Interview: Frank Welker and Peter Cullen On the Return of Megatron and Optimus In 'Transformers: Prime'

A quick note for all would-be interviewers looking to get in a word edgewise with veteran Transformers voice actors Peter Cullen and Frank Welker when you've got them both in the same conversation: give up now and just let these two talk. The men behind Optimus Prime and Megatron have not only worked together for decades on shows outside of Transformers, but are good friends as well, with an easy rapport that you catch almost immediately when they get on the phone. The duo is indispensable to the 25-plus year old franchise, and it would be difficult to image what shape the the two men in their respective roles.

December 6th will see the DVD release of Transformers Prime: Darkness Rising, the Shout! Factory disc collecting the first arc of the new Hasbro-produced CG series on The Hub. Once again pitting the Autobots against the Decepticons in their seemingly eternal struggle, the battle returns to Earth with Megatron planning to escalate the conflict using the "blood" (as much as giant robots can be said to have blood) of ultimate franchise baddie, Unicron.

With the disc on the way next week, we thought we'd chat with Welker and Cullen--or at least let them talk while we listend--about the legacy of their characters, the unique working rapport they've developed over the years, and how innovations in CGI has allowed for more drama in Transformers.

MTV Geek: How are you doing, guys?

Frank Welker: Good morning, Peter.

Peter Cullen: Good morning, bud.

Geek: Are you guys in the same town right now?

Cullen: Uh, yes, we are—just opposite sides, but the same city.

Geek: How have you guys been enjoying working together on the current season of Prime?

Cullen: I gotta say it’s just a wonderful pleasure to be able to see Frank again and to work with him. We’ve reincarnated our glory days of Transformers and picked up where we left off. And it’s a riot.

Welker: Well, I will second that and working with Peter’s always a treat—we never quite know what’s going to happen from day to day, but it sure is great to see each other and reestablish old ties. You know, we have this rivalry of good and evil going back and it’s just fun to do battle with someone who you just like. [both laugh]

Cullen: Frank, I gotta mention this because it came to mind. The very first animated series I did with you—or for that matter, the first series I ever did—was Mighty Man and Yuck.

Welker: Oh! [both laugh]

Cullen: Where it was similar but not. I played a superhero—a millionaire, Brandon Brewster. Do you remember Brandon Brewster?

Welker: Yes, of course.

Cullen: Brandon turned into a miniature kind a Mighty Mouse, a superhero with a cape. And you played the dog, Yuck. We had to put a doghouse over your head and that was the beginning of our superhero relationship.

Welker: Yeah, and it was actually type casting. You were the hero and I was a dog with a house on my head. So, Charles, we’ve had this rivalry from the very beginning. And he’s always the hero and I’m either the villain or the dog with the house on his head.

Geek: What do you think keeps that rapport going after all this time? I mean, one of the most pleasant surprises was finding out that you guys were great friends outside of the VO booth—what keeps you working together?

Cullen: Well, I think it’s chemistry and—from my end—I have such an awed feeling when I’m working with Frankie and it’s no secret that I call him “The King.”

Welker: [laughs]

Cullen: Well, you are. I mean it. And just to be able to work with Frank on a continual basis over the years has always been one of the highlights of my life. I’ve always treasured every moment of it because for some reason that chemistry not only exists in the printed word script that we’re reading but it transcends into the off-mic hilarity and respect that we have for each other—[goes low into Optimus Prime’s voice] at least I hope so, Megatron.

Welker: Oh, absolutely. You know, it is kind of amazing that we’ve had the good fortune of knowing each other for so many years. I think Peter likes me because I always make sure to find a parking spot for him. I’ll take two and always make sure when he gets in he gets one. So, I think that’s one thing.

But as far as our acting goes, when you’ve worked with somebody for so long you tend to build up a rhythm. And when we walk into the studio, we could have been doing bears, or eagles, or cats, or something in another session and then when we walk in, we already sort of have this built-in rhythm from working with each other so that we can just step right into it. And that makes the working relationship really a lot of fun and work great for us, too.

Cullen: Oh, absolutely.

Yeah, there’s more than one moment of laughter. There’s—I’d say, in the process of a four hour session, there would be hilarity moments probably every 15 minutes. Even when you’re not speaking, Frank. Charles, he will do mimes. He’ll hit his knees or make a dramatic sound of some kind, or do something odd like make a little pillow with his head and his cheek, all in silence which will break me up completely and interfere with someone’s perfect read. And they’ll have to do it over because of Frank and me.

