Kevin Conroy is known to nerds the world over as the voice of Batman, in both Batman: The Animated Series, and a number of animated movies, as well as the Arkham series of games. I had the pleasure of sitting down with him at MCM Comic Con in London and picking his brain about all things batty…
Obviously Batman is one of the most central, important, iconic characters of comics. I’m curious to see, why you think in all of his different iterations, he is such an important character, and what the character means to you as someone who has had the joy of playing him for as long as you now have?
Well I had no idea, you know, I’m an actor, I studied at Julliard, I did Broadway, off-Broadway, did a lot of classics, Shakespeare, and I had no way of knowing this is where my career was going to go. It was an audition. I auditioned for a job, and that was twenty seven years ago, and it led to this character that just went on and on and on, so it was just a really, really lucky break, but one that I studied hard for, worked hard for.
I think the reason he’s so iconic, is because of all the superheroes he’s the only one who has no superpowers at all. He’s just an ordinary person, but what he has is a super amount of passion. And a super sense of right and wrong, morality, and so he’s just an average guy – with a billion dollars – how transforms himself into this champion of pure good, there’s nothing in it for him, he gets nothing out of this except the knowledge that he’s healing the world. And its all because of what happened to him as a child, avenging what happened to, the murder of his parents, and his being left as an orphan. And he spends his life, instead of allowing life. You know life, I often say life throws nothing but curve balls, no matter what you do to prepare for life, its going to throw a curve ball, you’re going to constantly be switching from this to that and if you let it, it can make you bitter, it can make you angry, it can make you hostile. Bruce Wayne doesn’t allow that to happen. Life throws him this huge curve ball as a child, and he takes it and he turns it into something good, and that’s why audience love him so much. People relate to him because everyone has had dark nights of the soul, we all do, people with the most charmed lives have had dark periods. So everyone relates to the darkness that Bruce Wayne goes through, and what they admire about him is his ability to overcome it, and to turn it into something good. And I think that makes him the most incredible character for me, to play, and for audiences to enjoy.
What do you enjoy most, voicing the video games or the animated TV shows and films?
Oh boy, what a question! It’s night and day, doing the videos and the tv shows, it’s like acting on stage, because you interact with the other actors, it’s give and take, they always get all the actors together in a room, so there’s six or eight of us in there together, and it’s two hours and you’ll have a show done, and it’s like doing a play, and it’s fun and there’s a lot of give and take in the room and it’s why you became an actor, or why I became an actor.
Games because of the way they’re built, they need a completely clean take of every line, so they have to have you alone in a booth, and they have you do line after line after line after line after line after line after line and they say “great, could you do that with a little irony”, line after line “okay keep the irony now could we have a smile” line after line “now give us a little anger with the irony and the smile”, line, and all through that you’re trying to stay in the Batman character, keep the reality of the situation going and just doing line after line after line in a vacuum with no other actors to deal with, so it’s, it’s crazy, it’s crazy and Arkham Knight, the last of the games in the trilogy had 157,000 lines in it, it took two years to build, and I had most of those lines and it was four hours at a time, alone, in a booth, me acting alone, line after line after line then taking an hour for lunch and then four hours again, and that went on for two years. So it’s crazy, it’s not something that you enjoy doing, I don’t know of anyone who says “oh boy, I really look forward to making games”, but when you see the result of it and how beautiful they are and how incredible they are to interact with and how the fans love them, then I feel so proud to be a part of them. So it’s the kind of thing I’m really proud to do, I’m really proud to be a part of, but it’s not nearly as much a fun as doing the TV shows or the movies.
When you’re playing both Batman and Bruce Wayne you kind of alternate between these two characters, and they vary, they’re so different in terms of the way that Bruce Wayne is the billionaire playboy the kind of everyday Joe as he appears to be, in a sense, although he has a lot of money, and then you’ve got Batman who is kind of disfigured in his own right, because he’s trying to stop what happened to his parents. How do you go from one range to another, because there’s – say in some of the animated movies and the TV show as well – you’d have to alternate between scenes, where you’re playing Bruce and you’re playing Batman – how do you do it as an actor?
