Toon Zone's "Brave & the Bold:" Diedrich Bader, Voice of Batman
In conjunction with Warner Brothers Animation, Toon Zone got the chance to interview the talent behind the upcoming Batman: The Brave and the Bold TV series.
As the voice of Batman in Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Diedrich Bader is living out the fantasy of any number of kids (including his own young son, as we’ll see). Bader’s love of performing flowered at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and he was soon cast as a supporting character in a variety of shows, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Quantum Leap. The role that made him recognizable to the most people was as Oswald Lee Harvey in The Drew Carey Show, although he’s had memorable turns as the construction worker Lawrence in Office Space and as Rex in Napoleon Dynamite, to name just two.
Bader does have a sizable number of voice acting credits to his name as well, taking on a number of supporting roles in dozens of cartoons over the years. Before Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Bader was the voice of Tank, the antagonist in Surf’s Up, and also of Zee, the lead character in Batman Beyond spin-off The Zeta Project. Toon Zone News was able to talk with Diedrich Bader over the phone for the following interview about taking on the voice of the Caped Crusader.
TOON ZONE NEWS: Most people probably know you for your on-camera work in movies and the Drew Carey Show, but you’ve actually been a voice actor for some time. How did you get your start in voice acting?
DIEDRICH BADER: The director Jamie Thomason, who is a really nice guy, was a dialog director at Disney and a casting director. He actually met me really early on in my career and gave me a guest-star spot on Gargoyles. It was a three-episode arc on Gargoyles. That was the start of it, and then just from auditioning and coming in for him and meeting other people, I kind of spread by word of mouth.
TZN: Had you had any formal training as a voice-over actor before that?
BADER: No, not at all, but it’s actually been really good for me because I’ve always loved to sound different than I actually do. It’s kind of an extension of what I do naturally and organically as an actor. I always try to sound different in every role, and that’s probably why I’m not a star. I can’t focus on what I’m supposed to sound like. I can only focus on what I think the character should sound like. The really big stars tend to be exactly the same in every part, so you know who you’re going to get when you walk in.
TZN: What kind of formal training as an actor did you have?
BADER: I was classically trained as an actor at North Carolina School of the Arts. The focus of a training school like that is to get you to kind of fit into an ensemble or a repertory company, really. The idea was that repertory companies didn’t have actors to fill their ranks, and so the focus of schools like North Carolina School of the Arts or Julliard is to get you to play as many characters as you possibly can in order to fill the other parts that are necessary.
BADER: Originally, I kind of did the same thing that I did on camera, and then I realized that you have to goose it up as a voice-over artist. Even if you’re doing a dramatic scene, you have to do more than you really would. There’s an acting term called “indicating,” which is telling everyone what your objective is. In voice-over, you kind of have to indicate. You have to tell everybody exactly what you’re thinking through your voice. But when you’re on stage or on camera, you have your whole instrument — your face and your body and your gestures, and so it’s a more complete picture. With this, you have to go further, and what ultimately ends up animating the character is a stronger approach than you normally would take.
TZN: Are there voice actors whose work you look up to or who you study?
BADER: There are a number of guys who I really, really respect. Obviously, the legend Frank Welker. Tom Kenny, John DiMaggio…Dee Bradley Baker, I think, is really cool to watch him work, but I can’t learn anything from Dee because what he does is so incredibly foreign to me (laughs). There’s no way I could do that. He can play a dinosaur and a donkey and…it’s just incredible.
TZN: You just mentioned now that you want to sound different in every role, and you’ve said elsewhere that you don’t want to see anything in a performance that looks like you.
BADER: Yes, that’s right. I’m a little obsessed with it. (laughs)
TZN: How did that attitude affect your performance as Batman in The Brave and the Bold?
