Interview: Winnie The Pooh's Tom Kenny

By Eric Eisenberg 2011-07-12 22:50:49discussion comments
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As I mentioned in the feature about my trip to Sony Pictures Animation, I am a voice-actor geek. As a result of watching far too many animated movies and television shows when I was younger, names like Mel Blanc, Paul Winchell, Tress MacNeille, John Kassir, Frank Welker, Hank Azaria, Billy West and Peter Cullen have always stuck with me. Certainly deserving of being included on that list is Tom Kenny, who many might know for voicing Spongebob Squarepants and Wheelie and Skids from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but has other amazing credits including Rockoís Modern Life, Dilbert, The Powerpuff Girls and Dexterís Laboratory. Iíve been a fan of his work for years now and needless to say, it was an incredible experience when I got to interview him a few weeks ago for Winnie The Pooh.

Visiting the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, CA, myself and a group of other reporters had the chance to sit down with Tom Kenny to talk about tackling a character like Rabbit, a character well-known for his short fuse. Check out the interview below in which Kenny talks about getting animated during the recording sessions, which character he most relates to in the Hundred Acre Wood and the number of times he gets asked if he uses voices while in bed with his wife.

Where are you from?

I am from Syracuse, New York. Iíve lived out here for many years, Studio City currently. Yeah, I grew up in Syracuse, started doing stand up in Boston in the eighties, moved to San Francisco and did stand up there through the eighties, wound up here, whenever the LA riots were, thatís when I moved here. Is that í92? I moved here in í92. That was the week I moved in here. The same week that I was carrying furniture through the streets, so was everybody else, you know?

When you were doing stand-up was it like Fred Travalena where you used your voices?

Well, thank you for evoking Fred Travelena. He was one of those guys that was on TV all the time when I was a kid. He was ubiquitous, right? Game shows...I loved him. But no, well I guess my stand up used voices in that I would do characters and things like that. But my ability to do impressions is horrible so, yeah I was never an impressions guy, but I could do mom, I probably got this from my mom, she was able to do spot-on impressions, not of celebrities but you know, of like the lady down the street or the principle nun of the school. My mom was really good at those kind of impressions, I kind of inherited that from her. But in terms of celebrity impressions, hopelessly awful, terrible. But I had found in buying two or three crappy celebrity impressions, I can often come up with a voice that sounds original enough that it books me a voiceover job. Iím Mr. Mashup.

Did you actually make an effort to match previous incarnations of the Rabbit?

You know, I was going to, and then they said no. Before the audition I said Iíd go back, I said, ďThere have been three rabbits, which one should I be paying attention to? Which one are we voice matching?Ē And they said ďNone, itís attitude. Weíre looking for attitude and character, it doesnít have to be dead on voice match.Ē I was like, ďWhew.Ē So yeah, I had it a little easier than Jim, who has to invoke Piglet, sorry I mean Tigger, and Pooh, Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell.

Rabbit is this character that constantly gets frustrated and flustered, how into it do you get when youíre in the recording studio?

Oh, very. That test of like, sitting down, to me feels weird right out. Itís like, what is this thing? Pretty much any recording studio I go in they go, ďOh, itís Tom, lose the chair, and move everything out of his way because heíll knock things over.Ē Everybodyís different. Some guys are able to bring that power, that energy from a sitting position, but I just canít. I tend to flail around a lot, go crazy. I think they had a camera in the booth the whole time, Iím sure Eric Goldberg was looking at the footage, heís always looking at everything. He animated by hand, you know, he was the guy, I was very, very aware of who he is, in fact I think I pestered him at like animation award shows and stuff, ďI love you so much!Ē Heís legendary. Knowing that Rabbitís physical dimension was in his hands was a load off my shoulders. When heís animating, it doesnít really matter what you sound like. Heís going to solve it with his wonderfully expressive drawings.

Did you do any research on rabbits or that particular rabbit? Or did you just...

It was kind of like gorillas of the mist, I kind of lived amongst them, like the Night of the Libra, one of those seventies movies where rabbits take over the world. But you know, I did research actually, just because Iím a very paranoid person. So when I knew that I was going to be reading for Rabbit, even though they said, ďWe donít want to match the voice,Ē I went back to the original trio of shorts, just because I figured that was the purest first, I knew that they were refocusing, rebooting, so to speak, on the franchise, so I just went back to the first stuff and just saw what makes Rabbit tick. For me, itís funny, and I talked to other people who thought this too, when I was a real little kid I thought that Rabbit was a lady. I thought Rabbit was a female character. Like an elderly Rabbit version of Kanga. I donít know why I thought that, but other people go, ďYeah I did too! I didnít realize Rabbit was a dude until I was like ten years old!Ē You know so, itís in the hips. Big child-bearing hips. They breed like rabbits. So I went back and watched those, and then I said, whoís somebody...They wanted him to be a little more likable too, they said heís a little too angry in those old shorts, we want to be able to do two things with him.

