It’s impossible for longtime DC Comics animation fans not to hear Clancy Brown’s voice when reading Lex Luthor’s dialogue. A veteran of the DC Animated Universe, Brown is best known as the voice of Superman’s arch-nemesis, though he has had many, many other memorable roles, including Mr. Krabs in the long-running “SpongeBob Squarepants” cartoon; Red Hulk in “Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.”; Meacham in “Cowboys & Aliens”; Captain Hadley in “The Shawshank Redemption”; Brother Justin Crowe in “CarnivÃ le” and more — not to mention his involvement in future projects like “Warcraft” and the animated adaptation of Eric Powell’s “The Goon.”
This March, Brown adds the dark superhero film “Sparks” to his lengthy resume. Based on Christopher Folino and J.M. Ringuet’s Catastrophic Comics series of the same name, “Sparks” follows the journey of potential hero Ian Sparks in 1948 for a neo-noir thriller look at heroes and superpowers. It’s a darker take on the traditional hero story, filled with murder, intrigue and the fall of the hero. Brown’s character, Archer, is an ex-police officer with major ties to Ian Sparks and the death of his parents — even saving the young hero’s life in a dire situation. But, much like many of the characters Brown portrays, there is far more to Archer than initially meets the eye.
CBR News spoke with the Hollywood veteran about his role in “Sparks” and what drew him to work on the neo-noir superhero film, the “Watchmen”-esque quality to the script and more. Plus, he expounds on the truth behind the “Cowboys & Aliens” film, updates fans on “The Goon” animated series, teases the potential of “Warcraft” as a film franchise and gives his opinion on the recent casting of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.
CBR News: Clancy, you’ve voiced characters in the DC Universe for years, as well as takeing on roles in Marvel animation. What was it like for you to finally suit up in your own super-costume as Archer in “Sparks”?
Clancy Brown: That was a weird costume. [Laughs] It was a very strange costume, it was that noir-ish, weird anti-costume. It’s one of the reasons I like “Sparks.” It was an anti-superhero movie.
That noir-ish genre is one you’ve worked in before — what was the experience like playing in that genre, but with the added wrinkle of superpowers?
I liked the whole comment that it was making; that these things come at a price, and even though there’s superpowers, they’re more like gifts that we can choose to use one way or another. We have characters that use them poorly or wrongly, and we have characters that don’t know they have [powers], and perhaps some of them aren’t exactly the kinds of things you’d necessarily want. I don’t know exactly how to put it, I just like the subversive nature of it all — that anti-glitz, anti-glamour take on it. It had a “Watchmen” feel to it that I appreciated without it being overblown like “Watchmen” was.
Is that what initially drew you to the movie and to the role?
Yeah, it is. When you do these voices, these characters — either they’re bad guys or they’re good guys. You’re playing into a well-established genre — the big voice bad guy or the big voice good guy. They’re all either virtuous or they’re not virtuous, they’re sinful. It’s very black and white. I like the idea that it’s grey, and that superpowers aren’t your typical superpowers. It’s not you can fly or you’re strong or you’re a god or you can grow tall — all the stuff that comes along.
It’s why I also like voicing the Red Hulk in “Agents of S.M.A.S.H.” It’s a much friendlier situation, but that Hulk is one of those deeper characters, one of those more complex characters, who became that way under questionable motive. Even though we don’t get into it too much, he’s very flawed. [“Sparks”] is a very adult, more adult take on that, I think.
Definitely. Your final scene in the movie is actually pretty gruesome — when you read that scene and you found out you would have to act like your fingers were getting severed, what was it like to play that scene?
[Laughs] It was fun to do that scene with David Sobolov (Driver), one of the premiere voice-over guys, because we’re always just making big voices behind a mic together and this was a time that we actually got to actually really play a scene. In a voiceover booth, there’s great freedom because you don’t actually do the things that are described in the script. You just kind of auditorially command and create them, try to bring them to life that way. There’s a heightened sense of your performance because it’s a lot easier physically — you put all your energy into the voice. Then, all of a sudden, here we are on the camera and you have to do the whole schmear. We really push the scene to the whole limit — he really put my fingers in his mouth and stuff, which I would never do. [Laughs] It’s a good thing that he played that role, because I wouldn’t put another actor’s fingers in my mouth if I could afford not to. We were just having fun, and we were laughing.
Then, Chase [Williamson] gets to throw water on me, which he had a good time doing, I think.
