Marvel Animation Age & TZ News Present: Josh Keaton on "The Spectacular Spider-Man"
Josh Keaton is no stranger to being a hero. His voice acting career has stretched for the majority of his life, with roles as Jules Brown in Back to the Future: The Animated Series, the young Hercules in Disney’s Hercules feature film, and Ocelot in the Metal Gear Solid series of video games. He is also no stranger to the world of Marvel Comics superheroes, having played a raft of characters over the years in video games, including Harry Osborn, Cyclops, and the Human Torch. However, his latest and best known role is now as Peter Parker, the title character of The Spectacular Spider-Man. To celebrate The Spectacular Spider-Man moving over to Disney XD, Toon Zone News and Marvel Animation Age were able to catch up with Keaton via telephone to talk about his work on the show, his previous encounters with the character, how to talk smack with a burnt tongue, and answers the most important question of all at the very end.
MARVEL ANIMATION AGE/TOON ZONE NEWS: How exactly did you get the role as Spider-Man on the show? Did you have to audition for it?
JOSH KEATON: I did. There was an extensive audition process. I’m not exactly sure how many people there were, but I remember Greg saying something like 2,000 people were auditioned. Basically, it’s just a process where they audition you, you read the copy, they put you all on tape. They’ll take their huge group, they’ll narrow it down probably in half, and then they’ll take that and keep narrowing it down to a shortlist. Then they’ll have a callback session, where they have their shortlist come in and re-read, usually additional copy, and it’ll be directed this time. The first audition wasn’t directed. It was one of these things where I just went into my voice-over agent’s office because they have a studio there. The second audition was with some of the producers of the show there and the voice director Jamie Thomason, and he was directing whoever was coming in for that callback. I can’t remember if there was a third callback or not. When I originally auditioned, I auditioned for three different parts. I auditioned for Peter/Spidey, I auditioned for Harry Osborn, and I also auditioned for Eddie Brock/Venom, and I am very happy with the role I was chosen to play (laughs).
MAA/TZN: I remember reading that you were a big fan of Spider-Man before the show.
KEATON: Yeah, huge fan. Huge fan.
MAA/TZN: That must have been a big happy geek moment when you found out you got the part.
KEATON: I can safely say that it was, and most of my friends are also geeks and involved in either comics or the industry in one way or another. I have a lot of friends that are either comic book artists, comic book inkers, or colorists, and they were all quite jealous. (laughs) Oh, and they were the most jealous of the new toy which I just picked up, which is the talking Spider-Man. I know they’ll probably give me one, but they haven’t given it to me yet and I had to have it, so I had to go out to Toys ‘R Us. And funnily enough, the guy that I bought it from at Toys ‘R Us asked me if I needed a gift receipt, and I looked at him and said, “No,” and I think at that point, he knew I was buying it for myself, and he also ended up being a Spider-Man fan. So that was kind of neat.
KEATON: It is not. I played Spider-Man in the first Spider-Man (movie) video game. However, after I recorded all my audio, they ended up getting approval to use Tobey Maguire’s audio from the film. Now, they didn’t want to waste all the audio they recorded with me, so they added a hidden mode of gameplay where if you beat the game, you can play as Harry Osborn in the Green Goblin suit. It’s essentially the exact same game, pretty much the same storyline, but it’s just Harry Osborn. So I was the de facto Harry Osborn. In the second Spider-Man game, they called me back just to play Harry because I think they had already gotten the approval for the movie audio for Spidey. So yeah, I play Harry Osborn in two games. Then there was another one: Spider-Man: Friend or Foe, and this is where it gets even sillier. I played Harry Osborn in that game, and James Arnold Taylor played Spider-Man in that game. However, in our show, James Arnold Taylor is Harry Osborn and I play Spider-Man. So that’s been my long, twisted relationship with Spider-Man in media.
MAA/TZN: Was there anything you lifted from the video game portrayal to do Spider-Man for the new show?
KEATON: No, not necessarily, because it was so long ago and that was pretty much all taken from the movie. For Spectacular, it’s all written for the show. I did see the film, so it was something where I didn’t necessarily have to work against sounding like Tobey or whatever. It was something where I brought my own performance to it, but…I mean, you were saying the lines directly out of the film. With (Spectacular Spider-Man), we homage some of the elements of the film and some of the things are pretty similar, but for the most part, it’s more based on the classic era of Spidey.
MAA/TZN: I think you had said at one point that you didn’t actually watch a lot of the earlier Spider-Man portrayals in animation before you started on Spectacular Spider-Man.
KEATON: Well, that’s not to say that I didn’t watch them as a kid. I grew up watching a lot of stuff. The 60’s show was before my time, and I was really, really young when Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends came out. But I did see the 90’s one, and I did catch some of Spider-Man Unlimited. But yeah, I really did want to see the original ones, but not necessarily to influence my portrayal at all. It was just to see it. I wanted to see what was around back then. I wanted to see the progression of where this character’s gone, and with technology and animation getting better, I kind of wanted to see how it all played out. So I did watch them, but never really with the intent of factoring somebody else’s work into my portrayal.
MAA/TZN: I know I’ve seen other interviews where you say you identify strongly with Peter Parker because you had similar experiences growing up. My question to you is how is Peter Parker or Spider-Man the most UNLIKE you ?
