Some personalities are just not conducive to a good phone-interview, but I suspect this is an area where voice-over actors really have it made. That's part of why I was excited to talk to Tom Kenny, who aside from voicing Spongebob Squarepants and many other memorable characters, plays Otto the gorilla in Rob Zombie's long-awaited The Haunted Adventures of El Superbeasto, which was the subject of this week's Web Stalker.
Unfortunately that guaranteed that me and my raspy still-in-my-bathrobe voice would be the obvious weak link in this interview, but Kenny was grateful to have something to do while trapped in rush hour traffic, so he was mercifully nonjudgmental as he shared thoughts about his castmates, Zombie's achievements, the world of voice chasers, and animation at large.
TB: Have you gotten a chance yet to screen the film in any of its incarnations?
TK: I’ve only seen a couple pieces of the it. Mr. Lawrence, the director -- who is also the voice of Plankton on Spongebob -- showed me a couple of scenes, and it looks really funny. One scene in particular, where the main character is in a strip club watching a girl do her routine... it was like a much naughtier version of those Tex Avery cartoons where the wolf is watching Red. It’s amazing how many cartoon shorts from the "golden age" are about horniness and ways to repress it!
TB: Are you an animation buff from way back?
TK: That stuff was totally my obsession as a kid – anything animated. Although I was born in ’62, so I was a little young for that wave of adult animation that happened in the '70s: Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, and stuff like SCTV. I love animation and I love doing kid-friendly stuff, but I have to admit that it feels good to do something for a different demographic.
TB: In his blog about El Superbeasto, Rob said,"It's much easier to make normal shit, but getting folks behind crazy shit is a nightmare. They all love it once it make them money, but before that forget. It's the ugly child no one loves." Do you agree?
TK: Well, if he can’t get it rolling no one else has a prayer! Yeah, I agree. That’s the whole story of Hollywood, right? Trying to make something that pushes the envelope and breaks the norm, but that's very hard to explain. If it’s something simple, you can just say, “It’s sort of like Bee Movie, only with elephants instead of bees - and there are fart jokes!” and they go, “Oh, okay.” But something like this... Look, not everything is going to appeal to a giant demographic!
TB: Has that been your experience in a lot of the offbeat stuff you've worked on?
TK: I think it’s really hard to get stuff going. Spongebob had an uphill battle in the pitching stage; Mr. Show which I was on with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, has a big cult following now but took a really long time to sell to HBO, and when they finally put it on it was in a weird time-slot and on odd days of the week. I think a lot of it depends on the intestinal fortitude of the person doing the selling. I’ve been lucky to work with creators who won’t stop until it's on the air, long after I would have gone, “Fuck it! I have other ideas, I can’t waste any more time on driving around pitching to guys with ties on, forget it!”
When it comes to comic books, places like Japan are far ahead of us in not assuming that this art form is only for kid genres. You know, animation can be used to tell any kind of story, and just like a bookstore has a children’s section and among many other sections, so should it be for animation. There’s a weird animated French film from the ‘70s called Fantastic Planet that I saw when I was a kid; it doesn’t have any sex or anything in it, but it’s a very adult story about a world where humans are playthings for these giant, blue-skinned pet owners. It’s tough to find anything equivalent in a movie theater, everything these days is CGI farting animals.
TB: For a fringe project, the cast of El Superbeasto turned out to be pretty amazing!
TK: Yes, it's a totally crazy mishmash of people like Paul Giamatti and Rosario Dawson with others who are huge voice-over freaks like me, Rob Paulson, and John di Maggio. Celebrity on-camera actors do lots of animated films, and to me -- someone who does a lot of voice-over -- their work is often lacking. They don't really bring anything to the party except their movie-star cred. Not that anyone cares! [laughs] Character actors seem to fare better in general, because that's sort of what us voice-over types are -- our own version of that naggingly familiar guy you know you've seen in a million movies but you don't know his name. Giamatti really brings it, I really liked his Dr. Satan a lot. Rosario Dawson was really great too, and her character was really... you know, dirty. She plays a really great nasty girl.
TB: Hmm, I wonder how she constantly winds up in that position?
TK: I don't know! Because I worked with her, and that's not the side of her I saw. She was like my kid sister.
TB: I get really frustrated with bland celebrity voice-over too. Is there a special tier of fame for great voice-over work?
TK: I didn’t know about this until recently, but there are people who are sort of steeped in that, they call themselves voice chasers. They’re like storm chasers! They're just seriously into voice-over work and connecting the dots to figure out who does what voices. Being a voice-over person is usually almost like being a puppeteer or something, you get so used to being crouched behind the counter and no one’s really looking at you. It’s amazing to go online and realize how many people know everything you do! Even obscure stuff that only takes you twenty minutes and then you never think about ever again; I've seen people discussing some obscure thing that was just a stop on my way over to another voice over gig.
TB: What was your exposure to Rob Zombie's work prior to this? Were you a big fan of his other movies?
TK: I knew him more through his music; my nephew is really into him, and when we’d drive around we'd listen to it in the car,. Also there's the monster rock connection -- being a sort of middle-aged first-wave punk rocker, I revered The Cramps, and there’s definitely a crossover from what they were doing to what he’s done; he loves The Cramps too, he's used them as his opening act and stuff like that. And then there’s the world of monster movie memorabilia collecting, I’ve always heard stories about the obscure stuff he buys. As for movies, while I’m an old-school horror fan, I’m not a gore fan at all -- I have so little stomach for anything post-Halloween. So those movies are not on my radar, even though I know he has cool character actors like Sid Haig, people who are idols of mine. My tastes are different, it’s just not my thing. The people who do traffic in that are really nice, though; I’ve worked with Robert Englund a bunch of times and he’s really nice, a hilarious, sweet guy -- but I’ve never seen a Nightmare on Elm Street movie and probably never will.
TB: So, do you know anything we don't about when El Superbeasto will be released?
TK: I’ve been hearing so many different stories, and even Mr. Lawrence has no idea. He finished his work, he got paid, and now he too is just watching the pages fall off the calendar wondering when it’s going to come out. I have no idea. One of the advantages of being a session musician instead of a rock star is that you come in and play your drum part and then you forget about it and leave, you don’t have to be involved in the bullshit. It’s one of the huge perks of my job. I hope it comes out soon, I really want to see it!