How many times did you have to get water thrown on you before they got the shot?
Oh, gosh. It was the day to get even with Clancy Brown, so they just did it as many times as they felt like doing it. I finally got up after maybe the dozenth time and said, “I think you got this!” [Laughs]
This isn’t the first comic book-based property you’ve lent your skill to. You starred in “Cowboys & Aliens” and you’re voicing The Goon in the upcoming animated adaptation of Eric Powell’s series of the same name. Why are you continually attracted to roles in the comic book realm?
That’s more a function of the industry as a whole — people stand up and take notice when there’s some kind of graphic novel involved.
“Cowboys & Aliens” was a completely manufactured myth of a comic book. They went in and sold the idea of “Cowboys & Aliens” based on a one-sheet of what they thought the cover of a comic book might be, then sold it as a movie, then created as a comic book. They backed in to the comic book part of it. The book itself isn’t actually very good. It’s worse than the movie.
I did another one like that — “Hellbenders” was an idea that J.T. Petty had, and he wrote it as a script. One of the producers got the idea to pitch it around as a comic book. As soon as something is a graphic novel or a comic book or has another life in a another medium, people sit up and take notice and are more willing to write the check.
I don’t know why that is — well, I think it’s obvious why that is: Because the traditional properties like Superman and Batman and the Marvel characters — Spider-Man and so on — they’re all money machines. So, people are trying to create that. The only ones that really came out of a graphic novel that I know of are “Watchmen” and “Walking Dead.” Everything is being optioned now to be turned into franchises because of the success of “Walking Dead” and a few that have made the transition. Mostly, people walk into a room and pitch a movie — and the first question if they don’t say it in the original pitch is, “Is this a graphic novel or comic?” and of course you say, “Yes.”
That’s really a function of the fact that everyone works off of storyboards these days. If you’re going to draw a storyboard, you might as well draw the comic book.
True, but you were a part of comic book roles since before it started getting big in Hollywood.
Well, the only one I can think of is “Superman.” Yeah, I liked “Superman.” I liked that iteration of the animated Superman. I was more familiar with that than I was with the whole volume of comic books of Superman. I had a few of them growing up, but I wasn’t a collector or anything. Bruce Timm created this great deco world that I thought was really compelling and beautiful.
“SpongeBob” wasn’t a comic book. Turning it into a comic was an ancillary thing from the cartoon series. I’m trying to think what else I’d done before then — “Buckaroo Banzai,” they had created a comic book secondarily to that, which was pretty good, I think. But it didn’t last very long.
Comic books, when I started out, they were a secondary merchandise that they would license out and do. I was trying for a long time to get HBO to do a “CarnivÃ le” graphic novel, like a really classic graphic novel, but they didn’t want anything to do with that. This was a previous administration there that didn’t see the value of stuff like that.
Has it been weird for you, then, to see this shift in the industry where comic books have become the primary starters for Hollywood rather than an ancillary product?
It makes sense, I think, because of the advent of storyboards and stuff like that. You can really test out a vision by putting the books out. I think there are too many books now, so a lot of the really good stuff gets lost. There’s some great books, too — some great art and everything that goes out from there. It’s all of one piece, it just all fits together really well, and I think they’re beginning to understand that at the higher levels.
But then you have ridiculous situations like “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Hellbenders,” where you pitch it saying it’s a comic book — like with “Cowboys & Aliens” — as soon as you sell the movie idea, then you write the comic book and the comic book ends up sucking. [Laughs] If you have the vision originally as a movie, then that should be the thing that defines the next iteration of it. If it’s a book first, that should tell you how the movie works. If it’s a movie first, that should tell you how the book should look.
Are you reading any comics right now? Any series that you’re keeping up with?
The most recent one I’ve gotten turned on to is “Axe Cop,” which I think is really just crazy and wonderful. There you go — that’s a book, originally — or a flight of fancy originally that got turned into a book. The development of that is really organic and very pure. I like the look of the “Pathfinder” book a lot better than I like the movie, because the movie was a real disappointment to me — but the book was right. The book got it absolutely right, but the movie did not.
When you have a confused initial vision, you can refine it through the other markets, through the other media, but you can never go back to the original one, I think. That’s why Superman and Spider-Man and Batman and all the Marvel/DC properties — those visions are so clear, because they’ve been developed over decades. It gets a little dicey when it’s a brand new vision and somebody wants to make a movie, but thinks they also have to make a comic book — it’s much better coming at one angle and then expanding on it instead of trying to do everything all at once.
