MTV Geek: How did you create that distinctive voice for Optimus Prime?
Peter Cullen: It all centers around the audition I had. On the very first day I was introduced to Optimus Prime , my brother Larry – a former Marine who fought in Vietnam, who was an officer and a recipient of a bronze star, and quite a leader – said, “Peter, don’t be one of those funny Hollywood heroes – be a real hero, you don’t have to yell and scream and act tough and pretend. Be gentle enough – because if you act tough, you can’t be gentle.” He’s about thirteen months older than I am, and about five inches taller, so he has a lower voice than I do – so I guess that’s where the voice part comes in, I was doing an impersonation of my brother Larry and applying his principles of leadership.
Geek: I guess that’s what always struck me about Optimus Prime’s voice – it sounded like a real person’s voice, and he didn’t have to force it. His voice sounded like there was a lot of integrity there, and I think a lot of people respond to that.
PC: Well, that’s the way I left the house that day, with that voice in my mind, thinking: this is the way to go, this is a home run. And I thank my brother for it to this day. We have a lot of fun going back-and-forth, and referring to him as the “real” Optimus Prime.
Geek: Why do you think that Optimus is still so beloved and remembered by fans?
PC: The character was very well-written, and there’s always the point about the characteristics staying the same all of these years. The words are easy to say, and by maintaining that strength of character – he’s honest, and full of integrity, nobility, a sense of responsibility, passion – I think that and more is present with everything he says. You have to be aware of keeping those traits together, and I often wondered if it sounded any other way… I can’t find any other way to do it without putting in jeopardy the loss of those character traits.
Geek: Would you say that the Optimus in Transformers Prime is the same one as in the original series in terms of characterization, or are there differences?
PC: It’s going back to relying on the strengths of character, and expressing those traits. The writing is consistent with that of the original series, though in this new version – as in the movies – he has a lot more communication with earthlings, and so he tries to be a little more Earthlike. But 99% , I would say, is like the original Optimus.
Geek: You’ve done countless voices for cartoons over the years – which ones do you consider your favorites?
PC: That’s a hard question to answer. And it’s really difficult to remember all the voices I’ve done. I base the voice primarily on how each character looks like; pick a lower voice for a bigger guy, and a higher voice for a smaller guy. I try to find something to make the people laugh in the studio first – if I can make my fellow actors laugh I know I’m onto something. But there are times when they will throw a voice at you in the middle of a recording, and they say: “Hey Peter, can you play this role here, a little guy?” And I’ll throw a voice back, and they might respond: “Nah, do you have something else?” But I’ve had fun with all the characters I’ve done. To get more specific, I’ve enjoyed doing Eeyore for all those years, until I was recently replaced by someone else…that was quite a shock. I didn’t understand why…still to this day I don’t. But then again, that’s another company… But I loved Eeyore, I thought he was always fun to do, and one of the primary reasons was because of the impact he had. Oftentimes people will come up to me with this endearing, loving reaction about Eeyore: “Awwww!” Whereas with Optimus Prime it’s “Hey man, hey dude!” But I’d say definitely Eeyore.
Geek: I read your entire list of credits on the IMDB, and I was bowled over by how many you’ve done.
PC: You see, that’s what happens when you stick to something and don’t change careers in mid-stream, you plow on – and before you know it, it’s adding up and adding up. And it takes on a life of its own.
Geek: I heard that you’re good friends with the man who provides the voice for Megatron, Frank Welker.
PC: I call him “the king.” He’s one of the most genuine, wonderful guys a person could have the pleasure to work with, I’ve worked with him several times over the years, and we are good friends. He is a talented man, multi-faceted, and to try to explain what the conditions are like working with him in the studio are almost impossible. You would first have to imagine the constant laughter, and holding back the laughter, while the mikes are hot. There’s no way to explain it, but one of the happiest experiences of my career is being in the studio with Frank Welker. And it’s not just voices, he does sounds…at any given moment, he’ll do a sound that will just make your jaw drop. He’s the best.
Geek: What is it like working with him again now in Transformers Prime?
PC: We settled right into it, and got right back to it. I missed him doing the feature film, but we’re working together now on Transformers Prime in the studio with a tremendously talented group of people. And Frank and I are probably the eldest of the group but we have so much fun with the younger people in the group, especially the teenagers. I just wanted to mention too –Transformers Prime series is coming out pretty soon, and you will get an opportunity to see the talent that is in this cast…they are some of the most pleasant and understanding people who care for each other that you can imagine…and that will be translated through our microphones and into those characters on the screen. I think it’s going to be a very bright future for this series, and for the fans.
Geek: Do you have any other projects you are working on at the moment, or are looking forward to?
PC: I’ve been involved with NASA, and it started a few years back, during their 40th anniversary. They came up with an Optimus Prime award to be given to a student who participated in the NASA program for young people, and I’m going back to Colorado Springs in April to be part of that award ceremony. I talked with NASA about doing things with the Hub network, about a NASA-based Optimus Prime collaboration for younger kids and teenagers. Whether it goes through or not I don’t know, but I think it’s a natural fit. And if it happens there will be another show on the Hub network with me voicing Optimus Prime. So that’s pretty exciting.
In the feature film coming out this Summer, they have Neil Armstrong, a former astronaut, and Buzz Aldrin — Optimus has a scene with Buzz Aldrin, and this is where it all started to come together in my mind. I thought, wow I really got to get these guys and Optimus together after the movie. Maybe we can do a series of some kind.
Geek: How is it like working on the movies?
PC: I get to work with Michael Bay a lot, and I have a tremendous respect for him. He is a born leader, a born general. I akin him to Schwarzkopf and great generals of the past who can put together some huge thing and pull it off. I’ve had a chance to work with him on set, and with some of the actors and actresses. And for me that was a real change, because normally I work in a little room, in front of a screen with a microphone, with somebody with a camera focused on my lips — which is a little disconcerting. Working on the movie was really very exciting!