While well-known actors tend to get top billing on numerous animated films or series there are so many more that do the most heavy lifting to bring these experiences to life. James Arnold Taylor is one of the top in the business voicing not only Ob-Wan Kenobi on the Clone Wars, but also Johnny Test, The Flash, Green Arrow, Fred Flintstone, and way more than could ever be named here as well as doubling numerous people in the industry. He is a force to be reckoned with in the voice over world, but also has made a career for himself as a host, stand-up comedian and writer. I had the chance to sit down with this remarkable talent to discuss his career and positive vibe he is bringing to the world.
Bobby: Did you start out wanting to do in front of camera acting or was it always voice acting for you?
James: It was always voice for me. I knew when I was 4 years old that I wanted to do voices in animation and television. I started pursuing it by doing impressions of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney back then as well as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and stuff. Then when I was older I had my Radio Shack tape recorder and started making tapes of my own little stories and radio plays. When I was 17 I got into radio by literally walking into a radio station and asking them “How do you get into radio?” They had me handing out bumper stickers and stuff and I would sneak into the production studio at night and made my own fake shows. The program manager realized what was happening and one night the overnight DJ didn’t show up, it was like out of a movie, and I went on for him and the rest was history. I knew that radio was going to be the way I had to go to learn the tools of my trade, so from 17 on I got into radio and did all that. Then in my 20s I got into voice acting with and agent in Hollywood. It was a long road, but sounds really short when I talk about it like that.
Bobby: There is more than one type of voice acting. There are some people that come in and just use their own voice and name, but you do such a wide variety of characters and voices. How do you go about finding the voice for those characters?
James: It’s an interesting kind of thing you have to do as a voice actor. You’re absolutely right; there is not a lot of people that do everything. There’s different kind of voice acting as you said. I am very fortunate to be able to work in all aspects of voice over and I will study a character, if I am doing a voice match I will study that actor and then I will study them outside of their character to see what will come through with my acting. Recently I have been doing a lot of Jay Baruchel’s doubling for How To Train Your Dragon. I’ve been doing that for about 4 years now since the movies came out. Now with the sequel coming there is a lot going on, so his voice is (doing a spot on Baruchel voice) “just this kind of thing, it’s just kind of this” (back to James) kind of a ho-hum kind of almost monotone voice. You have to study him outside of the character as well to get it down. The same with Johnny Depp (in spot on Depp voice), Johnny Depp has all of these kinds of ways of talking where sometimes it’s here, (shifting to Jack Sparrow) sometimes Jack Sparrow (shifting to Willy Wonka) and if he’s Willy Wonka he’s up here, (back to James) but they are all based on his voice, so I will study peoples voices. When I am doing my own characters will come up with culminations of different voices that I think of. If a character is small (in a squeaky small voice) I will do some things like this (in a spot on Jay Leno voice) and then rope a bit of Jay Leno in there because his voice is high (back to James) so I just pick it apart and then throw it all back together. It’s kind of a convoluted mess when it comes to coming up with your own characters and you do whatever you can, but when you are doubling celebrities you just try to match them as closely as possible without having your voice bleed into it.
Bobby: At this point you have done so many voices and become a go to guy in the business. While some characters like Obi-wan are already established, but when you are creating a new character for a new cartoon or video game, are you given some kind of a platform to create the voice?
James: Whenever you do an audition you get an outline description of the character and you get to see a picture of them sometimes or a description and you take all that and put it into the hopper and try to make your own thing out of it. A lot of times what you do is go in the complete opposite direction of what was originally thought of and see if anything comes out of it and then take it back. Often times that is what will get you the job because it’s this creative explosion that is doing something completely different but staying within their guidelines. To give you an example, Dee Bradly Baker, one of the most talented voice actors out there these days who was of course all of the clones on Clone Wars, he originally auditioned for American Dad as Klaus the fish, which he plays, but they wanted the fish to be French. He said, “I’m not going to do it. I do a German accent; I will do it in German”. They said they really wanted French, but he kept doing it in German and finally they realized it was a lot funnier in German and so you have that leeway to go in and play with it, but of course when you get a character that is established like Obi-Wan, for example, there is so much studying in that voice that I would sometimes feel that Obi-Wan would say it more this way in compared to what he said in the movies and such. Dave Filoni, our director, always gave us so much leeway on that to create, even on a character that was already established. I got to really put my own mark on it, which was really great.
