Tom Kenny is one of those performers who name means different things to different generations. Some associate him with his time as Tomkat to Bob Goldthwait’s Bobcat. Others may know him as one of the regulars on Mr. Show, while an entire generation has grown up with him as the voice of Spongebob Squarepants. He’s currently voicing the character of Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh, and we got a chance to talk with him about voice acting, the community of voice actors, and the controversy around Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Check it out…
As a voice actor, what is your process, do you have a method approach at all?
Not like a rigorous training technique, and everyone’s different, but mine is really preparation and thinking ahead. I know some guys who don’t like that – maybe that’s them just being lazy – but I’m a guy who reads every script, who reads every page, looks at every storyboard, comes in with three or four alternate approaches to pretty much every line. I think part of that is not wanting to look like an idiot in the room, but I feel like the more you know about what you’re going to be doing, the more you’re conversant with that storyboard and that script, the easier it is to improve off of it. The more you know the framework, the easier it is to get off of that framework, and then flee back to the framework after you’re done.
You started on Winnie the Pooh three years ago – do you come back a little bit later after they’ve figured things out?
Yeah. I’m paranoid, so I assume when I haven’t heard from them in a long time, I assume they’ve recast. The needy actor.
Has that happened?
Gosh, Jim Cummings (the voice of Pooh) and I were talking today, and we’ve all done the replacer and the replaced countless times. It’s part of being a carny worker, the migrant fruit pickers that we are of the show business vineyards.
Is that how you feel about it, that you guys are the backside of the industry?
No, I don’t think I’m the backside of anything, because I’m doing exactly what I want to do, but it’s a session musician mentality. I’m whatever. You show up with your bass or your guitar or your drums, or your whatever, and you say “what are we going to do today, are we going to do rock, are we going to do country, are we going to do soul? What are we doing?” I like playing all those things, and you just try to do a good job.
With a role like this do you feel like you have freedom to play?
Thanks to directors Stephen (Anderson) and Don (Hall) having an open session, that even though this is a very big longtime franchise and Rabbit is a well established character, I felt like they gave me all kinds of room to mess around, and do many different approaches to a given scene or line. My feeling is you might as well do the scene a whole bunch of different ways, because you want them to listen to the stuff and have a A,B, C, D, E, F take instead of A,A,A,A, A, A takes. You want to give them choices, and I enjoy thinking up different choices.
Do you feel then you have more freedom in voice acting than regular acting?
I do. I started out as a stand up, an on camera guy, a sketch comedy guy, and voice over was what I really wanted to be doing the whole time. I just felt like whatever my goofball skill set is, that is where it would be best utilized. You know, I never quite felt comfortable on camera.
Don’t tell me you’re done with sketch stuff and comedy.
Oh I haven’t done stand up since 1992.
It’s like riding a bicycle, right?
In that you can fall off and break your neck very easily, yes. Part of it was having kids, not wanting a nocturnal profession. I do feel like that skill set I took away from it has put me in good steed for voice work. I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to be a stand up guy. But I learned a lot from the work, being able to throw it back I learned from stand up and Mr. Show, my training was by mistake really good.
I do think your work on Mr. Show made Spongebob Squarepants a little more acceptable to the stoner community.
There’s definite crossover between those two audience groups. It’s funny, in terms of being of an on camera actor, it’s fun and enjoyable and everything, but I never felt like I cracked it. My personal feeling is – and this is probably boring job stuff – I never felt I cracked how to audition really effectively for on camera.
But you cracked it for voice acting?
Yeah, I felt like I had a more natural inclination toward V.O. And I enjoyed cracking that code. I enjoyed figuring out the crossword puzzle of it, figuring out what’s needed, it’s challenging, but I like the challenge of knowing they’re listing to twenty or thirty guys, and figuring “what can I do to stand out and be a little different than them, and make their ears perk up a little bit.” I enjoy that, whereas my on camera work was the result of knowing people who would say “hey Tom Kenny can do this, he’s funny.” I was never the unknown quantity that walked in the room and when I left they said “who was that guy with the glasses!?! Get me Tom Kenny, get me a Tom Kenny type!” My wife says that I put down my stand up and acting too much, but I never felt like I 100% figured out how to do that. With voice over, I fairly quickly figured it out because it’s what I wanted to do my whole life.