We want to get more comedy out of him physically, and Owl as well. I think they figured, if youíre gonna, with characters like Owl and Rabbit that are a little more second tier, you can tweak them a little bit and itís not sacrilegious. You know, obviously Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, theyíre canonical. Youíve got to keep them exactly the way they are. But Owl and Rabbit you can maybe tweak them a little bit and, so thatís what they were looking to do. So I went back and looked at a lot of old Jack Lemmon movies, because thereís a guy whoís persnickety and nervous and orderly, but heís still likable. Heís got his apron on and heís burning the dinner, and heís waiting for the woman he has a blind date with to come over to the apartment, or whatever, that kind of stuff. That was, aside from watching the original three Pooh shorts, that was the stuff that I watched before the initial audition. There was a couple of more callback auditions when they narrowed it down, and nobody was more surprised than me when they said, ďHey, Lasseter picked you.Ē So, knock on wood. Itís nice to be employed. You donít want me waiting on your table. I tried to do that and I just wasnít good at it. Iím not fit for real employment.

Would you describe the character as kind of a straight man?

Rabbit? I guess heís not so much a straight man as he is like a character actor, like the fuss-budget character. It was kind of a nice gig, kind of a nice change, because with something like Spongebob, thatís a character that I was there from the beginning, since before the beginning, since the pre-pitch stage. I felt like that was whole-cloth that I was able to start with and with Rabbit youíre inheriting this whole mantle. It would keep me awake nights, believe me. And you know, what was the question? For me it was kind of nice to be, it was kind of like being Norm or Cliff on Cheers, you know what I mean, itís like, youíve got your thing that you do, you sit at the bar, you do your stuff, the parameters are very much there, and you know, Pooh and Piglet and Tigger do all the heavy lifting, and Eeyore.

Would you describe your personality as being closest to him or which character?

Of the Pooh, of the Hundred Acre Woods characters? Wow, Iím kind of nice and fairly stupid like Pooh. But Iím also hyper active like Rabbit. You know I would say probably more Piglet, I would say, if I had to pick one, Iíd probably be Piglet. Nervous, pink, androgynous, no Iím kidding. But he seems the most hyper of all of the characters. But you know, like Rabbit, now that you mention it, there are certain, I donít like people dropping over unannounced, you know what I mean? Youíre like, ďThis is the weekend I just want to be with my wife and kids.Ē [Knock-Knock-Knock]... ďHey man, we were playing the Game of Life, come on, get out of here.Ē So I guess thereís some Rabbit in me too. But thatís the beauty of these characters, in each of their personalities, the kids, Disney was smart enough in the sixties to take that DNA right from the stories, right from the books. Theyíre really complex. The characters are very complex and unexpectedly so. Because you think of them as being these very simple minded and simple characters, but especially when you read the stories, thereís a lot of stuff between the lines, like heavy stuff going on. When I read it now to my seven year old, Iím like, no wonder kids and adults like these. It works for all ages, you appreciate it on different levels.

Have you been a fan of the books since you were a kid?

Yeah, the books were always a staple in our house. I read them to my younger siblings. Iím sure the voice Iím doing for Rabbit now is probably similar to the one I did when I was a kid reading Rabbit. And I read them to both of my kids, they are thirteen and seven, so the seven-year old is still in that... So theyíve been pretty much a life-long companion. They were always in my house growing up, I bought copies before I had kids just to have because I liked them. And now I read them to my kids.

What do your kids think about you voicing Rabbit?

They have not seen the movie yet but theyíre really excited about it. Iíve seen the movie, I canít wait for my seven year old to see it. And I canít wait for my thirteen year old will like it too. Someone was telling me they did a college screening of it that was through the roof. This college audience went nuts for this Winnie The Pooh movie, I was like, I know. That doesnít really surprise me because, substances aside...ďWeíre talking about Honey, right? Are you on Honey? Pooh, are you on Honey? Look at me.Ē I think when you start college, where you are when you start college, thatís the first time that the world is starting to get a little serious. And I think itís the first time where people get nostalgic for the stuff that gave them that warm fuzzy feeling when they were a kid. Youíre leaving home, youíre living in a place by yourself, that stuff of your childhood suddenly assumes a significance that it didnít have before because youíre moving away from it. I think thatís, obviously thatís the reason why Toy Story has everyone in tears. Itís amazing. And thatís what these guys do, thatís that Disney does. Iím sorry, Iím having a Toy Story 3 flashback where I was sitting next to a guy, it was me and my wife and kids, and I was next to a guy, it was a packed theater, and this big guy with a baseball cap on, and I didnít want him to hear me crying, and then I look over and heís crying too. Itís Wizard of Oz, you know, his mustache is dripping. Itís cool that animation has the power to do that, sometimes more than live action does, I think. Thereís something about the drawings. Thereís something about those characters and the fact that theyíre not humanoid in appearance that, I donít know, in some ways it makes them more evocative or deeper or something. I canít explain it, itís a term paper.

