NYCC2011: A Roundtable Interview with Kevin Conroy, the Voice of Batman
For a generation of superhero animation fans, Kevin Conroy is the definitive voice of Batman. He attended the prestigious Julliard School in the early 1970’s to hone his craft as an actor, studying with John Houseman and being classmates with Robin Williams and Kelsey Grammer. Conroy had appeared in numerous stage plays, including a stint with Houseman’s The Acting Company, before he moved to Los Angeles to take on television roles. He continued to appear on stage while also landing roles as a regular on TV series like Ohara and Tour of Duty. In 1991, Conroy auditioned for the part of Batman for the then-new animated series, attracting attention first by comparing the character to Hamlet, and then with his audition that landed him a role he’s been playing for more than 20 years.
Conroy reprises his role as Batman in the upcoming direct-to-video movie Justice League: Doom, along with more several cast members of the Justice League TV show. Toonzone News was able to sit in on a roundtable session with Conroy at the 2011 New York Comic Con to discuss his career as Batman. Questions asked by Toonzone News are marked.
(click to listen to the following response)
TOONZONE NEWS: Is that you on Twitter?
KEVIN CONROY: No.
TOONZONE NEWS: Are you attempting to do anything about that?
KEVIN CONROY: Yes, I am. I don’t know what I can do about it, but I’ve been putting word out that it’s not me.
Q: This is a question that you’ve probably been asked a million times: when you’re channeling a voice or personality, does it just come simply from a voice or do you have to create a character in your head in order to do a voice for it?
KEVIN CONROY: The voice for Batman definitely comes from a very psychological place. The character’s based on his childhood pain. The whole ethos, the whole mythology, I put into coming up with the voice, so there’s a lot of pain in his voice. That’s that dark place I go to to come up with that sound, so for me it’s very organic. I think what you’re asking is does it come from an organic place, or is it something you impose? With a lot of voices, you can impose them. I don’t think you can with Batman. I think it’s got to come from a very organic place.
Q: I think what I’m asking is when you go in for the audition, how do you make the decision on what you’re going to do hoping that what they hear is going to give you the character?
KEVIN CONROY: That is the $64,000 question, because usually they don’t know what they what to hear. They’ll know it when they hear it, so when you ask them, “What do you want?” they really can’t tell you. They’ll say some vague things, and say, “Well, just wing it, just try it.” And you think, “Well, this is a shot in the dark.” Half the time…not even half, 99% of the time, you make the wrong shot in the dark. That 1% of the time when you make the right shot in the dark…it’s like when I walked in to do Batman, it was just a fluke. There were probably a dozen other actors who could have gotten that job if they’d made the same choice I made. But they just didn’t think of making that choice. They said they looked at hundreds of actors for weeks and they couldn’t find anybody, and then I came in and did it. You don’t think that among all those hundreds of actors, there weren’t a dozen people who could have done that voice? They just didn’t think of it. So it’s really making the right choice at the right moment. I’ve been up for a dozen other voices that I didn’t get the job, because I probably just didn’t make the right choice that day. I could have come up with the same voice as the guy who got the job, but I just didn’t and they didn’t think to ask me because they usually don’t know what they want. With Batman, I came up with that sound because they were describing what the character had been through. The child had lost his parents, the living in a cave, the secrecy — everything about him, the Dark Knight legend, so I came up with that sound. Probably there’s a number of other people who could have come up with it, but they didn’t know that was the sound until they heard it.
Q: What do you think it is that keeps bringing you back time after time?
KEVIN CONROY: Well, I know what’s brought me back for 20 years. It’s the audience, because they’ve been so loyal to what I created initially. I know that’s why Warner keeps asking me back. They’ve had different actors do all the live-action films of Batman, which is an interesting choice, not to have one person associated with the franchise. They could just as easily have done it with all the animated series, but it was really because of the reaction to the audience that they kept coming back and asking me to do it. That’s just luck, and that’s just just me connecting with the audience. I’ve loved doing it, but I really thank the audience for that.
Q: Besides yourself, who’s your favorite Batman?
KEVIN CONROY: That’s unfair (laughter), because they’ve all been good and they’ve all been interesting. I mean…Christian Bale really has it nailed. He really understands the character well, but I liked Michael Keaton in the first live-action film. He was fantastic. So they’ve all brought different qualities. I think that’s why Warner Brothers did that, was to give different actors an opportunity to bring different things to it. And it was a very smart idea.
Q: When you got the job, did you think that you’d be doing it this long?
KEVIN CONROY: No, there’s no way. No way. Are you kidding, a 20-year job? (laughs)
Q: Well, The Simpsons has been on for 20-some years.
KEVIN CONROY: I know, but that’s REALLY fluke-y. That just doesn’t happen. I mean, I’m so happy for Julie Kavner that she got The Simpsons (laughs). We did a pilot together, actually, 25 years ago. A Fine Romance, it was a British comedy and we did the American version of it and it didn’t get bought, but I was very happy for her that she got The Simpsons.
