Voice-over actor Peter Cullen is the man with the golden throat, contributing at least one important character to the lives of almost every American child of the last quarter-century.
When Michael Bay began work on his “Transformers” movie (see ” ‘Transformers': Checking Under The Hood For Juicy Plot Details” ), he was inundated with requests to have Cullen return as Optimus Prime, the tough-talking leader of the Autobots he voiced in the ’80s TV show. And sure enough, when Bay announced Cullen’s participation at Comic-Con, the crowd went berserk.
In an exclusive interview with MTV News, the man behind the truck gave us his thoughts on hitting the big screen, beating out George Clooney and forgetting “GoBots.”
MTV: So how does it feel to be back as Optimus Prime?
Peter Cullen: Oh, it’s wonderful. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everybody for their affection for Optimus Prime and for their hard work and dedication.
MTV: Go back to your earliest “Transformers” memory. How did it all begin? Did the concept of talking, transforming cars seem silly to you?
Cullen: Oh, yeah. When I went to the audition, it was a cattle call — so many other actors coming and going that day. I had no idea what it was about; it was so revolutionary at the time. One of the characters, Optimus Prime, was a truck, and I began to understand a little bit of what was going on. When I read the character breakdown, Optimus stood out for being a good leader. I went into the audition with all the ingredients I felt necessary, and I applied them.
MTV: Did you really base the character on John Wayne?
Cullen: No, the John Wayne part of it really just came out in certain expressions. [What I was reading was] almost John Wayne lines, so I had to work to keep Optimus’ own identity. John Wayne has a deep-end voice, and for a truck to have a high voice would be ridiculous. So I had to give him that basic imprint of the low-end voice. John Wayne was never intended to be the sound, but he did come out every now and then.
MTV: On the cartoon show, you also did the voice of Ironhide, correct?
Cullen: Oh, yeah. I did a bunch of them.
MTV: How do you decide: OK, this is the voice of a truck, and this is the voice of a sports car or a helicopter?
Cullen: Well, I have to keep them different. I always try to make a voice to go with the characteristics — if the guy’s a hothead or he’s cool, whatever. The guys who wrote these characters are brilliant, really just incredible brains, very creative people. So all the character traits were plugged in throughout the characters. Ironhide was easy, because he was a troublemaker who liked to disturb things and liked to get it on. I made him one of the good old boys. Like [doing Ironhide’s voice], “Let’s get it on!”
MTV: There were rumors for a long time that somebody like George Clooney would be brought in as Optimus. How did it feel to beat out all those pretty-boy A-listers?
Cullen: I’m happy, and I’m happy for the fanbase. Without the fanbase, I certainly would be on the normal highway route of being looked over. The genuine appreciation I have is to the fanbase.
MTV: In addition to “Transformers,” you provided the voices for characters on “My Little Pony,” “G.I. Joe,” “GoBots,” “Rainbow Brite,” “Voltron” and so many others that meant a great deal to a generation. But a lot of people would say these were soulless commercials trying to sell us toys. What would you say to them?
Cullen: Well, I don’t see it that way. It was a job, of course, doing Saturday-morning animation. But the way I saw it, I was performing for kids sitting on their carpet, staring at a TV while Dad washed the car and Mom was in the kitchen.
MTV: When I was a kid, I assumed that the people behind “Smurfs” hated “Snorks” people, that “Real Ghostbusters” people battled with “Ghostbusters” people, and that the “Transformers” and “GoBots” people were mortal enemies. You did voices on those last two shows. Was there competition?
Cullen: Nobody really put the dots together to consider rivalry on any level. If you were a voice-over actor, you would get the job and do the best you could. There was never any competition with other shows.
MTV: If “Transformers” is a big hit, I figure some studio will snatch up “GoBots” and turn that into a movie. Would you want to make a “GoBots” flick?
Cullen: [He laughs.] Somebody would have to tutor me on it, because to tell you the truth, I can’t even remember “GoBots”! I’d have to look it up in Wikipedia or something. I can’t even remember doing “GoBots” — I just remember the name. Do I sound stupid?
MTV: Oh, no! I’m sure you’ve done so many voices. Are there any other shows that people come up to you to talk about that you don’t remember?
Cullen: Well, there are times, yeah. Generally speaking, somebody will come up to me and say, “You played such-and-such!” And I go, “I did? Well, what did he sound like?”
MTV: In recent years, you’ve been the voice of Eeyore in all these Disney projects. Do you ever find Eeyore accidentally turning into Optimus Prime while you’re in the recording booth?
Cullen: Not really, because all the characters are so completely different. However, Eeyore is my low-end register, and Optimus Prime is down in that area too.
MTV: You were part of the great “Transformers” movie in 1986. Besides the animation, what’s the biggest difference between that movie and Michael Bay’s new flick?
Cullen: Well, I don’t get whacked in this one. [He laughs.] I’m very happy to say that. It’s a huge movie, wonderfully directed, extremely well-written. There is a wonderful excitement in the characters, the newness of it. How Optimus is relating on a more human level is also exciting.
MTV: Lately, various voice actors have been reading into machines that capture every possible sound, preserving them for future generations. Would you be willing to do something like that, so our kids’ kids will still hear Optimus when he comes back again?
Cullen: I don’t see anything wrong with that. I would love to — that would be an honor.
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