Bobby: Since you brought up Obi-Wan and we all know the show is done for now, with the exception of the lost season 6 coming at some point and now Rebels coming, you have done so many huge properties but Star Wars is huge. Did that change anything in your career? Not just with the fans, but with the getting parts?
James: It certainly opened doors for me. I had a lot of success with the video game Final Fantasy X which was giving me a lot of fan following, but Obi-Wan really opened those doors to people seeing my other abilities as a voice actor and allowed me to do a lot more things like hosting, like I host Star Wars Weekends usually. It’s opened doors to doing my stage show “Talking to Myself”, where I do a lot of different voices in that and talk about my life as a voice actor. I have been doing Obi-Wan, gosh for 11 or 12 years now and it really did open a lot of doors, especially the Clone Wars. I played him in the micro-series and the video games and everything, but once Clone Wars cane into its own within the last five years that’s when things really started opening up more. Generally even just outside of Star Wars, the world of voice over as opened up in the last 2 years as this thing that people are seeing as something that is very exciting, fun, and different to do in Hollywood. Now we have a new movie, which I am in as well called “I Know That Voice” that is showing everybody all those different voices that you have heard throughout the years. There is just a newness to voice-over and what can be done in it and that has certainly helped, but Clone Wars was a big part of it, but not just for me but others as well.
Bobby: On screen actors get to that point in their career where they no longer audition at times and just get offered the part. You have done so much at this point in your career does the same type of thing happen in the voice acting world where they just tell you they want you to come do the part?
James: It does and it doesn’t. It does in that casting directors that know us like Andrea Romano and all these voice directors that know our work and want to work on a show that is fun and with people they know that can do it, they’ll say ok we will get John DiMaggio in here and Tara Strong and James Arnold Taylor and they will sort of cast the guest spot, but you hope it becomes a reoccurring role. For the most part you really do still audition. Believe it or not, I still have to audition for everything from Obi-Wan Kenobi to Fred Flintstone if something comes up and those are roles that I have had for over 10 years. It’s crazy, but you still have to audition all the time because voice acting is one of those things that they are trying to keep us in the booth. I think they feel if they allow us to be recognized we will start asking for this and that and you know the truth is most voice actors are just so happy to be doing what we are doing that we would never ask for those things. We just want to make sure that we are still going to get our characters and get to work. Its crazy how all that is.
Bobby: For someone like you who does so many different characters, have you ever been recording a character and then all of a sudden start doing a different character?
James: Man, you know it doesn’t. For most people that do voices like Jeff Bennet, Jess Harnell, Corey Burton, Phil Lamarr or any of these other brilliant voice actors I think we all manage to juggle the voices pretty well in our heads. You get a lock on it and the script is our guide. So when I get a script where I am doing multiple characters in a show like there was one where I was doing Obi-Wan, Plo Koon, and Osi Sobeck in one episode and there was a scene where they were all in one scene talking to each other one after the other. So I would do a circle for Obi-Wan, a box for Plo Koon, and then do squiggly lines around Osi Sobeck’s and then I just know when I see those little markers go into this voce and that voice. It’s kind of a weird savant kind of thing that happens for us, but I know my one ability in this world is to do voices and entertain people that way so I am blessed to do it.
Bobby: Do you have any character or characters that are your favorite to do?
James: I get asked that all the time and this is the positive side of me, but whichever character I am voicing at the time I try to make that my favorite because I really want to put everything into it. So if I am doing (switches to Obi-Wan voice) Obi-Wan Kenobi (switches back to James) or if I am doing Ratchet which is pretty much my regular voice or if I am doing (switches to Johnny Test voice) Johnny Test who is totally awesome (switches back to James) I will try to make them all my favorites. I will say though that it has been a real honor to be Obi-Wan Kenobi all these years. I love that character and he has kind of brought me the most fame and recognition, but also the closest to fans. I really appreciate that character and am humbled that George Lucas and Dave Filoni picked me to take over that role after two fantastic actors before me.