BADER: Well, it’s actually interesting because Batman is the Dark Knight, so he’s kind of a downer. He needed a little lift, and I think that’s really why they cast me, because I have a natural energy that they are able to spike out. I do the classic Batman darkness, but I bring in an element that’s a little bit lighter and sort of funnier. A dry sense of humor. And then, the only time I get to play Bruce Wayne is in voice over. So, they’re kind of two different voices, Batman and Bruce Wayne, because Batman is really an extension of Bruce Wayne’s sense of vengeance. There’s a seriousness to Batman that there doesn’t necessarily need to be with Bruce Wayne, so in that voice over I’m a little lighter than in Batman. Actually, you know, when playing Bruce Wayne, I actually sound a lot like myself. It’s the first time in my career, I think, that I’ve sounded as much like myself as I do. They send me CDs that I like to listen to, just to learn and see what works and what doesn’t work, and I can really hear myself. It’s kind of odd that of all the characters that I’ve played, Bruce Wayne is actually the one that I’ve unconsciously chose to sound like me. I don’t know if it has anything to do that I live in Stately Wayne Manor, but…
TZN: Yeah, you can obviously identify with being a multi-kajillionaire…
BADER: (laughs) Kajillionaire, exactly! And I do have a butler named Alfred, but beyond that, nothing.
BADER: Well, I made Bruce Wayne a lot less jaunty. Originally, I created too big a difference between Bruce Wayne and Batman. So I shifted the tone of that to be a little closer to Batman, and I also made Batman much drier. Originally, I was hitting the comedy just a little too hard with Batman, and now I think I’m really in a good zone where it’s very dry. If you don’t really know Batman, you probably wouldn’t laugh. It’s like somebody’s old dad at a dinner party, where it slowly starts to dawn on you that he’s really, really funny. That’s kind of the approach that I’m taking now, where before I was hitting it a little harder.
TZN: How did you land the part exactly? Did you have to audition for it?
BADER: Oh, yeah, I auditioned for it. I like auditioning. If I get an offer, I really don’t know what I’m doing. Andrea Romano actually called me in, and she’s an old friend. We did a series before together, and you know, various guest star spots, and she called me in. It’s really funny that she called, because I did The Batman as a guest star a couple of times, and she sent me the discs, which was really generous and sweet of her, and I looked at them, and I realized that I couldn’t show them to my son. And I thought, “You know, they should really make a Batman that kind of broadens the demographic a little.” One that allows smaller children to actually watch Batman, because it’s a really fun show. And it’s a great fantasy. One of the things that’s really cool about Batman is that he has no super powers. He’s just really smart, and very good physically, but because he trains himself. In other words, anybody could be Batman, so I realized that that’s kind of a good example to set for a kid. I also wanted to do a show that my son could watch, besides the broader kid stuff that I’ve done. When this came up and she called me in, I thought, “You know, this really is kismet, because it’s something that I’d really genuinely like to do, both from a business perspective and a personal perspective.” Then my son and I can watch it together.
TZN: I spoke with Andrea Romano last week, and she said your son was bouncing off the walls because Daddy was going to be Batman.
BADER: Oh my God, he’s totally into it. Of course, my daughter still thinks that she’s Batman, and I’m Alfred. My son is totally into it. Every week, he asks, “Who’s the bad guy?” He wants to know who I’m battling. It’s cool. He’s so into comic books, it’s intense. I was never that into it as he is. He knows all the characters, where I only have a passing knowledge of a lot of this stuff. He is so into it. He’s got the DC and Marvel encyclopedias, and reads them.
TZN: She also mentioned when she first saw the project, she thought of you immediately to be Batman.
BADER: No kidding. She did?
BADER: That’s hilarious. That’s fantastic. Oh, that’s sweet of her. She’s an angel.
TZN: Were you ever a really big Batman fan?
BADER: No, I was a Batman fan, but I was kind of outdoorsy. I was always doing something outside, so I wasn’t the biggest comic book fan. Although, you know, it’s funny looking at comic books again now that they’re all littered throughout my house, because their depiction of women … wow! Holy moley! No wonder I looked at them when I was 8, 9 years old! (laughs) But other than that, I don’t think I really read them for any other reason. I was mostly just running around outside, but now that I’m reading them with Sebastian, they’re really well-told stories and they’re really fun to read.
TZN: Do you have any favorites right now?
BADER: We’ve been reading a lot of Batman. The age-appropriate Batman. The other night, my son picks up The Batman comic. He got it at Golden Apple, the comic book store here. He’s such a regular, they greet him: “Hey, Sebastian!” So he brings The Batman over to bed, and I ask, “You want me to read Batman?” And he says, “Of course! I’ve got my very own Batman!” (laughs) So that made me happy.
