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Nancy Cartwright Chats with Charlie Adler

In this edition of her bimonthly column, Nancy Cartwright interviews Charlie Adler, veteran voice actor and voice director, who has worked on classic cartoon series such as The Rugrats, as well as the recent live-action blockbuster Transformers.

Nancy Cartwright.

Over the next few articles, I am branching out and asking my industry friends to give me their insider takes. I am going to focus on subjects that professionals need to have some knowledge of and get opinions from a wide range of specialties and hats in the business.

So far I have interviewed good friends Jack Thomas (The Replacements), Mike Scully (The Simpsons), Carolyn Omine (The Simpsons), Ginnie McSwain (voice-over director), AJ Riebli (Pixar Animation editorial manager), Al Jean (showrunner and longtime writer on The Simpsons), and now my good friend Charlie Adler, voice-over director and actor.

Emmy Award-winning director and two-time Annie Award nominee Charlie Adler has voice directed over 500 hours of television, including the series The Replacements, Emperor's New School, Flapjack, The Buzz on Maggie, Bratz, All Grown Up, Stripperella and Spawn, as well as numerous pilots, special features, and direct-to-video projects. Over the past decade, he has voice directed all the seasons and feature films of The Wild Thornberrys, Rugrats and Rocket Power franchises, as well as the best-selling DVD The Happy Elf starring Harry Connick Jr.

As a voice-over artist, Adler has appeared as a series regular in over 90 animated series and in the blockbuster Transformers movie as Starscream. Among his most memorable characters are Buster Bunny from Steven Spielberg's Tiny Toon Adventures, Ickis in AAAHH!!! Real Monsters and Ed and Bev Bighead in Rocko's Modern Life. He has also been a Smurf, a G.I. Joe, and a Glow Friend, starred as the Baboon in I.M. Weasel opposite Michael Dorn, and created the voice of the Internet's Mr. Smarmy in the series Mr. Baby.

Nancy Cartwright: How did you get your "lucky break?" And what got you interested in working for animation?

Charlie Adler.

Charlie Adler: First, I just don't use the word "lucky" to describe it. Being in New York, you are an actor; you went from job to job. You do a commercial during the day, do a play at night, the next day you went to a radio commercial, a soap opera. In the 70s and 80s... when I was doing a Broadway show, I auditioned for My Little Pony, which was a special at the time starring Tony Randall and Sandy Duncan, and that was my first animation job.

When I moved out to L.A., they started up the series My Little Pony. I got it and I had an advantage knowing the characters, but my very first animation job out here was for Smurfs. You and I started out at the same time, we worked on My Little Pony together. I did seven or eight series that first year I was in L.A. I was in the right place at the right time.

My first directing job wasn't until years later as guest director on a couple of episodes of the Rugrats series. Klasky [Csupo] pretty much kept me busy for a decade after that.

NC: You are both a top voice director and an actor for animation. Is it difficult to shift hats? Does it ever present a problem working with fellow actors?

CA: No, I think just the opposite. I think because I'm an actor we speak the same language. It has given me a great shortcut and a great advantage because, one, they trust me, based on my body of work with them in the room as a fellow actor and, two, because I have such a love and respect for actors. I hate to have actors manipulated or to see them treated badly and I like to keep it kind of a party and in a way it's made it a great benefit for me. The shorthand that we have evolved together is extraordinary.

These actors I work with are the creme de la creme, these people hear in milliseconds, they think in milliseconds, they deliver changes in milliseconds, and I try to keep that creative process moving by talking in milliseconds.

In terms of how other people in the business perceive me, I think I've paid a price as an actor because other directors don't necessarily feel comfortable having a fellow director they feel is competition in a room with them. They don't want to remind another producer that someone else is "out there," which is foolish because I love acting and when I am an actor I have no interest in directing. I want to be directed and I want to have a great time and let go of that responsibility. There's a trade-off for everything.

NC: When directing, how much do you rely on what the actors do to contribute to the final product?

