Even with my back to the door, I knew the moment Khary Payton walked into the press room last weekend at Comic-Con International in San Diego. His voice, booming and infectious in its excitement, is the one audiences have come to recognize as Cyborg, the Teen Titans member who’s part metal, part man.
For more than a decade, Payton has played Cyborg in various animated incarnations, from 2003’s “Teen Titans” to 2011’s “The New Teen Titans” shorts, and the markedly sillier “Teen Titans Go!” CBR News and other members of the press got to engage with the charismatic character actor in a roundtable interview, where he sounded off on the various versions of Cyborg, “Teen Titans Go!” haters, and his advice for Ray Fisher, who is set to debut as Cyborg in next year’s live-action feature film “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
We’ve heard in season three you get a two-part episode that centers on Cyborg. Can you tell us about that?
Khary Payton: I have no idea what you’re talking about. I have no clue. I’ve got a two-part episode? Honestly, it’s hard for me to answer that question because I feel like every episode is pretty much about me. [Smiling wide.] Because you know, when Scott (Menville, voice of Robin) starts talking, I’m pretty much like, “Lah lah lah lah. Robin’s upset about something. Lah lah lah lah. OK! Now I talk again.”
Oh yes! That’s true. That’s true. Well, he’s the oldest Titan. So he’s feeling that rub. And even in the show — hang on a minute. [Hollering across the room to Jelenic and Horvath who’ve gotten rowdy in another interview.] Michael! Aaron! I’m trying to talk over here!…I’m so excited that they’re talking so loudly. [Laughs.] They are usually very demure.
Oh yeah, we spoke with them earlier. They’re blushing flowers.
Exactly. Here’s my Michael Jelenic impression [dropping his signature enthusiasm to a low, flat whisper]: “Yeah we really enjoy doing what we do. Other people hate us. But whatever.”
He told us he could show us Twitter comments right now of people that are hating on the show.
Payton: Dude! He sits in a dark room, just looking at all of the comments. I’m like, “Would you stop it! Are you crazy?” I mean I love it all. Because every one of those people who hates our show, secretly loves our show. Because they keep watching it, and making comments. And they laugh all through it, and then they go, “But I just want the old one back!” They’re ridiculous. I keep the worst ones, because the worst one things that people say about the show — eventually those same people come back and say, “You know I really enjoyed this one, and I laughed a lot. I’ve cataloged each and every one of the hundred episodes.” I kind of love the hate.
Do you do a lot of improv in the record?
Oh God yeah. I mean, the five of us are almost always, 90 percent of the time, we’re in the booth together. So we riff off each other and pay very little attention to what’s actually written on the page. [Smiles] No, no. What they write is brilliant, but we’ve also been doing these characters for 12 years now! And so if we have an idea, we throw it in.
It’s a lot of riffing off of each other. And everyone’s so good at playing the different levels. What was great about the old show is that would get dark sometimes and then it would get silly sometimes. And so they found a group of actors who can do all of that. So when you ask us to come back and do a really silly version of the show, it’s a bunch of guys who can really play with each other. And it’s a harder thing to find than you would imagine. So we are just really able to run with it. Everybody trusts each other. The artists, the writers, the directors, everybody trusts that we’re good at what we’re doing here. Which is making the funny.
And it’s gotten even better because the analogies and the things that we talk about underneath — you know like Easter eggs for the adults? They’ve gotten more intricate and complicated. Some of the last episodes we’ve done, there’s one on the university system. Like about people having to pay so much to do that, and it’s all about the university system. But if you’re a kid, you have no idea.
Having played Cyborg as long as you have, are you invested in the portrayal of the new Cyborg that’s coming up in the live-action movies?
Well yeah! I remember growing up, I bought a “New Teen Titans” comic book because Cyborg was on the cover. And I remember pulling out the comic book when I got the audition. He didn’t look the same, but I was like that’s my guy! So it was exciting to me to start doing it. But most people didn’t really know who Cyborg was before the first “Teen Titans” show. And so I feel like that first show, me and (producers) Glen Murakami, Sam Register, and David Slack — we kind of gave birth to what people think of as Cyborg as a character. And everything that’s come after him and going into the Justice League and all of this, it feels like we had a big part in that. You know? So I feel pretty gratified that this particular character is (appearing in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League: Part One.”)
You feel partially responsible for it?
Totally responsible. I feel totally responsible for Cyborg being any and everywhere. [Laughs.] But it is kind of cool to know that we can have one show and now we’re doing another show. I do Cyborg on “LEGO Justice League,” and video games. Other people have done him here or there. But I feel like that first show was where it kicked off and people started to take more notice of him.
Do you have any advice for Ray Fisher, who’s playing the new Cyborg?
Dude, have fun! The nice thing about Cyborg is he has some angst. But he has this filter, this pressure valve of exuberance. You know what I mean? And I think he’s going to do great.
What was the process of finding Cyborg’s voice?
I’m not a guy who’s got a thousand different voices. I’ve got a few different voices. I’m pretty good at that. But most of the time when I’m putting on a new character, I’m just doing me in a different mood.
Do you ever get recognized because of your voice?
Every once in a while. It’s a little weird to walk into a place, start talking and someone recognizes you. It’s mostly when I’m walking through the halls of one of these places where I’m working, an artist has heard me way too much. And it’s just weird to hear it coming out of a person instead of a robot or a superhero.
What’s the most unusual fan interaction you’ve had?
The most unusual fan interaction hasn’t really been from a cartoon. It’s mostly when I do some weird little role. Because I do live-action stuff here and there, but I’m not known for it. And so whenever I do something like that and someone’s like, “Did you get your head cut off in a “Hellraiser” movie eight years ago?” And I’ll be like, “Yeeeeeeeaaaaah?” Really? Like first of all, oh no. Somebody saw that. It’s stuff like that.
There was a guy working a food truck, he was like a 60-year-old Latino guy. And I had done a soap opera (“General Hospital”) for about five months, where I was a doctor. And he was like, “Hey, doctor.” Because I was a doctor on the show. I just don’t expect a 60-year-old Latino dude to be like, “So the soap opera, you did surgery on the baby. Is she going to be OK?” That was the weirdest one. I did not see that coming at all.
Season three of “Teen Titans Go!” will debut later this month.