Well the trick for me to approaching the character and the reason I think it’s resonated with the audience is I think they sense this, the trick for me has been that Batman is not the disguise, Bruce Wayne is the disguise. I think Batman is what happened, is what Bruce Wayne became, to deal with life. To deal with the tragedy of life so that (starts Batman voice) “when I go into that dark place”, that’s, I think, his default position, that’s who he is, “so that when I go there”, it doesn’t sound like I’m putting on a weird voice, because it’s really where the character resides. To me Bruce Wayne is the performance, he’s like the David Niven of a crowd, he’s the bon vivant, he’s the womaniser, he’s the ironic. That’s all ‘on’, and that resonates with people, because everyone knows that when you go to work you put on a suit, you put on a face, you put on an appearance for the world and when you go home you’re a different person, everyone is, you know, no matter how sincere you try to be, you’re a slightly different person at home when you’re alone. And so for me Bruce Wayne has been the performance, and when they first approached me with the character I had very, very little experience with. It was the first animated character that I ever auditioned for, first of all, and that just doesn’t happen, you never get that, you never get the brass ring you know the first time round, my only background had been in theatre, classic theatre basically, and when they described the character to me, they said “what do you know about Batman” I said well I know the Adam West show from the sixties, and Bruce Timm the producer said “no! no! no! that’s not what we’re doing! We love Adam but that’s not what we’re doing!”, this is you know dark, and they told me the film noir and the tragic character, the parents murdered, and I didn’t know any of this stuff. So they really brought me up to speed and they were describing it and I said well you’re describing a real Hamlet-like character, this is a tragic, a classic tragic hero, let me just use my imagination. That’s when I came up with the voice, and went there, and I said well now that I’m playing the character, he’s the richest guy in Gotham, he’s the handsomest guy in Gotham, every eligible woman wants him, everyone knows who he is, and he puts on a mask and no-one knows it’s him? I said “seriously”? I said “that’s ridiculous”! I said “lets really do something, let me do a different voice, not just the mask but you know have him sound different”. So early on, the first season, there was a clear distinction between Bruce and Batman, as I say, that sort of Niven like quality is what I was using. It was very light, lots of irony, lots of humour, and they actually had me go back and re-record a lot of those things because they were too humourous. Once the show came back from the artists they realised how dark it was, and how film noir it was, it was jarring that suddenly there was this comic character in Wayne Mansion, so they actually had me go back and re-record just the Bruce Wayne lines. They liked the idea that I had had to make him different but they just toned it own a lot, so in later episodes it got to be very slight, the difference, but there is still a slight difference. So for me, you asked “how do you go back and forth”, for me it hasn’t been that hard because Batman is the default position, and to perform as Bruce Wayne, that’s what I do when I go on stage as an actor. I know how to do that, so I’m comfortable performing.
So it’s not hard to jump between the two?
For me it hasn’t been that big a hurdle, because of the way I’ve turned around what the performance is, the performance is Bruce Wayne, but that’s you know, every actor has a little hook into a character that they find, that was the one I found for this character.
Throughout your entire career you have faced so many villains, from petty thugs to almighty deities. What villain left the biggest impact on you?
Well, I mean I can’t not say Mark Hamill’s Joker, I mean come on. Joker defines Batman and Batman defines Joker, you know? They’re just so intertwined, and I was so lucky that Mark is the actor they found to play the character because not only is he, I only knew him as Luke Skywalker, you know, from the Star Wars young. Nice young man, you know.
Were you star struck?
Yeah, you know everyone was star struck with Mark and then I started working with him and I thought “you’re not a nice young man at all, you’re a crazy, crazy character actor”, he’s really a character actor and people didn’t know that about him. He was playing these nice young men because he was such a good looking young guy, he got typecast into those roles, but he’s really a nut, he’s out of his mind, and he’s a stage actor too, and in LA there’s all different kinds of actors, actors are people, and there are generous ones, there are selfish ones, there are kind ones, there are mean ones, there are ones you really want to work with and ones you just want to kill. Mark is just one of those generous, kind actors, who genuinely, I know because he watches me when I’m recording, and I see him, he’s looking at me like this when I’m recording (pulls happy face), and I see him, I see him loving what I’m doing, the better I am the more he loves it, because he knows it gives him more, you know? He knows he’s gonna have more to play with, and I love watching him, and the two of us get into a booth together and Andrea Romano the director, said “we’ve got to separate you two, because it’s like two twelve year olds in there” you know, we’re having too much fun. I love, love, love working with him, he’s a generous actor, and I’ve watched him watch other actors too and he gets on the edge of his seat and you watch actors because he just gets such joy out of watching good performances, and not all actors are like that you know, a lot of them are just ready to stab you in the back! There’s a lot of jealousy and competition in this business, as there is in any business, so the actor that are generous like that I just relish and I appreciate so much, so it would have to be Mark.
Talking about having fun, your Batman voice has defined the character for a whole generation of people, obviously they have their favourite lines, I’m curious, are the particular lines that you’ve really enjoyed with that voice, and have you ever used the voice for personal purposes?
For nefarious purposes? Ha ha ha ha ha, actually a friend had me call their child to make sure they did their homework because he was falling behind in school (laughs). (Batman voice) “This is Batman, you’d better get your homework done or I’m going to come into your bedroom in the middle of the night, and you’re not going to like it” (laughs). She said it terrified him so much (laughs) which was the point!
(nervous laughter) What about lines that made it onto the show then?
I mean “I am vengeance, I am the night”, that’s the iconic line.
So many of the lines that I loved most are the ones that reveal the soul of Batman, because he’s such a dark character, and it’s all about the pain that resides in him. I think the best Batman movie of all of them, the live action and the animated, is Mask of the Phantasm, which was the first animated Batman movie, because it shows the whole arc of the development of the character and you see what happened to him as a child, and then he, he has this scene at his parents grave where he’s begging with them to release him from his vow, because he’s fallen in love for the first time in his life, with Andrea Beaumont, and he didn’t think he’d ever be able to love, and he’s breaking down, and that scene, I loved that scene and I loved playing it, and I was really proud of it because you have to show the humanity of the man, those moments where it shows his humanity, and the struggle within him, are the lines that I’ve had the most fun with.
I’ve had a lot of fun, thank you so much.
Sure great, good talking to you, thank you.
There you have it folks, who knew that a quick chat about a cartoon would turn into a discussion on the dichotomy between Bruce Wayne and Batman, with a side of Shakespeare thrown in for good measure? I hope you enjoyed my chat with Kevin, see you again soon for more chats with creators, fans and some familiar faces…