The Voice Of Optimus Prime: An Interview With Peter Cullen

by on July 1, 2011

To coincide with the recent release of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, we were offered the marvelous opportunity to interview the voice behind Optimus Prime, Peter Cullen.

The man is a living legend, and we are very grateful to have gotten a few minutes with him. We talk about how he landed the role of Optimus Prime, the differences between voicing for the movie and video game industry, and we even touch on an anecdote about a fire in a recording studio.

Any fans of Transformers, or just entertainment in general, will not want to miss this interview. Peter Cullen is without doubt one of the nicest guys in the entertainment industry. He is a man who makes time for his fans and has a great deal of affection for the love bestowed upon him by people from all corners of the world.

Hi Peter. So we are going to kick off from the beginning, how did you first land the role of Optimus Prime way back in the 1980’s?

Well way back in the 80’s, in the industry they have a term that is referred to as a general all out casting thing called a cattle call, you’ve probably heard of it, and I responded to that through my talent representative. I went to it fairly armed with knowing that I was going to play a hero, or audition for a hero. I had the great, great benefit of having a brother who had served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam as an officer, and he was truly a hero to me and his parting words when I went out the door when we were living together were “Peter, be a real hero, don’t be a Hollywood hero, Be tough enough to be gentle and be honest.” I said “Well okay Larry” and so the words that I read were a complete response to what he had said, and I could hear his voice, and thats how that happened.”

After all the years have passed by, and your voice, the voice of Optimus Prime has become so recognisable the world over, how did it make you feel in 1986 when Optimus was killed off in the animated film?

Well, I was devastated, and I really didn’t know why because there was no indicating source of popularity back then, you know. They didn’t tell you if you had fan mail or something so just I assumed in typical Hollywood fashion, I was getting dumped, for either performance or for whatever reasons. I didn’t understand it. I was disappointed, and more than that I guess because I really had become used to working a regular show and it provided me the financial security for car payments, and raising a family so it was a bit of a stunner, I would say. It could be the least I could say!

Having played Optimus in the movies and animated series, as well as the video games, is the process between those three much different at all?

Oh yeah, I think there are big differences. With the series, the T1 especially, we all worked together in a small room, a very confined room. Back in those days, in the early 80’s, there was still smoking. People smoked in that room, there was very little ventilation. I guess people today couldn’t even imagine back then, with people suppressing coughs!

Working as an ensemble, there was definitely a great sense of performing skills going on and with the movie I worked alone, with the video games I worked alone. Well of course the directors, writers and whoever else would be there in the studio, but it was generally speaking a very lonely experience outside of the ensemble environment.

Did your fans influence your decision to play Optimus in the video games, or was it just something you were happy to do?

I was very happy to do it because I had a complete indication that when the first game came out, people were really anticipating it, and it was the original voice that they had wanted, and that was exciting for me, that there was a general feeling of joy, and I was proud to be able to do it. The difference in doing the video game, movies and the series is that video game doesn’t really approach levels of drama. They are very much quick one liners, so you are pretty much confined to that, but from the general consensus I discovered that it was well received. I’m not an authority on any of the game stuff so I couldn’t tell you, other than that. You’d be the better judge on that, I’m sure.

After being associated with a character for so long, not just Optimus, but Eeyore and some of the other characters you have played, do you get emotionally attached to them and take an extra interest in the direction that they are taken in?

Well I would say that that is very true today the way I feel, because it has harnessed such a great following and the sense of joy and appreciation that Optimus has brought to so many people gives me an incredible feeling of satisfaction and contentment. It’s a very big honour for me to be at the head of that and I would say that’s a spearhead of fandom that I genuinely appreciate and I love them very much and am very grateful for their fortitude and insisting that their feelings be heard, and of course they were. I love the character [Optimus Prime] primarily as I said because of the effect it’s had and I’m extremely proud to be a part of it.

Of all the other characters you have played, do you have a favourite aside from Optimus, as I would assume that Optimus is your favourite?

I really don’t, and I will tell you why. I have such a great time voicing characters with friends that have become great friends over the years. We work with new people all the time but occasionally, you get to work with guys you’ve worked with 20 and 30 years ago and we have such a great time. There’s so much laughter it’s almost hard to imagine you are getting paid to do what you are doing, but that comes with having chosen the right career and thats what I would recommend to anybody, always do something in life that makes you happy, you know, and then you can never look back and say “Gee, I wish I could’ve done that.” But in my case, there are no real favourites because they are always fun, not all of ’em, but fun generally speaking.

How about any moments while recording or while being around the team, has there been any crazy stuff that’s happened, or anything overly memorable things that have happened at all? I know that’s an open question!

