EXCLUSIVE: Kevin Conroy gets Comic Booked
When one thinks of Batman, whether in movies, TV shows, or even superhero spin-offs, names like Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale and even Adam West come to mind. The one name left off most people’s lists is Kevin Conroy.
Conroy, who studied at Juilliard and has spent time on stage doing works such as Hamlet, became the voice of Batman in 1991 for the hit show Batman The Animated Series. Since then, he has voiced the Caped Crusader on Batman Beyond, Justice League and video games such as Batman: Arkham Asylum and the upcoming Batman: Arkham City.
For more than 20 years, Conroy has been Batman. No one in the history of television or movies has played Batman longer.
No matter what he does, from rebuilding houses in his spare time to voicing other characters (such as Captain Sunshine on the Venture Bros.), he will forever be vengeance, forever the night, forever Batman.
ComicBooked.com had the opportunity to talk with Conroy before he left New York to attend Comic-Con in San Diego.
COMIC BOOKED: You were bitten by the acting bug early, you studied at Juilliard – what’s it like after playing Hamlet and doing Shakespeare to go from working on the stage to working in the booth?
CONROY: Well, the interesting thing about doing The Animated Series and the movies is that the animation has gone through a transformation, as you’re probably aware, and it’s much more real sounding. They don’t go for ‘toony’ voices anymore, especially with Batman. They wanted a very dramatic read, so it’s much more like stage acting or straight acting, but you still only have your voice to tell the story, so you have to enhance it a little bit. So there’s kind of a little trick to it. People who haven’t done it before tend to either overdo it or under do it. But in terms of acting style, what it’s like to work on, Andrea Romano (voice director for BTAS, Batman Beyond and others) who is the director at Warner Bros., she always like to cast people who have a lot of acting experience, because she likes to get a real ensemble feel. She always tries to get the actors in the booth together. Warner Bros. uniquely doesn’t like to record people separately because you get much more of an interaction going when you put actors together. So it’s a lot like doing a radio play. You only have your voice to tell the story, but they don’t go for overly ‘toony’ sounds, overly dramatic, overly cartoony sounds.
The gaming, though, is very different, because you’re doing something that, you know, you think of all the different variations of how the game will be played. You’re literally recording thousands and thousands of different lines. Sometimes they’re just words. So that you are in the booth alone and that goes on for days. That’s really kinda mind numbing. It’s a very different experience. (Laughs) It’s done in four-hour blocks and you’re alone in the booth. With a game, you take a week of five days, eight hours a day of just recording. It’s really like some form of torture. (Laughs) Has nothing to do with acting at all. It’s bizarre, it’s bizarre. The product is great, the result is great. It’s just a very different way to get there.
CB: Do you think that, back when you first started this, that 20 years later you would have these video games that are out now that look just absolutely surreal and look almost like real life.
CONROY: It’s that old phrase that life is what happens to you when you’re busy planning for something else. I had no idea where this road was going to lead me. A lot of people who want to get into the business approach me at Comic Cons and so forth and say, ‘How do you get into voicing animation?’ And I say you start out by going to Juilliard. (Laughs) Which, you know, is the only reference I have because it’s the route I took. There are so many different ways at arriving at doing animation voices, it’s so circuitous. It just depends on the individual. With me, it just so happened I started out in the theater in New York and doing classics and doing Broadway and off-Broadway and that led to me to television and that led me to L.A. and I happened to be in L.A. doing a, I think, a movie of the week at the time and I just went in and did a cold reading for this role. I was not familiar with the Batman legacy. The only exposure I had to it was sort of the campy ‘70’s show that Adam West did, which the director, when Andrea was auditioning me for the role, she was like ‘No, no, no, that’s not the direction we’re going! Wipe your brain clean of that.’ (Laughs) And they explained to me the Dark Knight history. It was really just an odd kind of happenstance that I came into that audition COLD, with no preconceptions, but with this heavy theater background and just gave it sort of a wing. Just winged it. It just happened to be the voice that they were absolutely looking for. Because, you know, often in auditions the producers and directors don’t know what they’re looking for. They’ll know it when they hear it, but they don’t have a preconceived idea. So they didn’t really give me any direction as to what to do, they just so, you know, give it a shot. It just happened to be the right shot.
