Transformers: Fall Of Cybertron Peter Cullen Interview
Even Optimus needs back-up, sometimes.
From G1 to Dark Of The Moon, those robots in disguise have undergone a never-ending transformation over the years. The one constant: the voice of Optimus Prime, Peter Cullen, who first performed as the Autobot leader in 1984 and returns to the role in this month’s hotly anticipated videogame sequel Transformers: Fall Of Cybertron.
Set during the final days of the Transformers’ home planet, the Cybertron games, developed by High Moon Studios, are action-packed third person shooters with all the spectacle of a big screen Transformers experience. To celebrate the release of the game we chatted with the man behind the metal about his life with the character. Autobots, roll out!
SFX: How does your approach to voicing Optimus Prime change with each new Transformers project you take on?
Peter Cullen: “I don’t think there’s a significant change. You could probably notice it depending upon the plot or the progression of the story line, but for the most part I maintain the basic trait characteristics of Optimus Prime that were moulded many years ago, and they have not really strayed very far away since. Probably the only difference is that the new movies are somewhat more defined in terms of size of character and they play with the voice a little bit. But for the animated series it’s very, very continuous. I’ve felt that perhaps over the years, since 1984, that the character has gotten a little older. As I have, so has he, but otherwise there’s not much of a difference I don’t think.”
It’s interesting that you mention him getting older because the Cybertron games feature a relatively young Optimus, or one that’s at the start of his calling as a Prime. Did that affect your performance?
“Not really, because going back to the basic character principles that he stands for, I think they’re always going to remain with me. They’re key to my interpretation and that will never change. Hopefully it will never change. Then again it depends on the script and what kind of mood he’s in, I will follow that with loyalty.”
Do you put yourself in a similar mindset every time you play Optimus or do you start as something of a blank slate based on what your going to read in the script?
“What I’m going to read will be interpreted by the character, by me, and how he would react under any given circumstance. Particularly when it comes to anger. I want him to always be in control of his anger because I think that’s the proper thing to do, but as has been pointed out, in many instances he does lose his temper. Sometimes over Megatron, or something brutally wrong that’s been done and he feels that he must justify it. Anger has come out maybe once significantly, and that would have been in the movie, but nothing on a regular basis.”
Did you relish that moment where you get to let loose a little bit?
“A lot of it is entertainment value. I don’t have much control over what is going on when I’m doing the movies because I’m not really privy to script and final productions. I really don’t know what the story is except for the basic idea, and so I totally rely on his character to remain constant and then to judge each situation and apply his normal personality under any condition. That will change lines, it will require a shift in compassion or a shift in courage, or a shift in anger. But I pretty much stay with the ingredients that I started with years ago.”
As with many people my favourite character is Optimus and my favourite Transformer stories are the ones that tend to give me a bit of an insight into him. What kind of an insight do the games give into Optimus as a character?
“The games are a little harder, that’s where sticking to his basic qualities comes into play especially, because there is no script I’m really privy to. It’s incredible. People get the opportunity to play as lots of characters and the outcome is decided by the ability of the player. I think it’s a marvellous medium and the people at Activision and the creative people at Moonbase… [laughs] I mean they’re just wonderfully imaginative people, it’s a real pleasure to work for them.
“I just remain constant as Optimus as I give a command or if I’m gonna say, ‘Watch out,’ I will know the circumstances surrounding it and I will just apply his normal reaction under any circumstance. It’s a little more difficult than doing the TV series because you have script in front of you there and you know where it’s going, what the outcome is going to be, so you can plan and accordingly. The game is altogether different. You’re doing one line at a time and you just have to know what the conditions are. Hopefully there is enough opportunity to be encouraging or enough opportunity to be mindful or advisory, certainly plenty of times to be exuberant and plenty of times to show pain. All the ‘arghs’, the ‘ouches’, the slams and the bashes and the grunts and groans that go with it, that is every recording session, believe me. It’s quite honestly a lot of work, just reacting to some form of pain or inflicting it!”
On a practical level how does voicing Optimus for the video games differ from the recording sessions for the cartoons or the films?
“Well, we do it page by page-by-page for the game and there’s nobody else to react off of as opposed to working in the studio on Transformers Prime, where we’re in a wonderful environment. I might add that the actors I work with, everyone from Frank Welker to Steve Blum, every actor in that room is just a special person and the mutual respect that we have for each other gives way to three and half hours of joy, and a lot of laughter in many cases and it’s a real pleasure to do. And then the other side of the coin is working by myself in a little booth and doing grunts and groans and warnings and ‘WATCH OUTS!’ It’s not as much fun, except for the fact that I’m working with some really wonderful guys like Dave Cravens from High Moon Studios and his staff. Working on the Cybertron games was always something to look forward to for me. I just enjoyed those people immensely, they were so wonderful to work with.”
Do you find working with your fellow voice actors brings something out into the performance that maybe isn’t quite the same when you’re doing it by yourself?
“Right, and especially with the game being just one-liners. The half-hour show will have a beginning and an end and content that gets them from one end to the other, so it’s more a participation process but they are entirely different.”
You’re inescapably associated with the role after all these years – do you feel a sense of ownership to Prime? Have you ever heard another voice another actor voicing the character and thought, “That’s not right, why is that not my voice?”
“Well, certainly that happened in 1986 when I was killed off in the feature film. And I was rather disappointed, but in those days I didn’t have any idea how popular he was. Nobody ever let on that there was fan-mail, so I had no thermometer to regulate a sense of achievement. But at the same time, when you’re axed from something you have to ask yourself, was it that bad? You don’t know the reasons why so you can’t formulate an opinion. Now, over the years, I’ve discovered there was a fanbase and that he was very well received and possibly there was a wrong decision that was made. It’s flattering on one hand but its sad too. Kids wouldn’t come out from under their bed after watching that film.”
