Jim Cummings Exclusive Interview WINNIE THE POOH
by Christina Radish Posted:July 9th, 2011 at 5:20 am
Winnie the Pooh might describe himself as a “bear of very little brain,” but that sure hasn’t hurt his popularity any, making him second to only Mickey Mouse. In the full-length movie Winnie the Pooh, the whole gang – Pooh, Tigger, Rabbit, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Kanga and Roo – teams up after they misinterpret a note left by Christopher Robin, mistakenly believing him to have been captured by a creature. While they are on a quest to save Christopher Robin, they are also on the hunt to find Eeyore a new tail, as his has mysteriously gone missing.
For the Hundred Acre Wood gang’s first big-screen feature in 35 years, voice actor Jim Cummings not only got to take on the voice of Pooh, the bear who’s always willing to lend a helping paw and a jar of honey, but also of the exuberant Tigger, with the famously springy tail. During this exclusive interview with Collider, done at the film’s press day at Walt Disney Animation, Jim Cummings talked about how he never could have imagined that he’d be voicing these classic characters, how Pooh is more delicate to voice than Tigger, how he equally enjoys bringing known characters to life as he does creating entirely new ones, and that he would love to revisit Ray, the firefly from The Princess and the Frog, for some possible shorts, in the future.
Question: What was your first encounter withWinnie the Pooh?
JIM CUMMINGS: I never read the books, as a kid. My first introduction would have been the movie. Of course, at that time, I would have been 10 years old, or something like that, and never, in a thousand years, would I have ever thought I would have grown up and become the voice behind Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, too. In fact, my little brother was a Winnie the Pooh fan back then, and I would tease him and say, “Winnie the Pooh – that’s another word for poop. It’s Winnie the Poop. So there! How about that?” Now, the joke’s on me. That was my first brush [with the character]. I just love it because it’s evergreen. There’s no cynicism there. Pooh doesn’t have an agenda. Nobody does, in the Hundred Acre Wood, unless he’s trying to get some honey. Stay out of his way when he’s looking for honey. But, other than that, they’re not tied to any trend or fade, or anything, and as a result, that heartfelt groove just keeps on going. It’s something everybody can relate to.
How did you get involved with voicing Winnie the Pooh?
CUMMINGS: It was in ‘87, back when Disney and ABC were separate entities. At that point, Pooh had been in hibernation for about 20 years, and they put out a casting call to all the agents, like they would with anything. It was just a regular audition process.
How daunting was it to take on such beloved characters? Were there any moments at all where you questioned doing it?
CUMMINGS: In the beginning, I wasn’t even in the business for very long. From this vantage point, looking back over these years, you can see that the Pooh character has grown in popularity and in its pervasiveness, but at the time, it wasn’t so. In fact, Pooh had been gone from the consciousness for years and years. So, at the time, it wasn’t this monolith or franchise. Pooh is the second most popular Disney character out there, but at the time, that wasn’t so. It was an honor, and I took it very seriously, and it was a privilege. I knew it from that vantage point. But, at the time, it was just a new cartoon show that was on. I had only been in the business since late in 1984, and I was there for two and a half years, and I was too green to know. I was Winnie the Pooh. I was of very little brain myself. So, I just showed up and did it, and all these years later, he’s grown in popularity and now we’re making full-blown feature films with our little buddies.
Is it more nerve-wracking to do it now, knowing that so many more people are going to be paying attention to it, or does it feel more comfortable now?
CUMMINGS: I can tell you that I am comfortable with it ‘cause I’m just so used to them, but I take it very seriously. I’m comfortable with it, but not in the sense that I’m laid-back or lackadaisical at all. I swing for a home run, every time, in every way that I can. At this point, I don’t think too much about blowing it or screwing it up. One good thing about animation is that, if you do screw up a line, they won’t use it. You can keep going until it’s right. With the music sessions and the singing sessions, I always like to do my homework and make sure that I do the best I can because they stay around forever. They made Snow White in 1939. You have to take it seriously, but not to the point that you overdo it and can’t move and get microphone fright, instead of stage fright. I don’t want that to happen.
With both Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, how did you go about finding the vocal quality and the right sound of their voice? Is there a moment where you knew that you finally got it?
