Toonzone Interviews Greg Cipes on Being Michelangelo in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"
Actor, singer, musician, composer, pro-surfer, martial-arts champion—Greg Cipes is all these things and more. While he experienced early success as a competitive martial artist and a professional surfer, Cipes became an instant star to animation fans in his first role as Beast Boy in Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans. He has since gone on to land several more high-profile voice-acting roles, including Kevin Levin in the Ben 10 series (starting with Ben 10: Alien Force), Chiro in Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!, Caleb in W.I.T.C.H., and Iron Fist in the new Ultimate Spider-Man series. He’s also appeared on-camera in shows as diverse as the reality TV series Roseanne’s Nuts, the soap opera General Hospital, and the family comedy The Middle. We were able to spend some time chatting with Greg Cipes via telephone recently to discuss his latest role as Michelangelo, the wildest of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in their latest animated incarnation on Nickelodeon.
TOONZONE NEWS: When I spoke with Rob Paulsen recently, he said you told him you were a pretty major fan of the Turtles when you were a kid.
GREG CIPES: Yeah, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was my favorite show growing up. Thousands of hours in front of the TV. The Turtles inspired me: they taught me how to meditate and got me into martial arts. I was East Coast champion at the age of 13 because of the Turtles. They got me into skateboarding and surfing (laughs), and of course Mikey was my favorite character. So yeah, I dressed up as a Turtle probably for like 6 years of Halloween costumes.
TOONZONE NEWS: (Laughter) So you liked ‘em a little bit.
GREG CIPES: Yeah, a little bit. They were definitely a big part of making me who I am today. It’s just a blessing to offer it to this next generation. For us, who grew up with it and always loved it, it’s the coolest thing ever. It’s such a blessing.
TOONZONE NEWS: As a longtime fan, what was your initial reaction when you heard they were going to do another show?
GREG CIPES: Well, I heard from my buddy Ciro Nieli, and once I knew he was the executive producer and he was in charge of creating the look and basically the whole new world the Turtles, I just knew that it’s going to be the coolest show ever. Then Ciro asked me to come and read with the Nickelodeon casting department and all the executives. It was a cool journey. It took over a year for me to finally get the call to say I got the part. After about a year of casting, and they saw something like 6,000 people for Mikey (laughs).
GREG CIPES: Come on! It’s Mikey! They gotta search the globe! I don’t know the exact number, but I know it was way up there for that. They definitely read everybody and I’m so honored and grateful that I get to play Mikey, man. I wouldn’t say that’s by mistake. I’ve been meditating on the Turtles for a long time. They’ve made me who I am today. It’s rad. I basically am Mikey (laughs). Though I’m not as good as a fighter or a skateboarder. And he’s way cuter.
TOONZONE NEWS: So you didn’t really audition for any of the other Turtles?
GREG CIPES: Yeah, Ciro knew right off the bat and Nickelodeon was like, “He’s the right one for Mikey,” and that’s how it happened. I didn’t read for any other roles. They just brought me in for Mikey and that was it.
TOONZONE NEWS: Do you think your connection to the property intimidated you or encouraged you through the audition process, and now that you’re on the show?
GREG CIPES: It encouraged me. It made me feel really comfortable stepping into Mikey’s shoes. I never even really gave it a second thought. I just felt like I was Mikey and if they liked what I was bringing to the table, that would be it, and it worked. Even the casting process, when I was in the booth reading and auditioning, it was just magic happening. And I felt it, and they felt it. I even got to coin the phrase “Booyakasha,” and it happened when we were recording the pilot, before the show was even completely picked up.
TOONZONE NEWS: I heard that you basically ad libbed that and they said, “Oooh, we like that.”
GREG CIPES: Yeah, I just remember the moment: they were like, “Hey, you have anything want to try for this spot?” And “Booyakasha” came out and I just remember, it was almost like ripples to the universe, to the whole universe when it came out of my mouth (laughs) during our recording session. And now, lo and behold, now it is circling the globe. “Booyakasha.” I felt it when it came out, man. I feel like it’s such a perfect fit and it goes so well with the energy of this new show.
GREG CIPES: Yeah, it heals me. It heals me watching it. It’s wild, man…when I watched the first episode it was at a Turtle party before it came out on Nickelodeon, like a release party or a premiere party. It was the first time we saw the back-to-back episodes together. I never really saw them all the way through, and I literally cried a little bit. It wasn’t just because the show was so freakin’ awesome and touching and so positive, like you’re saying, but I had a flashback to me sitting in front of my TV at 8 years old, first time seeing the Turtles, and I really got to re-experience it. Because the show, like no other incarnation before this, really brought me back to the essence of what the show originally was. It really did affect me, and now it’s affecting me again. It changed my life. It is really positive, man. Splinter is a guru. He’s a Zen master. He’s so rad because the writers are so good…Brandon Auman and Peter Hastings and everyone else are really putting a lot of great content for adults in the writing so it’s entertaining for everyone. There’s a lot of enlightened material. And Ciro Nieli is an enlightened artist, so his work as an animator is just next level, man. It’s unmatchable. He is an innovator, and he changes the game. He did it again with the Turtles.
