Interview: Winnie The Pooh's Tom Kenny
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 Rocko’s Modern Life, Dilbert, The Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Laboratory. I’ve 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. I’ve 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, that’s when I moved here. Is that ’92? I moved here in ’92. 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 like...my 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. I’m 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 I’d go back, I said, “There have been three rabbits, which one should I be paying attention to? Which one are we voice matching?” And they said “None, it’s attitude. We’re looking for attitude and character, it doesn’t have to be dead on voice match.” I was like, “Whew.” 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 you’re in the recording studio?
Oh, very. That test of like, sitting down, to me feels weird right out. It’s like, what is this thing? Pretty much any recording studio I go in they go, “Oh, it’s Tom, lose the chair, and move everything out of his way because he’ll knock things over.” Everybody’s different. Some guys are able to bring that power, that energy from a sitting position, but I just can’t. I tend to flail around a lot, go crazy. I think they had a camera in the booth the whole time, I’m sure Eric Goldberg was looking at the footage, he’s 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, “I love you so much!” He’s legendary. Knowing that Rabbit’s physical dimension was in his hands was a load off my shoulders. When he’s animating, it doesn’t really matter what you sound like. He’s 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 I’m a very paranoid person. So when I knew that I was going to be reading for Rabbit, even though they said, “We don’t want to match the voice,” 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, it’s 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 don’t know why I thought that, but other people go, “Yeah I did too! I didn’t realize Rabbit was a dude until I was like ten years old!” You know so, it’s in the hips. Big child-bearing hips. They breed like rabbits. So I went back and watched those, and then I said, who’s somebody...They wanted him to be a little more likable too, they said he’s 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 you’re gonna, with characters like Owl and Rabbit that are a little more second tier, you can tweak them a little bit and it’s not sacrilegious. You know, obviously Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, they’re canonical. You’ve got to keep them exactly the way they are. But Owl and Rabbit you can maybe tweak them a little bit and, so that’s what they were looking to do. So I went back and looked at a lot of old Jack Lemmon movies, because there’s a guy who’s persnickety and nervous and orderly, but he’s still likable. He’s got his apron on and he’s burning the dinner, and he’s 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, “Hey, Lasseter picked you.” So, knock on wood. It’s nice to be employed. You don’t want me waiting on your table. I tried to do that and I just wasn’t good at it. I’m not fit for real employment.
Would you describe the character as kind of a straight man?
Rabbit? I guess he’s 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, that’s 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 you’re 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, it’s like, you’ve 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, I’m kind of nice and fairly stupid like Pooh. But I’m also hyper active like Rabbit. You know I would say probably more Piglet, I would say, if I had to pick one, I’d probably be Piglet. Nervous, pink, androgynous, no I’m 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 don’t like people dropping over unannounced, you know what I mean? You’re like, “This is the weekend I just want to be with my wife and kids.” [Knock-Knock-Knock]... “Hey man, we were playing the Game of Life, come on, get out of here.” So I guess there’s some Rabbit in me too. But that’s 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. They’re 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, there’s a lot of stuff between the lines, like heavy stuff going on. When I read it now to my seven year old, I’m 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. I’m sure the voice I’m 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 they’ve 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 they’re really excited about it. I’ve seen the movie, I can’t wait for my seven year old to see it. And I can’t 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 doesn’t really surprise me because, substances aside...“We’re talking about Honey, right? Are you on Honey? Pooh, are you on Honey? Look at me.” I think when you start college, where you are when you start college, that’s the first time that the world is starting to get a little serious. And I think it’s the first time where people get nostalgic for the stuff that gave them that warm fuzzy feeling when they were a kid. You’re leaving home, you’re living in a place by yourself, that stuff of your childhood suddenly assumes a significance that it didn’t have before because you’re moving away from it. I think that’s, obviously that’s the reason why Toy Story has everyone in tears. It’s amazing. And that’s what these guys do, that’s that Disney does. I’m sorry, I’m 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 didn’t want him to hear me crying, and then I look over and he’s crying too. It’s Wizard of Oz, you know, his mustache is dripping. It’s cool that animation has the power to do that, sometimes more than live action does, I think. There’s something about the drawings. There’s something about those characters and the fact that they’re not humanoid in appearance that, I don’t know, in some ways it makes them more evocative or deeper or something. I can’t explain it, it’s 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 don’t know that I have ever done that. I have occasionally, when I read at school or something, when I show up they’ll have me do the school announcements as Spongebob doing the announcements, you just hear kids freaking out all over the school. That’s the unexpected perks of this job, is that you can go into a school or a kid’s hospital or whatever, and this dumb thing that you do actually seems useful for a couple of minutes. He does the drive through, that’s a good idea. I’m amazed at how many people ask me, “When you and your wife are getting intimate, do you ever do voices?” “No! Oh yeah, all the time. That’s such a turn on for her. You freak.” It’s 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. “Hey, can I ask you something man? You’re married right? When you and your wife...” No! It’s amazing how often, it’s like, I can’t believe how many people are even thinking about this.
It is! I know, I know. There’s 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. “He’s wonderful, he’s Tomcat-y, he can do twenty-five minutes that will have you on the floor. You will be laughing.” “Okay, well have him come in.” 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. It’s 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. It’s as fun, it doesn’t suck, it’s as good as you thought it was. You know, like a kid who wants to be an astronaut going, “Hey, I like being in space, this is nice.” “I like fighting fires.” Guys like Mel Blanc and Jim Varney, Daws Butler, those guys are always my idols. It’s 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. You’re like, “Wow, I wish I knew you when I was eight, we would have been friends.”
Are there similarities between the world of Spongebob and the world of Pooh, in terms of...
I guess there’s 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 isn’t to say that it’s dull or sleepy, but if Pooh gets to amped up it feels weird. You know what I’m saying? It doesn’t feel like Pooh anymore. I’ve gotta say, watching the screening, I was sitting there going, it’s kind of nice to be watching a summer movie in a theater where the world doesn’t get destroyed. There’s no cars blowing down the street. There’s no Armageddon in this movie. Except Eeyore loses his tail, that’s 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. I’m curious what you think about that.
What did Jim say? To me it’s just an occupational hazard, you know what I mean. It’s one of those things, you can’t stop it. It is what it is. I’m sure that there are probably mathematical reasons why it might behoove them to use somebody who’s 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 doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, we’re doing two completely different jobs. Calm down. They’re 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, you’ve gotta sound like a bunch of different people. That’s a skill that they don’t have. I know famous people. It looks like a drag to me. Do you want to be famous? I don’t. I think we’ve got a better gig than them. I don’t want their life, in fact I think so many of those people have gone, “Man I wish I could trade places with you.”
That wouldn’t be Billy West by any chance, would it?
Yes! [laughs] How did you know that?!
I’ve heard him talk about it before.
He gets so mad about it!
You talked about how animated you are when you’re doing the voiceover.
Yeah, I’m a spaz.
How much of Rabbit’s 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 I’ll have to ask him, but I’m definitely an apoplectic swimmer. I don’t know how to do it any other way. It’s like, yeah. I’m the guy, I bust myself all the time, because I’m the guy doing the voiceover and my character is supposed to be on the phone, and I’m always like this. I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m such a crappy actor, I have to actually...this is so embarrassing.”
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