Staying on the track of that singular vision, I actually remember covering “Sparks” as a comic when they were talking about publishing in 2008, so it’s been a long journey to the movie. How do you feel about “Sparks” having that singular vision you discussed? Do you think it was focused enough for the film?
I do. I think we could have had more money, and that would have helped a lot. I think it was originally pitched as a movie with William Katt, and then Katt said, “Let’s write a book.” It switched, and that became their focus. But they didn’t have enough money to just throw at it, so they did it as a development tool, I think eventually for the film, but with a real eye to making it all work together. And that can happen, that can definitely happen. I think “Sparks” does make it happen. If he had only had about three million more dollars, or four or five million more dollars, it would have been really good. I think it’s pretty damn good the way it is, to be honest — but that way, you can go in and make Chase look like Sparks, or make Sparks look like Chase, however you want to do it.
I want to touch on your time playing Lex Luthor. Interestingly, you have played Lex Luthor longer than any other actor to fill the role. It’s a pretty impressive feat. What about that character keeps you coming back to him?
He just translates so well through the years. He fits really well in the ’50s and he fits really well in the ’60s — he’s just an American icon, I think, in the same way that Superman is an American icon. But they’re different sides of the same coin. As our society evolves, the characters evolve.
I’m dying to see the new one. I think Jesse Eisenberg is a great choice. I think he’s a really sharp choice, and I know a lot of people don’t agree with that, but I think he could be spectacular. I liked [Michael] Rosebaum’s take on it, but that was kind of a WB show. But I just love the idea that the Facebook guy is Lex Luthor. That’s just perfect. [Laughs]
What do you think it is about Eisenberg that you think makes him such a good fit for the role?
Well, he’s a pretty specific actor. He’s not a chameleon like [Gene] Hackman or [Kevin] Spacey. He has a similar smugness the way that Spacey does — that highly-intelligent, super-smug, almost effeminate kind of smugness about him — but he’s way more current. I just watched “Now You See Me,” which I thought he was terrific in. He has a really specific persona engrained that is super-smart. You don’t necessarily like him, but you don’t dislike him. You don’t necessarily think he’s a good, fun guy — you see him as a real quirky, weird dude. You don’t completely trust him, although he’s kind of adorable in his nerdy way.
I think Lex has that. Lex is attractive in all the things that shouldn’t be attractive — or aren’t traditionally attractive in comic books — his intelligence and his ambition and his ego and all the rest of that. Jesse carries that really well. Plus, I hear he’s a really nice guy, which helps. It’s why I think it shines through, why his attractiveness shines through, because deep down he’s a good guy. But he also has this kind of intellectual persona that’s unsettling. It’s almost reptilian, which is something I think Lex carries with him.
You’re also attached to the animated version of “The Goon.” We haven’t heard a lot about it since the success of the Kickstarter test reel. Are there any developments? Have you been in the booth at all?
No, I haven’t been in the booth. I haven’t heard anything about it either. I know Paul [Giamatti] got into some trouble because he said it was dead. I don’t think it’s dead, but those guys are really busy. At some point, I’m sure it’ll get going again. I think Blur Studios wants a certain amount of commitment and it’s a hard sell for a big theatrical release. I was really heartened by the news that “American Gods” got picked up to be turned into a series, which I think is the perfect place for that, the perfect way to bring that to life. I didn’t think PlayTone and HBO were the right place for it, but I think these guys — FremantleMedia — from what I’ve heard, it’s the right place for it.
When I read it, I thought it would be a great noir-y web series where you basically just film the book. But there was no format for that, really. I think they’ve got a better idea about it. That’s the kind of thing that can happen now, I think, with “Goon.” It’s not for kids, it can be on at primetime, or it can be on a channel that kids don’t necessarily watch and it can have a following. It can be on an adult animation block. But it does need the dough. Blur doesn’t do anything halfway, they need to do it the right way. It’s always a matter of money — and maybe availability where Paul’s concerned — I’m available. I’m ready to do it whenever they want to do it. I think it would be a blast.
One of the other projects you’re attached to is Legendary Pictures’ “Warcraft” movie. I know you worked on that franchise in the past with voiceover work. What kind of potential do you see in “Warcraft” as a franchise?
