"ThunderCats" Star Will Friedle: "It's just the coolest thing in the world"
I admit, I’m totally a geek. I love “Star Wars” (the first three, which are now the last three), I love comic books and comic book movies and especially animated series based on comic books or even action figures…
It all started with the “Wonder Woman” TV series and “Super Friends” when I was a little girl. That morphed into “G.I.Joe” and “ThunderCats” when I got a little older and then “Batman: The Animated Series,” “WildC.A.T.S,” “X-Men,” “Batman Beyond” and now the DC Universe animated movies.
So, it’s no surprise that I love talking about those things. But I never dreamed I’d get to talk about them with someone who’s actually been a part of some of them…
Yet, there I was, talking cartoons, “Star Wars” and much more with Will Friedle, who gave voice to Batman/Terry McGinnis in “Batman Beyond.” He’s currently the voice of Lion-O in the Cartoon Network’s update of ThunderCats, which premieres Friday, July 29th at 8 p.m.
Here’s the transcript of our conversation as we talked about “ThunderCats,” giving voice to the ThunderCat call (“Thunder, Thunder, ThunderCats, ho!”), why we won’t see him on camera again and the wonderful creepiness of one of my all-time favorite animated movies, “Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker.” Plus, Will interviewed me a little about what I thought about the new show…
Tell me how you got involved in “ThunderCats.”
I always say luck. Every time I get to do a show like this, I always attribute it to luck. Luck and friends, I think I would say. I’ve been lucky in that I was able to work with these producers before on a number of other shows and the director Andrea Romano for many, many years. But then like everything else, like every other actor, I had to go and audition. I mean, they don’t just give you anything, no matter how friendly you are. You’ve got to go and you’ve got to earn it. And I originally read for the role of Tygra and started there and found out four or five days later that in fact, I was going to be playing Lion-O and I was just ecstatic.
It was so cool. I mean, I try to keep it cool. [In laidback voice] Yeah, I’m playing Lion-O. But man, inside I’m just jumping up and down.
So I’m going to presume that means you were a fan, or are a fan, of the original.
Was and am. Yes, huge. I was eight years old when “ThunderCats” came out. So I was exactly the demographic for this show and I would run home and watch this as often as I could and it was the coolest thing in the world. I think one of my first crushes ever was on Cheetara. So the idea that I got a chance to then do the new version of the show was...I still don’t really believe it. It’s funny, Matthew Mercer, who plays Tygra, occasionally whether it’s after the ThunderCats call or some other cool ThunderCats line, we’ll both look at each other and again, it’s like we’re both nine years old and kind of going, “Can you believe we’re actually doing this? Like, this is the coolest thing in the world.” So yeah, we’re pretty excited.
I watched the first two episodes of the show and I was a fan of the original, I admit. You mentioned the call, that’s the moment you’re waiting for. Like the whole hour, you’re like, “Would he just pick up the sword and do it already!”
Actually, the very first time I did it was during rehearsal and I stopped before I did it. We were reading the lines, you know, you read it like a straight radio play so all the actors are in the room. Everybody’s reading their dialogue and I think by about the second line of the page, I was looking down at the bottom and I realized it was coming. And I started getting nervous and by the time it was there, I stopped. And the whole room was quiet and I looked up at Andrea and I said, “I don’t know if I can do it.” And then Kevin Michael Richardson, who plays Panthro, grabbed me and started shaking me back and forth yelling, “I want to hear it! I want to hear it!” So, I’m shaking back and forth the very first time that I actually did it. But, yeah, it was, when we actually got a chance to record, I was a little more relaxed and I was able to give it a little more voice. I think I had a smile just etched on my face the next day and a half knowing that I had an opportunity to do that.
Well it was awesome…
Thanks, now you said you were a fan of the original show. So what did you, did you like the first pilot? Do you like the hourlong episode?
I do. You mentioned Cheetara. As a girl you relate to the girl heroes. And I always thought she was such a wimp in the original. And I always hated that.
Oh yeah. Not any more.
Yes, in this one it was like finally, we get to see her kick butt and take names.
Oh, and it’s just starting too. Wait until you see some of the stuff that’s coming down. It’s awesome. She’s awesome. It’s very cool.
I’m glad you liked it, though. I like to hear from the original fans whether this is something they really enjoyed or not. So I’m glad that you enjoyed it.
Well it’s a great update. The spirit is the same, but obviously the storyline and the origin are taking a different take. And I think that’s good.
