Anime Boston 2012: Interview with Kirk Thornton

One of the highlights of my Anime Boston 2012 experience was the chance to meet Kirk Thornton, the acclaimed voice actor who’s voiced characters like Saito (Rurouni Kenshin), Jin (Samurai Champloo), Anavel Gato (Gundam 0083), Kisame (Naruto), and Don Patch (Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo). As press, I got special access to a 1 hour panel with Mr. Thornton. I was lucky that there weren’t many other press attending the panel; however, there were two members of the One Piece Podcast, Steve and Jason. The three of us were very fortunate to listen to many of Mr. Thornton’s experiences. Without further ado, here’s the interview. Oh, and the reason it’s coming out so late is that I had to transcribe this from my voice recorder. Note to self, never transcribe a one hour interview again.

NOTE: This is really long. What did you expect? It was an hour long! Also, any grammatical mistakes by Mr. Thornton are left there on purpose, as it is the correct way of writing an interview (don’t change what the person said).

Me: I read that you went to formal acting school. And then, you got your start in anime when you met an anime director you did theater with at a dry cleaners. I mean, that’s crazy! What were your initial thoughts about doing anime?

Kirk: Well I didn’t even know it was anime! He asked me if I ever wanted to do cartoons. As I grew older that not all kids were fans of cartoons. Anime was actually completely new to me. So when he brought me in, I thought I was going to be doing cartoons, and I saw this and went, “Oh ok. This is really cool.”  I don’t know if you’ve heard this story, but he brought me in and there was a group of actors in the room: Wendee Lee, Dave Mallow, Doug Stone, and Bob Papenbrook. There were a number of actors who had been doing it for a while.  I can’t remember if [Richard] Epcar was there, but it was kind of intimidating cause these people obviously had been doing it for a while.

So he just threw me behind the mic and said, “I want you to voice this character and this is how you do it and go.” And I lucked out and I hit it on the first take, which is unusual. Normally when actors come in, they preview it, and it takes a few takes to get the timing and the sense of it. It’s not as easy as it looks. I was just 100% lucky. It wasn’t until I started directing that I realized, “Oh not everybody can do this.” It is a talent. But I just assumed until I worked, until I was directing and directing some people who hadn’t done it a lot because all these people jumped right in and “boom boom” they just knocked it out. They all had the talent too.  So it wasn’t until I started directing that I really realized  not everyone can do it. ‘Cause as a director, I’ve had to carry some actors through their performances.

Steve: You just brought up a laundry list. I feel like we have to hear this story.

Kirk: [Laughs]

Steve: I mean how you first broke in.

Kirk: Oh! Well how I first broke in. He [points to me] said I went to formal acting traininig school which was up at the University of Washington which was three solid years of just acting. From the moment we got there in the morning  we’d do scene study, movement, speech, stage combat, mime, anything that could have anything to do with theater we covered it in those 3 years. And then I went and worked at Oregon Shakespeare for a while. I worked in New York for a number of years doing theater, and my wife wanted to get into film and t.v. so we moved to California, and we were getting a fair amount of t.v. work.

And then I lived in Studio City, and I was going to the dry cleaner one day which was right across the street from the studio, and I ran into Tom Wyner who–I don’t  know if you know the name but he used to do a ton of anime, and he’s one of those guys he’s got a voice like Jamieson Price: this big deep round, beautiful, gorgeous, you know just scotch whiskey kind of voice. Plus wonderful actor! And we ran into each other–“Hey how you doing, where you been, whatcha been doing.” And he says, “I’m doing these cartoons. You want to come in and do ’em? ” So that’s all it took. 100% luck, which is lot of acting is. It’s being in the right place at the right time.

And then after the luck part, it’s doing something with being in the right place at the right time.  And being easy to work with.  That’s good. Because I know a couple of actors who are–god, they’re talented! Oh my god, their range of voices  is just astounding! And they don’t work becasue they’re not easy to work with.  This is a real fast paced job.  We have to knock out [snaps a few times] a certain number of loops per hour, a certain number of lines per hour, and if an actor comes in and he’s positive and “Yeah! Let’s do this! Oh that’s great!” and really willing to work with a director he’s gonna work a lot more than someone who’s a pain in the butt.

Jason: I guess with it getting another shot on DVD on Tuesday, what were your first thoughts on Bobobo?

Kirk: Another shot on DVD? Is it being re-released on DVD?

