peter cullen interview

Voice actor Peter Cullen has been playing Optimus Prime, the righteous leader of the Autobots, for over 30 years. After originating the character in 1984 with the original Transformers animated series, he has returned him countless times in the decades since, playing Optimus in TV shows, video games, and even Michael Bay’s live-action movies. While he’s played plenty of other characters over the years, Cullen is forever tied to this iconic warrior robot.

And if you talk to him, he seems perfectly okay with that. Cullen is back as Optimus Prime in Transformers: Titans Return, an animated internet web series that acts as a sequel to the Transformers: Combiner Wars series. You can watch the show on go90 right now. But first, why not join us for a little chat with Cullen, where he talks about his personal connection with Optimus, the state of the voice over industry, and the passion project he’s working on with NASA.

You’ve played Optimus Prime for so long and in so many iterations. Have you learned what he’d say and what he’d not say? Have you internalized the character?

It’s easy to answer. He has not altered since his conception for me. His traits are so solid and so strong. He doesn’t sway from them, which is his success. That’s why I love him and I’m sure that’s why fans love him, too. He’s the epitome of good. He’s a leader who’s good. Just those many qualities. The dignity and courage and honor and trustworthiness and compassion. The strength of conviction, the ability to translate to and relate to the characters he’s involved with to create that trust. That has never changed. I’m grateful to the franchise for its respect in that. That’s what they gave me at the beginning and I’ve had to the honor of doing it since 1984.

It’s interesting that you talk about consistency. Have you ever had to gently push back and say that Optimus Prime wouldn’t do this or say that?

Yeah. Yes, I have. They are very few and far between, but I have had those encounters. Not often. It’s a moment where…it requires a lot of diplomatic tact without hurting anyone’s feelings or ego. It’s hard to be demonstrative about something when you’re a subject rather than the boss. It’s difficult. Although it has happened and if it had to go any further, it probably could have stopped production until the people higher up were acquainted with the problem and they would understand and say “Peter’s right.” It has happened, but not often. I can count them all on one hand.

With this new series, did younger writers and animators and producers defer to you at any point? Are you the elder statesman of the Transformers universe?

I didn’t create the character. I just act it. A franchise is owned by another entity. They have rules that they convey to the people responsible for a production, a guideline of what they can do and what they can’t do.

But I imagine you feel ownership anyway. This must be really personal to you.

I don’t own it. But I respect it. I respect the situation that I’m in. It’s a responsibility now, because so many people would be offended if it changed. So many people would be hurt. Over the years, I’ve talked to people that have been hurt by changes. Thank God it wasn’t personality changes. Generation One fans are responsible for this Transformers legacy. They’re responsible for the success of it. I have a strong bond with them, the Generation One people. We’re equal. We’re the same. I never feel anything but love and they don’t get anything back from me but love.

A few years ago, I interviewed writers from the original show and they talked about how they worked in a vacuum and didn’t realize people were taking their work seriously until they killed Optimus Prime in the original movie. When did you realize this was such a big deal?

When it first happened, it just proved that everybody is disposable. Whether it was the right decision or not, it wasn’t for me to make. I was hurt by it because I had no reason to believe that a show that had been picked up for two years and to get killed off…I could only interpret that as “Wow, it must be my performance. It must really suck. They’re replacing me.” You move on, you forget about it. And then years later, it’s brought back into action again. By that time, the internet has been introduced and you see thumbs up and thumbs down, likes and dislikes, everyone and their sister has an opinion and has something to say. Before you know it, you have thousands and thousands of people expressing themselves and a picture studio sitting up and paying attention and saying “Who is this guy? What’s all of this about?” A couple of hundred thousand views on something and they have to look it. So I got the chance to audition for Optimus Prime again twenty years later. [Laughs] It’s always fun.

I think the internet has helped people become more aware of what voice actors do and how difficult their job can be. Voice actors have been in the headlines recently for trying to get a better deal with video game companies. What is the state of the industry right now?

From my point of view, it has exploded in the last several years. The advance of digital animation technology has made it possible…you have individuals who can create things in their own room, at home. That’s something we’ve never had to the opportunity [to do]. Back in those days, we only had three major networks and PBS. Competition was…there was vigorous competition. You auditioned for a role and there would be thirty or forty people…maybe I’m exaggerating, I never saw that many people in a room! [Laughs] I’m embellishing a little bit. I hope you don’t mind. I don’t have all those statistics. I just have the memory, the feeling that the competition was dire. Today, I think the opportunities are so vast. It seems like there are thousands of people who are working and back in my day there would only be a dozen.

With all of those opportunities, how should young people interested in voice over work prepare for the industry? How do you train yourself to become a voice actor?

I believe the voice is an instrument. A musical instrument, you know? Any instrument has to be practiced, it has to be understood. Opera singers don’t just get up and do an aria, you know? They started learning how to sing when they were children. The opera singer tries to duplicate the first sound that he ever made from the womb. The baby cry is the purest sound that a human can make. They spend the rest of their life trying to reproduce whatever happened. What muscles. How much air. How much resonance. It’s just an incredible thing. You work many hours just to duplicate what you did at birth. It is an instrument. Like any instrument, you learn how to play it. Like with singling, develop your own style. Tell the truth from your inside. Let your voice be the instrument that guides that truth. Never give up. Keep at it, stay at it, never be discouraged. Every day is an improvement.

So, I’ve got to ask. The internet has been full of stories about you having a small role in the Bumblebee movie that’s being made right now. Is Optimus Prime coming back and are you playing him?

I haven’t had any indications one way or another. I know as much as everybody else does. I’m not going to assume anything. I haven’t heard one way or another. There’s not much information out there and it’s very privileged information. I don’t know anything more than that. I wish I could help you out. It would be good news. “I got a job! Wow!” I have one thing I’d like to ask you for.

Of course.

To make a mention of a pet project that I have with NASA. OPSPARC, the Optimus Prime Spinoff Award. It’s an award that I give out every year to kids in high school who have put together a video based on the inventions of space technology, the thousands of inventions we have created to get man safely out into space and back home again. We take them for granted and kids get an opportunity to take one of these inventions and innovate it and turn it into something else. This is all to encourage kids to [get into] space technology, medicine…there are so many different varieties of space that NASA provides. This is through the Goddard Space Flight Center back in Baltimore. Any mention of OPSPARC…I would love to help kids make a decision about the future.

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