Just days before I was to interview Peter Cullen, the voice of Optimus Prime on the original Transformers cartoon as well as the upcoming blockbuster, Nick mentioned that he thought Eeyore should kill himself. It turns out that Cullen is the voice of Eeyore in all the modern Pooh stuff – sorry I didn’t bring it up, Nick.
Cullen wasn’t going to be Prime in the film, but the fan support for him was so strong that even the imperious Michael Bay had to cave and give the guy the job. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think it was a bad choice – Cullen’s Prime is good voice work, and it doesn’t have the over the top silly quality of Frank Welker’s Megatron.
I wish I got better audio from phoners because I would love to run the sound of the last bit of this interview, which has Cullen cracking up over Prime’s love life and falling very easily into that voice to explain to Bumblebee why there’s a new truck hanging around Autobot HQ…
Is there a difference between the Optimus Prime of the cartoon and the Optimus Prime of the movie?
From a visual point of view, certainly.
How about from your end, as a voice actor?
No, he remains identical to the original concept; he has not changed one bit on that level. His character remains as strong as he was and significantly all the traits that were used in the series are honorably used in this new film.
As a voice actor, what did you use to create the voice of Optimus Prime?
Well, it’s kind of a long story. I first expressed this a while back and since then I find myself saying it more. I don’t know why I did it originally, but it’s the truth, and I don’t expect a lot of people to understand. I based it on my brother Larry. We’re 13 months apart, and he was in Vietnam serving as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. He had some pretty devastating experiences over there, and when he came home he had somewhat changed; I saw a newer, different human being, and it was very impressive. When the Transformers came up, and the leader Optimus Prime, I just thought of Larry and their voices are similar. I started reading the lines the way my brother would talk. That’s the way it came about.
So for you the voice of Prime carries the weight of experience and having been in some tough places and having seen some tough things.
Well, that’s one way of putting it. I think his dignity and his integrity and his ability to not lose control under any circumstance – there’s a strength of authority there that has compassion and understanding you can only learn through experience. To answer your question, I’d say that’s primarily how I based it. I think it’s all how you say things, and you’ve experienced something on a hard end you’re going to say it differently than if you haven’t, and there’s a lot of weight in that. And sometimes less is more.
When you came on to the film version, how much of the effects work had been done? Could they show you Prime in action, or were you on before that?
There were times when there was very little to see. There were rough sketches and rough animatics, and then at the other end of the scale there were fully blown finished detailed things that were mind-boggling. I’ve expressed this on several occasions now, but when they showed me one of the finished pieces, I was speechless. Devin, I was dumbfounded. Every time I think about this I laugh at myself because I am not often found speechless! I’ll never forget it. And they played it again and I still couldn’t get my act together, but by the third or fourth time I finally focused. It was a very interesting session, and Michael Bay thought it was humorous too. I said, ‘This is incredible,’ and he smiled.
Were you surprised to find out that fans of the original Transformers were planning on doing things like picketing Michael Bay’s office? Is it surprising to you that what started as a cartoon that was essentially an advertisement for a line of toys has grown in stature in that way?
I didn’t know they were going to picket Michael Bay’s office! Oh wow, the tenacity! You guys deserve a medal. Number one, without your lobbying efforts, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now, and I’m extremely grateful for that. I just gotta say that. I’m just damned grateful. I love you guys for all that, I really do, but to know that you guys were going to picket Michael Bay? I love that. Sheer heart! I love you guys.
But are you surprised that the show lives on for the people who started watching it when they were kids?
No, not really. Perhaps at first it did, because there were many, many years where I was unaware of the popularity. It was through my daughter that I was asked to go to a convention and talk and sign some autographs, and I looked at her quizzically, like, ‘Why?’ Was I supposed to dress up in an Optimus Prime suit? I had no idea. But my daughter said, ‘Oh dad, you have to go. You have no idea how much impact you had on some these people. My kids at school talk about it all the time.’ So I went and I was startled by the reaction when I walked into the room; there were several hundred people and I was overwhelmed, I couldn’t believe it. But before that I had no idea.
Why do you think it is that the show has remained so important to these people?
The fact that it was revolutionarily new; there was nothing like it. It was a concept that was entirely genuine and fresh. It activated the imagination of youth and certainly in people older. That, and the combination of the writers, their brilliant imagination and their defining characters with human situations in a mechanical mold was quite unique. It captivated the minds of a large, large population.
It looks like Transformers is going to be the movie to beat this summer, which means we’ll probably see a Transformers 2 and maybe a Transformers 3. Where do you want to see Prime go? What aspects of him would you like to see explored?
That’s a hard question, Devin, because I’d certainly like to see this one first in its entirety to see what it is and what we’re talking about. But other than just continuing the heroic qualities that Prime exhibits I think is enough for me at this point. I think the world needs somebody to adjust their mind-status on compassion and integrity, honor, dignity and strength. I think we could use a lot more of that in life.
There were female Transformers in the cartoon, but I don’t know if there are any in the movie. Is there ever a chance of Optimus Prime finding love with a nice Semi?
[laughs] Optimus finds a new truck friend!
Does Optimus visit truck stops looking for love?
[laughs] [in Optimus Prime voice] Bumblebee, I’d like you to meet my truck friend, Alice. We met at the diner.