Jason: Yeah, they’re releasing half the series on Tuesday as Part 1 and the rest is scheduled as Part 2.

Kirk: Oh now see, that just couldn’t make me happier!  Because so much of what we do is dying out because of internet piracy.  When I was doing Bobobo, I was probably recording– I don’t know I just remember there was one point, one summer, I was recording, voicing, directing, and writing 14 shows at the same time.  I was doing one of those things in 14 shows at the same time. Now,  I occasionally work on Bleach, occasionally work on Naruto, they’re ongoing. I just finished–well it’s not really anime beacuse it was originally done in Australia, but I was dubbing a project called “Guess How Much I Love You.”  But [now I do] 2, 3 shows as opposed to 14 so video piracy has killed us. It really put a nail in.

But I am thrilled that it’s being released. I don’t know how popular it will be because it is so strange, it’s just so weird, it’s so non-sensical that I don’t know how popular it got.  I just know we had a blast doing it. And I’d always go in–we record individually, so I’d go in and the director [Michael Sorich] would say, “Oh you gotta hear this! You gotta hear what Epcar did!” I’d just die for a while, we’d laugh, then we’d get to work. Then he’d say, “You gotta hear what [Michael] McConnohie said.” And then we’d die for a while. Who else did some very funny stuff? Tom Fahn did very funny stuff on it. So that was part of the joy of working on it, just hearing what everybody else had done.  Brian Beacock did some brilliant stuff on it. We just had so much fun! It was a real playful experience, so I’m glad it’s being re-released.

Steve: We can’t tell you how excited we [him and Jason] were. This was a conversation we started a year ago, “Wouldn’t it be great if this show got picked up?” Because so many licenses from California are being picked up by other companies. Wouldn’t it be great if someone picked up Bobobo? I thought it would never happen because that show didn’t have a big audience here. It was announced on ANN, so it was a big story for them.

Kirk: Oh yeah?

Steve: Amazon originally listed it as coming out at the end of March. We thought we were going to have it already and present it to you but this Tuesday.

Kirk: [Disappointed] Awww. But that’s great though. There’s another show I’m doing right now–I wish, I wish but it’s not airing anywhere in the U.S. It’s a Japanese animated version of Lilo and Stitch. It’s called Stitch. And we’ve been dubbing it, and we’ve been just knocking it out of the park! The performances on it–oh my god, they’re wonderful! And the scripts are prettty good and the animation is great. But we don’t know where it’s going. Maybe Australia, New Zealand.

Steve: I think they originally aired it in this country.

Kirk: Did they?

Steve: For a week. And Disney took it off television. Don’t know why.

Kirk: Because it’s really delightful.  And it’s a Disney thing so we keep it very PG, and yet we try to slip in some little adult innuendo whenever we can. I’m really surprised because I heard that Disney just started a new network called…I’m not sure. This show I’m doing “Guess How Much I Love You” which is a real little kids show but wonderful, and they said they’re putting this on some Disney network that used to be a soap opera network. And Disney is looking for a bunch of content to put on there. And I thought, “You’ve got Stitch! You’ve got all these episodes of Stitch, throw ’em on! Get it out there!” I think fans would love it.

Me: Just going back, curiously what role was the one you nailed on your first go?

Kirk:  Probably Blackjack. That was my first, real big one. Well, it’s one of the biggest ones I’ve done. Who was it? It was Crispin [Freeman] who came up and said, “I wanted Blackjack.” Sorry buddy, you can’t have ’em all!

Me: You mentioned Bobobo was a blast to do. You’ve done a lot of roles over the years; I believe 2nd most accredited roles to Wendee Lee. Any other roles you’ve had a lot of fun with?

Kirk: Well as far as vocally, it’s fairly similar to Don Patch because it’s in my upper register, and he’s real big and broad but yeah Hamsterviel in Stitch is a blast! Because he’s that real big, broad character that you get to–when you’re that big you’ve stretched the parameters of what you can do. So you’re that big so you have to bring it down but you can also go that big.  Somebody like Gene [?] who’s a blast to do, he pretty much has to stay in this very narrow range within the confines of his character. It’s still a lot of fun, but I personally enjoy the big, broad, wild ones, where I just get to blow it out.

