I always find myself incredibly surprised when I find out that a voice actor I’ve heard in the past did the voice of a character in a project I was watching and I totally didn’t recognize their voice. The chief goal of acting in games or any medium is of course to do a performance that’s unique to the character but as I’ve watched countless animated projects over the years and played dozens of video games my ears have become attune to picking up subtle nuances from various actors like Nolan North or Robin Atkin Downes.
But color me surprised when I found out that the voice of Mirage from Transformers: Robots in Disguise was done by the same chap that portrayed a few notable anime characters and was also responsible for bringing Mr. conundrum extraordinaire Edward E. Nygma (The Riddler) to life in Batman: Arkham Asylum. I’m of course talking about veteran voice actor Wally Wingert who for the last twenty years has lent his voice to various projects ranging from Bleach, Naruto, and of course the recent Batman video games. Wally’s talent is apparent in his performances since he truly masks his voice and takes on the persona of the character at hand, whether it’s an Autobot warrior or even a slightly disgruntled cat owner in Garfield.
I was able to chat with Wally about his career and what it was like to once again portray The Riddler in Batman: Arkham City. I hope y’all enjoy this interview as Wally provides some great insight on things.
Ian Fisher: Bit of a basic question, but how did you get into the field of voice acting? Was it something you always had an interest in or was it a happy surprise of sorts?
Wally Wingert: I've always enjoyed watching cartoons and learning how to do the voices. I also enjoyed watching the Muppets and learning how to do their voices too. So when I moved to L.A. in 1987 to be an actor, I quickly lost interest in the "on-camera" field of acting, and turned my attentions toward "voice acting." In the 90's video games were starting to happen, and the cable channels were beginning to proliferate. So the opportunities for voice acting, announcing, narrating, etc. were flourishing. The timing just happened to be right.
Ian: As an actor you obviously want to challenge yourself and take on roles that are vastly different from one another such as portraying a Digimon or a Marvel superhero. But with that being said, is there a particular type of character that you’re fonder of playing, perhaps because it allows you to play up an angle you like to approach whether it is using a particular type of voice or acting a certain way?
Wally: Villains. Definitely villains! Playing Modok on "Avengers" or The Riddler in "Arkham City" is so different than playing Ant Man or other hero or "nice guy" types (like Jon Arbuckle.) The limitations have mostly been removed because bad guys can go anywhere at any moment. They keep you jumping and keep the surprises happening. But the good guys are mostly predictable. You know they're always going to do the right thing in the end.
A small clip of Wally's performance as Rufus Shinra.
Ian: Over the course of your career you’ve acted in several high-profile anime projects such as Bleach and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children in which you played Rufus Shinra. When taking on an anime project do you perhaps take a moment to look at the source material to get a vibe of what sort of tone the Japanese actor took with the role or do you go in with an entirely fresh take and direction?
Wally: It's been my experience that the Japanese actors are NEVER referenced by the producers as something the American actors should emulate. I believe that the producers want the American actor's take on the character without any sort of preconceived notions about the role. It keeps it fresh and different from the Japenese interpretation. It's my belief that most American anime fans rarely watch the Japanese versions. You're either a "subs" or "dubs" person, but rarely are Anime fans both. It's funny when I have the occasion to hear a Japanese actor's version of a character after I've gotten used to the American actor's interpretation. It just doesn't sound right for some reason. But it's all perspective I guess.
Ian: There seems to be a theme of sorts in the roles you play since they sometimes fall into the anime or superhero genres. Now is this a conscious choice of yours because you tend to dig doing anime stuff more or is it just a common occurrence?
Wally: Most American actors who do anime do it for fun or the love of the art form. There is virtually NO money in dubbing anime. You do it because you like the people you work with, or you like the genre, or it's just fun to do. Money is never a big draw for those wishing to get into anime dubbing. Compared to the amount of original animation I've done for "Family Guy," "The Garfield Show," "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes," etc. my anime work is pretty inconsequential. I've only been in a handful of anime projects, but they've all been a lot of fun with an environment of fun, talented people. There are other actors out there who do anime dubbing almost exclusively.
Ian: A bit of a follow-up to the last question, but do you follow any of the stuff you act in as a hobby like watching anime, popping in a video games or reading comic book or graphic novel once in a while?
Wally: I don't actually understand anime that well, and I'm not coordinated enough to play videogames. I like to read comics every once in awhile, but mostly the silver age ones. Unfortunately by the time I end a day doing a lot of voice-over, I'm kind of all read out. My eyes are tired of reading and all I want to do is listen to some music and relax.