Jim Cummings was telling us that when he goes through the drive through, he likes to play with the voice box.

Does he really? Oh that is so sick. That is so sick. Oh man people would freak out.

Have you ever done that?

I donít know that I have ever done that. I have occasionally, when I read at school or something, when I show up theyíll have me do the school announcements as Spongebob doing the announcements, you just hear kids freaking out all over the school. Thatís the unexpected perks of this job, is that you can go into a school or a kidís hospital or whatever, and this dumb thing that you do actually seems useful for a couple of minutes. He does the drive through, thatís a good idea. Iím amazed at how many people ask me, ďWhen you and your wife are getting intimate, do you ever do voices?Ē ďNo! Oh yeah, all the time. Thatís such a turn on for her. You freak.Ē Itís like God, she would kick me out of her room and lock the door. Ew!

Thank you for telling us that, because...

I knew it was going to be your next question. I saw that question coming

Do you get that question sometimes?

Not just sometimes, all the time. ďHey, can I ask you something man? Youíre married right? When you and your wife...Ē No! Itís amazing how often, itís like, I canít believe how many people are even thinking about this.

Itís interesting.

It is! I know, I know. Thereís so much interesting psychology in play with all of this stuff that keeps you thinking.

So did you start doing voices when you were a kid? Did you ever use it to call your school and excuse yourself or something?

Ha, um, there was a brief period when I was starting to do standup where I was calling comedy club owners as my manager, talking about this young, new, hot client that I had. ďHeís wonderful, heís Tomcat-y, he can do twenty-five minutes that will have you on the floor. You will be laughing.Ē ďOkay, well have him come in.Ē Pre-internet. It was a little easier to pull off those scams before the Internet. But I was doing work that I was willing to do, when I was a little kid, this was the job I wanted. Itís kind of unusual to want to do something when you were a kid, then you actually wind up doing it, and you actually like it. Itís as fun, it doesnít suck, itís as good as you thought it was. You know, like a kid who wants to be an astronaut going, ďHey, I like being in space, this is nice.Ē ďI like fighting fires.Ē Guys like Mel Blanc and Jim Varney, Daws Butler, those guys are always my idols. Itís kind of a weird thing for a kid to be into, until you start doing voice-overs as a profession, and you meet all the other kids that were like you and you realize that they were living the exact same life. They were obsessing over the same stuff. Youíre like, ďWow, I wish I knew you when I was eight, we would have been friends.Ē

Are there similarities between the world of Spongebob and the world of Pooh, in terms of...

I guess thereís a similar maybe knavish, guilelessness to the characters, to the leads. Especially to Pooh and Piglet. Yeah, I guess there is. I mean, Spongebob is more antic, more cranked up and Winnie the Pooh by design has a very different rhythm. Kind of a nice, gently, rolling rhythm. Which isnít to say that itís dull or sleepy, but if Pooh gets to amped up it feels weird. You know what Iím saying? It doesnít feel like Pooh anymore. Iíve gotta say, watching the screening, I was sitting there going, itís kind of nice to be watching a summer movie in a theater where the world doesnít get destroyed. Thereís no cars blowing down the street. Thereís no Armageddon in this movie. Except Eeyore loses his tail, thatís the closest they come to the apocalypse.

I really view what you do as a true art, but in recent years there has been a progression toward using A-list celebrities. Iím curious what you think about that.

What did Jim say? To me itís just an occupational hazard, you know what I mean. Itís one of those things, you canít stop it. It is what it is. Iím sure that there are probably mathematical reasons why it might behoove them to use somebody whoís known from this TV show or something or this movie or whatever. Another voiceover, not Jim, another voiceover guy that I know is always ranting about this. Like, always ranting about it. And I was going, you know, it doesnít matter. At the end of the day, weíre doing two completely different jobs. Calm down. Theyíre job is to be a movie star and to sound as much like themselves as possible. Our job is to be a character actor and a chameleon, and sound as little like ourselves from thing to thing as possible. We have to, between all the projects that we all work on, youíve gotta sound like a bunch of different people. Thatís a skill that they donít have. I know famous people. It looks like a drag to me. Do you want to be famous? I donít. I think weíve got a better gig than them. I donít want their life, in fact I think so many of those people have gone, ďMan I wish I could trade places with you.Ē

That wouldnít be Billy West by any chance, would it?

Yes! [laughs] How did you know that?!

Iíve heard him talk about it before.

He gets so mad about it!

You talked about how animated you are when youíre doing the voiceover.

Yeah, Iím a spaz.

How much of Rabbitís animation can you see from you?

You know, they had the camera going, and Goldberg is a very observant guy, so you know, I guess Iíll have to ask him, but Iím definitely an apoplectic swimmer. I donít know how to do it any other way. Itís like, yeah. Iím the guy, I bust myself all the time, because Iím the guy doing the voiceover and my character is supposed to be on the phone, and Iím always like this. Iím like, ďOh my God, Iím such a crappy actor, I have to actually...this is so embarrassing.Ē
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