CB: Well, it definitely worked out for you and I think it worked out for all the fans as well because nowadays you are the voice of Batman for a generation.
CONROY: Well, it was also because I love to work with directors. And I love to work with writers. I think I’m a very flexible actor. So we all worked really well together because it was all evolving at the same time. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini (executive producers, directors and writers for BTAS and Batman Beyond) and Andrea, they didn’t know what it was going evolve into either. You know, everyone was improvising when we started in ’91. And we were just in this little recording studio on a side street in Hollywood, we weren’t even on the Warner Bros. lot. Just kind of fooling around with this new idea. The fact that we were all flexible, I think, is what also led it to be such a great product. There weren’t a lot of egos, there weren’t a lot of divas. Everybody was willing to play basically. And Andrea is very good at knowing the acting pool in L.A. and she would get people in there who were all really up for playing. I don’t remember any episode where there was a lot of attitude from performers who would come in. That’s pretty nice, that’s pretty nice.
CB: That was one of the things I was going to ask you about was working with Andrea Romano. Her name is on so many different things now, working with Batman, Batman Beyond and she’s even doing The Boondocks now. What’s it like working with her as a voice director?
CONROY: What’s great about Andrea is she doesn’t give you the sound she wants. She knows how to talk to actors so that you get there sort of organically so that it becomes your idea. It’s really terrible when directors say, ‘OK, now this is what I want,’ and they give you a sound and they just want you to ape what they’ve done. I think that’s the worst thing you can do for an actor because you just end up getting someone who’s just imitating you. Whereas she can kind of guide you internally so that you come up with the sound. And then it’s much more organic. So she’s great with working with actors. I don’t know of any actor who hasn’t enjoyed working with Andrea. She’s really very talented at what she does.
CB: I remember reading something when you first started doing the voice of Batman and the voice of Bruce, someone kind of told you to rein it in a little bit. Was that Andrea who kind of mentioned that or was that something from maybe Bruce Timm or someone else?
CONROY: That I think was from Bruce Timm. I initially made a much bigger distinction between Batman and Bruce Wayne, just because actors like to, they like to stretch and they like to, I guess, make things more complicated than they need to be. (Laughs) It makes life fun, you know? So I made a much broader distinction between the Batman and the Bruce Wayne voice, which also gave me a lot of room for humor. Originally, Batman was a lot more, I mean Bruce Wayne, was a lot more ironic. There was a lot of irony in his character. He was much more of a playboy. He was much more of a sophisticate. And it gave the original episodes, I thought, a lot more color. There was a lot more humor to it. But they decided to go with a much darker palette visually with the show and they wanted the stories to reflect that and they wanted the voices to reflect that. So they came to me and said ‘Look, we’re going to re-record you in the first three episodes.’ This was back in ’91 before it had started airing. ‘Just the Bruce Wayne voice. And we just want to tone it down, we just want to make him closer to the Batman sound. We still want there to be a distinction, just a very subtle one.’ And I said NO, NO, NO, that’s all wrong, you know, it’s much more interesting this way! And they said, ‘Well, from your point of view it’s probably more interesting, but from our point of view it’ll create a much darker show and a much darker patina to the show. We want people to get into this world where they enter the show. We don’t want that much humor.’ And after seeing the direction the show went, I see what they were talking about. It would have been distracting, I guess. But it was fun for me to explore it early on. But those are little tweaking things that can really change the direction a show goes and audiences aren’t even aware of it. Those are things that are done before it ever gets on the air that can really influence how successful a show is and it’s really subtle. Subtle things can really make a difference.
