Toonzone Interviews Phil LaMarr on the Return of "Futurama"
Animation fans know him as Samurai Jack, Green Lantern John Stewart of the Justice League, Senator Bail Organa on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Roger “Booda” Sack on King of the Hill, and Wilt of Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. You might also recognize him from his on-camera appearances on the MADtv sketch comedy show, his brief cameo in Spider-Man 2, or his role as the unfortunate Marvin in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. He’s Phil LaMarr, and he’s also Hermes Conrad and the Rev. Preacherbot on Futurama, cancelled in 2003 but given a new lease on life on Comedy Central, courtesy of tremendously successful syndicated runs on Adult Swim and Comedy Central, as well as four successful direct-to-video movies.
LaMarr is no stranger to acting, with his first on-screen credit as Woody in the Mr. T cartoon and a list of credits longer than your arm. We spoke with him recently at the 2010 Anaheim Comic Con, but Toonzone was able to catch up with LaMarr again over the phone to talk about his return to Futurama, and more.
TOONZONE NEWS: How much formal training have you had in acting?
PHIL LAMARR: I’ve been performing since junior high school. I took a couple of classes at Yale, basic acting classes, but then decided to major in English. In L.A., I’ve taken a few acting classes and also studied with the Groundlings Theater doing sketch and improv. I also spent a summer during college studying improv in Chicago at Improv Olympic and Second City. That’s the extent of my formal, the training that I paid for. The vast majority of my training has been the other kind, you know, that you GET paid for.
TZN: As a voice actor, how has that training helped or hindered you?
PHIL LAMARR: I think all the acting training feeds into the voice over. Especially in animation, you need to be able to act. It is a different kind of acting, but I guess it’s similar to if you have opera training, it will help you in any kind of singing, even though the training itself is very specific. But the principles are the same, and it’s the same thing with voice acting. The better actor you are, the better voice actor you are.
TZN: I know that there are a lot of voice actors I speak to who specifically talked about improv training and how valuable that was to them as voice actors. Have you found that to be the case?
PHIL LAMARR: Hmmm. Yes, probably so. A lot of times, I’ve worked with people who are very good actors, but who are very bad voice actors. There’s something about being able to take words on a page and give them instant life that probably improv training helps with, because you’re taught to make an instant choice and have an instant objective. Because there is no script, you have to fill in that stuff. When you see bad improv, you see people doing nothing until they figure something out. Good improvisors do something, and then figure out what they’re doing. So yeah, I’m sure that does feed the voice acting.
PHIL LAMARR: I have a very vague memory. The casting directors Jill Anthony and Julie Mossberg, who cast MADtv, were also casting Futurama, and they brought me in to meet with Matt Groening. I don’t know if David Cohen was in that first meeting or not, but I don’t think he was. They had sketches of the character and all of that, although, the voice I was hired to do was a completely different voice than the one we ended up doing for the series. The voice completely changed 3 episodes in, to recording the series. He had no Jamaican accent when we began.
TZN: When they said, “Hey, can you do a Jamaican accent?” is that something that you knew how to do beforehand?
PHIL LAMARR: I had done impressions and accents, almost my whole life. And as a black actor, a Jamaican accent is pretty much something you need to have in your back pocket, because it’s going to come up. So, yeah, after one of the records, Matt came up to me and asked, “Can you do a Jamaican accent?” And I said, “Yup!” Of course, if I couldn’t have, I probably would have said “Yes” anyway. To answer “No” to that question is probably pretty low on your survival instinct meter (laughs). When the producer comes up and asks you, “Can you do a different voice for this character?”, you say “Yes.” You know, don’t put yourself out of the running. It’s like, “Let me try to do my bad Jamaican accent” rather than just say, “Nope! Let me just pack my things and go, while you go and find a Jamaican actor to do my role.” (laughs)
TZN: And hey, there’s the improv training again. You never say “No” to anything. You always say “yes, and…”
PHIL LAMARR: Exactly. Except if they’re asking you if you can fly a helicopter. (laughs) That’s the one where you can go, “Yeah, no. No, no, I can not do that.”
TZN: What’s your inspiration for the character? Are you modeling Hermes after someone you know, or an amalgam of people?
PHIL LAMARR: Hermes pretty much comes from the character design. It’s not modeled after anybody I know, although I don’t remember the original “Dexter” voice, which was the character’s original name. I believe that it might have been sort of high-pitched, nerdy and slightly chubby. We’ve sort of kept the sense of weight to the voice and the accent, but the nerdiness is long gone. I think once you went Jamaican, you just kind of let the nerdiness come from the script. I don’t think there’s really much of a way to do a nerdy Jamaican. It’s just a cool-sounding accent.
