The new Voltron: Defender of the Universe video game is a nostalgic throwback to the 1980s cartoon that featured space explorers who piloted five mecha-lions that combined to form a powerful robot defender. Released on Nov. 29, the game features multiplayer online and offline options; battles with King Zarkon’s evil forces including classic Robeast creatures; and cut-scenes culled directly from episodes of the cartoon series. Many of these scenes feature the voice of Michael Bell as Lance, second-in-command and pilot of the Red Lion. Bell’s voice resonates through the memories of millions of fans who watched cartoons at some point during the ’80s as the characters of Duke (“G.I. Joe”), Handy/Grouchy/Lazy Smurf (“The Smurfs”), Prowl/Sideswipe (“Transformers”) and scores of others. Hero Complex contributor Jevon Phillips caught up with the somewhat revered voice actor to chat about old times and new challenges.
JP: How has the voice-over community changed over the years?
MB: We’re all aware of the fact that when it first started, so many of us were not necessarily stars. We were actors subsidizing our careers [with voice work.]. I was an on-camera actor and sort of locked into roles that were usually playing the heavy or a CIA agent or FBI or something like that. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. Then someone brought the voice-over world to my attention and I locked onto that. The competition was fierce. But it was fierce among some enormously talented actors. That lasted for 30, almost 40 years until they started bringing a lot of celebrities and superstars in. I think that’s where it changed. The joy kind of went out of it for me when I worked with celebrities because they were not part of my group, as it were. They were nice and it was pleasant, but it wasn’t as if I could share what I do with them because they didn’t do a lot of voices. It’s changed over the years under those circumstances. The concept of us doing three voices lasted for many years, and that is why we were so successful. If you really listen closely in films [today], people sound like they do in life. And I think that’s just been one of the biggest changes.
JP: What was that community like before stars invaded?
MB: There were pretty much the same people that you saw in auditions. You may not have been social with them, but you did see them in events. There was a wonderful feeling, and I tell this to my students, you just never had a feeling of real competition. There was always a little bit of a competitive force there, but if someone else got it, you were OK ’cause you knew that they were really good. And then you got something right after that. It was kind of like a repertoire group without meaning to be. They were so good ’cause they could do so many things. We did animals and creatures … we had to study. We worked hard at learning those things and we were called upon because we knew what we were doing. And yes, we liked each other so much. So many people in our group came from stand-up comedy. I always say that if we had filmed the sessions, we’d have what is now considered a reality show.
JP: When voicing video games vs. cartoons, is there a different mind-set or process?
MB: There is a difference in video games. The video games I’ve done for the most part have been closer to reality in terms of the writing. It’s edgier, much tougher — and it’s just harder to do. When you die in a video game, you die in several ways, so you have to record dying several different ways. Getting hit several different ways. Getting slashed with a machete or shot or pummeled or burned to death — it takes a lot of energy out of you. It’s really quite different.
JP: What do you think of THQ mixing the nostalgia of the original ‘Voltron’ with the video game?
MB: I think it’s really cool. It’s great. I think it’s a very smart move and it’s a long time coming. I think it should’ve been done earlier. I think it’s going to absolutely rage like a house on fire.
JP: Are you at all a gamer?
MB: My heart was pounding wondering if you were going to ask me if I was a gamer. No, I’m not. When I do games, through the kindness of the producers, they’ll give me one and I have them all lined up in my studio at home. Every now and then I’ll run across a student or my daughter will bring someone home and I’ll say ‘Are you into this game?’ They’ll say ‘Yeah! yeah!’ and I’ll say, ‘OK, it’s yours.’ Or sometimes I will have it signed by the cast and auction it off. I head a couple of animal rescue organizations, one of which is Valley Wildlife Care … But, I do not play the games. I guess the left side of my brain is the soft side — acting, artistry — but when it comes to that kind of dexterity, I am absolutely horrific. I have a game that one of the producers gave me, and I could not get my character off of the rock. I sat there, and after four hours, I couldn’t get my character off the rock… I’m lucky I can drive my Prius.
JP: Did you come to identify with characters — and do voice actors get typecast?
MB: No, that’s the great thing, you really don’t. You might get typecast by the tone of your voice — if you have a deep voice, they’ll obviously set you up with a character that looks like he might have a deep voice. When the talent pool was smaller, you wound up doing lots of voices. If they were deep, you really had to reach down. Then you went home and didn’t talk for two days since it was a bit outside your natural vocal ability. In “Voltron,” it was a small cast, and they didn’t really bring in guests. I wound up doing little kids sometimes, to the point where I remember one time voicing a little girl. I remember asking, ‘Are they really going to buy that?’ I felt like I was going to get a ruptured spleen, but that’s what you had to do.
JP: Do you have any particular roles or moments that really stand out?
MB: Obviously doing a little girl’s voice stands out in my mind. I think just doing the sessions was just so much fun. It was such a gift to be able to go into work and play like that. We never really got to see the shows as we were going along. We worked according to timing. If we got a line that said 1.3 seconds, you brought it in at 1.3 seconds, and the director said, ‘OK, that was great, but you brought it in at 1.2. Can you stretch it?’ And you did it again. But you developed this clock in your head. Often you do that and it’s like a radio show. You develop a signature sound. Then, with certain sounds and mannerisms, they’d create the characters around you.
– Jevon Phillips
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