I get a little bit of that also with this thing Monsuno. There’s a character called One Eyed Jack and he goes very broad.  He goes big and blown out. I did him once, and I said, “Is that too big guys?” And they said, “Oh no no.” So I went a little further with it and they said, “Yeah yeah!” So I said, “You want me to go further?” And they said, “Pffft, go for it!” I take it all the way and that’s fun. Although it’s vocally demanding because I play that character then I have to go back to a character who has a very light voice. [Does high pitched voice] “Beyal has a very, very high-pitched voice!”  And after you’ve been blowing the pipes out, sometimes you stress the throat and the upper range is the first thing to go.

Jason: You’ve mentioned directing, writing, and voice acting, which of those aspects that go into making a show is your favorite?

Kirk: I should say all of them! But no, I love to act. I’m an actor first and foremost. That’s where the real fun is although directing sessions can just be a blast. You get some great actors in there. I’ve directed Nolan North, Steve Blum, Fred Tatasciore. I’ve directed some really good talent, and it can just be a kick! But it isn’t as much fun as getting back behind the mic and playing make believe.

Me: What was that transition like from voice acting to directing?

Kirk: Terrifying.

Me: Terrifying?

Kirk: It was! It really was terrifying because I started off in the theater, and I always thought directors are a special breed because the director had to have the entire concept of the show. He had to be thinking of music and lighting and the overall theme of the show. And yet he had to know every single character in the play better than the actors themselves. So it was daunting to me that I had to carry all the knowledge of the show and be the spearhead. And make sure I don’t make any mistakes because if I make a mistake the show goes down the wrong path. If an actor makes a mistake, one performance goes down the wrong path. But if the director makes a mistake the whole project suffers. The way most of us anime directors got into directing was writing first. So if you’re writing the adaptation it’s so helpful because you already know it so well. You know the story, you know what’s happening, you know the characters and what they’re doing. So doing that really helped a lot. It made it much less frightening.

I always thought as an actor, “Who am I to tell another actor to change his performance?” He’s got his own thoughts and who am I to say that mine are better than his. As a director, you can’t be afraid of that. You cannot be afraid to say, “No this is the vision. You’re following my vision.” And even if they come in and are argumentative you say, “No. Sorry guys. I’ll listen to what you got, if it’s great I’ll follow it, if not then it’s got to be my way.” Many times there’s a number of actors who come in and you just wind ’em up and let them go. Mona Marshall, who if you try to overdirect her, you won’t get as good as a performance out of her. If you just wind her up and let her go, she’ll bring you brilliant stuff.  You just reign her in from time to time and guide her. But for the most part, her instincts are dead on. Others? It’s like putting on a 150 pound backpack and trudging through the show carrying the actor on your back. But for the most part it’s pretty enjoyable. That’s a long answer for a short question.

Me: I think it’s great to hear that your directing experiences have enhanced your voice acting experiences.

Kirk: I think so, I think so.

Me: Because as you said, when you started directing, you were like, “Dang, I have to have talent for this.”

Kirk: And yet, there’s been a number of times where I’ve had to direct myself and I really prefer not to direct myself. I do not like self-directing. I can’t talk about it, but there’s a game I recently was asked to cast and direct and normally I don’t audition for games I’m going to direct but it was such a small project I might as well audition. And I said to myself, “I will not listen to any of the other actors’ auditions and cheat so I can steal all their good material and add to it.”  So I didn’t do that and just auditioned, and I got the lead and went, “Oh no.” I didn’t even realize the guy was a lead until we got into the studio, and I looked at the line count and went “uhmph.” People are going to hate me if they find out I’m the lead in this, but luckily, the mo cap [motion capture] director was there, and he directed the performance.

Steve: You’ve been in this industry for so long, where do you see the business of not only voice over going in the future but also your own career?

Kirk: Gosh that’s such a good question. It really is. I’ve just heard recently that some anime is coming back to LA. That’s very encouraging. When Geneon went under we thought this is the beginning of the end. Shows were dying out, and we went, “Ok this was a nice run.” 17 years ago when I was fairly new at it, they said all anime is going to Canada now.  Canada’s undercut us, it’s all going up there. And it did for a little while, and then it slowly but surely started trickling back until we got a lion’s share of it. Now almost all of it is in Texas because they can produce it cheaper down there. But the talent pool is so much larger in LA that if someone wants a broad spectrum of voices, they have a little more to draw on. I mean Naruto–oh my god, the actors we keep finding for that show are amazing! We keep finding more and more.

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