Prime Directive: An Exclusive Interview with Peter Cullen

To those who grew up watching 80s animation, Peter Cullen really needs no introduction. A voice actor for many years he has taken us into the Voltron universe, scared us as the villainous Venger in Dungeons and Dragons and terrified us with his vocals as the original Predator; he's fought against Michael Knight and KITT and has even captured the hearts of children as Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh’s many adventures. But there is one being for which he will always be remembered greatly; a true icon of American pop culture and a symbol of bravery and honour who - to this very day - is still a legend: Optimus Prime, the fearless and greatest Autobot leader of them all in The Transformers.

It was officially announced at this year’s ComicCon 2006 that Peter Cullen would be returning to the big screen as Optimus Prime, twenty years after saddening fans with his unprecedented heroics and unexpected departure. To say that those very same fans went wild at the recent news is an understatement. With Michael Bay’s film set for a July 2007 release I wanted to try and talk to Mr Cullen about his hopes for the film and a few other bits and pieces. I managed to contact his agent and from there I was put in touch with the great man himself. I hope you enjoy.

[Kevin Gilvear]: Hello Mr. Cullen. First of all I’d like to say thank you for doing this interview for DVD Times, and secondly congratulations on your return to the Transformers universe. Twenty years on and you’re still the man.

Now there’s very little information about your career on the internet. Would you mind telling us how you started out in the business? Was voice acting something that you wanted to pursue?

[Peter Cullen]: First of all, thank you. I guess it started with radio. As a kid I was always listening to comedy and mystery, and I suppose when I got an opportunity in school to go on stage, I became hooked. I studied with The National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal upon graduation from high school. Theatre led to film and so on. I did many CBC Radio Canada drama shows in my early career. A wonderful opportunity working with Rupert Kaplan, Julie Harris, Christopher Plummer and many other wonderful directors and actors. I toured Canada as a young actor in repertory theatre, and did live TV shows out of Montreal and Toronto. I eventually starred in a national Radio and TV series that caught the eye of Hollywood's George Schlatter of ‘Laugh In’ fame. Jonathan Winters cinched my future in L.A. by endorsing me to the networks and comedy producers Blye Bearde and five seasons with “The Sonny & Cher Show”. The subsequent series with Richard Pryor, Mack Davis, The Hudson Brothers, Wolfman Jack, Bobby Golsboro, Lola Falana, and a Jonathan Winters special all happened during the seventies and early eighties. Pickings got slim after that, so I struck up a future in Voice Overs with agent Steve Tisherman who remains my agent till this day.

[KG]: I don’t know if you’ve checked in on Don Murphy’s or Michael Bay’s forums, amongst many others, but the response there has been amazing since the film was announced. The one thing that fans have insisted on is that you and Frank Welker must return as and Prime and Megatron respectively, no matter what other changes might occur. Are you aware just how huge the response has been and if so what are your reactions to that?

[PC]: I am now aware of the response, and have been for a while. It did come as a shock when I discovered at a convention a few years back, the genuine sincerity towards Prime. It is humbling!

[KG]: It’s no secret that that the studio execs initially wanted to steer clear from using previous voice artists, preferring to go a fresh route with the franchise, but clearly the fan outcry was too much. Producer Don Murphy also lobbied hard for you to be heard, along with Frank Welker. When were you contacted about going in to audition and how long did it take for Michael Bay to realise that you were still perfect for the role of Optimus?

[PC]: Sometime back in May, and again in June, I met with Mr Bay. In the years I have been an actor, I have never found a way to determine how I did at an audition. I simply put it out of my mind and move on. I appreciate Don Murphy, and when I meet him one day, I will tell him.

[KG]: Since getting cast there’s been a hugely positive response from fans and voice actors, who are pleased that VA’s can get such high recognition in what will hopefully be an ongoing thing in future. It seems like a tough business to crack, let alone becoming involved in a major motion picture. Whenever major studio animated films come out they’re usually voiced by A-list celebrities, not classically trained Voice artists. Just how well does the announcement of your return bode for experienced voice artists now?

[PC]: I have no idea, even more than no idea, I would never try to figure out Hollywood! Look closely and you will find it is all make believe!

[KG]: A lot fans wish for Dan Gilvezan and Frank Welker to return also. Apparently Frank has auditioned and fingers crossed Dan will get a chance also, should little Bumblebee find a voice that is. You worked with those guys for quite some time. I’m sure it would be great to do it again? Hearing you and Frank Welker go head to head would be fantastic.

[PC]: You can say that again! We always had fun. Big egos don’t cut it in Va’s (Voice Acting).

[KG]: If I’m not mistaken you guys used to record Transformers together in the studio, as opposed to acting against nothing? So there’s already a solid chemistry there that would be vital for the film.