Welker: I think you’re giving away our professionalism here, Pete because actually, we work very, very hard. But, there is a certain amount of downtime and people think that Peter is this incredibly hard working, undeterred actor—which he is—but he’s also constantly trying to make me laugh and I’m constantly trying to make him laugh, so that keeps us entertained. And you know, when you’re working with an ensemble cast, those people are on mic, so you have to be very careful. And you figure, “Well, if I start doing mimes, I can do this quietly and see if I can make him laugh. If he does laugh, then he ruins the take, not me.”

Cullen: [laughs] Well, that’s true.

Geek: It sounds like you guys have so much fun together, why don’t we just have a buddy comedy starring you guys?

Cullen: Well that would be fun.

You remember Carl Weathers’ quote? Carl directed us in a long interview for something and there were about 20 questions. We answered two of them. And then they had to go out and get more for their cameras because they ran out of tape and we went on and on and on and on. But Carl Weathers suggested that we go on the road with this.

Geek: I’d watch your improvised animated adventures. That sounds like a good time.

Welker: Well, people don’t realize that Peter does fabulous impressions and I do a few. So we kind of get together and he might do the Duke and I might do you-know-who.

Cullen: [as John Wayne] Well, let’s not do it here, mister.

Welker: [drops an impersonation of frequent Wayne co-star, Walter Brennan] Well, I don’t see why not! We done it before and we might do it again!

Cullen: [still as the Duke] Well, thank you for that, Walter. You’re always a good friend when I need one.

Welker: [as Brennan] Well, somebody’s gotta be your friend.

So we go on and on with that stuff and drive people crazy. But it’s fun for us.

Cullen: Listen, Frank, you’ve been on The Tonight Show and every other leading talk show in the world and I recall a roast that you did on the Dean Martin Roast, and I think it was George Burns and sitting on the dais was the governor of California and soon-to-be-president of the United States Ronald Reagan. You skewered George Burns and you were doing the greatest impressions of people that, today, people might not remember or probably weren’t even born yet.

I mean, I was in awe of you then and I still am. But talk about impersonations, Charles—he does ten to one of what I do. Ten to one. I just keep doing the same ones over and over, he does another one every week. His Obama is fantastic.

Welker: [as Obama] Here’s the deal, Peter, the thing that Charles has to understand is that while Welker may do numbers and numbers and numbers of these things, you do quality. So quality as opposed to numbers is important, especially in this economy we want a lot of numbers, but they’ve got to be quality.

But enough about me.

Cullen: Thank you, Mr. President.

Geek: How does it feel bringing these characters around to a new generation of viewers every few years or so?

Cullen: In my case, it’s been a little longer. When this whole thing started up—when the Hub Network launched, this was probably the most exciting time, to me, following a couple of feature films for Transformers. You know, with Hasbro and The Hub, that combination is such a delight to begin with. They’re wonderful people to work with—number one.

But having provided the opportunity to bring this back to a new generation of kids is a very positive thing and I think it’s at the beginning stages—it’s at a fledgling stage—of great impact and I’m particularly proud of that because there’s so many good things that come out of this cast. And “character” is probably one of the biggest strengths. So many great people. And thank God for The Hub and thank God for Hasbro for brining along, again, a great opportunity.

Welker: Yeah, it’s an especially fun show to work on in this particular iteration because for me, what I like is [with] Megatron, the writing gives you time to develop. With the story, the way it goes from show to show, there’s a lot more time for the characters to develop and for the show to actually develop.

And you know, when we did Generation One, everything moved so fast and that was the style then. And your character’s just—it’s really so, so fast. You never really got a chance to go in-depth with the characters in terms of playing [them]. And here, we have Megatron and Optimus actually spending time talking to one another, still with a lot of fighting, but there’s some time where they’re just talking to each other and it gives a lot more depth to a range performance because you’re down and you’re talking low instead of just constantly fighting. And you get to see a little bit more about why the character feels the way he does and where you’re going.

And the CGI stuff is just absolutely beautiful. It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come from the G1 which we thought was pretty cool back then. But now, the CGI it just stands up and it’s so beautiful. It gives you a lot more dimension, I think, and a lot more room to play. And as Peter said, our cast is just terrific. And working with some of these young folks, to sit and watch their energy and excitement, it’s all brand-new again.