TZN: It’s a kid’s dream come true.
BADER: Yeah, come on. He’s got his own Batman. Just wind him up.
TZN: What about cartoons? Did you watch a lot of cartoons before you were a voice-over actor?
BADER: I did before, but I do now because of my kids. I watch them even more than I used to, but I used to love the Disney movies. I never lost the joy of seeing a kids’ movie because it’s genuinely fun. It’s the movies that genuinely capture the sense of the fun of it. I love the flat animation, though, totally. That’s why I love watching the old Disney movies with my kids. They’re just so beautiful and painterly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched 101 Dalmatians. The art direction of that and the animation in that is just so good! Everything about it is good. The script is so solid, and all the performances are good, and just the way that they styled London, you know, is just beautiful.
BADER: I had done a series with Adam West a long time ago, called Danger Theatre, and he and I kind of kept up a little bit. He’s a really nice guy. When I was a kid, I used to watch the Batman show all the time, and then I was on The Batman a couple of times, and kind of heard what Rino Romano was doing with it. I saw the movies, and there’s kind of a tone that everybody takes other than Adam, who kind of spiked up the humor a little bit. There’s kind of a dark tone that everybody takes, and so that was mostly the reasearch. Also, I’ve been, you know, doing some vigilante activity.
TZN: Real ultimate method acting, then.
BADER: Exactly, yeah. I’ve got a belt. It doesn’t have all the stuff on it. It’s more like a utility belt, but it’s got some stuff. Tape measures and things like that.
TZN: Well, I’m sure Morgan Freeman is busy right now, so he’s not able to help you out with that suff.
BADER: You know, I called him, and nothing back. It was weird.
TZN: The other time you were the heroic lead in a voice acting role was as Zee in The Zeta Project. How would you say things have changed between that project and this one?
BADER: My voice has gotten a lot deeper, mostly, and I don’t really even know why that is. Maybe my allergies? I’m not even sure. But the quality of animation has gotten a lot better, especially for series television. And also, playing an android is very different from playing Batman. But, you know, I still love the way that Warner Brothers does it and the way Andrea does it, because she’s the only voice director I’ve worked with who gets all the actors with the writer and the producer and her in the studio, and we read through it as a rehearsal before we go. We get all the notes then, and then do it as an ensemble when we record. It’s fun to do it that way.
TZN: She mentioned she was very, very serious about doing the ensemble readings.
BADER: She’s really into it. Yeah. I’ve had to (laughs) change a lot of schedules and not take certain jobs so I can maintain the reading with the cast people, but right now I’m really big on being Batman, so I’m OK with having less time on-camera. I’m really into being Batman. I’m so into it, I’m telling you. I’m getting the cape and cowl.
TZN: And the toys, and the beating up the criminals and all that, right?
BADER: Yeah. I’m going to branch out to criminals. Now it’s just neighbors. But, what I’m really looking forward to, too, because my son has all his action figures all over the place? They’re coming out with a whole new line of action figures for Batman because they’ve completely reconfigured how Batman and all of the bad guys look. I’m really looking forward to having my own action figure. That’s going to be super-cool.
TZN: Are they doing any of them that talk?
BADER: Man, I hope so! That would be incredible!
TZN: Did they record you saying anything specifically for toys?
BADER: No, they’ll probably just take it from the show, but that would be pretty cool.
TZN: I’ve read some comments from other actors who say, “Yeah, I have my own action figure now. It looks weirdly like me, but not.”
BADER: (laughs) Yeah, but I don’t think I have to worry about that with Batman.
TZN: Yeah, I don’t think you have to worry about that quite so much, but..I don’t know. You do have that strong chin.
BADER: Yeah, I do have a big chin. I’ve got the jaw. I’ve got a big, Batman jaw. And maybe I’d look better with a cowl on. It would cover my enormous forehead. (laughs)
TZN: Now, you’ve done voices in a few other places, like as Tank in Surf’s Up or on Billy & Mandy or King of the Hill. What do you see as the biggest differences working for those shows and doing the Warner superhero stuff, and the Brave and the Bold in particular?