I think so too. We also, you know, I’m a huge fan of fantasy. That’s pretty much all I read. So I love the idea that they’ve gone almost the high fantasy route with the kings and the queens. I love that kind of stuff. So, very excited for a lot of the stories coming up.
You’re so familiar with this world, you know how it is. You know there are people out there going, “Why are they doing this? Why are they screwing this up?” What would you say to the original fans to kind of put them at ease?
The first thing I would say was give it a shot. Because there’s a lot of people out there that are saying…which is how I was for instance when I heard they were remaking “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It was that initial, what are you kidding me? I’m never going to watch this. What were you thinking? And then after about a month my friends were like just sit down and watch it. And I watched it and I went okay. They went a completely different route. It was very entertaining. I could separate it from the original. So that’s the first thing I would say would be give it a chance and watch the show. If you were a fan of the original show, just sit down and watch it and then make your judgment. Because I think we’ve kept, like you said, to the spirit of the original show. I think we’ve maybe improved on the story arc a little bit, a little bit of the backstory and you get to delve a little deeper into the characters. And I think that’s really what it comes down to. I was such a huge fan of the show, the original show, and such a huge fan of the original characters, that to me, as a fan, getting to read these scripts and seeing some of the backstory and creating some of the stuff that maybe we didn’t know before I find very exciting. So I think the fans of the original will feel the same way. So they can kind of say, “Okay, I see what they’re doing, they’ve gone a little bit of a different route, but all the characters are there, they’ve kept the characters with essentially the same personalities they should have. They’ve just amped them up a little bit and I think fans are going to be happy. We also understand that there are going to be purists and you can’t possibly please everybody, but I think we’ve really tried. And I do believe that as a fan of the show, I could watch the show even if I wasn’t involved and go, “Hey, wow, this is pretty darn good.” So, yeah, I’m excited to see what the people will say. I know some people are hesitant but I think once the show airs and people really get into the story, they’re going to be pretty excited.
Now you’ve been down this road before with “Batman Beyond” because there was this same kind of talk of what are they doing and what is this new character and that obviously went very well. Were there some lessons that you learned from that experience that are helping you with this one?
The lessons that I really learned from “Batman Beyond” were about myself as a voice actor. That was the first show that I had ever really done. And talk about trial by fire. It’s like, “Oh, you’ve never done an animated series before. Well, now you’re Batman.” So it was kind of one of those oh man, wow. And I was so lucky to have people like Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill and these other really wonderful actors around me. Kevin Conroy, who of course, is Bruce Wayne and was Batman in the original animated series, has that amazing deep bass gravely voice. He kind of took me under his wing in the voiceover world. And it’s little things, the diaphragm and the breathing and stuff like that. From “Batman Beyond,” I really learned more about how to be a voiceover actor than anything else.
As for the show, you can just never tell. You do some shows that you’re sure are going to be huge hits that nobody likes and other shows where you’re like I don’t really know about this one and they become enormous. So you never know. When we did “Batman Beyond,” I loved doing “Batman Beyond,” I loved the story, I loved playing the character and that’s how I feel about “ThunderCats” and that’s really all I have to go off of is the fact that I’m having a blast and I know the rest of the cast is having an amazing time. We love the scripts. We’re constantly sitting there talking and it’s one of the first shows I’ve ever been on where when we’re not recording, the actors we’re texting each other, we’re e-mailing each other. “Hey what do you think of this?” That’s kind of a new experience for me in an animated series where we’re even when the show’s not going on talking about the project all the time. And I think that bodes well. I think that’s a good sign for things to come, so yeah, we’re all very excited at this point.
So, is there some kind of frame of mind or process that you do before you head in there and start recording?
Not really. You obviously want to have read the script and gone through your lines and tried to see the tone because again with something like “ThunderCats,” the tone will change occasionally from episode to episode, whether it’s an episode that is a darker type of episode that leads into the arc or like the original episode where there’s occasionally an episode or two that are a bit lighter and a bit more kind of 80s “ThunderCats.” So you really kind of have to set the tone the night before when you’re reading the script and knowing what you’re getting in for and then it’s just everybody getting in and playing. And Andrea Romano’s great with that. We go in and we read the whole script back to front in just a readthrough so everybody gets to know what’s going on, everybody gets to know the tone. And then we just jump right into it. It’s more the process of getting prepared to actually record than it is getting into character or anything along those lines.
I know you can’t say much, because there were a lot of twists and turns just in the first hour. But, give me a little teaser about what people are going to get.
