Rob Paulsen interview: Voice acting legend moves into directing

Rob Paulsen is a living legend in animation, and she poke to FanSided about how he moved into voice directing the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series.

Rob Paulsen is an icon in the voice acting world. He’s lent his pipes to some of TV’s most beloved characters, including Yakko on Animaniacs, Pinky from Pinky and the Brain, and not one but two of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

But while he continues to add shows to his resume, Paulsen is expanding his career in another direction. He’s the voice director for Nickelodeon’s upcoming series Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

FanSided spoke to Rob Paulsen about his first ever voice directing project, the success of the Animaniacs Live concert tour, and the impact that being part of so many well-known shows has had on him.

Get to know Rob Paulsen below, then make sure you visit his official website and follow him on Twitter.

FanSided: How did you decide to move into voice directing with Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Was it just the natural progression of your career after all of your voice acting success?

Rob Paulsen (RP): No, it was utterly the largesse of the people at Nickelodeon. I’ve never been interested in directing. That was not my jones. I’m an actor and a singer and that’s what I love to do. I’ve been doing it a long, long time, gratefully.

But in January of this year, the folks at Nickelodeon came to me and said this is the last year of the current iteration of the show — we were hoping for a five-year run and we got that. They said there’s a new one coming, another 2D version similar to the one you did 25, 30 years ago, and have you ever thought of directing? And I said well no, but I think it would be a cool thing to try.

It turns out the reason they asked was my friend Tom Kenny, who’s the voice of SpongeBob, has been directing their show for a couple years and it’s turned out quite well for obvious reasons. Tom knows the crew, he knows the vibe and all that.

I said let’s give it a shot. Let’s give ourselves a probation period for both sides of the equation because if I wasn’t their cup of tea, I didn’t want them to feel beholden to me. That certainly hasn’t been my area of expertise and these guys who are now creating this new version of the show have a very high bar, because the one they just finished up has been really successful.

I was like, let me make sure you’re comfortable after the first half dozen, and frankly myself as well. If it’s something that I just don’t like, then I don’t want to waste your time or mine, and it’s not worth anyone spending money to keep it going. It turned out to be just the opposite. I loved it. Apparently they’re happy, so we’re 10 to 12 episodes into the new version that will begin next year, and it’s an absolute blast.

I had no idea how much I’d like it. It’s really cool, and I find that I have a natural affinity for speaking sort of actor-speak, which is probably another reason they suggested it. The kids, and I mean that both figuratively and literally, who are working on the show grew up on things my friends and I have worked on. So they’re willing to listen to what I say, because I think I developed a certain amount of credibility being around long enough. I’m able to translate producers’ wishes [into] words and phrases that make sense.

FanSided: You voiced Raphael in the 1987 series, and then Donatello in the 2012 version. So is it strange not playing one of the Turtles now?

RP: It is strange and I do find myself at least once or twice a session having to catch myself from saying, try it this way. Not because what they’re trying is wrong; [because] I have my own instincts and they’ve served me well for a long time. But that’s me. That’s not the actors on the other side of the glass. They have their instincts, their training, their tastes and I want to honor that.

It’s kind of like being an old baseball player who ends up being a hitting coach, and says look kid, I know you can hit this over the fence, but trust me if you do this, step into this pitch this way, I hit 500 of these, I know what I’m talking about. It’s more that. I have to pull myself back and say that was great, do you mind if we try one like? We already got that, that’s perfect, how about let’s try something a little different? And sometimes they’ll say wow, that was great and the producers will go, let’s do it that way.

It’s a really interesting circumstance because I find that I can still be helpful and creative in a different way. I’m not used to being on that side, in that chair, but it’s gratifying in a totally different way. It really is fun working with people half my age who are so excited to be part of this franchise. There are very few franchises in the history of the culture that have been as successful as Ninja Turtles, and once you’re part of it, it’s an incredible badge of honor to have been part of this franchise. I’m just thrilled.

FanSided: But there’s got to be room for a Rob Paulsen guest appearance somewhere in this new series, right?

RP: Yeah, in fact myself and Maurice LaMarche, they brought us in to do a couple bad guys. I called Maurice and he was very sweet, he’s one of my dearest friends in the whole world. He goes congratulations man, you’re going to be directing! I have all these friends coming to work on the show and they are very gracious, very congratulatory, very supportive and utterly willing to listen to what I say because they know that’s my job now.

It’s really great, honest to God. The director traditionally in Hollywood is the guy that runs the show and has the responsibility, that’s not the case in my circumstance. I’m literally just the guy who tries to help the voice actors stay on point, in their characters, in the context of the story and using my expertise to do all that.

FanSided: You’ve had great success recently expanding your Animaniacs Live shows into a full-blown concert tour. How has that experience been, bringing that to a wider audience?

RP: It’s so much fun. Honestly, it’s virtually impossible to quantify how good it makes [composer] Randy [Rogel] and me feel. I’m in a really good spot career-wise — I’m old enough to have a body of work that folks who are seven years old to 70 are aware of.

Specifically with Animaniacs, the music is pretty timeless, and we’ve seen unqualified success of the show on Netflix with not one new episode being produced in 20-plus years, which tells me that Mr. Spielberg and his crew knew exactly what they were doing. The show is specifically written to be enjoyed by different generations. It’s clear it’s worked.

And the other side of the equation is that while I’m old enough to have this credibility, I’m young enough to have the energy to travel around to do these shows. We’ve got 10 to 12 dates booked next year.

FanSided: Are there any other roles that you’d like the chance to revisit someday? Anything Rob Paulsen misses working on, or would want to do again?

RP: There was a show I did for ABC before Disney bought them years ago. It was called Bump in the Night, and it was with Jim Cummings, who was the voice of Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, the Tasmanian Devil and Darkwing Duck. He and I did these two characters called Mr. Squishington and Mr. Bumpy. Great music — Jim is a marvelous singer — and it was a stop-motion show, really cool, like a Tim Burton thing. That’s one show that I’d love to get another crack at.

Then there was a show I did with Tim Curry, Richard Moll and the late Tony Jay called Mighty Max. That was a show about a kid who has this magic hat that allows him to get portals through time, and he’s chased by this evil god played by Tim Curry. They don’t get any better than Tim Curry, and that was a really cool show.

Another show I’d love to do, I was on the original animated show The Tick. I played a character named Arthur who was The Tick’s sidekick, as it were. There have been several on-camera iterations, one of which is now on Amazon and it’s doing really well. But those are three animated shows that I felt were just great.

FanSided: You just mentioned it —y our entire body of work is essentially timeless, which is practically unheard of in TV. What does it mean to Rob Paulsen, knowing your work is relevant all of the time?

RP: I think what everyone wants is to find something they would do for free and find people nice enough to pay them for it and to be able to do it for as long as they want to. I’m in that position. I’m a life lottery winner. I am working every day — working on new shows, creating my own, I’ve got a new show coming out on the Nerdist network, I’m writing a book. Every day is a new experience for me, and isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

I’m so grateful because I’m in a position where I’m 61 years old and a lot of people are at this age and saying in a couple years, I’ll play golf every day. Well, I’m a golf fanatic, but I’d put golf on the back burner any day. This is something I chose to do, I’ve been able to make a nice living at it, and people are still interested in what I have to say.

FanSided: Anything in particular you’d want to say to all those Rob Paulsen fans?

RP: Just remember laughter is the best medicine. And the cool thing is, you can’t OD and the refills are free.

For more with Rob Paulsen, be sure to follow him on Twitter. You can also check out his website and his Talkin’ Toons podcast. For more TV interviews and news, follow the Television category at FanSided.