TZN: Other than the accent, what would you say has changed the most about Hermes in the way you do him now versus when you first started.
PHIL LAMARR: I think he’s gotten funnier. As the writers have developed the character, he’s become less of a functionary. It’s less about, “Oh, he’s The Bureaucrat” and more about “he’s this guy who was a limbo champion who always wanted to be a bureaucrat.” The bureaucrat became a part of him, as opposed to being simply his defining characteristic. And he’s got a wife and a child so there’s just a lot more there, and more jokes to come with it.
PHIL LAMARR: (Laughs) Fortunately, I don’t get into trouble for spoiling stuff much because I have a very bad memory. Hermes’ wife LaBarbara comes back, and his son Dwight. Certainly nothing as in-depth as the DVD movie when he lost his head and then lost his wife to Barbados Slim. I don’t think we’ve gone that deep into the Conrad family storylines this season, but he definitely has a few episodes where he moves center. But I’ll stop there for fear of spoilers.
TZN: In some of the DVD bonus features, it looks like you record the show radio-style, where everyone is in the room together.
PHIL LAMARR: Yeah, we always do that whenever possible. Occasionally, if people are just unavailable and the production schedule is such that they can’t wait, they’ll record somebody by themselves, but by and large we record as a group. Which is really almost essential in comedy, because comedy is about rhythms. I guess you can make those rhythms in editing, but it’s gotta be just a nightmare to do when you don’t have people doing banter in the same room. Plus, you discover things as performers, and I think the writers and producers discover things in live performance that you can’t find any other way. They’re very good about that.
TZN: There’s a lot of really funny people in the cast. How much improvisation or ad libbing do you guys get to do in an average Futurama session?
PHIL LAMARR: A small amount. I think sometimes you’ll add something to the end of a line, but the show’s really funny (laughs). It’s not like it needs a lot of help, but every once in a while, someone will come up with something. Usually what happens is that there will be riffing in between takes, where someone will go off on something that they saw or something that the script reminded them of, and David will hear that and that will make its way into a later script, rather than Billy and John just riffing on something that then gets into the episode and changes the scene. It’s comedy, and it’s animation, but it’s also science fiction. It’s pretty tightly plotted, and it’s hard for actors to improvise that stuff in a way that doesn’t screw it up (laughs). You know, it’s got alien languages and mathematical equations. Nobody’s just gonna go, “Hey, lemme just throw in an evolution joke!”
TZN: Have you ever had a moment then when you looked at something in the script and said, “I don’t think that Hermes would do that.”
PHIL LAMARR: No. There will be times when you do the line the way it’s written, and you’ll say, “Hmmmmm…” and then David will throw something out there, and you’ll say, “OK, well, what if I try it like this?” If there is something that’s a little off, yeah, then you’ll play with it and they’re very open to that. But you always try what’s written first, as a measure of respect for the writers. And I think everybody on our cast feels that. I don’t think we’ve had anybody go, “Yeah, no,” and start changing things. If anything, if an actor has an idea, they’ll do the writer’s take and then say, “Oh, wait wait! I got another idea! Can we do one more?” And a lot of times, that will be hilarious and that will be thrown in. That’s the kind of improvisation that we end up doing.
TZN: How often do you get to work with the other actors on Futurama on other projects? I don’t see you guys as regulars on other series.
PHIL LAMARR: Billy West and I have never worked on another series together. Maurice LaMarche and I worked on My Gym Partner is a Monkey for many episodes together, and John DiMaggio and I did quite a few Samurai Jack episodes together. Unfortunately, one of the tough things about voice-over is you see all the same people, but it’s rare that you get a chance like Futurama where you get to work with the same people week-in and week-out, and you’re friends. Because a lot of the work is piecemeal, or guest work. I’ll come in and see somebody one week, and then I won’t do their show again.
TZN: There’s a lot self-professed nerds in writing staff. I think they have a staggering number of former math Ph.D’s writing for Hollywood now.
PHIL LAMARR: I would venture to say, “More than most half-hour comedies.” (laughs)
TZN: (Laughing) Yeah. Definitely more math Ph.D’s than, uh, Two Guys and a Baby or whatever the hell that sitcom is called.
PHIL LAMARR: Although I think The Big Bang Theory…they got at least one of our Futurama writers.
TZN: Well, the question I’m leading up to is that I know you’re into comic books as well, which is a pretty classic thing for nerds to get into. Has that ever played into anything or led up to anything on Futurama?
PHIL LAMARR: Not that I remember. We’ve actually had more Dungeons & Dragons references that set me off rather than comic book references. David and I bonded over old copies of the Monster Manual at one point. Having worked on a lot of comic book-specific projects, I really don’t think of Futurama as a comic book show. Certainly, there are a lot of pop culture references. I’m sure there have been some comic book references in there, but more of every other kind of pop-culture reference than those.