CA: They are everything. Actors... my god! What are the animators going to animate without the voice track? I depend completely on my actors to deliver and they rarely let me down. People I get to work with are nothing short of miraculous, the most skilled actors in the business and very underrated, very underappreciated. I count heavily on them, and they on me. It's a great symbiosis. It's a great responsibility.

NC: Please describe the directing process for a show, (i.e., the preparation, the rehearsal, the record, postproduction, etc.)

With so much feature voice work going to celebrities, Adler's role as Starscream in Transformers was a rare opportunity for him to get a chance to work on a big-screen blockbuster.

CA: From my perspective it's very limited because I only get a working script, which has gone through great amounts of work and meetings, rewrites and improvements. There has been so much work in preproduction with the writers, story editors, producers... When I get it, it's not just looking it over for the narrative and action, but things between as well. I have to make sure that all the cues are honored and logged and lined. I rely on the actors too because they wouldn't miss it, wouldn't miss some sound or quality that their character needed.

I don't believe in rehearsal, particularly for animation, because the process is spontaneous and I trust that my actors have prepped and read their scripts or they are so remarkable on-the-fly that they just do it remarkably. I think what destroys animated performances is over-thinking it, over-forming it. The idea of rehearsing it, going in assuming that the actors don't know what they're doing, beating it to death, I don't need to do that. I don't like table reads, any of that. We go in and I trust their brilliance and I trust myself and the writing enough -- I just go into record mode. This is just tried and true for me.

Then the tracks get edited, it gets animated, sound effects and music and, six to nine months later, you have a show that airs. It's a long process and not easy.

NC: The animation industry has the reputation of being a very tight-knit group, from writers to animators to directors and voice actors. What does it take to be successful in this part of the business?

CA: I've heard that and, well, we have become a tight-knit group because we see each other often and it's not because it's some sort of elitist club. It's because the work is so specialized and the skill is so specialized and there are very few people who do this and hit the ball out of the park every single time.

I wasn't in a tight-knit group when I moved here, and you weren't in one, and all these people in this group when they came here weren't in it, and the group changes and we get new members and we lose others and things shift. So I have a very difficult time accepting that parameter of reality.

We become a tight-knit group because we become this odd family. But we all work in great concert and we all have a great mutual respect. The thing that gets you into this so called tight-knit group is that you are skilled as a shape-shifter and some of the skills that go into voice acting and you have an unbelievable body of work in improvisation and character creation and ability to play.

You have the technical skills of being able to do dialects and becoming different personalities on the turn of a dime, and a great sense of humor and a great sense of timing and a huge rep of characters and a joy in creating something on the spot, and fearlessness. I don't know a lot of actors that possess all of those skills in one hit. If it's perceived as a tight-knit group, so be it. There are just so many that excel in an area.

NC: You have a, shall we say, reputation for somewhat colorful language. Does it help you in any way as a director? Does it cause you any difficulties?

CA: What is your f$%^&*ing point? (We both laugh for quite awhile at this point!) Well, I don't know what my reputation is because it doesn't interest me. If I do have a reputation as one with colorful language, it's because I am a fiery person and a playful person. I also consider it, look, I wouldn't do so well at the U.N., for instance... My aim is true and my heart is true and my mouth is rough and, I have to tell you, it's by design.

I feel, in my experience as an actor and in my experience in relating with people, I find that I have a wonderful facility for disarming people. I feel that I like disarming people to get them to feel playful and feel safe and feel that there are no rules, in order to make them fly free and it certainly helps, my language has helped, my eccentric behavior has helped. Artists relate to the world in a very different way than other people and what is offensive to the civilian world is normal behavior to us. We are the "carny" folk and it doesn't have the same meaning.

Obviously, I don't use my language around children and, if I'm doing a series with kids, at the end of the day I'm about to explode because I haven't said anything all day. Then I "Tourette's" for twenty minutes to get it out of my system and I'm fine. I too am a rational adult and I know when it's safe. My job is to make them, actors, feel safe to get the best work out of them. If I believed it made someone feel unsafe and shut them down creatively, I would amend my behavior.

NC: Share with us one of the funniest jobs you had as a voice director.

