James Arnold Taylor
Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars: The Clone Wars)
Interview: June 2010
What got you started as a voice actor? Was it something you always wanted to do? And on what age did you discover your talent?
I have always wanted to be a voice actor, pretty much since I was 4 years old. I knew I wanted to do voices in cartoons, TV and radio. I did little radio shows with my friends creating sound effects. When I was 16 I started as a stand up comedian and I always did voices like Marty McFly and Doc Brown. Then I got into radio a year later and became a DJ. I tought myself how to work with all the equipment by staying over late at night and watch all the DJ’s working. I started to make my own shows and gave them to the program director. One day they asked me if I wanted to do my own show because the overnight DJ didn’t show up. So I ended up doing a show and from there on I went on and the rest is history as they say. I actually did over 8,000 comedy bits that I wrote, voiced, produced and directed for the premier radio network over the course of 12,5 years. From there on I moved into voice acting getting an agent and getting in cartoon work. I knew from a very young age that that’s what I wanted to do. I loved watching all those greats like Mel Blanc, Don Messick and Daws Butler as well the new breed like Jim Cummings, Jess Harnell and Billy West. I’ve always been inspired by them and knew that this was what I wanted to do.
Every Star Wars fan knows you as the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Clone Wars and in a lot of video games. How did you get started working for Lucasfilm?
I started about 8 years ago when I auditioned for the mini series of Clone Wars and I was lucky enough to get picked. Collette Sunderman, who was the voice director and a friend of mine thought it was a perfect match. Her words, not mine! (laughs) I had done some voice matching for Ewan McGregor in the past and knew I could hit his voice very well, but I approached it as to match Obi-Wan Kenobi and not worried about doing Ewan as much. It was from this series that I got working at Lucasfilm. They used my voice for the videogames. Revenge of the Sith was in the making at that time so I got to watch so much of the movie before it was released as I had to voice Obi-Wan for the Revenge of the Sith video game. According to the folks at LucasArts it was this that locked me into doing all this and continuing it for Clone Wars.
How do you ‘create’ voices? Do you –in Obi-Wan’s case- study the actor (Ewan McGregor) that originally played the character?
I always study the actors’ voice for voice matching. I’ve studied Ewan’s voice more than anybody but I also studied Alec Guinness. I wanted my Obi-Wan to be a combination of both. I feel I have the ability to do that since I don’t have to look like them but just to sound like them. I try (with Alec Guinness’ voice) “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” and (with Ewan McGregor’s voice) “May the Force be with you” and combine them both so you get (with his own Obi-Wan voice) “My Obi-Wan Kenobi”. The trick is not to do a voice characterization but to being able to step in seamlessly and be the person when they are not available. I’ve had the honor to be Obi-Wan for so many years and have voiced him more than anybody else. Both George Lucas and Dave Filoni said “this is your role now, so take it and do with it as you would”. So, I don’t have to worry about sounding exactly like Ewan or Alec.
Besides Obi-Wan, you are also the voice of Plo Koon, a character that doesn’t speak in the movies. How did you create his voice? Did you get specific directions?
Yes, I did. Dave Filoni pulled me aside at one point and said they were gonna bring in Plo Koon. I didn’t know it was such a favorite of Dave. I learned this in the first recording session. He said he wanted me to think of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings; Ian McKellen. I thought that was a great stepping stone, great direction. That’s where I took it. I started (with Gandalf’s voice) “By thinking of Gandalf, how he would talk and present himself”. Then there’s the wisdom that Dave wanted to hear in the voice. It was great fun because Dave is such a fan of Plo Koon and we were able to get what he was looking for and hopefully what George Lucas and the fans were looking for. Thanks to Matt Wood and his abilities as a sound designer they’ll take Plo Koon and (with Gandalf’s voice) “I start as Gandalf and I’ll read the lines and they’ll pitch it down and put processing on it and it sounds a bit different”. But this is what he sounds when I start.
How do you experience a day working on Clone Wars? Can you describe how such a day goes?
Well certainly. We record at a studio in Los Angeles. Dave will pull all of us in and he’ll give us the rundown for that episode. We don’t get our scripts until 24 hours before the recording session and that is only if we have 10 lines or more. If we have less we’ll get it when we get there and we don’t know what the storyline is about until we step into the booth, so you’re almost cold reading in a sense, but that’s what voice actors are used to. Lucasfilm is very secretive about the scripts and storylines so the messenger the scripts to our homes and the scripts are covered with our names all over them so they can’t go online without anybody knowing whose script it was. S, Dave will run down the script and storyline for the day and tell us different aspects that we need to know for our characters, like what they are dealing with emotionally and the atmosphere that we’re in, what planet we’re on. If there are new characters he’ll tell us about it and who the guest stars are voicing. They’ll show us pictures and things of what is going to happen in the episode and Dave is very descriptive and has such a passion for it so it really brings it to life for us and then we start to record. We record the dialogue and we do it from page one until the end, everything in order. If one of the actors doesn’t happen to be there one of the others will read their lines. Tom Kane is usually in his home studio in Kansas City so one of us might read Yoda or Dave will read it to keep the flow going. We read through the whole thing just like a radio play, or just like you would when you read a book. We’ll record it and do 3-4 takes of each scene and Dave will give us directions. When the recordings are done the artwork will be done. They always have preliminary artwork and storyboards before we do the voices. Now, with the technology they can change the lip-flaps so they match. A lot of times there’s a camera filming us so the artists see how we move, which is helpful to them.