CUMMINGS: With me, I’ve been doing this sort of thing for so long, but I still don’t know that I’ve got it. I just try to do my best. You start with the sound and make sure that it sounds like the original. And then, from there, you fill in the blanks with the acting. You have to stay true to the character. Obviously, in this case, you’ve got these great directors with Steven [Anderson] and Don [Hall], and (producer) Peter Del Vecho, and John Lasseter himself. They’re going to keep you in line. If you stray, they’ll thump you on the side of the head. It’s not a one-man show, that’s for sure. There are a lot of people overseeing it and making sure that it’s there, so there’s a level of confidence in that.
Is Pooh a hard voice to do?
CUMMINGS: Yes and no. It’s more delicate, I would say. I’ve been known to postpone a session if I have an allergy or a cold. Whenever I get a cold or a sore throat, Pooh goes away for a few days and I have to wait to bounce back. In that sense, it’s hard, but it’s physically not really hard at all. I just sprinkle a little honey in there, and then, the next thing you know, there’s Winnie the Pooh..
Do you take on the mannerisms of all your characters when you voice them, or just these particular characters?
CUMMINGS: All of them, I’m sure. It’s just inevitable. With certain characters, I will only stand. I don’t sit when I do them. I used to stand for every one of them. With Pooh, I can sit now. I know that sounds weird, but there is a certain body language that comes out and it probably helps the performance. The first time I ever saw myself doing Tigger and Pooh on camera, I was not shocked, but I was taken aback somewhat because I do take on their mannerisms. It all goes into the mix. You just can’t help it. It’s all there. It’s inherent, I think.
Is it challenging to do the songs in character?
CUMMINGS: With singing, Pooh isn’t as good a singer as Tigger because he has a shorter range with that feathery, slightly falsetto, slightly tenor-ish thing, whereas Tigger is all over the map. He’s got a bigger range, vocally, so there’s more there for me to play with. The thing about singing is that it’s easy to just start singing as yourself. You have to remember that it’s Pooh. You work with the songwriters, and they’re not going to write an opera for Pooh, so you’re safe.
Is it more fun for you, as an actor, to take on these classic characters that you love and bring them to life, or is it more fun to create entirely new voices for characters?
CUMMINGS: I don’t know if one would be more fun than the other. They’re just different areas of fun. They’re both wonderful. I loved Ray from The Princess and the Frog. He was my guy. There was no Ray before me, so there’s a level of satisfaction there. But, on the other hand, when you nail a character that’s been around and that has been established, there’s a level of accomplishment and satisfaction in that, too. It’s the same thing, only different. They’re both wonderful to accomplish and you can feel good about it, if you’re doing a good job. It’s just that one is silver and one is gold, except they’re both gold for me. As long as it comes across, the characters are well-served, the stories are good, and people like it, that’s it for me. I’m a happy guy.
What’s it like to work with the animators through a process like this, and see the characters start to form and develop?
CUMMINGS: That’s fun. These guys were already drawn from illustrations that came well before. There is a slight tradition in Disney feature films that they will often draw a caricature of the actor’s face, who’s doing the character. With the snaggle-toothed firefly Ray from The Princess and the Frog, it was not necessarily the case that they were drawing me, per se, but they do set up a video camera and record you while you’re doing it and the animators will sit there and sketch, while you’re doing the character. The next thing you know, he’s got that same little face. And, they did it for the California Raisins, which is probably an even better example. They video taped us singing. So, there is that tradition of drawing the actor’s face, but they don’t necessarily have to look exactly like you, thank goodness.
Did impersonating people start at an early age for you, and then develop into a career later?
CUMMINGS: I was just really annoying, from day one. I didn’t really think about it. I still don’t. It’s just one of those things that comes out of me. It’s the stuff that used to get me kicked out of class, and I turned monkey hour into a career.
Are there any characters that you’ve voiced that you loved so much, you wish you could voice them again?
CUMMINGS: Gosh, all of them, really. I really enjoyed Ray. They were threatening to do some Ray shorts for awhile, and I would love that. The whole New Orleans groove is so dear to my heart, anyway.