KEATON: Well, I don’t have the super powers (laughs), and most of the events in my life aren’t as dramatic or demanding as saving the world, or saving human life on a daily basis. But I have had some bad things happen to me. There’s all things I can look to as reference, and plus I read a lot, so most of the things that I can’t necessarily identify with, I can still empathize with, and create enough story in my imagination where I can figure it out and still make a believable portrayal. Honestly, there’s so many things that have happened in his personal life, in terms of how he relates to Liz and Gwen and the women in his life, that have rang so true to me, it really hasn’t been difficult to find similar events in my own life to get that motivation from. It really hasn’t been too difficult of a part to play.
I would say that the hardest part was that once he’s accepted the fact that he’s Spider-Man, how much “bad acting” would Peter do to conceal his identity, because I’ve never really had to hide a secret that big. Sometimes, he might overcompensate, and you see in some of the episodes where he almost goes a little too nerdy, trying to show, “Hey, no, that’s not me. I’m not that guy.” And, I guess finding that balance between how much he can show and how much he can’t, especially because you’re only doing it with your voice. Voice acting has trended in a lot of ways towards a little bit more realism, so if you just kind of play the part the way you would if it were on camera, the character artists are good enough to be able to catch the little nuances in what you’re saying.
MAA/TZN: So, the hardest thing for you, then, is just to be a bad actor, huh? (laughs)
KEATON: (laughs) No, no, no. I don’t know. It’s tough, because quite honestly, I’ve not really had a character that I’ve identified so much with. Not to mention that he’s always been a big part of my life. I’ve read a lot of Spider-Man, I grew up with the cartoons, so its almost like I’ve had the majority of my life to study this portrayal. It’s probably why when I think about it, there’s really not a lot that I find difficult about getting into his head, because I’ve been doing it for most of my life.
MAA/TZN: What would you say changed the most for you as an actor between starting the show and, say, by the end of season 1?
KEATON: There’s kind of a natural progression that just happens when you’re on-set — or, in this case, in the studio — and you start to develop a rapport with the other actors in the cast. You see it in the show. The first time you see me with Marko or O’Hearn is very different from when we already have an established rapport. The banter changes, whereas before, they’re both trying to feel each other out and trying to kick each other’s asses. By the time it’s their third or fourth meeting, they already know what to expect from each other. In a lot of cases, I’ve worked with a lot of these voice actors before, but I’d never worked with John DiMaggio before this show. He plays Sandman and Hammerhead, he does a fantastic job, and he’s a really cool guy. So there is that rapport that develops. I think that that’s probably the biggest change in terms of when you’re watching the progression of the season. It’s just like any other show, where you start seeing the cast members have a rapport. There’s that same growth in animation, where you still get to see that.
KEATON: You’ll be able to see it even further. Things that have been explored only halfway in season 1 get more developed. I mean, you get to see a lot more of Flash Thompson as a character, and him and Peter interacting. I won’t say how it plays out, but you do get to see that relationship — whether it be good or bad — grow. You get to see more between the relationship between Peter and Gwen, him and MJ, him and Liz Allan. You get to see more Eddie Brock. There’s a lot of dynamics, and all of the characters are constantly evolving. You’ve seen a lot of the origins of the super-villains on the show, like you’ve already seen Otto Octavius go from this meek guy that was always getting kicked around to the guy who says, “Screw it. I’ve got the power and I’m not going to get kicked around any more, and I’m a genius, so I’m going to go and be one.” You’re definitely going to see more of that in season 2, without giving away any storylines.
MAA/TZN: What do you think is the strangest thing you’ve had to do as Spider-Man in the booth?
KEATON: Let’s see…there’s one gag where I burnt my tongue in the middle of a fight, (laughs) and trying to emote as though you have a burnt tongue and speak and still remain somewhat intelligible, but still have it really sound like you have a burnt tongue is really difficult, because you have to speak with your tongue essentially in your hand. If you’ve ever tried that, it’s really hard. So that’s probably one of the most difficult physical things I’ve ever had to do. That’s probably the weirdest thing I’ve had to do yet.
MAA/TZN: What else do you have in the works? I know you have your music, and I know you have the Leisure Suit Larry game.
KEATON: I’m not sure what’s going on with the Leisure Suit Larry game, because I thought it was going to be out already, and it’s not (laughs). I finished doing a Destroy Man part on a game called No More Heroes, which was popular. He’s kind of an unapologetic jerk of a character, and he makes a return in what I’m assuming is a second installment of that game, so I just finished that. I’ve also just been working on music, working on production and writing for others as well my own material. And just hoping that season 3 gets a pick-up soon, because I’d love to get back into the trenches and keep working with Spidey.
KEATON: Josh Keaton would totally pick Gwen, and sometimes I get really really mad at Pete for not seeing that it’s right there in front of him. She’s cute, she’s a dork, she’s smart, she’s kind of feisty. I want to smack him upside the head sometimes.
MAA/TZN: You know what, I’ve had the same urge sometimes watching the show.
KEATON: Yeah! It’s like, “Dude! Come on! What are you waiting for!” But yeah, Josh Keaton would definitely pick Gwen. Actually I’m engaged, and I pretty much tell people that I’ve found my Gwen. She’s quite the dork, but she’s beautiful and she’s awesome.
The first season of The Spectacular Spider-Man will premiere on Disney XD on March 23, 2009, at 7:30 PM, with the new season of the show scheduled to begin over the summer of 2009. Visit the official Spectacular Spider-Man website for more information. For more info about Josh Keaton, visit his official website or his MySpace page dedicated to his music.
Special thanks to Caroline Mendoza at Sony for setting up this interview, and don’t forget to check out our interview with Spectacular Spider-Man‘s supervising producer, story editor, and writer Greg Weisman.