What is your own view on the Clone Wars series? Do you like it? And what is your favorite episode?
I’m in love with the show. I think it’s one of the best shows on television and I’d also say that if I wasn’t in it. There are several actors, friends of mine, seasoned actors, that watch the show religiously with their kids and I think it is due to the storytelling, the art and the love of filmmaking. These are mini-films and what Dave Filoni is doing with his crew and what George Lucas is imparting to all of them in this series and bring a whole new breed of Star Wars lovers into existence is fantastic. I think this show is just a great way of doing that but also giving all of us that are die hard Star Wars fans fro day one back in the 70’s a new chance of experiencing Star Wars in a different way.
My favorite episode…boy, that’s a tough one. I’d have to say I loved the 3 part Mandalorian arc that we had with Obi-Wan and Satine. As far as the work I’ve done for the show I was very proud of this. I also have to say Lightsabre Lost is a favorite as well as Senate Murders. It’s hard to name one particular episode, I enjoy all of them.
You were a kid when the original Star Wars came out. Were you a fan back then and which memories do you have of your first encounter with Star Wars?
The very first time I saw Star Wars was at a drive-in in San José, California and I loved it. I saw it many times after that in the theater in my home town Santa Barbara, California; the Arlington Theatre. This is an amazing Spanish style theater that seats several thousand people. That’s where I grew up, seeing all those films, the great Spielberg and Lucas films. I love all of the Star Wars movies. As I kid I used to play Star Wars with my friends. It wasn’t cops and robbers, it was Star Wars and then Indiana Jones as well. I’m a huge Indy fan but Star Wars was just amazing. I remember seeing it and thinking this is just the coolest thing in the world, or out of this world. This takes us to places we’ve never been. I was a little kid but thought “Wow, if we could live there, if I could do that”. And now, to be a part of this universe and to be so connected with LucasFilm is just a great honor. The thing I love about George Lucas’ work is that he has such a love for film and storytelling, the romance of it all. I don’t mean the mushy romance of the love stories but of film, fantasy, taking you to new worlds. George Lucas has brought us stuff that changed the world.
You have been the voice double for actors like Ewan McGregor, Michael J. Fox, Johnny Depp, Christopher Walken, Nicolas Cage, Christian Bale….the list is endless and full of great actors. As an actor, you were featured in Comic Book: the movie. Have you ever considered an on-screen acting career?
(Starts to say every actor’s name I mentioned ‘in character’ with the right voice and accent)
Voice acting is more of a challenge than most people will ever know. I’d love to see people change their ideas of what voice actors do. When we perform it’s just as much acting as an on-screen actor does. I will be doing some more on-screen acting in the future, but my first love is voice acting. I really do enjoy it. There are so many on-screen actors striving to be voice actors now because they think it’s an easy buck. They find out when they get in the studio it’s not that easy. There’s a lot going on and hopefully we can shine that light on people and let them see that.
Of all the characters you have voiced: which one is your personal favorite? And why?
There are so many characters I had the honor of voicing. Each one is so different from the next that it’s hard to name a favorite. But I would have to say that Obi-Wan is becoming my favorite. He has such a wide arc in his life and he’s a character we get to see a lot. We don’t know much about his young life except the little bits we’ve read but those aren’t from the mind of George Lucas. I’d love to know what he thinks about that. I love doing Obi-Wan, Plo Koon, working in the Star Wars universe, but it’s like children, trying to choose your favorite.
Do you have dreams regarding the future? Is there on specific thing you want to do?
There are many things. I enjoy producing movies and projects. I will probably doing more of that as time goes on. I try to be a realist in my work as a voice actor, performer and actor. I know that I’m not gonna be the young hotshot the rest of my life. I’m 41 and I see where my voice career can go knowing that as you get older your voice changes. (With a low, deep voice) “It gets deeper, bigger”. It changes and I won’t always be able to do (with a high voice) “10 year old voices like Johnny Test”. So I try to be a realist in it and know that I need to plan for the future. I am always planning ahead and always working on different ventures and things from writing scripts and producing films to being involved in stage shows. I have a stage show that I’m putting together, I love entertaining people and hopefully I will always be blessed with the ability to entertain folks and I’m honored to have moments like this to be able to chat about voice acting. I’m honored that you wanted to interview me. Thanks for the great questions, I had fun!
The honor is all mine! Thank you!