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Interview: John Di Maggio On Cybernetic Arms With Monkey Brains In ‘Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja’

In the new Disney XD series, “Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja,” voice actor John Di Maggio plays the villainous Hannibal McFist, a power-mad business bully who’s in league with an 800-year-old sorcerer to take down a our titular hero. Oh, and McFist has a cybernetic arm with a monkey brain inside of it, so there’s that.

The show makes its debut this Monday the 17th, so I recently spoke to this actor, who’s voiced such iconic characters as Bender, Marcus Fenix, and the Joker, about his latest role as well as the joys of being a cartoon bully.

“I love doing this show,” Di Maggio tells me at the start of our call, later hyping his latest project as one that will definitely find its audience among kids, teens, and adults thanks to the writing and characters. The veteran voice actor is no stranger to larger-than-life, boisterous characters, of which Norristown businessman Hannibal McFist is the latest. His resume is filled with other heavies like “Kim Possible” Dr. Dragon–“That was a very silly, very goofy role,” he says of the part, “and I had a lot of fun doing that.”

Back in 2010, he even got to go a bit darker with his villainous voice acting as the Joker in the DC Animated feature “Batman: Under the Red Hood,” but he contrasts that part with his current one, telling that Hannibal is so much more broad than the Clown Prince of Crime. This particular voice, he explains, is in part based on the Frank Wilson character from the old “Lucy Show,” actor Clint Walker’s musclebound bohunk character. “He’s just a big, blustery man, and he’s also slightly henpecked at the same time. [And he’s] just a big bully.”

One element of the role Di Maggio kept coming back to in our talks was the collaborative nature of the show and how much he appreciated the opportunity to find the character with a group of open and interested directors and actors. On this particular show, he says it’s more like play than work, voicing his role alongside a team that’s also eager to be there (one of thing you’ll quickly realize about Di Maggio is that he loves to work and he still seems humbled and a little surprised by having such a great gig). The joy for Di Maggio in this kind of show is the opportunity for everyone in the cast to get a laugh–a moment to stand out at least once each episode.

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“When people are willing to bend a little, when you walk into a gig and you know people there… where you’re able to really connect and do some good stuff,” these are for Di Maggio the best kinds of rooms to walk into as a voice actor. He tells me that at the best of times, being a voice actor is like being in the fifth grade and getting to play kickball at lunch and during gym on a summer day. He joked that without being surrounded by talented people who were likewise excited to be in the business, he might be some bitter bartender somewhere.

And once upon a time, voice acting wasn’t even on Di Maggio’s mind as he pursued a career as a standup comic. I asked him how that period helped him now as a voice actor. “As a standup comedian, you have to develop a sense of fearlessness. It’s really important for your livelihood and your well-being. And if you don’t do that, you’re going to fail, you’re never going to be able to stand up on the cliff and jump off.” For Di Maggio, this allowed him to flex his creative muscles.

Di Maggio was very complementary of his bosses at Disney, complimenting the network for consistently high-quality content. “Across the board, never fails to put out unbelievably great-looking piece[s] of work.”

When our conversation turns back to the process of creating his roles, Di Maggio gets introspective and a little serious. There’s something that happens to him when he’s talking about his career as a voice actor, and about life, and about how he’s arrived at this point that’s just mind-boggling. He chuckles a little while telling me all this, saying that sometimes he can get caught up going all the way back to the roots of his career and reflecting on how he got here.

What surprises me though is that he describes himself a couple of times during our chat as a “hired gun.” I tell him this, and that it’s impossible for me to contemplate anyone else doing the voice of Bender–after a certain point an actor simply owns a role. “Well, I mean thank you. I guess I’ll pat myself on the back a little,” he jokes. “There goes the ego train and I just got on it.” When I ask him if he does feel some kind of ownership over these characters, he does admit that to a certain extent he does if he has a particular point of view to express about Jake or Aquaman or Bender or Hannibal. But again, he credits his collaborators with giving him the room to fill out these roles: “Any good production team is going to allow an actor to breathe life into the characters–that’s why they hired that woman, that man, whatever the case.”

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That passion for voice acting has translated into his executive producing a documentary about the profession with director Lawrence Shapiro called “I Know That Voice” which is about the voiceover industry. “Right now we’ve got over 160 hours of interview footage with the top cartoon voice talent of the day–from June Foray into the present.” Right now that film is being edited down in the hopes of getting into Sundance.

I asked him if he saw the doc as a chance to celebrate professional voice actors and kind of serve as a defense against the practice for big budget productions to just bring on a celebrity to sound like themselves. Di Maggio was diplomatic on this point: “I understand from a production point of view that you want a film to make a certain amount of money, but I just think there are other people for the job who are better skilled at it. And it’s a difficult argument–there’s enough pie for everybody but it’s gotta be split up a different way… I don’t mind if you’re a celebrity if you can switch it up, do something different, that’s fine. But if you’re a one-trick pony…” He trails off saying he doesn’t get as riled up about it as his “Futurama” co-star and friend Billy West.

Well, Di Maggio’s definitely not a one-trick pony and you can hear his voice when “Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja” premieres Monday, September 17th at 7:00 PM ET/PT on Disney XD.

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