[PC]: Yes that may be, but either way, it will end up right.

[KG]: It’s a shame that Chris Latta (Starscream) and Scatman Crothers (Jazz) are no longer with us. If they were I feel they’d be almost certain additions to the cast. Do you have any fond memories of working with them? Any nice stories to tell?

[PC]: Scatman and Chris were so very different in everyway that when combined, served hysteria. I can see them laughing, bent over laughing, as we always were it seems. Sometimes we were reprimanded, that would lead to serious silence for a while, and then, a spontaneous combustion of laughter that lasted ’til it was spent out. Well, you really had to be there.

[KG]: How did you get the role of Optimus originally? I first heard your voice on Voltron: Defender of the Universe. Shortly after that you did some work for Challenge of the Gobots, which is Transformers’ arch enemy television series. Everyone hates Gobots, because generally it’s rubbish, but man did they get a good cast for that show. Anyway, your narration for Voltron is as close to Prime’s tone as I’ve heard you do. The same year too I believe?

[PC]: I went to a cattle call, picked up my scripts and character depictions, studied them until I was called, and then went into the booth and gave it my best shot.

[KG]: I’ve seen brief clips of you on TV as well as a few snippets from past ComicCons, and your natural voice is pretty laid back. But when you go into character you become this commanding figure with a John Wayne swagger. I’m sure you’ve been asked this before but is there an influence there, or is it a natural progression from your normal speaking voice?

[PC]: It is odd and coincidental that in those years without really knowing the future of animation, I gave ‘similar’ voices. Heroes were starting up, and I pretty much knew what my hero would sound like if someone gave me an opportunity. I draw from personal experiences, and my heroes are close to friends and family. My brother is a former Marine Captain who served in Vietnam with 3rd Bat, 5th Marines.

[KG]: Speaking of ComicCon, that recent phone through you did for the casting announcement of Prime was awesome. It made me feel like a kid again. It’s funny how fans say that you are Prime. That voice isn’t Peter Cullen, it’s Optimus Prime. You have this wonderful ability of maintaining that illusion and it’s just marvellous. Not many actors can do that. You truly captured the hearts of a generation, and it’s admirable that you’ve spoken so fondly of Prime over the years and embrace the fandom. You have a true affinity for the character it seems. Come July 4th 2007 everyone in the cinema will just think they’re listening to Optimus Prime. You do realise that you’re an icon for all time?

[PC]: Thank you very much, that is huge. I mean, the enormous sense of being a real part of someone’s life. It is somewhat inconceivable, and yet there it is. How does one cope with it? It makes me feel vulnerable somehow. I cannot disappoint, I must continue to honour the responsibility, and all the while, overwhelmed by the outcome. I am grateful. My children will know that I accomplished something in my life, and that is a legacy all parents would like to leave their children, whether its celebrity status or not.

[KG]: I’d like to ask you about Transformers the Movie (1986). Did you know that Prime was going to die, or did they spring that on you at the last moment?

[PC]: Imagine sitting in the studio reading your script for the first time. You are moments away from recording, and you have just discovered you are being snuffed! HELLO!!!??? Hollywood! I will never figure out the bean counters. Wow, at least I can say Orson Welles was with me!

[KG]: Your performance as Prime in the movie was hands down the best I’ve heard you in Transformers. Would you agree that it’s one of your best? You give it your all and go out on such an emotional high. The range of emotion that you display in so few moments resonates well. Everyone remembers your scenes.

[PC]: Kevin, again I thank you. I take each script one at a time. Writers do not get the credit they truly deserve sometimes, and in this particular case, they were fantastic.

[KG]: How do you hope to approach the role this time around? I presume that you’ve read the script and if so does it call for some equally heartfelt moments, or open new avenues for you to explore your character?

[PC]: I have not as yet read the script, but I have a confidence in Mr Bay that came from my two meetings with him. He made this feeling happen. I dreaded the meeting, and yet came away knowing that this man was indeed in charge, and extremely capable of a giant project. I know he will get from me what he wants.

[KG]: How much input do you have in Prime’s overall character? Obviously his true essence is important. Has anything you’ve read gone against his character or have the writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman stayed faithful?

[PC]: If the true essence you refer to is the heart of it, then I can assure you, it will remain that way. I have no reason to think otherwise. Script aside, and taking the time to imagine this real life interaction with old childhood characters, I can only sense that it will completely satisfy what you have wanted all along. “Till all are one.”

[KG]: There’s some discussion and negative feelings concerning Prime’s face plate; the rumours that he might not wear one permanently. Fans, including myself, feel that it shouldn’t be an issue, because of who Prime is and how you portray him and it’s a little concerning. I think a lot of people who aren’t in the know forget that the Autobots and Decepticons are sentient beings, who are capable of any emotion, and we don’t necessarily need to see a mouth to be convinced of that. Can you provide any reassurance; lay to rest some concern?

