By Aaron Sagers
In the world of voice acting, Peter Cullen is a prime player. The Canadian performer had success in the early 70s on variety shows like “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,” but it is the children of the 1980s – and, subsequently, children of the nineties and aughts – who claim him as an icon.
Since the “Generation 1” 1984-87 Sunbow Productions cartoon “The Transformers,” Cullen has been the definitive (and unmodified) voice of Optimus Prime: the leader of the Autobots from the planet Cybertron; possessor of the Matrix of Leadership; and, well, most of the time, a transforming tractor-trailer robot-in-disguise. By this writer’s count, Cullen has voiced Prime in eight video games, three animated series, three live-action movies, an animated one and a theme park attraction.
But it is as Prime the actor feels the greatest connection, and responsibility. Much like Mel Blanc is Bugs Bunny or Kevin Conroy is Batman, Cullen is Prime; others can take on the role, but only he commands it with his deep, calm voice. And he doesn’t take that lightly. According to the Season One “Robot Chicken” DVD, Cullen turned down the chance to voice the Autobot on the stop-motion animated skit show because he took the character too seriously.
This kind of dedication carries forward with “Transformers Prime: Beast Hunters” on The Hub network, which premiered March 22. Despite the new name, “Beast Hunters” is actually the third and final season of The Hub’s “Transformers Prime” series, which has won four Daytime Emmy Awards (and is produced by Hollywood heavy hitters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who collaborate a lot with some dude named J.J. Abrams).
Cullen joined MTV Geek over the phone to discuss his prime time over the years, as well as rolling out the new season of “Beast Hunters” and the fourth Michael Bay live-action “Transformers” movie.
MTV Geek: You have a couple generations who know your voice acting as Optimus Prime. What goes through your mind as you’re processing that?
Cullen: I would have to say a mixture of feelings. Certainly, it’s an honor and I never forget that fact. It is staggering when you isolate a thought like that and think about it. But there’s responsibility to it, there’s gratitude, there’s that sense of awe that it could actually happen.
When you really do think about it, you ask the same questions: “How did that happen?” and “Who do I thank?,” “Who are the many, many people and the many ingredients that were necessary to allow all that to happen, where does the gratitude actually go?” But I do take it quite seriously, as you can tell. (laughs)
Geek: What has changed for you as Prime over the years, and even since doing The Hub show?
Cullen: Well, I think the ingredients changed, but certainly not the good versus evil, and the way we approach that. That seems to be always relevant and predominant. We’re going into Season 3 and it really is kind of exciting because it’s not just Autobots and Decepticons. We’re getting into something else … just the hint of the name, Beast Hunters. That’s a prequel to what’s going to happen imaginatively. We’ve done that before, we dealt with it in Dinobots, and things like that. But this is huge. This is much, much bigger, and it takes it to a new level.
Geek: Has your approach to voicing Prime changed over the years or it is very much the same as in ’84?
Cullen: It’s exactly the same. And, you know, the ingredients that I used way back then are the same ingredients that temper my interpretation and my feeling, and in the end result, the expression of it. It’s a feeling. It’s a feeling that I have when I put all the ingredients of his character together. It’s what comes out of me that comes from other places, and my past, and my life, my upbringing.
Everybody’s going to approach a character differently, depending upon what they bring to it on their own intellectual level or their feelings from their heart and soul. And this just happens to be mine, and it just stays with me. I can’t stray from it, it comes up because that’s the way I feel it and that’s the way I interpret it. I always will, I always try to stay very true to what he says, and I fight for his character traits because sometimes there are written-down lines that I would take exception to because I would say, “in my gut, I don’t think he’d say that.” I’m sure that goes for a lot of other characters as well; people want to fight for maintaining that integrity that they’ve had since the beginning.
Geek: When you first began, did the voice of Prime feel like any other job, and what was the moment where it struck you that this was bigger and not like other gigs?
