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Nancy Cartwright Chats with Rob Paulsen

In this edition of her bimonthly column, Nancy Cartwright interviews the inimitable voice actor Rob Paulsen.

Nancy Cartwright.

Dear Fans,

For the past several months, I have been branching out and asking my industry friends to give me their insider takes. I have been focusing on subjects that professionals need to have some knowledge of, and have been getting opinions from a wide range of specialties and hats in the business.

Perhaps best known as the voice of Pinky in Pinky and the Brain, voice actor Rob Paulsen has contributed his talents to some 300 productions, ranging from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Batman: Gotham Knight. He has voiced over 250 different animated characters and appeared vocally in over 1000 commercials. His work in Pinky earned him three Annie Awards and a Daytime Emmy Award.

Nancy Cartwright: What's the most challenging job you've ever had?

Rob Paulsen: The most challenging job was probably when I did the animated version of The Mask, in which I played the Jim Carrey role (for a lot less money). I did 52 episodes, I recall, and that was challenging because of the nature of that character -- there are no boundaries. Once Stanley Ipkiss puts on the mask, he could be a French chef, he could be a German soldier, he might be a cop from the Bronx, and he could be any number of them all in a very short space of time.

I got the job just after the movie came out (huge success). Ginny McSwain was directing at Screen Music, it was maybe the second or third episode. CBS folks were there, New Line folks were there, writers... And they were very nice but they would do talk-backs and say, "You know, Jim [Carrey] does it like..." And a couple minutes later, "Can you try how Jim does... ?" And it went on like this.

Finally, at the break, I had to tell them as nice as I could, "Look, Jim did one movie, and everyone knows he's brilliant, he's genius, but we're doing 52 half-hour episodes and we all know that I'm not Jim and I can't spend 52 episodes impersonating him. I'm pretty good though and one of my strengths is my improv skill, so if you let me go and run with it, you're going to get some gems." And I wasn't being hard or anything, I wasn't acting out or treating them badly, I just needed to let them know and they got it, they really did.

NC: That's good though, it's about keeping your integrity.

RP: You're right, keeping integrity, respecting the job. I mean, one of the reasons we become actors is that we tend to have a need to be appreciated. I told my mom once that I'll know that I've made it when the people I respect respect me. I've tried to teach that to my son too, that when the people you respect can look at you and really go, "Now that guy knows what's going on," then you've made it. And that has to be the measure of success, because in our business there are so many variables and so many things left to chance. The things you can measure, like the way you treat others, the way people see you treating others, are the things you have control over and you live your life with respect and integrity and that has to be your measure.

Rob Paulsen.

NC: What would you say is your proudest artistic achievement?

RP: I have to say it was a big thrill for me to win an Emmy -- a big thrill. It meant a lot to me. It's a benchmark for our business. I was very proud of it because, generally speaking, Emmys for voice work go to celebrity talent. I remember getting calls from our buddies -- people who do what we do, saying, "You know, you really won one for everybody." Because a lot of us had been nominated before. I was nominated for three of them and the first two I lost went to Louis Anderson, and Louis did Louis! That isn't anything against Louis, he's the sweetest guy. It's just that the magic of what we do is not sounding like who we are. We become somebody else or give voice to some completely different character. There was a certain vindication for a lot of us [in the voice industry] and it was a huge thrill that one of us got it! I remember, backstage, Louis took me aside and said [impersonating Louis Anderson], "You know, I know what you guys do, it's about time -- you're the ones that deserve this." God bless him!

NC: Peter Kjenaas, who works with me, said, "You have to ask him about 'Mr. Opportunity'" -- so how did that get started?

RP: I had been doing Honda commercials on and off for about 10 years and, about five years ago, John Yarborough (the Honda director) said, "I'm thinking about pitching this animated guy to Honda, might be interesting, might be a different take for a car commercial. I just want to throw some stuff down, take five minutes." And of course my response was, "Sure, no problem, of course... nah, I don't have to call my agent."

He told me the guy's name was "Mr. Opportunity," as in "this is your opportunity to buy a Honda," but said they didn't have a tagline. It was almost like the heavens opened up and I thought, "Wow, you guys have teed it up for me, are you kidding? Alright, well, I have something, so let's roll." I did three or four different things -- like, "Hey, I'm Mr. Opportunity" (and then tap the mic -- dink dink dink). "Hear that? I'm knockin'." And so then the tagline, "I'm Mr. Opportunity. I'm back -- and I'm knockin'."

Paulsen’s work on Pinky and the Brain won him an Emmy in 1999. © Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

You run a risk when you improvise of someone stealing it -- saying, "That is great -- I'm not crazy about Rob, but the line is great." You can't protect that. But I knew these people had a lot of integrity, were really lovely people. He said, "Hey, that's perfect." And I said, "With no disrespect to your writers, it seemed like a no-brainer to me." Now it's been five years running, and it was completely spur of the moment.

NC: Nice gig! But that says something about you too, that you cultivate relationships, keep your professionalism. And you keep doing that, keep you nose down and your zipper up and deliver more that what is expected, and they'll keep calling you back.

RP: Absolutely, and you've probably tried to impart this to your own kids, as I have with my son. I mean, he knows he's a lucky kid -- it's hard for him not to -- and you walk that line of trying to give him all you can without giving too much. But I try to impart the same thing to him, that sort of work ethic, and he's got it. You do just a little extra special stuff and people notice that. Auditions -- I try to do what I think they want, and then I try to do something completely 180 degrees different and maybe it works and maybe it doesn't for that project, but they'll remember it -- even years later. When you go in for an audition, you're auditioning for everything they have ever cast. It's so competitive! It's a tough gig.

NC: So what would you tell a kid who was just starting out?

RP: I would say, if you want to be in show business, even if you specifically want to do voice work: When you're young -- if you're a singer, sing; if you're an actor, act; if you're a dancer, dance. Try all of it -- you never know when any of it is going to come into play. My background was primarily music when I was young, and I remember when Animaniacs came along, that's the only time I've gone to a producer and said, "If you don't hire me for this, you're making a mistake." And it's not ego, I knew music was going to be a huge component of that show and I knew I was so the guy for this. When the auditions were getting down to the last eight or nine people, they were definitely stacking the odds in my favor. If I had not been so interested in music and had just pursued acting to the exclusion of music, it wouldn't have turned out that way. You just really never know what you're going to need. So whatever talent you have as a young person, explore it! Do it all, be completely unafraid to be goofy, swing for the fences, be fearless!

Nancy Cartwright is best known as the voice of spiky-headed Bart Simpson on The Simpsons. She has voiced dozens of cartoon characters in a career that has spanned more than 20 years. Currently, she can be heard as the voice of Rufus the Naked Mole Rat on Disney's Kim Possible and Todd Daring in Disney's The Replacements. To learn more about Nancy's career, listen to her audio book My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy.

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