Boy that is open, gee, yeah. There was a time, I don’t know why I’m remembering this one in particular, but there was a time when I mentioned earlier that people smoked in the small studio and somebody had thrown a cigarette into a waste paper basket and it caught fire, all hell broke loose you can imagine, the sprinklers going on. Things like that don’t happen today and of course I think it was a little more wide open back in the 80’s, people were generally more improvisational and certainly very skilled at what they did, there wasn’t the talent base that we have today, back in those days there were a handful of actors and they all got along really well and everyone of them at one time or another, would explode with their particular talent, whether it was a sound or a voice. So generally, the studio was always filled with those exciting little adventures, a fire going on, smoke sprinklers, the odd crazy voice, sound effects and laughter all the time. I’m painting a very glamourous picture but it isn’t all glamour, it’s a lot of hard work, but those are the memories that I have.

So having been a part of all these different meduims of entertainment, do you have any thoughts on video games and how they are emerging as a form of entertainment and story telling in general?

That, I’m unclear about. I was recently asked to do a game, a mechanical game, not a video game, and they wanted about 250 lines and I thought “My god you could write a movie on 250 lines.” I couldn’t imagine putting that into a machine that you played. If that’s the direction that games are going in for some reason or another, it would suggest that they’re exploring great new avenues. In the game itself, the Activision game, there are hundreds and hundreds of lines, quick lines, that lead a player in any given direction. That amazes me, I am just overwhelmed by that. Again, I’ll say this. Sometimes its a little difficult to comprehend how to say a line unless you are given the circumstances around it or a visual picture, so most often you had to rely on the director and the writers to describe the action to you. I would have loved to have been able to see it on screen, but unfortunately it would not be available. As for the major motion picture, similar circumstances surrounding that would be not being able to see the picture or just simply a pencil graph suggesting the action, so when you actually see the picture in the final months of voicing, it’s dramatically different and you end up going back and doing a re-read because it just demanded it.

Do you enjoy watching things back and seeing Optimus brought to life in all these different forms?

Oh yeah, I share that with a lot of people, the feeling I get when I see a finished product. I’m really very lucky that I have my voice attached to it because there’s hundreds of people that have worked really hard to put that all together, and its a proud feeling that you’re in great company and you have done something really neat and overall hoping that the spectators are going to enjoy.

As time goes on and you think that maybe there is a chance that you are going to hang up your microphone, so to speak, do you have that in mind or will you happily play Optimus for as long as you can?

Oh no, I’ve just begun! I can’t give it up now. When I look at my long career, and it has been a long career, its been over 45 years. its hard to imagine right now but I started as a teenager so that;s inconceivable, but it just gets more exciting as i get older, so I have no intentions of backing down. As long as its in success mode, I’m going to ride that wave and hopefully it goes on for a little longer.

Excellent, I suppose it’s good to see as technology becomes more advanced, so does Optimus, in a way.

Yeah thats a really exciting point, too. Every year it seems that there are remarkable advances in the technology and I really want to be on board to watch that. I don’t want to be two or three years down the line, walk into a theatre and say “Oh gee whizz when did that happen, gosh I’d love to have been a part of that!” No, I’m going to be dedicated to doing the best I can and staying on board with it.

I think a lot of people will be very happy to hear you say that.

Wow, that is wonderful feeling you have just given me, and I throw it right back to you, I feel the same way, I love the appreciation that’s been garnered me and to tell you the truth, I would never quit for one of those reasons being I wouldn’t want to disappoint, and quite frankly one of my reasons for living is to make people happier and I am very grateful for that.

Do have a favourite of any of the Michael Bay films so far?

Um, there is a scene that Michael Bay told me about, that he had me read a line, which I was a little hesitant to read for one reason or another, I was more concerned about whether this would be right for Optimus to say, but he asked me to read it anyway and I did, and in one of our last sessions I looked at it, and it was so huge and so dramatic that literally my jaw dropped, I just sat there in amazement and he just sat there with a huge smile on his face and said “Oh yeah, they’re going to love this.” I’m looking forward to seeing it on the film, I wont tell you what it is but it’s a very dramatic moment that happens after major devastation and Optimus Prime is really, really annoyed, PO’d would be a much better word. He comes out with a line that you are going to find might spawn memories of Dirty Harry and Clint Eastwood.

Thank you very much, Peter. It was an absolute pleasure to speak to you, especially from a personal point of view, I’m a massive fan.

Terry, thank you very much, this has been a great pleasure too and I look forward to reading it. Really again, I want to reinstate that I genuinely appreciate it, thank you very, very much.

And it was there the interview came to a hasty end. I wish we could have spoken to him for another half hour. Heck, I wish we could have had the day with him. Having grown up being a massive Transformers fan, it was truly an honour to spend some time with Peter Cullen. You can also enjoy the interview in audio format (and witness me being star-struck) on the special GodCast we have recorded.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon The Game is available now for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nindendo Wii and Nintendo DS.

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