don’t feel honest about it, I will redo it.

Q: Is that your chief concern: honesty?

Cullen: Definitely. I think most actors try to convey that. I studied acting when I was a young man (laughs) many years ago and realized that, if I infused honesty into my portrayal, then the reception would always be so much stronger.

Q: What is remarkable about your fans?

Cullen: I love them. I’ve met such a cross section of people over the years. They are a warm wonderful group of people and I think that pulls the feelings out of me because of their genuine appreciation, which is always humbling.

It is always a surprise to me because, how many people during an average day in their life get compliments? One of things I hold dearly in raising children and now grandchildren is that I've always found that encouraging somebody and caring enough to encourage and to never let them down is a wonderful feeling. And I get that from my fans.

I hate to say 'my fans.' it sound so grandiose. i’d rather say 'my friends.' They recognized what’s inside of me and I’ve recognized what’s inside of them and that is a bond of some kind.

Post Script

After the interview was over, Peter and I said our goodbyes. But then he told me to wait one second. There was a moment of defening silence, and then this booming voice:

"This Is Optimus Prime. you've reached Todd Kenreck's phone number, he is not available. At the beep leave a very short message. Thank you."

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