Well, I was doing it before Blizzard was trying to leverage that. It was before the MMO idea popped into life, and that was fairly early in the life of it. At the time, it didn’t seem like it was early. It seemed like a highly successful video game and the next thing to do was to make an RPG of it and tell a story and all the rest of that. They shelved it [“Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans”], I don’t know why. I like to blame myself, that I sucked. But I think this MMO thing was brewing in someone’s head and that was clearly the way to go.
Yeah, it’s got great potential. My son is a huge “Lord of the Rings” fan and “Hobbit” fan. He doesn’t know anything about “World of Warcraft.” I won’t let him sign on, he’s too young. He was saying, “So, there’s Orcs and there’s Humans — is this ‘Lord of the Rings?'” And I said, “You know, that’s probably its pedigree, its inspiration, but it’s really a very different universe.” But it’s just as interesting, it’s just as compelling and far more complex. I think if Duncan [Jones, the director] can create the hook, the entryway into that universe that isn’t too “Lord of the Rings”-y, but is just as artful as the film “Lord of the Rings” was and is consistent and compelling and sticks with the mythology that everyone can get behind as definitive, I think we might be on to something here. I think it could go for a long time. It could be something like “Star Wars,” although nothing is like “Star Wars.” But it could have that kind of broad appeal.
“Star Wars” is amazing, the demographic of it, and the range of platforms that it’s on and the breadth. It all sort of hangs together. If he can decide which characters are the Luke and Leia and Darth Vader — if he can define that core group, I think he might be on to something. It’s a great world.
It’s all very super secret, very hush-hush. Because if we talk about it, the terrorists win. I don’t even think the NSA knows about it.
What else is on the horizon for you?
Well, I’m really excited to see how “Sparks” is received. It’s one of those things that has great potential, and I love Chris. I think Chris is a great guy, and I’m a huge fan of Chase. I think Chase is one of those actors that if he keeps his head on straight could be huge. Ashley [Bell] is already huge. Marina [Squerciati] is already on a TV show, so she’s already leveraged her thing into “Chicago P.D.” with my friend Jason Beghe. Everything’s rolling in the right directions for “Sparks.”
“The SpongeBob Movie 2” is going to come out at some point — again, if I said anything that I knew, which isn’t much, the terrorists would win again. I can’t believe how much the future of the free world hinges on my silence regarding these products.
It’s true. When I think defender of American freedom, I think Clancy Brown.
[Laughs] There you go.
The “Hulk” series is pretty fun. I’m doing another episode of that this weekend. I love the new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” That’s almost too adult for the demographic they’re shooting for. It’s getting more and more dark and subversive and funny. That’s exciting as well.
There are no films right now. I’ve had to turn films away because this “Warcraft” thing is keeping me tied up until May or so.
Animation seems to have taken a much more mature tone in recent years — do you think animated series have started to shift to match its audience growing older?
Oh, yeah, don’t you think so? Look at “The Batman,” look at “Star Wars” — holy shit, “Clone Wars” was just a silly kids show for a while and then it became this wild Greek tragedy that was so involved. The stuff can get really sophisticated without being foul or too violent, but where “Clone Wars” was going was really exciting until Disney took over. I don’t know how the new [series] is going to turn out because they’ve kind of banned everybody that was involved in the previous iteration from participating.
I think audiences realize the potential of [animation] more. There’s no limits to it. All the big movies are basically cartoons — “Avatar” was basically a cartoon. I saw one the other day, “The LEGO Movie” — it’s totally a cartoon, totally subversive. My son loved it. He got all the right messages out of it he was supposed to get out of it, and so did I! [Laughs] And we saw different movies, but that’s the blessing that animation gives you. You can have the depth of story and the depth of theme that you can’t necessarily have in a cross-demographic way with live action. I loved “American Hustle,” but I can’t let someone ten years old watch that. He would totally get it, but I would have to answer too many tough questions. [Laughs]
At the same time, I give him these books I get for reference sometimes, like “Axe Cop” or “Fables.” He loved “Fables.” It was a little risque for him, but he was like, “This is freaky, Dad.” It freaked him out a little bit, but that’s the place that Fables take in our collective psyche, I think.
Wrapping up, any other projects on the horizon for you?
There is a movie coming out called “The Trials of Cate McCall” that Kate Beckinsale just gives a bang-up performance, just a stunning performance as this recovering alcoholic lawyer. That’s a traditional courtroom potboiler that I really loved doing. I loved the script, I loved the director — I don’t know where it is, or what’s going on, but that one I’d love to see. That should be coming out — I know it’s been shot, so it’s way ahead of “Goon.”