Adler had a ball being steadily employed at Klasky Csupo on productions like The Wild Thornberrys for over a decade. © Nickelodeon.

CA: I am drawing an absolute blank because probably once a week I have the funniest job. Certain days it is so hilarious that you just can't breathe. For the most part I have hilarious days.

NC: And if I were interested in doing voices for animation, what steps would I take?

CA: I would be the most skilled actor that I could ever be. I would make sure that every skill I could acquire as an actor, from scene study, to what makes a scene work, from improv to whatever you would do to become good actor.

The best actors I work with have a great theater background. They are fearless, they are able to improvise, they understand direction. There is an actor-speak, so we can communicate. There is a skill to learn with other actors, to feed off of them, a generosity of spirit, how to command and shape-shift character, comedy, timing, voice control, breath control, everything that you would want to learn as an actor. I believe that it should be more geared to theater because it is more outward, while film is more interior.

NC: What are my chances of a successful career in voice-over for animation if I don't live in New York or Los Angeles?

CA: Well, if I wanted to have a successful career working in a slaughterhouse, I don't think I would move to Connecticut, I'd go to Chicago. So, yeah! Gotta work where the work is.

NC: It used to be that voice-overs merely supplemented an artist's desire to act on camera. Nowadays, you can't watch an animated film without seeing the name of a celebrity. What are your thoughts about this trend? Should there be a special acknowledgement for "non-celebrity" talent?

CA: I think that we could "waa, waa, waa" that nobody gets what they deserve, but that's the way of the world. Do I think that the rank-and-file workers who do this every day deserve more recognition? You bet I do. Do I think that they are as deserving, if not more so, in terms of the praise of their work or visibility of their work? Of course.

When producers get celebrities to do big films and they are needed for marketing purposes, these actors are sometimes absolutely brilliant and they are sometimes crappy. And, yes, they get huge salary, huge accolades, and sometimes just for doing their own voice. Some have a tough time making the adjustment from films to the sound booth, others don't.

People get nominated for awards because sometimes they are deserving. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it.

NC: In looking over your biography I would call you a true Renaissance man. You have worked professionally at a high level on-camera, on stage, as a writer, a director and a voice-actor. What is your proudest professional achievement?

CA: I would say that being able to do Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway and then the national tour -- a three-hour-and-forty-five-minute play, most remarkable play and character. It was like climbing Mt. Everest every night. I did this for just under a year of my life, starring in it. And that taught me, gave me, well, I learned from not doing some things right, from watching other people not doing or doing things right, and I learned from doing some things very right. I came out to L.A. after the tour closed.

The other would be, I just did my one-man show, There Used to Be Fireflies, again. The greatest thing was working with my director, Asaad Kelada. This was, I think, one of the most thrilling professional experiences of my life. Working with someone who absolutely raised my game, expected me to do things I had long since thought I had forgot about myself, about art.

NC: Your stage resume is very impressive. You have worked on and off Broadway and toured in big musicals. Have these experiences helped you in the booth as a voice actor or director?

CA: Yeah, they weren't all musicals. Torch Song Trilogy wasn't a musical. All of it has richly informed everything I do. I don't think of myself in a particular way. For me it's another piece of me I get to use. All of it thrills me. Everything, though this word gets overused, has some meaning and you accumulate a bag of tricks and you accumulate a parachute which is building your skill -- the more skill you have, the bigger your parachute gets, and when you jump out of a plane it will catch you. You know that it will give you this great stability to be able to realize a career and be not full of fear and apprehension.

On auditions yesterday, someone said that I should audition this guy because he had a great voice and I said, "Good for him. Is he an actor?" The reply was, "No, he's an artist." And I said, "Sorry." I'm not shutting down the possibility, all I'm saying is that if I'm on a bus and somebody cuts their finger and I put a Band-Aid on it, that doesn't make me a doctor. I don't care if you have a good voice, I care if you have the skills to back up the voice. I care that a character can come out of you.

NC: I could talk to you for hours, Charlie, but I think we both have to get back to work! Thank you so much.

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.