Each year, a new crop of animated series hit cable based on the wealth of superhero properties known to kids and adults alike, and while the various series may carry different stories, art styles and tones, most of them have one thing in common: Josh Keaton.
The voice actor is making his Hal Jordan debut this Friday as part of DC Entertainment’s CGI “Green Lantern: the Animated Series” on Cartoon Network, but Keaton has been appearing in shows based on both DC and Marvel heroes since he was a kid himself. From “Batman: The Animated Series” to “The Batman” and from “Marvel Super Hero Squad” to the incoming “Ultimate Spider-Man,” Keaton has voiced everyone from Cyclops to the Human Torch, but he perhaps remains best known amongst comic fans as the Peter Parker at the heart of Sony’s “Spectacular Spider-Man” cartoon. That role earned him not only the accolades of a passionate fanbase, but even more Spidey work in video games like “Shattered Dimensions” and “Edge of Time.”
Keaton spoke with CBR News about his “Green Lantern” gig and explained how he looked to the comics first as his inspiration for both Hal Jordan’s performance and as a way to tap into the fun of the series villains the Red Lanterns. He also shared his personal history in comics animation and reflected on how the role in “Spectacular Spider-Man” changed him in the eyes of fans and casting directors for the better.
CBR News: Josh, a lot of people may recognize your name — or your voice — from various Spider-Man gigs over the years, but the amount of comics-related voicework you’ve done is kind of staggering. Your first comics-related acting gig was doing a voice for “Batman: The Animated Series” when you were just a kid. Did you know comics then, or did you go in cold?
Josh Keaton: I went in cold on that one. I can’t even remember how old I was, but I couldn’t have even been ten at that time. I was really little, and at that point, I was probably just starting to get into comics. Spider-Man was what I was reading then, but that was way back in the day.
How has your response to this material grown over the years? You’ve obviously done a lot more than comics stuff, from live action roles to video game work to things like “Scooby-Doo,” but at this point, do you gravitate towards comics projects when possible?
I wouldn’t say that I necessarily choose the projects, per se. I’m not at that level of celebrity where I can pick and choose. The voiceover stuff tends to be that you go where the work is, and [superheroes] are the work I’ve been getting. And I roll with it.
The “Green Lantern” premiere hits this Friday, and while this show has been in development for a while, it’s coming at the end of a big push by DC Entertainment for the character that included the movie. Ryan Reynolds had a very specific take on Hal Jordan as the kind of cocky flyboy. Did that film conception impact how you approached Hal at all?
To be honest, I had no clue of what the movie was going to be like. We finished recording all the episodes before the movie came out, so I didn’t have that to go on. For GL, my knowledge of Green Lantern wasn’t nearly as extensive as my Spider-Man knowledge, because it wasn’t one of the comics I really read growing up. That wasn’t intentional — I just never got around to it. I was too busy reading “Spider-Man” and “Wolverine,” I guess. [Laughs] But this was something where I drew most of my take on the character from the comics. Physically, I saw Hal as a more imposing presence than Spider-Man. He was a bigger guy — an adult versus the teen Spidey I’d been playing. And Hal is, I think, cockier off the bat. Spidey still has to manage that geeky side of himself and is free when he’s in costume as a superhero to say the stuff he can’t say as Peter Parker. But the way I see Hal is that he was a bad ass already before he was a Green Lantern. And he knows that to a certain extent.
The things that really helped me hone in my performance were comics like “Secret Origin.” That’s one I took a lot of inspiration from. That really gave an insight to me into his family life — into the dynamic between his mother and brother and what happened with his father. Something that stuck with me was that image of Hal risking being disowned by heading out on his 18th birthday to enlist while wearing his dad’s flight jacket. That was hugely powerful to me, and it kind of summed him up. And as the recording process went on, I kept reading more and more GL and am still reading. Some of the issues with Kyle [Rayner] where you see Hal’s reaction to everything he knows being gone — that was also very telling as to his character. So my interpretation of Hal came pretty directly from the comics. I looked at the character art, made a couple of audio/voice choices, and then the attitude came from what I read.
This show takes pace largely in space with only a little bit of time spent focusing on Hal’s time on earth. What was that like? What did you do to ground and humanize the character in all that craziness?
Well, everything comes back to Hal and how he was before he was a Green Lantern and in his earth life. Now he’s not on earth and is in outer space, but he’s still going to deal with his problems the same way. He’s still going to have that fighter pilot attitude, and he’s going to take those risks and run purely on his instinct. I think that’s a bit foreign to the Guardians who aren’t used to that. And while Hal has some respect for authority, he still lives by his own code. There’s that butting of heads with the Guardians as a result, and that’s all grounded in his earth dealings for sure.