Absolutely! I was one of them, but for me that’s also one of the most powerful moments of any Transformers story…
“I remember doing that death scene and it affected me. I’d never really done a death scene before. When I was a young actor at the National Theatre School of Canada I was in plenty of Shakespearian tragedies, I remember doing Richard III, but nothing compared to Transformers. That was really a kick in the butt, I tell ya.”
So when did you first get a sense of Prime’s popularity?
“My daughter was in high school and I told her that I was asked to go back to Rochester, New York for a Transformers convention, and I said, ‘Why would they want me?’ And she said, ‘Dad, they want you because you were Optimus Prime.’ I said, ‘Well nobody’s gonna remember that.’ And she said, ‘Dad, you know they love you? You’ve got to go.’ So reluctantly I went. And I walked up to the podium on the stage and there were about three or four hundred people in the room that just clapped for a long time, and I was amazed. It was humbling. I was stunned. How do you react to something like that? It takes you by surprise so much. So it was about that time I did some searching and discover that over the years I had a following and a responsibility to respect and to give back, which I continue to do. The fanbase taught me an awful lot of things, and I love them for that. I love their dedication and I feel a part of them and they feel a part of me. I feel very close to anybody that shows that kind of affection for what I’ve done. Yeah it’s a great honour, I’m just mesmerised by it a lot of the time.”
At this stage, having played Optimus for all these years, are you trusted to know what’s best for the character? Are you given much room to improvise for example or do you stick quite closely to the script?
“I respect the writers and I will never ever be bold as to say ‘re-write this’ or ‘change a line here’. I will read it my way and I’ve had some skirmishes from time to time, but I think basically it’s because people at that moment didn’t truly understand the fortitude that was developed over the years by the consistency of the character, rather than me doing somebody else’s interpretation of a hero. I did it my way and it’s very important to me how I came about that and I will insist on never wavering from that performance level. If somebody’s gonna ask me to yell I’ll say, ‘No. he wouldn’t do that. He would be weak if he did that.’ ‘Just yell please.’ ‘Nope, not gonna yell.’ We got over that very quickly.
“There were a couple of instances where Optimus would say something and somebody would want me to say something else they just came up with, but it wouldn’t be on par with what the writers had written, and I would say, ‘He really wouldn’t say that, that’s just not him.’ And hopefully I wouldn’t sound like I’m being a jerk to that person, and they would succumb to my wishes, that’s a relief. That is a form of respect too, when they take a second look, because what I’m saying has a great deal of merit to it. I’m very very, very concerned about his character because of the effect he’s had on so many people over the years in a positive way. It’s something that I get a twist in my stomach about. At some conventions a young man would get up and… wow just thinking about it is quite powerful – a latchkey kid or somebody who didn’t have a father or may have ended up in jail or be dead as one expressed to me, would get up and say, ‘Thank you for raising me.’
“It’s just this is huge thing to be presented with, something like that. It’s very humbling. It really makes me feel like I’ve done something of significance in my life, without trying to go overboard on any of that. That was just a moment remembering that one kid and others that have said similar. Woah sorry.”
No it’s incredible, it makes me feel so pleased that it means so much to you, because you’ve played the character for so long and he’s obviously had such a big impact on peoples lives as well as yours. I used to watch the cartoon as a kid, and had all the toys so I’ve grown up with the character as well.
“You see, if we were sitting down face-to-face and having a beer, we would be friends because that’s the way I feel about everybody that expresses it that way. It’s a kindred understanding of something. And that’s really neat, it really is a wonderful thing.”
What does it mean to you to be the voice that people hear in their heads when they think of a character as iconic as Optimus Prime?
“Well, beside from being a huge compliment, it makes me nervous. I feel self-conscious and I don’t know quite how to react. Just being honest is all I can do. I get red-faced sometimes.”
How did your experience of working on the glossy Michael Bay films compare to the TV show and the games?
“When you look at the budgets and when you’re in a room with a whole group of other actors having a great time, you know time is money. But when you’re working on the movie and there’s millions and millions and millions of dollars you have a sense of magnitude that you don’t normally get with a television programme. And there’s intense responsibility. You can feel it, it’s very palpable. Working with Michael Bay has been nothing less than a real joy because I love watching somebody that’s really good at what they do, and I’m overawed by it. It’s very compelling. And he is, oh my god, to keep all those things in his brain and seeing the final outcome and seeing he’s responsible for all that, I couldn’t do anything like that. His mind must be spinning like a whirly gig, just going round and round. Light here, explosions here, bots there, directing somebody differently, doing this, that’s not right, this is just… I compared him to a general in a huge battle because that’s what he’s doing. It is kind of inspiring, over the last three movies it’s been a wonderful time working for him, he’s a very interesting and brilliant guy.”
There was a long period of time between the late ’80s and the 2007 movie where you didn’t voice Optimus because there wasn’t any new material being made. Did you ever suspect that when you took on the role, or when Optimus was killed in the ’86 movie, that you’d still be playing him 30 years later?
“Nope I wouldn’t have dreamt that in a million years, and the only way I came to some form of conclusion I guess was when I started getting feedback from fanbases and the fight that they put on to keep me as the original Optimus Prime and to make sure that I was in that movie. Boy oh boy, did they do their job. Thank you. I thank you I thank everybody. For that you have no idea how much gratitude I feel for that. And hopefully that’s gonna continue. I really do enjoy playing him. It’s a tribute to my brother Larry, who passed on a year and half ago, it’s a legacy I would love to continue for him.”
Transformers: Fall Of Cybertron is available to buy on PS3, Xbox and PC now.
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