CONROY: Yeah, I wish fans, because Mark has a lot of fans for his Joker because he’s amazing at it, and I do wish they could see him in the studio because he practically devours the microphone. His face becomes so elastic … Do you remember the monster in Alien, the Sigourney Weaver movie? Well, that’s kinda what his face does. (Laughs) I’m not kidding. It’s as if his teeth come out of his mouth. His face becomes so rubber that it’s extraordinary. He becomes wildly animated, he’s sweating profusely, he’s all over the microphone. It’s amazing to watch. He really embodies Joker when he’s doing it so it’s interesting to watch him do that. And you would NEVER, I think, anticipate that kind of actor being the same actor who did Luke Skywalker. That was the only thing I’d ever seen him do when I first met him. And that was a very, kind of, white bread, you know, young hero role. I mean, he was good, but it was a character that didn’t have a lot of color because it wasn’t written that way. It was kind of a traditional, young hero. Mark is such a much more complicated actor than that. It was really fun to work with him.
CB: Another younger actor you got to work with in Batman Beyond was Will Friedle. Some people might know him as the voice of Ron Stoppable in Kim Possible where he was kind of the goofy sidekick, but in Batman Beyond he was the new Batman. What was it like working with him in the booth?
CONROY: He was great. We got along so well. It was fun being the old man because we not THAT far apart in age and I was the old Bruce Wayne. He’s just a great guy. Again, Andrea tends to find actors who are really game for playing and don’t bring a lot of ego and Will is like that. He was very open. And he had just come off of a very successful series where, I think he was doing, of TGIF on network television. He didn’t come in with any ego. He was just a lot of fun to work with.
CONROY: Yeah, I was a little nervous about it when he came in because, you know, you’re kind of stepping on his mantle in a way because he had been Batman back in the ‘70’s. But he couldn’t have been more gracious. He was really happy for me that the opportunity had come along and he was wonderful as the Gray Ghost. Those Gray Ghost episodes are some of Andrea’s favorites. They’re really terrific.
CB: You mentioned before the episode Perchance to Dream was probably your favorite. Can you elaborate on that? Why that particular episode?
CONROY: Well, I think from an actor’s point of view it’s just because I did so many different voices in it and they all had to be believably related, I mean there was the young Bruce Wayne, the old Bruce Wayne, Batman, Bruce Wayne drugged and I did Bruce Wayne senior, the father. I think there were four or five different voices in there that were all believably related, different ages and distinct. Andrea let me record them in real time. I didn’t do all the young voices and all the middle age voices and then all the Bruce Wayne and Batman voices. I did the scenes back and forth, which was a blast. It’s like acting with yourself, it was a lot of fun to record. And also just the visuals. A lot of it’s in black and white, so there’s a real film noir look to it. It’s a very interesting story. There’s a lot about it that I think is a very sophisticated story. That’s a fun thing about Batman is the fact that it transcends audiences, it appeals to mature audiences as much as adolescents. And I think Perchance to Dream is one of those episodes that really has a broad appeal. It’s a very adult story.
CB: Starting back in ’91 is when you started doing Batman The Animated Series, and going up to today, there’s a video game coming out later this year, which makes you the person who has been Batman the longest. Out of everyone who has ever played Batman in the history of television and film, what have you, you have played Batman longer than anyone else. How do you feel about that?
CONROY: You know, it’s extraordinary how these things happen, how life presents these things to you. I had no idea this was going to evolve like this. But a lot of the reason is, you know, the studio can recast things at will. I mean, look at all the live-action Batman films. They’ve had a different Batman in virtually every one. I think the reason they haven’t is because there’s been a real connection between the audience and what I’ve been doing in the recordings. For that, I’m just really, really grateful to the audience that they tuned in to what I was trying to do as an actor, they really appreciated it, and they kept wanting more. I mean what more can an actor ask for? No really! I am so lucky to have that, not only to have been given this opportunity, but to have made that kind of personal connection with the audience. I have people come up to me in conventions and say, ‘I was watching you 20 years ago and now I watch you with my kid.’ That’s very … that’s awesome! I just completely appreciate how lucky I’ve been and how fortunate I am to have stumbled into this job. But I also worked very hard at it, and I’m also appreciative that the audience gets that. That they seem to appreciate how hard I’ve worked and want more. So it’s really worked out.