PHIL LAMARR: Hmm….strangest thing? Well, there’s an episode coming up in the new season that has got to be among …what’s the best word for it? “Pegging the tasteless meter?” (laughs) Yeah, it’s going places the show has never gone before, and I’m pretty sure there’s something in there…because at the table read, it was like, “Oh my gosh, just hearing the description of this, I’m getting a little queasy.” (laughs) I’ve got a feeling it won’t be as bad once there are actual images, outside of a person’s mind attached to the stuff but like when you just hear it, and your mind just conjures up, and you’re just like “Yeahaughgh!” (laughing) So I don’t know, we’ll see, but I haven’t seen that one yet. I mean, there’s a lot of decapitations and speaking with your head cut off, or making the sound of being gutted or being turned into a paste or having a brain slug do whatever. This show calls for a lot of, “Give us the sound of something you can barely conceive of.” (laughs) “OK, well, I don’t really KNOW what that is…but if I did, and if it happened, then it might sound like this…”
TZN: I imagine that kind of thing happens a lot in the comic book shows, too.
PHIL LAMARR: Right. Although they’re usually more grounded. It’s like, “OK, there’s a LOT of electricity.” “Aieaaaaaughghgh!” But here, it’s like, “Well, your molecules are being taken apart by a magnetic beam. This actually exists, by the way.” It’s like, “OK. Yes. Great. That helps.” (laughs). This is the sound of your molecules separating.
TZN: One thing that you mentioned earlier was that as a black actor, it helps having the Jamaican accent in your pocket. Do you find that there’s a big difference in the roles that you get cast for in voice-over vs. live-action as a black actor?
PHIL LAMARR: Yeah, in live-action, you’re limited by how you look. Not just your shade, but your size and your person. I’m never going to be hired to be a military general, even though I’m now old enough. I don’t have that look. But, I can do the sound of military. If someone else provides the image, I can give you everything else. Being a voice actor is a little bit like acting in college (laughs). You have a lot more leeway. “You get to be the grandfather, Mr. Nineteen-Year-Old-With-A-Deep-Voice!” Although, it is surprising how many times you get a race-specific voice part. Surprising to me, at least. You usually do two or three voices on a show: one main voice and then a couple of incidental characters. I’ve done incidental characters that I voiced specifically non-ethnic, that have been animated as African-American. I’m like, “Really? Did anybody listen to the tape? Or is it just looking at the cast list?”, which is always interesting.
Let me ask you a question. Are you an animation fan?
TZN: Yeah, very much so.
PHIL LAMARR: Futurama is one of the few mainstream American animation things with a regular Asian character, Amy, who is certainly not there for her ethnicity. She’s not a token by any stretch.
TZN: Yeah. For that matter, neither is Hermes.
PHIL LAMARR: Exactly. Exactly. Has there ever been any issue with the portrayals of the Asian characters in Futurama for you?
TZN: Not in Futurama specifically. Probably the closest it ever came was the episode where they met Amy’s parents, and my first instinct was, “Oh, boy, here we go with the stereotypes,” but then it was so damn funny that I had to go, “OK, this should offend me, but it’s funny enough that I don’t care.” South Park does the same thing. I know that’s Trey Parker or Matt Stone faking an Asian accent when he’s the Chinese delivery food guy or Kim Jong-Il, but it’s funny enough that I just don’t care.
PHIL LAMARR: Yeah, that’s always my rule of thumb. You can be as offensive as you want as long as you’re funnier than you are offensive.
TZN: Uh-huh. I call that the Chico Marx Effect, which is how it is that I can dislike Charlie Chan but like Chico Marx despite the fact that they’re really doing the same thing.
PHIL LAMARR: (laughs)
TZN: I haven’t actually come up with a good, logically consistent one for why I dislike Charlie Chan and love Chico Marx. Honestly, it might be that I’m just an *******, and this happens because Chico Marx doesn’t look like me. Maybe I should be offended by Chico Marx.
PHIL LAMARR: Yeah, well, of course. (laughs) What, you think the answer is something OTHER than that? (laughing)
TZN: (Laughs) I’m HOPING the answer is something other than that.
PHIL LAMARR: I think that’s part of the answer. I also don’t know any Italian people who are offended by Chico Marx.
TZN: Yeah, and that’s the thing. If nobody’s offended by it, is it OK to think it’s funny? But if someone IS offended by it…
PHIL LAMARR: And that’s also when you get into the numbers game. As any minority in entertainment, you deal with a lot, because there are far more portrayals of Italian or Italian-American characters than Asian or Asian-American characters, so the weight of each Asian character is, relatively speaking, much less.
