You may not know him on sight, but if you were a child of the ‘90s that watched cartoons after school you know his voice. A graveyard tenor that strikes fear into the hearts of criminals, Kevin Conroy has been the voice Batman for over twenty years beginning with the seminal, Batman: The Animated Series.
Ahead of his appearance at the 2017 Wizard World Comic Convention, the Dark Knight was able to take the time to talk with PressureLife’s Adam Dodd.
AD: So take us back to the audition process. How did you get to be the voice of Batman?
Kevin Conroy: I went through Julliard. I trained to work in the theatre. I basically am a classically trained actor. I did Broadway and off-Broadway in New York, so I really had a very traditional theatre background. I started doing voice-over work in New York to supplement my theatre work. Then I started television work and that brought me out to L.A.
“I was doing a show in ’92 and I had a voiceover agent and he said, ‘they’re doing a new animated show at Warner Brothers, Batman. You’ve never done animation. Why don’t you give it a shot?’
“I was so unfamiliar with Batman and animation I was surprised to find there had never been an animated show. I went, “you mean Batman’s never been animated?” I wasn’t aware of that at all. I actually had no background in animation at all. I was purely a theatre and television actor. I was submitted by my commercial voice-over agent. They were looking beyond the usual scope of voice-over actors because they were going for a heavy dramatic feel for the show. They looked at the usual people they worked with but they wanted to cast a wider net, to look at people who had never done it before. That’s how I got in.
“Amazingly, it was the first animation audition I ever went in on. I think it was my lack of knowledge, my stupidity that actually played to my advantage because I had preconceptions at all. I was completely blank slate so I could just rely on my acting instincts.
“My sole exposure to Batman had been the Adam West show and when Bruce Timm heard that he screamed “No! No! Erase that! That’s not what we’re doing at all.’
“He had to explain the background of Batman; the Dark Knight legacy of having lost his parents as a child and looking to avenge his death. They said we’re going very film noir. This very dark. This is a man who avenges his parents by conquering evil and fighting the dark forces.
“I said, ‘boy, you’re describing the classic Hero. Almost like a Hamlet character. this is what great plays are based on. This is what Shakespeare is based on.’
“It’s a really classic archetype so I just used my imagination and just [spoken as Batman] put my voice where I thought the sound would come from. I always go back to that first meeting with Bruce [Timm] because that’s where the voice comes from. It comes from that deep, deep well of pain that is so unresolved in Bruce Wayne. He is a very conflicted and damaged person. I always say he is a person with a lot of issues. His way of handling those issues is developing this alter ego.
“Then I realized the alter ego is Bruce Wayne. The real damaged character is Batman. That’s who he is when he’s alone, when he’s most exposed and vulnerable. When he puts the costume on it’s the business suit, the suave debonair guy. We all do it. Put on a suit against the world. That’s his artifice- Bruce Wayne. that’s when I came up with the two different voices. I thought, ‘let’s really make this a different character. Let’s make him perform for Gotham City. So I love playing the character. He’s such a purely good character and he’s so complicated.”
AD: When do you think it finally clicked when you “got” the Batman?
KC: “It was a real jump into the deep of the pool for me. Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Alan Burnett- the producer, Andrea Romano- the casting director; these are the A-list team in animation and I didn’t know that. I think my naiveté worked to my advantage because I didn’t get nervous at all. I was free to completely improvise and try things out in front of them. I didn’t know anything about it. I just jumped in.
“One of the secrets of all the Batman shows was that Andrea Romano was the casting director. She surrounds herself with people who don’t let their egos get in the way. They’re people who love to come to work and play. You always feel like you’re surrounded by people who want you to be good and the better you are the better they’re going to be. It’s a very constructive, positive work environment. Word got out very quickly that that was the scene at DC studios so everyone wanted to be in the show. That’s why we got such amazing actors over the years. After the hundredth episode Warner Brothers took out a two-page spread in Variety to thank everyone who had been in the show and it was a who’s-who of Hollywood. Old school people like Roddy McDowell to people Like Ice-T before he ever did Law and Order.
“The point I started becoming really comfortable with it was “Perchance to Dream”. It’s a beautiful [episode]. I think it’s the best, live action or animated. It tells the whole story of the evolution of Bruce Wayne. It shows his conflict with his pledge to his parents. He feels so obliged to it and yet he wants to have a normal life because he’s fallen in love. But he can’t be. It’s a beautiful story in how it tells the whole psychology of Bruce Wayne. That’s the one where it really clicked in and I felt really comfortable with the character.”
AD: What villains to find yourself enjoying playing off?
KC: “Well, I have a special relationship with Mark [Hamill]. Joker and Batman; they’re like the ying and yang to each other. They define each other. Batman wouldn’t be Batman without Joker and Joker wouldn’t be Joker without the Batman. Everyone from Roddy McDowell to Paul Williams to Michael Landseer was so incredible as Mr. Freeze. Ron Pearlman was Clayface. I mean there’s just so much talent there.”
AD: You have background in theatre and trained in Julliard is that still a driving passion?
KC: “The last play I did was off-Broadway in New York. I did Arthur Miller’s last play that he wrote and helped direct. That was around 2000, so it’s been a number of years since. I’d love to do more theatre but the problem is you have to commit so much time to it that it really locks out doing anything else. So it’s difficult to commit too much time to it.”
AD: You’ve come back to do the voice of Batman for a few of the animated films as well as the Arkham games. What do you look for in a Batman role now that makes it worth coming out of semi-retirement?
KC: “The theory that I went into retirement is a totally bogus theory. I never did. I live in New York. Going back and forth is a little complicated. So that has dictated a lot more if I do anything than anything else. I love when they ask me to do the character. Often what happens is a director wants to put their own stamp on it so they want to come up with their own person. Typically they end up asking that person to just imitate me.