TOONZONE NEWS: Speaking of Ciro, the first time you ever worked with him was on Teen Titans, is that right?
GREG CIPES: Yeah, we met 12 years ago doing Teen Titans. He became one of my favorite people, and then we did Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go! together. He created that for Disney and I got to play the lead character in that show, Chiro, which was based after Ciro (laughs), so I got to play Ciro in the cartoon world, you know?
TOONZONE NEWS: He’s one of a bunch of Teen Titans alums working on the show, like Andrea Romano for the voice director and I also think it was Michael Chang who directed the pilot. Does working on the show feel like it did working on Teen Titans back in the day? How do you feel that things have changed or things are different since those days to now?
GREG CIPES: It’s a really cool thing to recognize that Teen Titans was another groundbreaking show that merged styles of animation. Just like the new Turtles, this new style of animation was groundbreaking, and the cast and the crew of Titans wound up spreading out into other shows. For instance, Glen Murakami became the executive producer and showrunner of Ben 10 and that became Cartoon Network’s biggest show. It’s like all these different people and the artists and the actors wind up kind of running the game in the action-adventure cartoon world, and we’re definitely back in that saddle again with the Turtles because Ciro likes working with his family. He’s got a group of animators and artists and they’re the best. And that’s why they keep using them. They’re his soldiers, man.
These guys, they really care so much about the show. I know they slept at Nickelodeon many times. They’re still sleeping on the floor, putting their 120%, 150% into the show. It’s their blood, sweat, and tears, and it shows, man. You feel it. At New York Comic Con when they played those clips I had never seen, again, I was like, “Wow! There is so much love and care that goes into this, and the direction and the fight sequences and the voice directing, the acting.” It’s superb. It’s like a masterpiece. I said this at New York Comic Con and I’ll say it again: there’s these great Italian artists from the past who the Turtles are named after—Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, and Donatello—and Ciro Nieli is that fifth real famous Italian artist who is impacting the world today. More than any other artist, I feel, with the Turtles being a #1 show in so many markets already. His art is getting everywhere, and that has so much to do with the team around him, but he’s a master.
TOONZONE NEWS: Was New York Comic Con the first time you got to see footage of the show with a really big audience?
GREG CIPES: Yeah, it was, and it was so touching. It was so cool. I never saw that footage, either, that they played there. That was cool for all of us.
TOONZONE NEWS: Seemed like you had a really encouraging crowd. I’ve been a little surprised at how quickly the show was accepted, considering how afraid people were before it came out.
GREG CIPES: Well, it’s because none of those other incarnations of the show did it justice. I tuned them out. I never even watched any of the other incarnations. The first Turtles series was it for me, and I loved the first two movies, and then I was out. It wasn’t because I didn’t like the Turtles, it was that those other shows weren’t doing it. That’s why I feel like this one is the second coming, really, of it. It was cool to witness the fans at New York Comic Con maybe even be skeptical at first, even at the beginning of the panel, and then to watch them melt and really enjoy themselves and be cool with not just seeing the cartoon, but being cool that the cast and the producers were there. There’s just a real nice connection between the fans and the crew, now. And you know, I have to give Nickelodeon credit. They’re the force behind it. They’re the ones who really pulled this team together and brought it to the world again. And Nickelodeon has always kind of been, for me, the coolest of all the kids’ networks, so it makes sense that now the coolest show in the world is on Nick. It’s something new for them, I feel. It brought, like, almost hip-hop back into Nickelodeon. That certain coolness.
TOONZONE NEWS: Sometimes I’ll watch a show and feel like, “They’re trying really really really hard to be up-to-date and current,” but I do feel like there’s something more effortless about this Turtles show. I felt that with stuff like Teen Titans and Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
GREG CIPES: Yeah. It’s a meditation just watching the show. It’s very healing to me. That’s what excites me the most, is that kids and fans like yourself get to just feel good. It’s such a feel good show, man. You can put it on and the rest of the world disappears. It really does. It’s hard to stop watching. I’ve been saying this from the beginning since I’ve been seeing the art come back and the animation come back. Ciro’s been showing it to me for the past two years, now. I feel like it’s extraterrestrial light that comes through in the show. It’s just something else, special.
GREG CIPES: No, again, I stopped watching Turtles after probably the second Turtles movie and the first series, so I had a long break from anything having to do with the Turtles other than the fact that they impacted me so much as a kid. So I really went into it fresh. I never went back and listened to what anybody else did with Mikey. I felt no pressure to do anything, other than just have fun.
TOONZONE NEWS: I have to say that Beast Boy was one of your definitive roles in my mind, and Michelangelo seems like the next logical evolution to it.
GREG CIPES: (Laughs) Well, it’s like I always say you’ll get everything you want and you’ll receive it in a way you never could have imagined, better than you could have imagined. I really never could have imagined playing Mikey, and now that I’m playing Mikey, it’s just a testament to that saying right there. Of course, being in this industry and being a voice actor, of course I want the coolest roles in the world, and I got it. Mikey is the coolest role that you could ever have.