Ian: With your role as the Riddler in Batman: Arkham Asylum what was it like to take on a character that is beyond loved by a wide array of people in addition to having been interpreted by different actors and writers over the years?
Wally: It was a challenge to come up with something new that hadn't been done before. I loved the great Frank Gorshin and he was a friend. I think somewhere in Comedian Heaven he's looking down laughing at the irony. Though I didn't draw on any previous actor's interpretation of the character, I would occasionally ask Voice Director Collette Sunderman if I could do a little nod to Frank, and let my Riddler laugh slip into a Gorshin-esque zone. The only instructions on the casting notice when they were originally casting the Riddler was that they wanted him to sound a little bit like a demented gameshow host (because of all of the traps he would be leading Batman through) and they wanted him completely distinctive from The Jojker. And this Riddler is by far the darkest version of the character I've ever seen.
Ian: Your performance as the Riddler in Arkham City was really memorable but was it difficult for you to portray that character since there was no real visual representation for the character during the course of the game? Obviously your performance was able to bring some personality to the character but did you perhaps approach things differently knowing that there wouldn’t be a visual representation for gamers to see and perhaps take some things away from?
Wally: Thanks! Being a Batman fan since I was 5 years old I had a very clear idea of who the Riddler was, so it wasn't that difficult. In fact, I do tons of jobs knowing that a visual representation of the "character" will never be presented. Like in commercials, narrations...even "The Tonight Show!" So I just need to focus on bringing forth a visual image in the listener with the things I'm saying and how I'm utilizing my voice. The nice thing about Voice Actors is that we're not reliant upon a visual to complete our puzzle, we're not a slave to the image. On-camera actors need to have that, but Voice Actors have to do it without that "crutch." We can't put across a feeling with an arched eyebrow or a quivering lip. Voice Actors have to convey that with our vocal expressions. It's very challenging and it's fun to watch experienced on-camera actors in a voice over session when they realize they can't use that tool in their arsenal. You can almost see their wheels turning in their heads trying to figure out how it's all going to work.
A Riddler teaser trailer for Batman: Arkham City.
Ian: How has it been like to approach the role of the Riddler in Batman: Arkham City given the more substantial role of the character, which now includes an actual visual presence in the game? Is it nice all around to dig your teeth into the character more and was there anything in particular that you were happy about exploring, either in terms of new elements added to the detail or how you can approach things from an acting perspective?
Wally: Strangely enough, when we started the Arkham City sessions they didn't have a visual reference for the character yet. That's when a Voice Actor's imagination really comes into play. So any visual references were purely in my imagination at first. As I started to see scant images of the Riddler appear on-line, it was like opening a gift on Christmas. But even as I write this, the company still hasn't been very forthcoming with a lot of Riddler images. I think they're trying to keep the surprise in tact until the game is released. I'm totally digging the mystery!
Ian: Now I know you probably can’t say a lot, but what thing element about your performance or the Riddler’s appearance in Batman: Arkham City really stuck out to you the most? Did you like that the Riddler was more maniacal and vicious or was there something else you enjoyed about the character or his overall inclusion in the game?
Wally: I really loved the mystery! In the first game I'm under the impression that the Riddler's appearance was mostly an afterthought. Which is why you never saw him, but only heard him. But the writers were so clever writing the Riddler's bits and perpetuating that mystery, that the fans demanded that they see him in the second game. Mostly so they could punch him in the face after he annoyed them so much in the first game! I loved that the Riddler was darker than previous incarnations. You knew this guy meant business, especially in the audio tapes of the psychological sessions. When the Riddler said, "Simple, it's not my baby," you knew this guy was wacked and he should never be allowed to escape. Delicious!
Ian: As you no doubt know the level of storytelling featured in both Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City is high caliber stuff that’s some of the best to be featured in a video game. Having been in the voice acting business for a while and just being a general lover of entertainment, no matter whether it’s live-action, digital or animated, what do you think of the ever growing evolution of storytelling in video games? As games get more complex technically so do the stories they tell so do you think it’s safe to say that video games may at one point become the de facto way in which people get their entertainment from since games can allow almost anything to be possible?
Wally: It's been interesting to me to observe the evolution and progress of videogames and movies throughout the years. It seems today movies want to be videogames, like "Avatar." And videogames want to be movies, which is why they're becoming more cinematic like "Arkham." In some sessions, they have even started mic-ing the actors much like they do on a motion picture set in order to get that "movie" sound. And with the advent of mo-cap (motion capture) a lot of videogame material is being shot on a soundstage, complete with Voice Actors running around in tight-fitting green outfits, just like on a movie set.