Cullen: So true. You know, Frank, I was not part of seeing the Arclight presentation of Transformers: Prime recently, I had some complications so I missed it. But when you described to me the scene on the big screen, how surprised you were and elated that it was so incredible that you could see an animated feature coming out of this that sparked my interest because just watching television is one thing.

Welker: It stood up so well and seeing it on the big screen, you see the subtleties. And when the characters are actually fighting, a lot of times you don’t see the subtlety on television. And I was truly impressed with that.

Cullen: I still haven’t seen it. I will, eventually.

Geek: Having actually watched that first block of episodes, there’s a lot of really great detail in the character design and emotiveness in the faces. Did these new visual takes on the characters impact how you played the roles at all?

Cullen: Well, for Optimus, there’s this concentration, a film-like quality, that creates more intimate moments. And I think that brings out a quieter side Optimus Prime that Generation One didn’t quite have. But in saying that, as well, the film-like quality behind the scenes makes it more realistic.

And that reality is so prominent now so that you can get into subtleties with each other on a performance level that we didn’t really have before. It was more cartoon-oriented but this is more realistic. And so I think we’re treating it a little differently in our characters, somewhat. I’ve concentrated it more into an acting persona than it would have been otherwise.

I’m enjoying that in particular. When Frank and I have some of these allied moments where we’re both talking as two real humans, you know, Autobot-humans, that sense of actor-character—

Welker: It lets us get into the more subtle areas. And you can dig around a little bit more. Like in Generation One, we had to—you’re “up” all the time because you just need to be at that level. But now with the CGI, you’ve got a little bit more mouth movements and body movements and it opens up a whole other range of performance which is really desirable.

Geek: I simply love that introspection you guys have about how you tackle these different incarnations of the characters. Sitting here listening to you guys talk about these characters you’ve been voicing for the last two decades and change, you get a real sense of investment in them.

At this point, do you feel any kind of ownership there? When you go into the booth, do you ever say “Well, Megatron wouldn’t say this,” or “Optimus would probably say it this way?”

Welker: Well, when I watch Peter—and I have to say this, because he probably won’t say this for himself—he watches Optimus to a “t” and he’s very good about picking up anything that isn’t really his character—what his character wouldn’t say or wouldn’t do or how he would react. And he catches him in those little moments from time to time that it’s impressive to see how he does that. He would go, “Well, I don’t think Optimus would say it quite like this, lemme show you how I see it.” And he does it and they go, “Whoa, well, you’re right.” And I think that’s somebody who really knows their character and really is totally into it.

Cullen: Well, yeah, I think outside of Prime, I’ve had opportunities to be Prime and to stretch him into another dimension that he’s never been before.

Geek: What are your thoughts on some of the ways the franchise and the characters have changed over the years? You mentioned earlier that G1 was all about getting it done and getting it done quickly, whereas what do you feel Prime is?

Cullen: Well, I don’t think [the character] of Prime has changed at all. I think his definitions are still there. I think they’re dedicated to the qualities of what Prime represents.

And we’re able to function with the cast, and as Frank mentioned, they’re probably some of the best that I’ve worked with. And there’s such a respect for what we’re doing [and] I think that translates 100% in the studio.

So, we’re maintaining that line and we’re going to continue with it.

Welker: Yeah, I’d have to agree. In years past it wasn’t just “time to get it done” or anything, but it was the style of what was going on during that time and we made it fit for what we were doing.

And now, having this iteration, like I said one of the most pleasurable things to me is being able to have range: to be able to go very low, very subtle, very slow, then go high and crazy and wild or whatever. But to have a lot more dramatic range to play is fun as an actor.

Cullen: We had the opportunity to see Jeffrey Combs, who plays Ratchet, perform his one-man show about Edgar Allan Poe called Nevermore at the Steve Allen theater and that’s just another opportunity to [do that].

If I could describe the feeling that we have in that booth, we have Ernie Hudson, Steve Blum, and Josh Keaton, and Tania Gunadi, and Sumalee Montano—you know, if I’m omitting somebody, it’s only because we have a minute or so.

Well, we look forward to it, don’t we, Frank?

Welker: Absolutely.

Transformers Prime: Darkness Rising hits DVD on December 6th from Shout! Factory.

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