Q: Building on that, about the 20-year job, how does it feel being a part of what is essentially the iconic version of a character for basically my entire generation?
KEVIN CONROY: Very lucky. Very, very lucky. I’ve worked hard at being an actor in my career. I started when I was 17, I moved to New York to go to Julliard. So I put in a lot of work, but a lot of it is luck as well, so I’m very lucky to have this job.
KEVIN CONROY: Andrea let me do that. I asked her if she would let me do it, and she said, “Well try it for a little while, but I don’t think this is going to work. You’re going to end up doing each voice and then we’re going to edit it.” I said, “Just let me try it, it’ll be a fun acting thing.” And as we were getting into it, she said, “You’re doing this! You are going to do this.” She was amazed.
Q: But how do you get that in your head?
KEVIN CONROY: I’m just a very schizy person. (laughter) It was fun, it was fun.
TOONZONE NEWS: I was going to ask something along the same lines because to do that, you have to commit to your choices, and then you have to change gears and commit to a completely different set of choices.
KEVIN CONROY: Exactly. I think I was able to do it because I had been doing Batman so long that I can kind of switch into the voice pretty easily. So getting into the Batman voice isn’t as challenging, you know? The trick was switching out of it and going into other voices, but I could sort of always go back to the Batman sound by default. It was fun. I had so much fun doing it. And then when I saw the finished product, I was so happy with the way that came out. That’s a beautiful episode.
TOONZONE NEWS: Related to that, you’ve done I think about 6 or 7 different variations on Batman. There’s Old Man Wayne, and there’s a couple of alternate universe Batmans, there’s Thomas Wayne…what are you doing mentally as an actor when you’re trying to distinguish them? Especially between Batman from Batman the Animated Series and Justice League, and Old Man Wayne from Batman Beyond?
KEVIN CONROY: I’ve always found that the best way to get into a different voice is to go from within. If you try to impose an artificial sound that you think something should sound like, it sounds imposed. When I go to Old Man Wayne, I just think of the weight of 80 years. How tired I would feel, which just kind of slows you down. There’s a lot of speed with youth, and so I just went with the feeling of doing old Wayne with the feeling of exhaustion. That’s why in Batman Beyond, he approaches the young Terry to take over. So I always like to go from inside to get the voice. That may go back to my training in Julliard because that’s the way they train you to go at stuff. And also the fact that I’m not one of the “voice guys.” There are those actors who can do a lion like you’d think that the lion was under the table, and then switch to doing a parrot and then switch to doing a yapping dog, all in 3 seconds. And you’d all believe that they’re right around the table. I was never one of those actors. I kind of go from inside.
Q: Does that process extend into singing as Batman?
KEVIN CONROY: (laughs) That was just my own ego, because I love to sing and I asked Andrea, “Please, let me sing.” So they let me try it.
Q: If your character is more of an internal thing, how are you affected when you do started doing something like Justice League and you’d see lots of other character actors coming in to play that you are going to be working with? Do you just play it the exact same way, or does your character change as it would if you were doing an ensemble piece based on the ensemble that’s going to be around you?
KEVIN CONROY: Well, in an ensemble, you’re always working off the other people, and that affects and feeds how you react in that sitation, but it shouldn’t change your core belief in yourself or in your character. I think the really important thing about Batman through all these different incarnations for me — and the reason why it’s resonated with the audience — is the consistency of the character, to be true to him. Really, many people in the audience understand Batman better than I do. They are so devoted to the story and they would hear in a second if I was being insincere or if I was being inauthentic. For me, the trick has been to maintain a level of integrity with the character, with whatever whatever situation he’s in, whether he’s been in all these different series or even in the games I’ve been doing lately, which is much harder to produce the character in because you’re much more in a vacuum. The challenge for me has been consistency rather than differences in different situations.
That happens with just the way you’re fed from the other actors. They bring out different sides of the character, just like people bring out different sides of you that you encounter through the course of the day. Joker is the…almost the flip side to Batman, there’s this symbiotic relationship between those two characters that’s so interesting. Again, the most important thing is the consistency of the character in every situation he’s in. The truthfulness of the character.
Q: You said something about how doing games is harder. Can you talk about that?
KEVIN CONROY: Well, the story of the game changes depending on how it’s played, right? So you’re recording every different variable that the gamer can go on. It’s not like you’re recording a linear story. You’re recording every possible variable the game can play, so you’re just doing wild lines, and four different takes of four different readings of every wild line. “Can you do that with a little more irony?” “Can you do it a little angrier?” “Can you try it with a little happy irony?” Just all these different variations, and they’re often in a complete vacuum because you don’t know how the gamer is going to play the game. You’re giving the producers basically thousands of lines that all relate to the story, but you don’t necessarily know how they relate to the story. You’re just giving them different kinds of readings sort hoping that they’ll plug them in the right way, sort of trusting that the editors and the producers will know how to plug it in. It’s so much harder, because you’re keeping the character alive literally in kind of a vacuum. It’s completely technical.
