For a generation of 1980s-reared cartoon-loving television viewers, Peter Cullen’s voice as Optimus Prime in movies, TV shows, video games and even toys is instantly recognizable.
He has continued to voice the character on and off throughout the years, and returned to Optimus earlier this year in Michael Bay’s “Transformers: The Last Knight,” which made more than $605 million worldwide this summer. In next year’s “Bumblebee,” the Transformers spin-off film that recently wrapped filming, Cullen’s red, silver and blue Optimus Prime figures in the plot focused on the smaller but ever-popular yellow-and-black Autobot.
The first chapter in the series, “Transformers: The Combiner Wars,” reintroduced an older Optimus Prime — he hadn’t even cared to repair his cracked windshield! He’d given up leading the Autobots and the Transformers in general, but trouble brought him back into the fold. Even bigger trouble, literally and figuratively, has put Optimus back into action in “Titans Return.”
Cullen is joined by Abby Trott as Windblade, Jason Marnocha as Megatron, Frank Todaro as Starscream and Lana McKissack as Mistress of Flame. Judd Nelson is reprising his roles of Rodimus Prime and Hot Rod from the 1986 animated “Transformers” movie, and there are two “Star Trek: The Next Generation” alum in Michael Dorn as Fortress Maximus and Wil Wheaton as Perceptor. Nolan North is Metroplex and Jason David Frank is Emissary.
Cullen, of course, voices many other characters. Notably, he is the voice of Eeyore in many Winnie the Pooh projects. But Optimus Prime will always be his most loved character. With another new animated iteration of the more-than-meets-the-eye robots and post-production happening on the new live-action “Bumblebee,” the 76-year-old Cullen took a look back at his decades-old origins with the franchise and how he and the business have changed — for better and for worse.
When you were first presented with the opportunity to voice Optimus Prime?
Voiceover actors, especially in the animation world, were [once] on call every day from your agent, 24-seven. “Go here, go there.” Today, you don't do that. You audition in your own home in your underwear in front of a microphone on a computer. Back in those days, you had to drive across town and wait in line in auditions. Mostly, what we called then cattle calls — like an NFL tryout. You don't just audition for one, you audition for about four or five roles, and you pick out the characters to read for. You take out a few pieces of paper and try to come up with a voice for each character. I did my Optimus Prime, and found out two weeks later that I was hired for the role. This was a toy that nobody has seen before. Kids will get their teeth into it. There was always the feeling of, “Gee, we got a hit.' G1 [or Generation One of the toys] — that was a long time ago.
It's been said that you based Optimus Prime on your older brother, a decorated Marine Corps officer who served in Vietnam. Has your portrayal changed over time?
True. Brother Larry saw action in Vietnam as a Marine 2nd Lt. He came back to Los Angeles and we roommated for a few years. At the same time I was going to audition for Optimus Prime, we had a funny exchange. We had one car between us. He says that he's going to take the car and what was I doing? I say, “I'm going to an audition.” He says, “For what?” I say, “I'm gonna be a truck.” He laughs. I say, “No, Larry. It's a hero truck!” He says, “A hero truck? Well if you're gonna be a hero, be a real hero. Don't be a jerk.” I'm cleaning up his words — don't be a Hollywood such-and-such. Be strong enough to be gentle. Be understanding. Be compassionate, and be able to kick ass — in a good way. He said it in a voice that was subdued and calm. He's 13 months older and 6 inches taller. Made of steel. He was my hero. His tone of voice was [Cullen switches his voice to a lower timbre], “Peter, if you're going to be a hero, be a real hero.” It weighed heavily on me. So I'm at the audition reading the breakdown of the character and what I have to say in the audition. I can just feel Larry's words coming out of my mouth. So, I took his sound — my first words were [again, lowering his voice], “My name is Optimus Prime.” And all these years later, we're talking about it.
Did you ever think you'd see the Transformers characters as characters in a live-action/CGI movie?
No. Not really — especially after the 1986 [animated] movie because I was killed off. Frankly I didn't pay much attention to the show after that. I may have checked out a few [episodes] while I was doing it, but I had a family of my own. And my kids — my son — was not interested in cartoons and animation. He was a motocross and jet ski guy. He was not a sit-at-home-and-watch-TV kid. So I didn't get any feedback for years!
In voicing Optimus in so many different iterations, from TV to video games to film, is there much difference for you in terms of the process?
Well, yeah. The animated series, before digital, was done in a small recording studio with cast. When you're working on a movie, you're working on an ongoing piece, and that means a couple of hours. The script has been written and subject to change, and in many cases, I was lip-syncing to animation that had already been created. For those that weren't animated, there were pencil sketches to go on — or we were just speaking dialogue into a microphone. So, yeah, there's definitely a creative process different than what I was accustomed to. Today, working wth the internet process of animation, and its ability to reach so many millions of people, this is exciting as well. It's all new to me, and I'm embracing it because let's face it, the success of anything is about the amount of people that watch it.
Your animation nemesis — voice actor Frank Welker — isn't in this latest Transformers iteration, but playing against his Megatron for so many years must have created a special bond.
A great bond. There's something about voiceover actors ... they're really underestimated and taken for granted. When I'm in a room with these talented guys ... they're really talented people and humble people. They're just marvelous people. Judd Nelson, who did Rodimus Prime or Hotrod in the newest series, what a great guy. Sensational human being and great talent. A great intellectual approach to a lot of his characters. And Frank — that's a bond that has lasted decades. It's such a privilege to be in a room with those people.
A lot of voiceover now is done, as you said, on a microphone in someone's home nowadays. Most would imagine that performing in-studio with other actors adds a different tone as opposed to being strictly digital.
The way I would express it would be like if you played on a football team and you weren't in the main locker room getting ready for a game around all the other players. You were just put in a room with your uniform and told to meet up on the field. You're missing 98% of the whole thing. You're missing the team, the camaraderie , the energy, the spirits, the willingness to combine efforts together and produce something good. When you're with a full group, you're inspired. And not only that, but the amount of laughter that ensued was just — you can't describe it. If it was school, we'd all be staying in detention.
Because it is so
No. I never use Optimus Prime's voice for anything else. I studied voice, so I know I can get down and [lowers his voice] add the timber. It's just something I was capable of doing and I've never looked back.The voice is an instrument like any other. It's just about how you play it.