Jim Cummings: Voicing a Space Pirate (StarWars.com, January 9, 2009)

Bonnie Burton, StarWars.com
January 9th, 2009

Voice actor Jim Cummings has lent his voice to everyone from Winnie the Pooh to the Tasmanian Devil. His Imdb.com credits look like the ultimate animated character wish list. For The Clone Wars series airing on Cartoon Network, Cummings voices the Weequay pirate chief Hondo Ohnaka in the “Dooku Captured” story arc. StarWars.com chats with Cummings about his work on the new TV series, his preparation for his role, and how he snuck in a little tribute to Yul Brynner.

When you auditioned for the role of Hondo Ohnaka in The Clone Wars, how did you go about creating a voice for a brand new character?

You’re trying to voice it as something familiar but also exotically different. You know that the characters can’t sound like they’re from Omaha. I was trying to do almost a bad Yul Brynner. When you go in for an audition, they give you a basic age range, personality traits and background information of the character. He’s a pirate with a heart of gold. He’ll steal from you but he won’t break your legs while he does it. That kind of thing.

How did you prepare for this role once you got it?

You go in with a good idea of who the character is. He’s more of a lovable rogue than a cruel mercenary. His background also develops as you go along and get to know the guy. Certain things work and others don’t as the show progresses. His story is written as it unfolds in some way. It’s also nice to have the whole cast of voice actors there in the same room, which is great because you’re ping-ponging dialog and playing off each other to elevate the scene. You’re not acting in a vacuum. I’ve done so many other projects where you’re in a room with a reader and you’re acting your lines out (Cummings says in a booming voice): “We have to get out of here! Any minute the building will explode!” And then the reader says (Cummings says in a bored, stilted voice): “Yes…we have to get… out of here.” So it’s not easy to be in the moment in that kind of situation. Reading with the entire cast in the room for The Clone Wars makes the experience much more organic and I love that.

As a voice actor, what are the specific challenges that differ from being an on-camera actor?

It’s great when truly gifted animators appreciate the voice actors, and the voice actors appreciate the animators. I do very little on-camera acting, so within a phrase as a voice actor you have to know how to convey when someone is 95 years old or 19 years old. Are they tired? Are they dying of thirst? All that has to be in your voice. When I was the lead singer of the California Raisins commercials there was a traditional actor there as well and he would do all these body movements without saying anything because he was “acting.” And the only acting the microphone picked up on was silence.

You’ve done many voices for a lot of amazing franchises like Pokemon, The Little Mermaid, Teen Titans, Winnie the Pooh, The Boondocks, and many more. Aside from Hondo Ohnaka, who is your favorite character to voice?

I have a brand new favorite for a Disney animated feature coming out next Christmas called The Princess and the Frog. I’m Ray the singing Cajun firefly. New Orleans is my second hometown. I was a deckhand on a riverboat there when I was 18, so I have that Cajun accent down pat. Ray is a lovesick firefly who’s near-sighted and falls in love with the Evening Star. Of course, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger will always be favorites of mine too.

As a dad, do you often find yourself at the dinner table doing voices to entertain your kids and their friends?

I have four daughters, with the two youngest being four years old and a year and a half. When one of my older daughters was in sixth grade, a classmate brought in their talking Winnie the Pooh doll for show and tell, so the next week my daughter one upped her classmates and brought me to school in for show and tell. Now I have that all over again with my younger daughters with The Princess and the Frog.

You were the narrator in Mark Hamill’s Comic Book: The Movie; how did you get involved in that project?

I ended up doing a narration because Mark wanted the wacky Sterling Holloway scientist voice from the ’50s Superman. I also got to play a jerk on camera as well. He knew I collected comic books and he came to me to be in the movie. You never know who is going to be one of us — in this secret society of voice actors. I was so excited to work with him in the early ’90s on Taz-Mania. He’s a great guy. It was cool to have Mark ask me to do all these voices for him like he was a fan. I was like, “You’re not meeting me, I’m meeting you.”

Why do you think fans will like the new Clone Wars TV show?

The show has a fantastic story and it’s a pleasure for the eyes and ears. It carries forth everything you love about the franchise and about the characters. Little things pop up about the characters in Star Wars saga overall. It’s that multi-layered history that we all love to delve into as fans.