BADER: Well, being the lead is different, because you have to carry the story, so you’re not allowed to fly off and do whatever you want whenever it occurs to you. You have to make sure that the story doesn’t float off into essentially whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it. Being a guest star on an animated show is really fun because you get to go in and they lob you softballs and you get to knock ‘em out of the park. It’s fun, as a performer, to go over the top and do whatever you want. But as the lead, you have to ground the whole thing, and the thing with Batman and The Brave and the Bold is that there’s only one regular and that’s Batman. It’s actually really about Batman, so you have to really focus on making sure that the story is clear. That’s another thing I learned from listening to the CDs is that you’ve got to make sure that there’s a strong line all the way through. That everyone is really clear on what Batman wants all the way through.
TZN: What would you say has been the biggest surprise for you during the recording sessions of Batman: The Brave and the Bold?
BADER: I think the biggest surprise really for me was who they brought in as guest stars, because they’re really focusing on bringing in really funny guys. Again, they’re letting the guest stars have a little bit more of a free rein than you would on The Batman. When I did The Batman, a lot of the guest stars were great actors, but serious actors and not really who you would think of as particularly funny guys. In this incarnation of Batman, we bring in some pretty funny people to play the guest stars, so there’s always this very strong element of humor throughout all of the readings, and that’s really, really different. And that was kind of a surprise to see that that was going to be a big focus for them — to take voice over artists and also actors that you’d recognize on camera as well, but get the ones that are really focused on comedy. So that was a surprise, and that came fairly early on.
TZN: Did you up doing a fair amount of improv, or a bit of riffing off each other during the rehearsals at all?
BADER: Yeah, there is some of that. I’m not allowed to talk too much about that, but definitely there was some room for people who are really funny to have a good time and, if it’s organic to the show, to do something original. And I think people, when they watch, will sense that.
TZN: What has been the strangest thing that you’ve been asked to do so far as Batman?
BADER: Nothing yet. Although, at the end of the season, we’re doing a series of episodes that I think will surprise people, but I can’t talk about it yet (laughs). So mixing the two questions, that was a surprise that they were going to go in that direction, but I think we can do it. It’s going to be really interesting.
BADER: Exactly! Yeah. (laughs) And also, you know, on The Drew Carey Show, we took a lot of leaps stylistically, and the audience always seems to go with you. If they like the show, they’ll go with you and it kind of freshens everybody’s perspective.
TZN: What else are you working on right now other than The Brave and the Bold?
BADER: Well, in animation, I have a movie called Bolt coming up soon for Disney. Other than that, I’ve just been sort of hanging out and doing Batman as much as possible. But I’m going to do some theater, I think, for the first time in a really long time. Downtown Los Angeles, doing House of Blue Leaves for the Taper. I leave for Williamstown to rehearse there and then come back here to put it up. I’m trying to balance out my responsibilities to my children and my compulsion to be an actor, so I’m right now doing as little as possible (laughs), because the kids are so little I get to hang out with them as much as I possibly can. Once they’re at school, I’ll probably jimmy up the on-camera work a little bit more.
TZN: To close it off, someone else on staff instructed me to ask, “Do you know the cow?”
BADER: Do I know the cow?
TZN: Do you know the cow?
BADER: (laughing) I have no idea what that means.
TZN: Honestly, I don’t know either. There’s a response that’s supposed to be there…hang on a second…
BADER: Is it from Napoleon Dynamite?
TZN: No, it’s from Evil Alien Conquerors. “He’s an insolent bastard.”
BADER: Oh my God! I didn’t think anyone had SEEN that! (Laughs) That’s hilarious! That’s really funny! “Yes, I know the cow.”
TZN: And he’s an insolent bastard, apparently.
BADER: “And he’s an insolent bastard!” (laughs).
Toon Zone News would like to thank Diedrich Bader for being such an entertaining and compliant interview subject (hmmm), and also James Finch and Annie Chen at Beck Media for making these interviews possible. Don’t forget to check out our other coverage of Batman: The Brave and the Bold: