An Adventures by Daddy Interview with James Arnold Taylor
Obi-Wan Kenobi is an iconic character in American pop culture, portrayed on screen by two heralded actors, Sir Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor. However, there’s one person who knows the inner thoughts of the Jedi Master more than anyone, and that’s James Arnold Taylor – voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the animated series The Clone Wars. Taylor is currently the host of Disney’s Star Wars Weekends at Walt Disney World. Continue reading for his thoughts on voice acting, Star Wars, Disney, Obi-Wan and beyond…
Greetings Everyone, this is David Parfitt from AdventuresbyDaddy.com. Star Wars Weekends is a month long event that runs from the end of May to the beginning of June at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World. Today I am joined by the Official Celebrity Host for Star Wars Weekends 2012, James Arnold Taylor.
James Arnold Taylor: How are you David? It’s great to be here.
Dave Parfitt: Good! I’m doing well. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
JAT: Sure, my pleasure.
DP: James is one of the most versatile voice actors in the business, and may be best known for voicing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series. He also voices other characters for the TV show including Jedi Master Plo Koon.
James is also the voice of many other popular characters from films, television, advertising and video games. He’s the currently the voice Fred Flintstone, Johnny Test, Green Arrow, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Leonardo, as well as the voice of a talking Kellogg’s Mini Wheat…
JAT: Yeah, that’s the one that always gets attention.
DP: I LOVE that one.
JAT: Yeah, everybody always loves that, it’s funny.
DP: So James, you’re a couple weeks into Disney’s Star Wars Weekends, how is it going this year?
JAT: It’s going fantastic. I had the honor of hosting last year as well, and that was just so much fun. But this year there’s a new energy to it because we’re all used to each other now. I know what to expect, and we have some fantastic guests. We had two weeks with Ray Park, of course the actor who played Darth Maul in Phantom Menace, and just an amazing Martial artist as well. We had fun doing his show.
DP: Yeah, speaking of energy, he has a ton of energy in his show. He puts on a great show.
JAT: Yeah, he does. In fact his last show on Sunday – it’s supposed to be a half hour show, we went an hour. We just had a lot of fun with all the kids. He brings up a lot of kids on stage, and he teaches them how to use the Force. It’s a good time.
But we’ve got some great guests that are still to come here. I’m excited we’re in rehearsals today… today is our official rehearsal day for the week. We have a day where we go through all the shows again with the new guests. We have Jake Lloyd coming from the Phantom Menace who was of course young Anakin Skywalker. Silas Carson who played several different characters, Jedi Master Ki-Adi-Mundi, Viceroy Nute Gunray as well, and that will be a lot of fun because Silas is just a really talented actor and I think he’s going to have a lot of fun stories.
On the “Clone Wars” side we have Catherine Taber who is the voice of Padme Amidala, but she’s also been the voice of Princess Leia in video games. So she’s actually played her own daughter. Catherine’s just lovely.
It will be great because whenever we’ve done the “Behind the Force” show, all these shows are at the Premier Theater at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and they run throughout the day, every day from Friday through Sunday, and so we have a “Behind the Force” show that runs twice a day, and Ashley Eckstein who of course is Ahsoka Tano on the “Clone Wars” is fantastic. And she’s the host of that show each year. So I get to kind of come out and have fun with her and we joke around and have a good time, and she brings out her special guest for the week and now we’ve kind of re-tooled the show after 4 years of doing the same run through we’ve changed it up a bit and there’s more interaction for the whole audience to take part in the show. Then we actually bring people up to read a script that has been written exclusively for Star Wars Weekends. We get some people out of the audience to be some of the characters in the show, and they read along with us in a studio environment, so it’s a lot of fun.
Then there’s one show that’s near and dear to my heart that we do each day as well and that’s my stage show called “Obi-Wan and Beyond” where I run through about 200 different voices and talk about my life as a voice actor. It’s a good time. I have fun doing it.
DP: I’ve heard great things about that show.
JAT: This week it will be every day Friday – Sunday at the Premier Theater at 5:00pm, and I guarantee that you’ll have a good time and enjoy yourself. If not, I’ll refund that free admission to the Premier Theater.
No, it’s a fun show, and Disney’s been very kind to let me bring it here. There’s a half hour version of it that I do for all the folks at Disney, and it’s great fun.
DP: You mentioned that many of your fellow “Clone Wars” co-stars are also appearing at Star Wars Weekends. What’s it like getting together in the theme park setting?
JAT: (laughs) You know it’s different to a degree, but it’s also kind of the same because we all… I don’t know, it’s just kind of a family that we have here, and we’ve been on “Clone Wars” now for so long – going on almost 7 years that we’ve worked on the show together, and so we get to see each other in the theater a lot, but we don’t get to get out into the park much together. But, in the evenings, we might have a chance to have dinner or meet up. It is wild because you get to see… like Dee Bradley Baker who’s the voice of all the Clones, he was here the first week and Dee is just an amazing performer. It’s fun to see him come in the theater after he’s been out and “I just rode Star Tours 4 times!” and all this other… So it is fun to see everybody in this Disney environment, I think it truly is the “Happiest Place on Earth” in that regard where we all get to let our hair down and just have fun with everybody else.
The fans here are so kind too. If you’re sitting next to Dee Bradley Baker on a ride it’s like, “hey, I’m sitting with Dee!” Most voice-actors, we’re not used to getting the attention that on-camera actors get, so I think we try to just have fun with everybody when they meet us and see us at the autograph sessions.
DP: I want to talk more about Star Wars Weekends, but before we get into it, I wonder if we could talk more about your career, how you got into voice acting.
JAT: I’ve been doing this for about 27 years now it seems, and I always knew when I was 4 years old that I wanted to do voices in cartoons and impressions of people. A good portion of my work as a voice actor is doubling celebrities if they’re not available. In my show I start from the age of 4 and go on up, and tell everyone my story of how I became a voice actor.
When I was 16, I became a stand-up comic, wrote an act, and got out on stages wherever I could at open-mike nights. I did pretty well with that, and then started hosting some stand-up nights, and then I got into radio at 17. I went into the local radio station and said, “how do you get into radio?” I started sweeping up, and handed out bumper stickers at concerts. I would go into the production rooms at night and learn all the equipment. It literally was like out of a Hollywood movie where one night the boss called up and said, “the overnight DJ couldn’t make it, are you able to fill in? We know that you’ve been practicing and trying to do this.” I said, “yeah, sure!” So I went in, and did my show, and – as they say – the rest is history. I ended up getting offered the job, and worked there for many years in radio, and produced radio comedy for many years for a syndicator, and I wrote and produced all the commercials for the radio station. So I had to learn very quickly how to use my voice to sound like different people having conversations with each other.
Yeah, there’s not many of us in voice-over that do a lot of voices. Most people make their living as a voice actor doing one voice, and they do it extremely well and make a very good living at it. I’ve been very blessed to be 20 different people at once and have fun with it. So it’s a great honor to do.
DP: I was able to speak with Dee Bradley Baker a couple of years ago, and your background actually sounds similar to his. I remember him talking about being in live theater, and doing a lot of that improv work. It seems like that must be crucial to your experience and training.
JAT: I think that for voice-actors it is. You can’t have any inhibitions. Dee actually started working at Disney. He worked/acted in the parks. So it’s great when he gets here because he just has so much fun now because he comes home to all of this. He would dress up as Jawas as a little kid…
DP: But didn’t we all?
JAT: Didn’t we all… exactly… especially when you’re my height. It really does require that ability to be goofy and not be worried about how you look or how you sound when you’re a voice-actor as opposed to an on-camera actor who are very concerned about the look and all “that.” You get into a booth and you’re just there with a microphone and you have to make magic with that or with a script you have to make it come to life and that’s all you have is your voice. So we do tend to be a little more “crazy” I think than other actors.
DP: You mentioned that voice-actors are often known as the “behind-the-scenes” stars – we know the animated characters, or the actors that you serve as a voice-double for. Do you ever yearn to be performing in front of the camera, or is Star Wars Weekends your chance to do that?
JAT: Well, it has been… my stage show that I put together, I actually have a longer version. The show is really about 80 minutes long, and I cut it down to 30 minutes for Disney because of time constraints. So that show has been one place to say, “here’s what we do.” I don’t think so much because I long to be in front of the camera, but I’m passionate about voice-over and that storytelling. I love showing people what we do. I think most people are kind of surprised by it, they think of us as literally walking in and talking on a microphone for a little bit and making a bunch of money. It’s a lot of work, and it’s a lot of fun, and it’s more than you would expect it is. I’ve had friends that have known me for years, and they watch my show and think “what’s he going to do for a half an hour or hour talking about being on a microphone?” And then they go, “oh, it’s this whole experience.” So that was really kind of the thought there – more so to expand people’s minds on that, people are fascinated when the watch the behind the scenes DVDs and they see us in the rooms talking, or they see their favorite celebrity there doing it. That was really the goal of it, but, yeah, there is a touch of it that’s it fun to have people see me and know who I am a little. So yeah, it feeds my ego, I won’t lie.
DP: You can tell that you’re passionate about voice-acting. So what are your thought on the flip-side regarding famous celebrities being hired to voice characters in big budget animated films instead of hiring a proven voice-actor?
JAT: You know, I get why they do it, and I think that a lot of times it’s very appropriate. Could we imagine anybody but Robin Williams as the Genie in “Aladdin?” It would really be hard. Or someone like Patrick Warburton who is such a talented character actor, but he brings so much to life in every animated show that he does. Or Mark Hamill, who we know as Luke Skywalker, is now one of the most respected voice-actors out there because he just has that ability. I love that.
I don’t love the fact that you have someone like Chris Rock getting up at the Oscars and saying, I get up on a microphone and they tell me what to say, I say it a couple of times and I make a million dollars. I think that really gives people the wrong impression of what voice over is about. Unfortunately, that is his world though. For most on-camera actors, when they walk into the room, everybody kind of falls all over them and lets them do whatever. A lot of times as a voice-actor you get into a room with a celebrity – I’ve worked with literally just about everybody in Hollywood – and you get into a room with them, and they look at you and go, “this is harder than it looks.” And they have great respect for it. So, I love that they come in and are seeing how it works, and getting to do it, and again, Tom Hanks – he’s great at it. There’s so many on-camera actors that have done great work vocally and rightly so. The problem sometimes is when they hire people… let me put my friend in, or just bring this people in to do a voice instead of hiring voice-actors to do all of those incidental roles in some of the big-budget films. That is the part that is harder on the voice-actor. Because this is our day in, day out living.
DP: Do you have a favorite character to voice?
JAT: You know, I really don’t, because I’m so fortunate to get to do so many voices. What I try to do is whatever character I’m voicing at the time, whether it be (goes into voices) Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Master Plo Koon, or Yabba Dabba Doo Fred Flintstone, or Johnny Test! (Back to speaking voice) I try to make that one my favorite at the time, and really just put my all into that character. I just kind of freak out that I get to be these characters. To wake up each morning and go, “ok, now I’m going to walk into a studio and be Obi-Wan Kenobi who I just loved as a kid” – wow, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Or to bring life to new characters like Johnny Test who has really kind of taken off and kids everywhere now they know. When I’m signing autographs at Disney I’ll say, “do you know Obi-Wan Kenobi?” and the kid says, “yeah, yeah.” And I’ll say, “do you know that I do the voice?” Kid, “yeah, OK.” Then (in Johnny Test voice), “do you know I’m also the voice of Johnny Test?” and their eyes bug out of their head. So, that’s why it’s fun to just… whoever I’m doing is my favorite at the time. It’s a fun life.
DP: You mentioned that you were a Star Wars fan as a kid, so what were you thinking going in for that first audition for “Clone Wars?”
JAT: Yeah, well you know, it’s funny, I first auditioned… almost 10 years ago… there was a microseries of “Clone Wars.” It was 3 minute little cartoons that went on Cartoon Network between shows. I think we did 27 of those. I was initially called in for that, and I did an audition. Because I do a lot of voice-doubling, a lot of times I’ll get called in to double… I’m Johnny Depp’s double for a lot of things: Mad Hatter, or Willy Wonka, or Jack Sparrow, or just his regular speaking voice a lot of times. So I’ll be called in to do someone’s voice, and it was for Ewan McGregor and I thought, “OK, I’ve done his voice before,” and I didn’t know what it was.
So then I saw it was Star Wars, and I thought OK, great he’s doing Alec Guinness who’s doing Obi-Wan Kenobi… so I’m doing Ewan McGregor who’s doing Alec Guinness who’s doing Obi-Wan Kenobi… so, I thought, “ok, I’ll just do it like that.” Then I found out after I booked the job that it was for a Star Wars cartoon. I thought it was just going to be a couple of lines, they needed to clean up some dialogue somewhere. So I kind of was blown away, and then we got to do video games. Then I became the Official voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi for Lucasfilm. That was like, my goodness, can it get any better? Then you get a call, and they’re going to make a new series of “Clone Wars,” and it’s going to be full-length half hour shows, CGI, and you’ll be working with Dave Filoni and Henry Gilroy (who was the writer of the initial episodes), and all these great people. Wow, this is really something. It was one of those dream jobs.
It’s amazing, I’ve actually done more “Obi-Wan Kenobi” than either Alec Guinness or Ewan McGregor. So we’ve gone so much deeper with that character than they ever got to in the films, and so it’s really a great honor in that regard. It’s very wild. It’s crazy when fans will say, “you’re Obi-Wan Kenobi for me now!” George Lucas and Dave Filoni, our director, have said – Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness won’t be Obi-Wan Kenobi anymore – you’re Obi-Wan Kenobi so take it and make it your own while paying tribute to them.
DP: You mentioned your show “Obi-Wan & Beyond”, and I wanted to say it’s one of the most popular events during Disney’s Star Wars Weekends. It’s received numerous accolades, a friend of ours, Debra Petersen called it “A Tour-de-Force Performance.” For those of us that may not be able to make it to Star Wars Weekends, I know Star Wars Celebration VI is coming to Orlando August 23-26. Will Star Wars fans be able to catch your show at Star Wars Celebration VI?
JAT: Yeah, I’ll actually be doing an hour-long version of my show there. So that is very exciting. I’m going to do a lot of things that you won’t get to see here (at Disney), and some new Star Wars pieces as well. The show combines a lot of animated pieces that I voice live, you’re watching the cartoon on screens, and them I’m switching back and forth doing the voices live. There’s a lot of that here (at Disney), but there’ll be even more of that for the Celebration VI show. So I hope people do get a chance to see it there. Because that will be the first place that I’ll be doing the hour-long version.
DP: So we know you’re a Star Wars fan, but are you a Disney fan as well?
JAT: Yes, I am. Of course, how could I not be? And I have a 7 year old daughter who is a tremendous Disney fan, and she gets very spoiled when she comes here. I was always a big fan of Mickey Mouse because he’s a cool character – like Bugs Bunny, all of these characters growing up I was very fond of them. My wife, she loves Goofy, and that’s always been her favorite character. So our family has always been very fond of Disney, and all of the fun things that are here. As cliché as it sounds, you do get to be a kid when you come here. You get to see all the things, the Peter Pan ride, when I go on that it still gives me chills.
DP: I was going to ask if your family had been able to come down and join you, and it sounds like they are.
JAT: Yeah, they are. The first week they were not with me, but I’ll be here for a month and they are here for 3 of those weeks. They’re at Animal Kingdom right now as we speak, and enjoying themselves quite a bit. We got to actually see the baby rhino yesterday which was a lot of fun. We’re big animal lovers here so I can look out my window at the Animal Kingdom Lodge and see giraffes and zebras and it’s just stunning.
DP: Can you give families any advice for coming down? What’s the one James Arnold Taylor can’t miss attraction?
JAT: Oh well of course, I would say, if you’re coming to Star Wars Weekends, I’d love for everyone to come to my show “Obi-Wan & Beyond” at 5:00pm in the Premier Theater, but also all the shows we have. If you’re going to go to Hollywood Studios, the Star Wars bias kicks in, and I say, “you gotta’ ride Star Tours.” But I’m old school when it comes to Magic Kingdom, I love it’s a small world, I love Winnie the Pooh. You know, no matter what your age go on those rides, those are the ones that are really magical. My daughter’s a little too young still for Haunted Mansion, but I just… Paul Frees, who was the voice there… and then, my dear friend Corey Burton who does voices on Clone Wars but is everything from Capt. Hook to the voice for the Haunted Mansion now because Paul Frees has of course passed away…
DP: I didn’t realize that Corey Burton was doing the voices for that now.
JAT: Oh yeah, and the thing is it’s seamless. You wouldn’t know, because he just sounds exactly like him. For me the attractions are when I get on the trams from the parking lots to the parks, I hear Corey’s voice saying “please keep your hands and arms inside the tram at all times.” And I just go, “that’s Corey!” So I get my video camera and start filming the speaker. I’m a little different than everyone else, but I’m always listening. Who is it? Who is it? Or Jim Cummings who is just one of the greatest voice-actors of all time is the voice of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger as well, and so many other voices here at the parks. And Frank Welker who is just genius… so I just love hearing all my friends’ voices here at the parks. That’s the funnest part for me. If people go and listen to those voices, they might find some Disney magic hidden in there as well.
DP: That’s a great perspective to have that a lot of people don’t get. James, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
JAT: It’s my pleasure, I really appreciate it, and greatly appreciate the time as well.
DP: Enjoy the remaining couple of Star Wars Weekends, and have fun with your family.
JAT: Well thank you so much. It’s a pleasure, and (switches to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voice) “I sense the Force is very strong here. So may the Force be with you my friend.”
DP: Thank you! This has been David Parfitt from “Adventures by Daddy.com.” Thanks for listening.