“I always say, ‘well why didn’t they just ask me?’
“But I love playing this character. He’s the most complicated of all the heroes. He’s wonderful. I always jump at the chance to play him. there was a myth out there on the internet that I had retired, I actually never did.”
AD: You played Bruce Wayne with a lot of nuance. Even as a child when it first aired I could pick up that the ‘affable playboy’ was a shell and that the character was really in pain. It being a children’s show, how were you able to ride the line and still be able to convey such tragedy?
KC: “It started out as a primetime show on Fox. We weren’t really thinking of it as a children’s show. the only accommodation they made to it being a children’s show, and I think this is why it has such a large adult appeal and why it still appeals to adults because it never written for children, the only accommodations to the ‘children’s’ aspect of it was that there was a Standards and Practices rule in animation that no one can actually die. so whenever batman would ever beat anybody they would always have what called the ‘stay alive moan’ after they hit the ground. so you knew the guy wasn’t actually dead.
“the violence in batman never goes over a certain line which was the only accommodation they made to a younger audience. Everything else, the psychology of it, the sexuality of the female villains, it’ a complicated show. A lot of the storylines were complicated. I think that’s why the biggest audience was never really kids. it was more like college aged, I think.
“But getting back to your question about doing the two voices. When I first came up with the idea is when we first started. being an actor, you always want to ham things up a bit. so I made the distinction pretty broad. and I was using the actor David Niven as my visualization. I wanted him to be this very wry, sarcastic playboy with a real sense of irony and a real sense of humor. Those early episodes, Bruce Wayne had a lot of humor to him, there was a lot of double entente jokes with women flirting with him in Gotham City.
“After they came back with the first couple episodes come back from the artist- I don’t know if you know this but we do the voices first and the recordings are sent off to the artist. So it’s six months before we see what it’s going to look like. So for those first six months in ’92 we were going on instinct we hadn’t seen anything. those first few episodes we recorded, I had made this rally broad distinction between Bruce Wayne and Batman. Then when it came back and we saw it, how dark the show was, that they had used a black background to paint on, which was the first time that had been done. The painting was done, rather than painting on white or a neutral background, was painted on black. That’s what gives it that film noir quality.
“The lightness of Bruce Wayne was jarring. It was almost as if he was in a different show. Then Batman would come in and it was this dark brooding character. They actually had me go back in and dub, just the like the first three or four episodes, just the Bruce Wayne voice- to tone it down, to bring him down, to darken him a bit more because he just too dramatic. So there was definitely a balance we had to find where it was a believable distinct voice.
“My whole reason for doing was like, ‘wait a minute. This is the wealthiest guy in Gotham. He’s the most eligible bachelor. He lives in a mansion on a hill. Everyone knows his family tragedy. He owns Wayne Enterprises and he puts on a mask and nobody knows its him? Seriously? It’s ridiculous!’
“So let’s make it a more believable transition and that’ll help the drama of the show. We really still wanted to make it that believable so the audience didn’t have to suspend disbelief to believe it was Bruce Wayne under the mask. But it did have to be toned down to the point where it didn’t seem like he wasn’t in another show so it didn’t sound like he was in another show. And the voice I ended up suing was very close to my own voice for Bruce Wayne.”
AD: Yeah, I can hear some ‘Bruce Wayne’ in you every once and a while.
KC: Yeah, it’s very similar.
AD: Did it ever bug you the Bruce Wayne only ever had one suit? It was always that yellow suit with the black tie.
KC: (Laughs) You mean the bat suit or the business suit.
AD: The business suit. it was always the mustard colored business suit.
KC: Well, you don’t see a lot of Bruce Wayne. He’s not… Yeah, I know what you mean. (laughs)
AD: I just figured he’s the richest guy in Gotham he’d have more than one suit.
KC: Well, he had the tuxedo a lot. He wore that around.
AD: Fair point.
KC: Yeah, they didn’t give him the biggest wardrobe.
AD: Okay, that was then. What is Kevin Conroy doing now?
KC: “I’m still doing animation. I’m doing the Arkham games. Injustice II was just released a couple of weeks ago. I have another direct-to-video movie coming out that I’m not allowed to tell you what it is. I’ve got the new Justice League Action series that’s one now. We finished the first season and we’re waiting for a second season order.
“I paint. I’m an oil painter. I love doing that. I work on houses, I do a lot of carpentry. I love restoring wood. Acting such a kind of abstract, intangible world that I like to get my hands on something. The sort of working with wood or paint. I like seeing the visual for my creativity.
AD: Is Andrea Romano still casting the new show, Justice League Action?
KC: No, not this time. This time it’s Russ Gleason and he’s doing a great job. She’s been focusing on some stuff at Pixar and Dreamworks. We’re still very, very close friends. I’ve worked with her for twenty years.
AD: How are you liking the new show?
KC: “It’s interesting. It really is. It’s totally new because they’re fifteen minute episodes and they’re doing per show. You jump right into the action. they don’t spend the first ten minutes setting up the characters like they usually do in animation. They assume the audience knows these people so you’re basically thrown right into the action. Even though they’re fifteen-minutes long you feel like you’ve seen a half-hour show. They’re getting wonderful actors. Diedrich Baker is so funny. Mark Hamill is in it. It’s really interesting.”
Our thanks to Kevin Conroy for his time. Keep an ear out for him in the new Justice League Action series as well as in the top-selling Arkham Asylum video game series. And be sure to keep an eye out for him at the week’s Wizard World Con at the Huntington Convention Center downtown where he’ll be making an appearance.