I remember something that Voice Director Ginny McSwain and I discovered together during a videogame session. The producers wanted the audio track to sound like a movie, but the conditions weren't conducive to obtaining that result. It was set up like a standard voice-over session, with a music stand holding the script, a microphone near the actor's mouth, etc. But I pointed out to Ginny that movie sets aren't set up that way, and if they really wanted to obtain a certain sound, we should replicate the conditions of an actual movie shoot. And the script wasn't formatted for that kind of scenario either. Instead of being formatted like a screenplay, there was a side column with a paragraph or two of direction for how each line was to be read. So the line may have been simply "Where are you going?!" But to the right there was a long paragraph of context about the line. I thought that was silly. I pointed out to Ginny that movie scripts weren't formatted like that. I had done enough on-camera film work to be able to recall the conditions of a film shoot. So I talked her into having the engineer remove the music stand and the script, and raise the microphone overhead like a boom microphone on a movie shoot. I told her to feed me each line through the headphone I was wearing, and I would physically act out the line as if there were a camera in the corner of the room. The result we achieved was so spot-on, that the producers e-mailed Ginny after hearing the tracks and said that all the other actors should do the same. It's what makes this business interesting, making those discoveries along the way.
Ian: It seems like the debate will never go away but for some reason or another people these days still tend to connect video games as being a source for making children or people in general violent. This of course leads to a witch hunt of sorts in which games that are geared towards a mature audience are given grief even though the content featured may not anything worse than what’s done in film and TV. As an actor what’s your stance on the violence in games debate? Do you think the violence factor in games should be toned down or should game creators be allowed to do as they please as long as it’s justified, such as the more dangerous aspect the Riddler has in Batman: Arkham City?
Wally: I think the videogame rating system, like in movies, has been a good thing. I've never believed that anyone other than the parent should have the final say about what their child is consuming. And the rating system helps the parent make a sound decision about what they want their child experiencing in videogames, movies and TV. Personally, I don't like to be involved in projects that have a lot of profanity, or sexism, or violence. It's just not what I prefer to be involved in. But violence in videogames and films? Does it really influence people to imitate what they see on the screen? I love what Robert Englund (the original Freddy Krueger) said in an interview about this very topic. He simply said, "What was Jack the Ripper watching?" Point taken. Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? We may never know, but I believe that art can provide a healthy outlet of sorts. Did the White Album really cause Charles Manson to want to kill people? Then how is it that millions, maybe billions of people listened to that album and were never moved to even harmed a fly? I would say that the flaw is in the person, not the art they're consuming.
Ian: Over the course of your career you’ve managed to play a wide assortment of characters spanning a ton of different genres. But is there a character, franchise or even genre that you would love to act in if given the chance?
Wally: I've been really blessed to have been involved in some way or another with many great franchises...Transformers, Batman, Marvel characters, Care Bears, Muppets, Disney characters...even the legendary "Tonight Show!" Off the top of my head, I can't really think of anything I'd like to do, except maybe perform a Muppet character at some point. That would be a true honor! Maybe for the next Muppet movie they'll need an extra "hand" at some point. But all in all, my life has been one dream come true after another! It's been wonderful! And with lots more to come, I'm sure!
Ian: Aside from Batman: Arkham City, where can people hear or see you in next?
Wally: Well, I prefr to be heard, and not seen (in a twist of the old adage about children), but I can always be seen on my website wallyontheweb.com. At present you can hear me at the end of the Old Navy commercials, I'm the voice of the Titan bobblehead in the TV commercials for car insurance, I'll be providing voices in new Disney and Star Wars videogames, tons of voices in another season of "The Garfield Show" on Cartoon Network, the second season of "Avengers" will be starting soon, and oh yeah! My day job...a little thing called "The Tonight Show" every night after your local news on NBC!
Wally may not be an actor that has a dozen fan clubs dedicated to him like other voice actors do, but he’s still one hell of a performer and his performances are proof of that. Throughout the years Wally has established a nice roster of roles that have ultimately gone on to become beloved by countless people and his role as The Riddler was one of the key reasons Batman: Arkham Asylum was so good and the same will likely be true of Batman: Arkham City.
I want to extend a huge thanks to Wally for taking the time out to do the interview and sharing some insight on his career and the performances he has done. Everyone can of course hear Wally next week as The Riddler when Batman: Arkham City is released and I expect we’re going to be surprised as to what transpires between The Riddler and the Dark Knight