Bobby: Do you have any that you have not enjoyed? Not necessarily because it’s a bad character, but because it’s hard on your voice?
James: There are sometimes that get a little tricky. Doing voice doubling, everybody’s got an opinion. So it’s really hard to do like whoever you are doing, like Christopher Walken everyone has their own. Sometimes you are just like gosh I don’t know I just get to in my head about it. I did a show years ago called Drawn Together that was so over the top and I usually try to stick to family friendly stuff, but the show was so clever and well done and we had so much fun, but there was one character I did on there where I lost my voice. It was the only time outside of video games that voice just kind of went away because I was doing this big over the top kind of thing.
Bobby: You mentioned your stage show “Talking to Myself’, can you tell us a little more about it?
James: “Talking to Myself’ is a one man stage show that I wrote, directed, produced and put it all together. In that show I do well over 200 voices and talk about my life as a voice actor and my journey as well as share with people what it is like on a day to day basis in the booth as a voice actor, hopefully in a fun fast paced multimedia way where I am interacting with cartoons and doing them live. I do a segment from Johnny Test where I do all the voices live there or Clone Wars and I have done is successfully for the last four years now at Disney: Star Wars Weekends, that one I do about a half hour version, but I have a 90 minute version that I have taken on the road. I have done it at USO Tours, to Ireland for conventions, to Japan, and here in the Los Angeles area. I really hope to do it at some point and take it on tour, but it’s one of those things where it does cost money to put it together. Generally what happens is Disney or Lucas will ask me to host an event like I did at Celebration 6 and will want me to bring my show with me. So that’s been the places people have been able to see it right now, but I am planning on maybe renting a theater in Los Angeles at some point and doing the show for like a week and test out some new material as well. If people watch my social media they will find out where it is and if it is coming to their area. I have been getting invited to a few cons so you will be able to see it there too.
Bobby: Speaking of hosting, how did you make the transition from voice actor to being the celebrity at the table signing an autograph to the face and voice for these conventions?
James: That is a great question because this is a good thing for people that want to be motivated and inspired to pursue their dreams. It was about 6 or 7 years ago, I was invited to my first Star Wars Weekends and they said that they didn’t have any money to pay me, they were just going to put me up for the weekend at Disney World and I was going to come out and be interviewed by Ashley Eckstein and you will do a couple of bits from Clone Wars and talk about the show and I said ok great. I had my stage show and thought I will do bits and pieces of the show and show them that I am somebody that can do more than just be interviewed for five minutes and then leave. I mentioned I got into radio at 17, but at 16 I got into stand-up comedy and I have been writing my own comedy acts for years. I knew specifically that if I just showed this once and sure enough the next year when I came they asked if I would ever consider hosting this and I said yea I would. I had kind of a plan to show them what I could do, but one of my friends Jason Surrell who was one of the writers there was the one that saw what I was doing there and said to Disney that they should get me to host. It was a specific thing in my head, but I just needed to show everyone what I could do and that’s what I would say to people. If you know you can do something don’t be pushy or be me, me, me and you do martial arts and know it’s all about confidence. At the same time it’s about restraint where I know what I can do, but only when necessary. It’s kind of in that same vein if I can draw a parallel.
Bobby: Exactly, most think it is just punching and kicking, but you have to have the technique and skill and confidence and focus to go along with it for any of it to work or you will just get pummeled.
James: Absolutely and that is how it is in voice over. People think they can just go in and do some funny voices, but no. If you go in there and Corey Burton and Jim Cummings and Billy West are in the room you better bring you’re ‘A’ game because these guys are experts and they will put you to the test. Knowing what you can do and doing it as well as knowing what you can’t do and not doing that as well. I knew my strong points and I went after it.
Bobby: That’s a great lesson. I am a cartoonist as well and spent years trying to be something I was not. My style is more Jim Davis, but I was determined to be Jim Lee but once I got over that and accepted what I do I began churning stuff out left and right.
James: I am totally with you on that. I love that, it’s a wonderful story and it’s so true. When I was a stand-up, once I realized I needed to just do what I do and have fun at it, that’s when the audience stuck with me and it really started working. That is a very important part of what anybody does.