Cullen: I could feel that at the very beginning in the audition. The way it was written. The way the character was drawn out. The way his whole character traits were portrayed; I felt something about that and I felt tuned to it immediately. I just felt very good about it. The originators had probably had enough in their lifetime of big, brawny, yelling, or over-the-top hero stuff. This all of a sudden was a subtle calm, in my interpretation. I exercised the instincts that I had easier than any other character that I have ever done.
I remember auditioning for Batman at one time, and I delivered that sense of calmness, but I didn’t get the job. I thought, “Well…” Prime came along, and I said “Gee, whiz! This is a great opportunity, because it’s written better.” And I felt more comfortable with it. I was surprised, because, as you said, a lot of people go out and audition every day and do lots of different jobs, and you never really rely on anything at any time. But this I really felt comfortable with.
Geek: As the fandom has grown over the years, and people approach you with questions, have you had to become a Transformers encyclopedia?
Cullen: Gratefully, no. Because that encyclopedia is (laughs) about 3 inches thick. There’s so much written down … I went on the Web one time, and looked up the first one; I think it was Wikipedia. And I just saw how huge the Transformers information, storylines, were. And I’m sure that “Beast Hunters” is going to be as big.
Geek: If this is the third and final season of “Transformers: Prime,” does this then mean that we’re going to see future seasons of “Transformers: Beast Hunters”? Is this going to be a reboot that will continue into a new series?
Cullen: I just say “Transformers: Prime” is a title, and it could be the title of one episode, or it could be the title of 65. But Transformers, I’m sure, is gonna continue, and Beast Hunters, I would just look at it as another chapter … every show is a spin-off from the last one. We’re always looking forward to doing more. It doesn’t seem to be a finality from anything that I’ve seen.
Geek: Since you’ve worked with so many, what differentiates this voice cast from others?
Cullen: This is probably one of the great casts that I’ve ever worked with, and one of the most fun times of any show I’ve ever done … I think it’s just an excellent selection of talent. There’s just, from the creative team, to the cast itself, it’s just people that really care for each other and really get along well. And the talent in the room at any given time: I’m used to working with Frank Welker and Steve Blum and people like that. But the introduction of so many other people into this new season … The guest stars, for example, have always been fantastic, and it’s such a great respect that everybody has for each other and that doesn’t interfere with the fun.
Geek: And are you going to be involved in the new “Transformers” movie?
Cullen: Yes I am! There’s talk of three more, and it’s official. We’re very optimistic. We don’t know recording times exactly but they’re in pre-production now. And Michael Bay will be directing again as his splendiferous self! But that’s all down the line.
Geek: Is there any direction you’d like to take Prime that we haven’t seen before?
Cullen: Nothing that would contradict his character: the way it’s been received, respected, and the loyalty that has been shown. I don’t think you should mess with anything that works with so many generations. I mean, the new kids coming up today feel the same way that the kids did back in the early ’80s, so if something’s working right, I think that’s a phenomenon and it should be respected and continued. I’m just so grateful to be at the helm of it right now, and I wouldn’t want to do anything to change it or disappoint anybody.
Geek: And what else are you working on, or are there other Prime project for you out there?
Cullen: I’m always involved with the Aerospace Program and NASA and Goddard Space Flight Center. And if kids feel so inclined, they can log onto NASA and the Optimus Prime Spinoff Award which we present every year to some of the brilliant young minds that are taking up into the academics of space, science, technology, math. I love promoting that for the United States of America; it’s a great thing we can do for our country and I think the space program is a way of showing it, and I’m so happy that Optimus Prime is working with NASA.
Geek: Finally, is there another Transformer that you might like maybe as much as Prime, or another you wish you had the opportunity to voice?
Cullen: That’s a difficult question because I think he really does stand alone.
“Transformers Prime: Beast Hunters” airs Fridays, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT on The Hub.
Follow @MTVGeek on Twitter and be sure to “like” us on Facebook for the best geek news about comics, toys, gaming and more! And be sure to follow our horror and comics nerd @AaronSagers for more fun!