TOONZONE NEWS: What would you say so far is the strangest direction you’ve gotten on the show. The one where you looked at the script and you were like, “You want me to do what?”
GREG CIPES: Hmmmm…well, Mikey is always doing wild, crazy, weird things, and they give me a lot of freedom in the booth to do whatever I want. Direction on doing something even wilder and further out than what I do is rare. (Laughs) To think of one thing, maybe…I don’t know, it’s usually me pushing it, you know?
TOONZONE NEWS: (Laughs) Is there a lot of improv on the show? I know Andrea Romano will do a lot of that during rehearsals and prep, but when it comes time to the record, she’ll stick pretty close to what was planned.
GREG CIPES: Yeah, the scripts are really good. We don’t improv that much, but we sometimes do things called “Crazy Pass” where we just get to be free. We did that a lot in season 1, actually, and they sometimes use pieces of it.
TOONZONE NEWS: Is that where “Booyakasha” came from? From a Crazy Pass?
GREG CIPES: Yeah. “Booyakasha” came from a Crazy Pass for sure.
TOONZONE NEWS: I know you’re a musician and you’ve got your own band, and I’ve noticed that there are a whole lot of other voice actors who tend to be musicians or who tend to be musical. Do you think there’s some kind of affinity between musicians and voice actors?
GREG CIPES: Well, for me, it always went kind of hand-in-hand. I’ve always been a fan of cartoons and I’ve always been a fan of music. How I got into voice over is that I would sit in my father’s lap driving around the US in our camper with my nine brothers and sisters, and he would let me mess around on the CB. I would do voices and mess with truck drivers, and he told me, “One day, you’re going to do cartoons.” Fast forward 20 years later, boom. As far as music, it was about the same time. I’ve always been messing with my own music, but yeah, they’re tied together. Voice acting strengthens your voice. You get so in tune with your voice that it can only make you a stronger singer. I’ve also found that for a musician to exist, it’s kind of difficult to make money, so with voice acting you have a lot of free time, so this might be why there’s a lot of musicians as well because we’ve got a lot more free time to just play music.
TOONZONE NEWS: Are we going to get to hear Michelangelo sing on the show?
GREG CIPES: I hope so. All my friends are definitely hip to the fact that I have a band, and it would definitely be a cool thing to have Mikey sing on the show, but I don’t know yet. It’s definitely a prayer of mine.
GREG CIPES: Yeah, there’s no word of it yet, but that would be so cool, even to have a full-on musical episode. (laughs) That would be so awesome!
TOONZONE NEWS: Well, everybody does that now, so it’s just a matter of time, right?
GREG CIPES: You’ll have to convince Ciro. It’ll be really hard to convince Ciro. Mikey does his dancing, though. I dance a lot. And he’s always got his music in his tPod, and all that kind of thing going on.
TOONZONE NEWS: OK, so maybe it won’t be Mikey singing, but it’ll be Greg Cipes and Rob Paulsen and the other voice actors who will throw their own music on there.
GREG CIPES: I’m thinking about recording and writing a song called “Booyakasha.” (laughs)
TOONZONE NEWS: Is Nick going to own that if you do?
GREG CIPES: I don’t know. Whatever Nick wants, they can have, you know? (Laughter)
TOONZONE NEWS: What else are you working on right now? Where else can we see you or hear you? Is Roseanne’s Nuts still on?
GREG CIPES: No, no more Roseanne’s Nuts, but I work with Roseanne on producing and developing original content, so that’s what I’m doing right now with her. I’m also doing some NCIS: Los Angeles guest-starring stuff, and I have a recurring role on The Middle, which I’m doing some more episodes coming up in January. Then we’re doing new Teen Titans Go, the new Teen Titans series. It’s so fun…I was doing it this morning, it’s a blast. People are going to get a real treat because it’s not the original show at all. It’s like a different spin on it, but it’s wild, it’s goofy, it’s the guys from MAD producing it and writing it and stuff, so it’s cool. I’m on Ultimate Spider-Man, and I work a lot right now with Klasky-Csupo, you know the creator of Rugrats. I’ve done a couple of pilots with her and a couple of things she’s been releasing on line. I’m the voice of her logo Splaat, the little Klasky-Csupo robot, and they created a series about that. That’s going to be coming out soon. I’m also in Klasky-Csupo’s Zombie Band. That’s a video you should check out, it’s a song called “Killing the Game,” and the band’s called zombieluv. It’s my zombie band with Klasky-Csupo, it’s pretty awesome. It’s live action. And wrapping up my album. I’m going to start putting out music come January. New stuff.
TOONZONE NEWS: Can you send us out with a good “Booyakasha” for our readers?
GREG CIPES: Sure!
Toonzone News would like to thank Greg Cipes for taking the time to speak with us, and Katelyn Balach at Nickelodeon’s PR department for setting up the interview for us. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles airs on Saturdays on Nickelodeon, and you can keep up with Greg Cipes at a song called “Killing the Game,” and the band’s called zombieluv and his official web site.