Bobby: This advice to people actually leads right into what I wanted to speak to you next about, which some people may not know about unless they follow your site and it’s your daily inspirations and book JAT 365. A lot of people these days just don’t want to take the time to read or listen to anything these days so what made you take the time to do this?
James: JAT 365 is James Arnold Taylor 365 days throughout the year and I found long ago when I first logged onto social media there were plenty of people putting negative things out there, but not a lot of people putting out positive things. I really try to live in a positive thought process in my life because that is really what has brought success for me and peace. Peace of mind, peace with my family and in my work so I thought let’s just put these positive things out. At first I started just putting quotes from people out and people thought it was fine, but everyone reacting strongly when they were words that I had done. Then people started saying “Gosh, if you had these sayings in a collection I would buy that book.” And I thought it was a good idea, so I put them all together and added some new ones, changed some around, re-wrote some of them and then I pose questions to you as well. Each day starts with an inspiration that’s a couple of sentences and then there is a question down at the bottom, so it’s kind of like a journal to get you thinking about your dreams and goals, the person you want to be and how you interact with people and society and how you think positively, hopefully. Then you have three boxes at the top where you can accept it or forward it or practice it. You accept what you read and think year I can buy that, or you forward it by sharing it to someone else whether talking to someone about it or sending it off in social media as encouragement for the day and then you practice it throughout your day by thinking I want to do what he was talking about in the book and then you make your notes. It’s been a lot of fun. At first people just thought it was like daily devotional, but then everyone gets it and thought it was really cool and something they could just keep on their nightstand or wherever and just pick it up and read it to be encouraged for the day. There is enough negativity out there.
Bobby: With so much negative stuff out there and the need to feel like writers have to jam tons of nonsense in a book, I commend you on creating such a powerful but simple book to read. It’s the kind of book that you can read through really fast, but one that shouldn’t be. It takes a lot of courage these days to take a chance like this and it is a brilliant positive book. Was it always an intent to make this book or was it just initially meant to be on your site only?
James: Yeah initially I was just posting them every day. I had challenged myself to every day put something positive up on my Facebook and Twitter and then I realized that because I have been doing it so often I had this great collection. By the time I had about 150 of these I thought I should put the book together. Then I decided it should be a 365 day one, so I challenged myself for the next year to write more and to collect them and start putting them together. It was deliberate after the fact. It really came together well and has been a lot of fun having people respond to it. I appreciate what you said about it and it’s one of those things where hopefully it is something that people will do daily, but I didn’t set it up by months, but just by numbers. The numbers allow you to sit the book aside for a few days because everybody needs a day off. Then you can pick it back up when you want to feel encouraged you can read a couple if you want. It’s just a journal for your hopes and dreams with 365 pages and hopefully people will be inspired by it.
Bobby: How hard was it really to come up with an inspirational quote every day?
James: You know it’s pretty tough. When I got to like 265 and knew I still had 100 more I was like wow. You really do try to make them different, but some you do try to tie them together. I also very deliberately wanted to say, if someone was taking a year I can’t just say this one thing one time. There are some things in the book that are throughout the book. Forgiveness for example, it’s a huge thing in our lives. We need to forgive people whether or not they’ve asked for forgiveness or believe they deserve it or like you or whatever. For our own hearts and well-being we have to not have burdens on us. I came up with various points throughout the book saying to make sure you are seeking forgiveness in your life for yourself and others and hit on different things each time. You’re an athlete so you know the importance of health, breathing and just being centered so I would put those throughout the book as well in different places. In that regard it made it a little easier because I could revisit some things but it is a little tricky sometimes.
Bobby: I have been a huge fan of yours from Clone Wars and have since realized I have been a fan of yours for a long time for other things as well so really appreciate you taking the time to do this.
James: I appreciate you taking the time as well and (switches to Obi-Wan voice) “May the Force Be With You Always.”
For more information on convention appearances, his incredible stage show “Talking To Myself’, to grab a copy of his excellent book JAT 365 and more head over to his official site at http://www.jamesarnoldtaylor.com/jamesarnoldtaylor.com/Home.html