CB: Now, along the same lines, are you afraid of being typecast now because of it? Instead of saying, ‘Oh look, there’s Kevin Conroy the actor’ there’s ‘Oh look, there’s Kevin Conroy, the Batman’.
CB: Do you worry about that in any future roles or anything you might do?
CONROY: I think every actor kind of worries about being pigeon-holed when they become so identified with one thing. On the other hand, you’re so lucky to get that job, that it’s hard to complain about, let’s put it that way. It’s not a bigworry. It is funny though when I get recognized physically because I always assumed this was a completely anonymous job, which I think most people would assume. And you would be amazed at how many people know, I guess because of the Internet, everyone follows the Internet now so everyone looks at the backstories and everyone knows what everybody looks like. But the people who would come up to me and say, ‘You’re Batman,’ I’m just FLOORED by that, whenever that happens.
CB: What do you think about that, when people come up to you just randomly, like on the street, they come up to you and are just in awe – ‘Oh my god, you’re Batman.’
CONROY: I had a car, just recently, because I live in New York City I was walking my dog and a car pulled up and the horn started honking and they said, ‘Mr. Conroy, Mr. Conroy!’ And I thought it was someone I knew. I said ‘Yeah,’ and they said ‘Would you sign this? You’re Batman!’ (Laughs) I thought, well this is pretty cool. (Laughs)
CB: Now every interview has that one tough question. On Twitter you mentioned you were hesitant about doing the Venture Bros. Could you elaborate a little on why you were hesitant about doing that?
CONROY: Well, it’s just because Hollywood is a very conservative place. I’ve always done very edgy stuff because I’m a New York actor and I’ve always done what I thought was the right thing to do, you know, taking artistic risks is what any actor has to do, to do things that are interesting. But on the other hand, I’m so identified with the voice of Batman, and that is something I have a responsibility to Warner Bros. for. So I have a responsibility to myself as an actor to do what I think is right, but I sort of have a responsibility to Warner Bros. to do what I don’t think makes them uncomfortable. They don’t have any contract on me or anything, any kind of legal obligation. It’s just a question of honoring that relationship. So the Venture Bros. thing was very edgy. I mean, I thought it was funny, I thought it was interesting, but I just wasn’t sure how Warner Bros. would react to it. Hollywood’s a very, people don’t know this, Hollywood’s an incredibly conservative place. Everyone thinks it’s all these wild radicals running around doing crazy stuff. It’s not at all. It is incredibly conservative because they all want to make things that will appeal to the largest audience – it’s all about marketing. Hollywood is business. I had an agent 30 years ago when I was first starting in the business who said ‘Kevin, it’s show-BUSINESS. And the business part of that word is much more important.’ It’s true. It’s about what sells. Batman is the largest franchise character in Hollywood of anything. And I’ve been the voice associated with that for over 20 years. So I have to respect that and respect what that means to Warner Bros. So the Venture Bros. thing I thought was really fun, really interesting. I did do it, but I was nervous about it because I wasn’t sure how it would go over with Warner Bros. I never got any flack about it. I did a movie 15 years ago called Chain of Desire with Malcolm McDowell and Linda Fiorentino and it was a real cult movie. It was very risqué. I thought it was a really interesting film, it was a really interesting role. I loved doing it. But a lot of people were kind of shocked. (Laughs) That’s the only reason I hesitated about it was because of how the studio would react.
CB: But you said you didn’t get any flack or anything from the studio saying ‘You damaged this,’ or ‘How could you?’ or anything like that?
CONROY: No. No. No one ever said anything about it. I mean, it was an animated character, but it’s just the kind of thing you have to think about. Hollywood is much more conservative than most people think. Much more. And you have to take that into consideration.