TZN: Yeah. Italian people can choose to say, “Well, Joey Tribbiani doesn’t look like me.”
PHIL LAMARR: Or, there’s another Italian guy that looks fine. But if there’s only two Italian guys on all of television, Chico Marx will not be allowed to be one of them (laughs).
TZN: Or both of them, for that matter.
PHIL LAMARR: (laughs) Exactly. And for Asian actors, it’s a huge, huge issue. Obviously, you don’t want to blame an actor for a role that they didn’t create, and they didn’t have much control over. Especially on a comedy, you’re an Asian actor doing a role in a comedy and you’re playing a woman running a store, you can play that one of several ways. One of them is going to make the producers really, really laugh. That’s the one that’s going to get you the job.
TZN: And working is better than not working for actors. I don’t have very good answers yet, but it’s something that I think about occasionally. And I appreciate that Andrea Romano, to pick someone else I’ve talked with this about, will cast an ethnic actor in an ethnic part when she kind of doesn’t have to.
PHIL LAMARR: Oh yeah. Yeah. Frequently.
PHIL LAMARR: Yeah, and that’s actually one of the tough things for me, because there are certainly white voice over actors who can do ethnic voices and accents. And do. And I have done white accents and other ethnicities because I can. You’re generally required to do multiple voices, but then you get your liberal affirmative action dander up, thinking, “Well, why is John DiMaggio playing that black character?” or “Why is Billy West playing that Asian character?” Well, because they were already paid for, and they’re not going to pay another $800 to bring in somebody who looks like that sounds (laughs). And on one hand, I think, “Well, of course not! They shouldn’t. Everybody should be free to do what they can do.” Because if I tell them they can’t do that, then I’m saying I can’t do the white kid. And I sure as hell don’t want that.
TZN: Yeah, when it comes to voice over, a lot of the issues that come up for live-action actors start to get strange.
PHIL LAMARR: Well, it’s because race is a construct. And really, what we’re talking about are images of self and persona. Is it the accent that’s problematic, or the way that character is being portrayed as the butt of a joke? Do you like Chico Marx because of his accent, or because he’s smart and funny in spite of his accent? For the Charlie Chan thing…I don’t know. I think my biggest issue with Charlie Chan is my same issue with people doing drag on sketch shows. “Really? You couldn’t find an Asian guy to do that?” I mean, I’m looking at what he’s doing. He ain’t doing that much. There was a guy whose eyes really looked like that who could have done that part.
TZN: (laughs) Yeah, who didn’t have to fake the look and the skin tone and the accent, who could have done that part.
PHIL LAMARR: I think maybe that’s the Charlie Chan problem. It’s that they went out of their way to put an Asian guy out of a job (laughs). It wasn’t like, “Well, that guy was pretty Asian already, so what we did was put a hat and a mustache on him.” No, you painted him, you put stuff on his eyes, and you made him do a really not-good accent.
TZN: Yeah, and after a certain point, it’s like, “Well, I appreciate that he’s a counter to the Fu Manchu’s, and you’re trying to make him a positive figure.” I appreciate that, but if you had just taken the one extra step, I’d be able to deal with him better.
Boy, that was kind of a long digression, wasn’t it?
PHIL LAMARR: Yeah, I know. We’ve gone completely off-track.
TZN: (Laughs) OK, well, my last question is what are you working on now? What’s coming up soon that we will be able to hear you in?
PHIL LAMARR: What’s going on…gosh, that’s a good question. It’s always a weird question with voice-over when you ask, “What am I working on?” because that could mean, “What’s coming out soon?” or, “What am I recording this week that won’t air for a year?” (laughs) I’m working on a few movies, some video games. Still doing Family Guy stuff. Supposed to hear definitively whether I’m going with the Pee-Wee Herman show to Broadway. I’m doing Generator Rex.
TZN: I know you’re in Young Justice and the new Avengers show, although I don’t think they’re coming out until 2011.
PHIL LAMARR: Yeah, doing work on the new Avengers show. Yeah, I think that’s all the big stuff. I’ll try to keep it updated on PhilLaMarr.com.
Toonzone News would like to thank Phil LaMarr for taking the time to talk with us, and to Melissa Leung Sugiura and Phil LaMarr’s representation for setting it up. Futurama season 6 will premiere on Comedy Central at 10:00 PM (Eastern) on Thursday, June 24, 2010. Check out Toonzone News’ previous coverage of the season premiere, and stay tuned for our review of the season premiere. You can keep up with LaMarr at his official web site or his Twitter feed, and don’t forget to check out our earlier conversation with LaMarr at the 2010 Anaheim Comic Con.