[PC]: No one really wants change. I watch my neighbourhood lose its familiar old charm to the real estate upgraders. I see old trees cut down, and I become sad. I am sure this is not the case with the movie. Changes maybe, but the real core is too strong to deny. I have confidence in that, and so should everyone. Given the scope and science of today, I am sure they can pull anything off. I honestly do not know about the face plate.

[KG]: There’s also some concern about the leaked photo of Prime’s alt mode: a long-nosed truck featuring a flame design. I’m sure the studio wishes to keep this secret, so I understand if you can’t answer, but can you confirm if that’s Prime’s look for the entire film, or just a specific scene?

[PC]: Lets face it! I don't care if they give me flat tires, I will still make it work.

[KG]: Have you seen Prime’s robot mode, and if so are you happy with it? Will the fans be happy with it and the other Transformers as we witness the rebirth of Generation 1?

[PC]: I know how important these questions are to all, but I insist to you, I have no idea. I wish I could lay to rest some of these concerns, they are legitimate ones. I feel so loyal to all of you, and you must know that if I did know, I would absolutely share them with you, unless informed otherwise, and that has not happened.

[KG]: We know that Ironhide is to make an appearance in the film and this is a character that you’re as equally loved for. Will you be providing vocals for any of the other bots or cons?

[PC]: I am contracted for Optimus. There has been no mention of dear ole Ironhide.

[KG]: Moving on then. Frank Welker is well known for voicing various animals and creatures on film and television, but you’re no stranger yourself. Now I’ve seen you credited for doing the creature vocals in Predator, not to mention one or two Gremlins in Spielberg’s classic little flick. Can you tell us anything about doing the work on Predator?

[PC]: It is odd how the Predator comes back to haunt me. I had voiced King Kong, many reels of growls and tormented wailings. It caused me to cough up blood, and so I chose to never do monster type sounds again. Twentieth Century Fox wanted me to come in and test for the sounds of Predator. I was wary, and resolved not to do blood throat again, but Steve, my agent, insured me I would not have to. After arriving on the lot and meeting the sound crew, I asked to see the character. They said no. I told them unless I could see the ‘mysterious thing’ it would be impossible to come up with anything. They finally relented, and as I watched the Predator take off his helmet, I remembered the sounds of an upside down horseshoe crab bubbling in the sun. The sounds of the clicking bursting bubbles came to me. The horrible underside of the dying crab and the face of the Predator just intertwined. They rolled to the first sequence of silver streak going through the tops of jungle canopy and I delivered my sound into the mic that I asked them to bring down close to my face. The director was angry. He heard barely nothing, but the sound room boss echoed the stage from the intercom,”That's it! It's fantastic!” I saved my throat.

[KG]:I have to ask you about Knight Rider and Dungeons and Dragons; two series in which you played villains. I’m particularly fond of Venger; he’s a completely nasty sod and you totally do him justice. Do you enjoy playing the baddie, particularly when you’re so well known for playing heroic figures?

[PC]: I think most actors like the challenge to see how ‘bad boy’ they can be. Kinda, who can kick more ass? I have only done a couple, but from measuring the effect it has had on some, I can do without them. I do not like scaring anything.

[KG]: Transformers is still a year away and it’s going to feel like a long haul. We eagerly look forward to your return to the big screen and cannot wait to hear you speak for the first time. To finish, is there anything that you’d like to say to fans out there who have been expressing their loyal support toward you and the film’s success from the beginning?

[PC]: Thanks, thanks a lot. I am certainly a part of you. I know it’s because we understand something, something inside of us all that makes us bond. I am there for you, as you are there for me. I am proud of that. Yes, it is real. Thank You! Until the day, till all are one.

I would dearly like to thank Peter Cullen’s agent, Steve Tisherman for making all of this possible. You’re a true sport. And to Mr. Cullen and your extreme enthusiasm: It means a lot to me and all of your fans out there who grew up watching you on T.V and to this day consider you a legend, that you will always take the time out to say hi. I wish you the best of luck and much more success. Here’s to 7-4-7.

Extra thanks to SAJse and Grimbot, who can be found lurking over at Don Murphy’s official forum, for supplying photos of Mr. Cullen for this feature, as well as Sermon, Terminal Hamster and everybody else who has expressed endless enthusiasm toward Peter Cullen and Michael Bay’s adaptation of a phenomenal franchise. Last but not least, Mr Don Murphy, who made this film adaptation possible and has fought long and hard to please fans and bring us as good a Transformers film as possible.

Did you enjoy the article above? If so please help us by sharing it to your social networks with the buttons below...

Category Feature

Latest Articles