It sounds like there’s ten or fifteen of you who do this fairly regularly, and then there’s the famous people who get brought in.
Yeah. It’s nice. You know when I was a kid, you’d fantasize about June Foray, Daws Butler, Mel Blanc, and Stan Freberg all knowing each other and hanging out, and that’s what it’s really like.
You go to Frank Welker’s birthday party and…
Frank is ridiculous. Frank, people call him St. Francis, he’s so nice, and he was so nice to me when I first starting out, not threaten by new guys – not that he would have to be but some guys are. When they see a new generation of guys coming in they get a little (growls), but when I got into it in the early nineties Billy West, Jim Cummings, Rob Paulson, Charlie Adler , Maurice LaMarche, Tress Macneile – those were the people who were the big guns. When I saw them, I thought “wow, if I want to be in their league, I’m really going to work hard, I’m going to have to get better at this.”
Do you feel that you are?
I guess by default. Just doing it. I guess in the same way that if you work at a hardware story you’re probably a little quicker on the cash register than you were twenty years ago (laughs), I think I know how to make change now. Yeah, they were very inspiring figures for me, working with Jim (Cummings) is a trip, and I’ve been on shows with him before, those guys – when I came in – were the heavy hitters. I never got to work with Mel Blanc. They did, they got to work with the old timers and study with them. And they couldn’t be nicer. Jim is the man. For anybody under 45 or 50 he is their Winnie the Pooh. Sterling Holloway is the one who sounds weird to them when they hear it, just by the virtue of Jim having done it longer than Sterling did.
Did any of your voices start out as something that went wrong, or a bad impression?
All my voices are bad impressions, that’s all I do. But sometimes if you can mix together two or three or four unsuccessful crappy impressions together I can sometimes book the job. “If I take Ruth Gordon and the Wizard of Oz and Mr. Whipple the Charmin squeezing guy into one, they might say “hey, that’s a cool voice.”
Does having done a very recognizable character like Spongebob Squarepants work for or against you?
Mostly for. It seems like a lot of times celebrities can have the edge, maybe there might be a little more of an edge from a PR standpoint. But when you do something like Spongebob it lifts you a little. You’re not a total faceless V.O. guy.
It feels like with your character Rabbit, and with Owl there’s more freedom to go in different directions, where Winnie and Tigger are locked.
They’re canonical. And it would be crazy to change Pooh or Tigger, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Those personalities are cooked, they’re done to a golden brown tender turn from A.A. Milne’s to those original shorts to this, I think the second tier character there was feeling they could get a little more comedic oomph out of them without people freaking out. They were very upfront with me and everyone who auditioned that they weren’t looking for a voice match. “Don’t care. Don’t worry about sounding like the guy before. Just do your rabbit.”
And you came in with a take on Rabbit?
Based on their notes, yeah. You read the scripts they’re giving you and I’m familiar with Rabbit anyway. I went back and watched the original ones, more to get a feel for rabbit than the voice. I was surprised when they said I was the pick.
Have ever walked in on your kids watching you?
Oh god yeah, I have a seven year old and a thirteen year old.
Have you ever heard your voice and thought “oh yeah I did do that.”
Yeah, or sometimes the kids will say “dad, I think this is you.” And I’ll say “I don’t know, I don’t think this was the show.” And then they’ll watch the credits and say “dad it was you.” And I’ll say “oh yeah, I guess it was.” (laughs) That was a long time ago. Between Adventuretime, and Winnie the Pooh, and the Sponge thing, they both watch me, but they don’t even think of me when they watch it.
Were you surprised with the response to role in Transformers (where he played a robot that was considered to be racist)?
I was, just because I wasn’t thinking about it. Me and the other actor, Reno (Wilson) who happens to be African American, we went in there and the director – Mr. Bay – said these are robots whose entire mindset is informed by watching Bad Boys and old hip hop videos. They’re wannabe gangsters. I said “Okay, I get that. I drive through Beverly Hills and see wannabe white gangster kids, I get it.” I’ve got to say, there were some lines where I would say to Michael “are you sure?” And he’d say “it’s fine, it’s fine, just do it.” Again, that’s the session player mentality. It sounds a little weird, but okay. There was a minor sh*tstorm, but luckily for us Michael Jackson died that week, so he took some heat off of us. (laughs)
Winnie the Pooh opens July 15. Check it out.