There are a lot of other voice acting all-stars on this show who have long careers and distinctive voices including Tom Kenny as Red Lantern Zilius Zox and Kevin Michael Richardson as Kilowog. What’s it add to the show working with this cast?
We basically record the show “radio drama” style where we’re all in a room, we each have our own mic, and we go through the script and record the episode. We’ll go back and pick some stuff up if we need to after the animation is done, but that’s mostly how it is. And without a doubt, having a previous friendship and relationship with the other actors does transmit to the final recordings. Kevin is a dear friend of mine. I’ve worked with him on so many shows and we’re friends outside the studio, so that rapport comes across. You’ll instantly feel as though Hal and Kilowog know each other because the actors do. And there’s timing and little details that occur because when you’re friends with someone, it’s like practicing outside the studio.
One of the most exciting aspect of the series for comic fans is the inclusion of the Red Lanterns as the main villains. It’s a pretty easy hook to tap into: “They’re a solo corps of Lanterns — and they vomit blood!” What’s been your take on those characters, and your expectation for how it’ll go over with the audience both young and old?
I think they’re going to respond very, very positively because they are a very real threat in our show. This is not something that can be a “villain of the week” kind of thing because they’re just as strong as the Green Lantern Corps in their own way. Everybody’s got an equal weapon in the battle. And in our show, they can speak as well as vomit blood. Often in the comics, they’re so angry, all they can do is the vomiting. [Laughs] But obviously for scenes and acting, there has to be more dialogue. I think it’s going to be pretty neat.
You just spent a weekend at Youmacon in Detroit interacting with fans, and one thing I did want to ask you about was your connection to fans since “Spectacular Spider-Man.” I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the kind of response that show got from folks who were hoping to get another season out of it when Sony returned the TV rights for Spidey to Marvel. What’s it been like to meet viewers in the wake of all that?
It’s awesome. You really, really feel the love. I’ve really gotten the sense that people loved the show as much as I did and that everybody that worked on the show did. I think one of the reasons “Spectacular” was so well received was because everyone on the show was a huge Spider-Man fan. They really wanted to see him treated right. And it’s the typical Parker luck that after two seasons due to political and company stuff it goes away. [Laughs] But it’s truly been very humbling. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s an awesome feeling when someone comes up to me and says, “You are the voice in my head for Spider-Man” or “You are to Spider-Man what Kevin Conroy is to Batman for me.” Hearing those things and to be put in that echelon is pretty incredible. You can’t hope for much more as an actor.
It’s interesting since you bring up Conroy because since “Batman: The Animated Series,” he’s been called on to do so much Batman work in various places. I get the feeling the same is happening with you and Spider-Man. You were already doing some stuff in the Spider-Man world before “Spectacular” like playing Harry Osborn in a video game, but since the show has Spidey become a go-to job for you?
The show pretty much cemented it. It is just like putting on an old suit at this point. It’s funny, because I was originally hired to be Spider-Man in that first game I did as Harry Osborn. I recorded the entire game, and then after it was done, they got the rights to use Tobey Maguire’s audio from the “Spider-Man 2” movie. So what they did was made a special feature where if you got all the way through and beat the game, you could then play as Harry in the Green Goblin suit, and I had to some pickups so it wasn’t exactly Spidey’s dialogue. That threw me into sort of a Harry place — God, there’s no way to not make that a pun. [Laughter] But for a while, that cast me as Harry. I played him in “Friend or Foe” and then the next Spider-Man game. And funny enough, James Arnold Taylor, who was Harry in our show played Spidey in “Friend or Foe.” That’s what happens when you have different production companies doing different projects. But then the show definitely cemented me into that place for future work.
“Green Lantern’s” pilot debuts this week and then fans have to wait a few more months to see the full season. Where are you at right now? Is there still a little recording yet to go before you can see the final product?
Pretty much. We are going in and doing pick-ups and fight sounds and little things like if there’s animation that doesn’t quite jibe with the tone we had before. And those we actually do to the picture, so I can get an idea of what it’s going to look like. But the stuff we record to still isn’t fully rendered or lit, so there’s a lot of wire frames and rough animation. But I see it when everybody else sees it. And I missed the premier of it at New York Comic Con! [Laughs] So I’m excited for this weekend.
As you’re waiting with everyone else, is there something coming up from this season you’re personally excited to see on screen?
I’m trying to think of how to answer that without giving away any spoilers. [Laughs] I definitely have a couple of favorite moments, but I can’t talk about them without giving away some obvious things.
The one-hour premiere of “Green Lantern” debuts on Cartoon Network Friday night at 7:00 PM Eastern and Pacific.