KEVIN CONROY: He’s become darker. I initially played around with the high notes more, the lighter qualities, especially with Bruce Wayne. Light defines darkness, so to define all that dark world that Batman was, I thought you have to illuminate Bruce Wayne more. Play the high notes more. So I made him much more sarcastic, more playboy…I played a lot with irony. It was a lot of fun. As they evolved the show, they went with a much darker palette and much darker stories and they were getting much more dramatic. I talked to Bruce Timm about it, and we actually went back and re-recorded some early episodes of just the Bruce Wayne voice to bring him down a few notches. And over time, he became even darker. So there was really a very subtle difference between Bruce Wayne and Batman. I’ve always felt that there had to be a difference, because you don’t just put on a cape and cowl and nobody knows who you are. Especially if you’re the most famous man in Gotham. That’s ridiculous, so I stuck with the idea that there had to be a vocal distinction and I’m glad I did that.
Q: Was that informed at all by the fact that the comics were getting darker or the films, or does that not matter?
KEVIN CONROY: I don’t think that really…I was working with Bruce and Paul as we evolved all that. We started doing that sort of before the live-action films were doing that at Warner Brothers. We were working on our own very much. I think they were relating more to the Dark Knight series of comics than perhaps I was because they’re very very faithful to all that.
Q: You’ve been Batman for so long behind a microphone, and nobody sees your face very much. Have you ever been in a situation where you wonder if someone can recognize your voice after they hear it?
KEVIN CONROY: (laughs) I think you would assume that it’s a totally anonymous job. I always assumed it was an anonymous job. I am constantly amazed when, literally, on the street that I live, a car will pull over and say, “Hey, Batman!” (laughter) “How do you know?” They say, “Oh, everybody knows about that!” I think because of the Internet and the sophistication of audiences now and the democratization of everything on the Internet, that everyone knows everything now, in terms of the enteratinment business. Everybody knows who’s doing what voice and everyone knows who everyone is.
(Click here to listen to the following anecdote; contains uncensored language.)
I mean I brought my car in to be serviced at one point last year, and they asked for my name and address. I gave them, and the guy said, “That’s a pretty weird name to have.” I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “Well, that’s guy who does Batman.” (laughter) I said, “That’s me.” He said, “********.” (laughter) He didn’t believe me.
TOONZONE NEWS: Did you have to do the voice?
KEVIN CONROY: So I had to do the voice! I’m standing there in the garage going, “I am Vengeance! I am the Night!” And he says, “Oh my God! This is really Batman!”
Q: Did you get a Batman discount?
KEVIN CONROY: No! That was my next question. I said, “Look, you’re working on the Batmobile! (laughter) You can really promote this!” He said, “Eh, it’s the same price, buddy.”
KEVIN CONROY: (laughs) Well if I did, I wouldn’t tell you about them. (laughter) No, they’re irreplaceable, absolutely, both of them. They are one of a kind, each of them. I would walk over coals to work with either of them at any time, and anyone in the business would say the same thing. They are so highly respected, and I’m sure you know that. They are class acts.
Q: Did you ever talk to any of your fellow actors just to talk about the way that things are done?
KEVIN CONROY: Well, yeah, that’s an interesting question. I did sort of have a sense of responsibility, especially when we were doing Batman the Animated Series and then The Adventures of Batman and Robin, because I was the unifying link to all those shows, and part of the strength of the show was that they wanted to go outside the world of voice-over actors. They were bringing in film actors and TV actors and looking all over. It was Andrea’s deal, really, bringing in really interesting actors who hadn’t necessarily ever worked in animation before. And it’s a very different technique. You don’t want to do cartoony voices, but you only have your voice to tell the story. So if you’re just going to do it like you’re doing a drama on film, it’s not going to work. You’ve got to juice it more than that, you have to use your voice to sell the story, but it’s a fine line. If you enter that cartoon world, it gets ridiculous.
Then there’s just tricks on how to turn the page without making any noise on a microphone. It sounds simple, but these are little tricks in the booth that you learn. So all these actors would come in who had never done any of this stuff before, and I would go over and say, “Look, this is how you set up your scripts. This is my advice. You can do whatever you want, but this is what I do.” And they’d always be very appreciative because you’re saving them some time. It’s an interesting question because it’s the kind of thing that you wouldn’t think of. When you’re the one actor who’s the link between all the shows and everyone else is guests, you’ve got to make them feel comfortable and you want them to feel comfortable as fast as possible because you don’t want to waste a lot of time.
TOONZONE NEWS: What else are you working on right now?
KEVIN CONROY: Well, I live in New York, and so I do a lot of commercial voice-overs now. That’s largely what New York is about.
Toonzone News would like to thank Kevin Conroy for taking the time to speak with us, as well as Gary Miereanu for arranging it and our fellow members of the press at the roundtable. Justice League: Doom is due out in early 2012. Don’t forget to check out our coverage of the DC Animated Panel discussion and the trailer for Justice League Doom.