Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots and animated role model for generations of geeks, would be nothing without his voice — so, really, the hero you have to thank for years of service isn’t Prime himself, but voice actor Peter Cullen.
Cullen, who also provides the iconic voice of Eeyore the donkey of “Winnie the Pooh” fame, first breathed life into the cybernetic lungs of Optimus Prime in the 1980s “Transformers” animated series and movie; and he’s still at it, providing the voice of the transforming hero in all three of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies, most recently “Dark of the Moon.” For many fans, Cullen’s is one of the most memorable, beloved voices of our childhood — and it’ll please you to know that, fans, he loves you, too.
With “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” arriving on Blu-ray today (September 30), MTV News sat down for a one-on-one chat with Cullen about Optimus Prime and his heroic legacy.
MTV News: Peter, you’ve been associated with Optimus Prime for many years and through multiple versions of the character. He’s a figure that means a lot to a lot of different people. What does he mean to you? What does it mean to play this iconic character?
Peter Cullen: I have to tell you right off the get go, it’s probably one of the most important moments of my life, right from the beginning until this day. Certainly it’s transcended decades in my life, curiously and interestingly, with its ups and downs and ins and outs. It’s had a great influence on my life. I might add that it increases when I realize the effect it’s had on some people. Those are all positive and good things. It’s quite the unique position to be in, and quite frankly I never could have imagined it from the beginning — but that’s how life is! [Laughs]
Well, the character certainly has endured a lot in his time!
He certainly has. From Generation 1, and still I’m reminded that there are genuine Generation 1 fans who have a hard time letting go of their childhood concept, but I share that with them as well. To see where it’s gone… it’s mind boggling, especially with technology. You expect that to happen; you can’t stay in the Middle Ages somehow, but the technologies today are so advanced and it’s a daily discovery. There’s something new every day.
When you first found out that the “Transformers” movies were happening — and it had been a little while since your version of the cartoon was on the air — what was your reaction to the news? How did you feel knowing these classic characters were going to be revisited in such a big way?
I was excited, and at the same time, I was a little apprehensive, because I had no idea whether or not I’d be included. I didn’t want to get excited about it because I’m used to, as most actors are, being rejected one way or another. [Laughs] You audition every day, it seems. Most people go into a job and they submit their resume and they may be there for the rest of their life, but an actor’s last job is his last job. So I didn’t want to get all that excited for fear of being let down. But that’s a normal actor ploy: you condition yourself. You muscle up to it.
But for me, I was apprehensive, as I said. I had mixed feelings. But when I was finally cast as Optimus Prime, I was elated. But more so because of the fan base that was responsible for [the casting]. I developed an immediate relationship with this invisible base, but I knew they were on my side, and I adopted them immediately. I love them, you know? Quite frankly, I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a core experience: I affected their lives, they affected mine. It’s quite unique.
The character you’re playing in the movies, it’s a different continuity and a different version of Prime than the Autobot we’ve seen you play in the past. Is there a new approach you’re taking when tackling Optimus now, than when you were playing the character years ago?
Yeah, for sure. The one that jumps out most often is his human relationship contact. That takes him out of the cartoon box and now he’s dealing with, in one form or another, with relationships and emotions that normally he would employ back in Generation 1 only at given moments, when he’d be reflective or endearing or emotional in one capacity or another. But certainly in the new concept it’s his relationship with humans that brings him to another dimension. I have to keep considering that without destroying the original concept of Prime, which is pretty basic: he’s the ingredients of what a hero should be, in my mind.
… I’ve described this before, Josh. [Optimus] is personally related to my own experience with a family member, my brother Larry. The story is now becoming a little more open and significant in that my brother Larry passed away in March. His influence on me was definitive. His core values as a marine and as a leader and as a Bronze Star recipient – a true hero, a combat hero. I used Larry [as my inspiration for Optimus Prime]. It’s so easy to draw from him because we were 13 months apart. You can’t forget any of the ingredients that easily… actually, it’s virtually impossible. All I have to do is think of him, and Prime is right there.
Looking specifically at “Dark of the Moon,” everyone involved who we’ve talked to at MTV News has declared this one the best of the three “Transformers” films. How does the movie stack up for you? Do you share that feeling, that this is the best of the bunch?
Oh, I think so. I do. It got off to a rocky start and it was confined by money, literally. They could only animate Optimus Prime for a length of time they had in their budget. Ten thousand moving parts is pretty hard to digitally master. As the success grew, of course, my work increased, but I think [“Dark of the Moon”], from what I’m judging based on the response, is the best. I agree with that. I think it was more entertaining, and god knows where it’s going to go from here.
That leads me right to my next question — we keep hearing that this is it for Michael and Shia, that they’re done, that this is the final “Transformers” film they have in them. But do you see a future for these movies? Do you think they’ll continue on after “Dark of the Moon,” and what would you want to see next?
Oh, absolutely. There’s been more than one director in “Transformers” and when you look at “Transformers” as a brand, the human element is there, but the human element can change a lot faster than you can change an Autobot or a Decepticon. They’ll always be there and the format will probably refreshingly change over time, and who knows where it’s going to go. The imagination, the concept of the great writers, their imaginations just knock me out all the time.
But I think there’s a future for it. I think there should be a future for quality characters, and as long as there’s an influence in the right direction, for a character to convey the good traits of character, I think there will be a demand for that. It’s a positive demand and it has an effect, it has a message, and in the future I hope they spend more time developing the more positive elements of the heroes and the message.
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” is out on Blu-ray today (September 30).