CB: So, what’s the average day like for Kevin Conroy? When you’re not on stage or in the booth, what’s a normal day like for you?
CONROY: You know what I do with a lot of my free time? I restore old houses. I’ve been doing it for almost 30 years. I’ve done a number of houses in L.A. and I just finished doing a couple of apartments in New York. I do that a lot. I enjoy doing it. I do a lot of the work myself. I did it long before it was popular on This Old House. (Laughs) I enjoy doing things with my hands. You know, acting is a very ephemeral thing. You know what I mean? It’s very abstract. And I like to see things tangibly that I can feel and appreciate. So, you know, plastering a good wall to me is a lot of fun. Doing some carpentry, I really enjoy doing that stuff. So that I enjoy doing.
CB: Now do you think that’s something you might have picked up on had you not gone into acting?
CONROY: I might have gone into architecture. Maybe a builder. I might have done something like that. I really enjoy building and designing. Redoing old homes and the design aspect, seeing things take shape. I might have gone into architecture if I hadn’t gone into acting.
CB: Is there anything you might be able to tell us about the new video game, Arkham City?
CONROY: ABSOLUTELY NOT. (Laughs) I had a guy at a conference try and trick me into telling who the villains were in it and Warner Bros. called me that night and said, ‘DON’T YOU EVER SAY ANYTHING LIKE THAT EVER AGAIN IN ANY KIND OF INTERVIEW!’ I said, ‘I knew the guy was trying to trick me, didn’t you get it?’ (Laughs) So, I have to be very careful.
CB: I promise, I’m not trying to trick you, I just wanted to ask you …
CONROY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. (LAUGHS)
CB: What do you have planned for the future? Do you see more Batman? Or do you see other ventures?
CONROY: The gaming now is a big, new thing. The thing about Arkham City is that it’s going to be an ongoing game. You’re going to be able to download future episodes of it, so it’s going to be going on for quite a while. I’ve been recording it for a while. So that will continue. I do a lot of commercial voiceovers because I live in New York and that’s where Madison Avenue and a lot of the ad agencies are based so there’s a lot of commercial work there. When I do animation work I have to be in L.A. So I tend to do a lot more commercial stuff right now.
CB: Well, I think a lot of people would like to see more Batman starring Kevin Conroy. There are a lot of fans out there.
CONROY: Well tell them all to tell that to Warner Bros.! (Laughs)
CB: I’m a big fan of the show and I have two young nephews who I can’t wait to show them the series from the beginning.
CONROY: It’s great to see it through young eyes, isn’t it? Because it’s so visually beautiful. I love watching someone watch it for the first time because I have the whole anthology and when I play something for someone for the first time I love watching their face because they’re always blown out of the room. (Laughs)
CB: On your recommendation, I watched the entire Batman Beyond series, even though I was hesitant because I really wasn’t ready to see old Bruce Wayne.
CONROY: It’s good. It’s a lot of the same creative team. Bruce Timm was feeling frustrated. He didn’t know what more to do after we did Batman The Animated Series and we did Batman and Robin. He was really frustrated about what to do. He said, ‘Well, let’s take OLD Bruce Wayne and bring in the new, young person.’ Bruce is a very, very creative person. The creative instinct and juices, you can’t fabricate that, you can’t force it. It’s gotta have a muse, it’s gotta be an inspiration there. There’s got to be some organic ideas. And he was just, the well was running dry after so many years of doing the old shows. So that’s where Batman Beyond came from. And I thought it was a really good idea.
CB: And just going from the young Bruce Wayne and Batman to just the old Bruce Wayne, how was that leap for you?
CONROY: Well … (laughs) No one wants to become the old man, when you’re still a young buck! (Laughs) So it was a little disturbing to see … the first time I saw the visual I said, ‘WAIT A MINUTE! How old AM I?’ (Laughs) Am I in the grave already? How old is this guy? (Laughs) No, it was fun doing, it was just a little disturbing when you see yourself projected 80 years into the future or whatever. But, oh God! (Laughs)