[Laughs] A little teaser. Let’s see. What can I throw out that won’t get me in trouble? You know, it’s one of those things where there’s going to be some very cool backstories that you get to learn about. Some old characters that people were sure weren’t coming back may be, and there’s again a lot of, like you said, there’s twists and turns in the first couple episodes, just wait to see what’s happening. It’s twists and turns all over the place and it becomes pretty cool. So I think everybody’s excited. Again, I don’t want to give too much away. But I think, it’s one of those things where legitimately the scripts kept getting even better and better and better. To the point that when we recorded the last one of the first season, it was stunned silence when we finished. It was one of those kind of like, man, that’s awesome. So we’re pretty excited to see everything come down when the animation gets back.
I would compare the end of the first hour to an “Empire Strikes Back” situation where the heroes are like oh, what do we do now? We’re going to get together and we’re going to…
Right, exactly. It has the bit of the “Star Wars” at the beginning with the young kid trying to find himself into “The Empire Strikes Back.” And we’ll just skip “Jedi” and the other three movies. [Laughs]
Did I just reveal my geekiness to you? I’m sorry.
Are you kidding? I could talk about this stuff forever. [Laughs]
What are the kinds of movies and books and characters that you’re really into right now?
It’s one of those things where I love reading. You talk about geekiness, if I had a hobby it would be reading. I know that sounds odd…
No, I’m right there with you, so it’s okay.
So good. So yeah, I try to read everything fantasy I can get my hands on. And I’ve gone through, you name it, I’ve gone through it. Whether it’s Terry Goodkind or Robert Jordan or David Eddings. I actually just read a great series by a woman out of Washington named Robin Hobb, who wrote a series called “The Assassin’s Apprentice,” which was really, really good. So, yeah, that type of high fantasy I enjoy. David Eddings called it building the world and I love to think of a writer sitting there with a blank piece of paper and completely building a world of his or her own whether it be the caste system or the magic system, whatever they have to do they have to start from the beginning. And I love that. I’m always drawn to that kind of thing. And that’s one of the reasons why I love this iteration of “ThunderCats” so much. That’s really what they did. They took these amazing characters and took the world that was already built and just kind of added a little bit more structure to it, which I think really brought it into kind of the high fantasy world, which you know, had me at page one. So, I was very excited to be a part of this.
You’ve carved out such a great voice career for yourself. Are there any projects coming up where we’ll see you in front of the camera again or do you really just enjoy the voicework now?
No, I hit 30 and I retired. I’d done it for 20 years and I came to the realization I just, I couldn’t do it anymore. On camera is a much different world and it was one that I enjoyed. I thoroughly enjoyed for a while, but I hit a certain age and said, “You know what, I don’t think I can do this anymore.” And I was so lucky in my voiceover career that I was really able to continue to do that which was, it became…It was one of those things where I had never done voiceover before and then I started “Batman Beyond” and about minute two I was hooked. It’s just the greatest job in the world. You are working with the most wonderful people in the world. It’s such an interesting form of acting. It’s just you and a microphone and they had me. By that point, it was one of those things where I said, hey, if they’ll allow me to continue to do this then this is what I want to do forever. So, I’ve been very excited. And then when you get to smile and say, by the way, I’m Lion-O, it’s like come on. It’s just the coolest thing in the world. Any time you can look at your nephew and say I’m Batman and Lion-O and not be lying, that’s pretty cool [Laughs]
Well, if I can share one more geeky thing with you, I still think that “Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker” is one of the creepiest and coolest animated movies ever made. That was a great piece of work that I don’t think got the recognition that it deserved.
Well thank you. Yeah, that was one of four or five days of solid recording. We just had so much fun. I was literally sitting between Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill so it was kind of one of those looking around left to right going um, one of these people doesn’t seem to belong here and I think it’s me. So, what the heck is going on? And we had a great time and I agree. I think that’s a phenomenal movie.
Well I mistakenly watched it alone in the dark the first time I saw it. I think I was creeped about for about three days. Just that moment when [SPOILER OMMITTED]...
Now did you watch the unrated version?
No. I have it. I figured sometime in the daylight I’m going to watch it.
You should because if you were creeped out by the original, wait until you see the flashback scene of the one that’s unedited. That one is pretty intense.
Okay, sometime when my husband’s here…
Yeah, that is a lights on situation. Not a by yourself in the dark situation. [Laughs]
You can see more of my thoughts on "ThunderCats" in tomorrow's "Stay Tuned" column in "The Herald-Dispatch.
Photo Credits: Cartoon Network and Warner Home Video