Having already played a version of Batman with his now-iconic turn as “Batman Beyond’s” Terry McGinnis, Will Friedle now returns for an all-new animated DC Universe, lending his voice to Nightwing in Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s latest family offering, “Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts.”
Following the film’s premiere at WonderCon 2015, Friedle, whose resume includes fan-favorite stints voicing Bumblebee for “Transformers: Prime” and “Batman: The Brave and the Bold’s” Blue Beetle, spoke with reporters about the movie. In addition to explaining the differences he sees between Terry and Dick Grayson, Friedle opened up about his “Transformers” work, his upcoming guest appearances on “Girl Meets World,” working with childhood heroes and the challenge of overcoming anxiety to return to on-camera acting.
On the differences between Terry McGinnis and Dick Grayson/Nightwing:
Will Friedle: I think Terry and Bruce were far more similar than Dick and Bruce are. I think Nightwing has a lightness about him that he’ll always keep with him, no matter where he goes, and I think both Terry and Bruce didn’t have that. So that’s something, to me, where it’s certainly different in the character. Nightwing’s a very kind of cocky, snarky, I’m-gonna-knock-you-out-and-then-make-a-joke [kind of guy], where Terry was really never like that. He was very dark all the way around.
On how his Batman fandom informed his take on Nightwing in “Animal Instincts”:
I’d like to think, at least with Nightwing, I bring in a certain sense of humor, because I’d like to think that I have a certain lilt to my comic style which I think really lends to the character. Again, coming from the circus background and all that kind of stuff — “the show must go on” kind of guy — I do think he’s a showman, he’s an entertainer and he’s a superhero, and I think he’s one of the few that has those attributes. Normally, it’s just about going out, cleaning up the city, doing what you have to do, almost being pulled into it as opposed to drawn to it. And I think he’s drawn to the whole extravagant kind of lifestyle. So it’s cool, it’s fun to play that’s for sure.
On whether this film’s lighter tone affected how he approached bringing Dick/Nightwing to life:
I remember Bruce Timm telling me one time that one of the most wonderful things ever about the character of Batman was there always seemed to be a Batman for everybody. And you notice that when “Batman: The Animated Series” was on, which was very dark for the time, the movies, the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and all that, they were very light, very comic-booky. And then, when the movies got dark, “Batman: Brave and the Bold” came out and it was a very light kind of version.
I think a lot of the direct-to-video movies that are coming out nowadays are starting to take a darker turn. You’re starting to see a lot more PG-13, some violence as opposed to just action, which is why — once again, Bruce Timm shows why he’s Bruce Timm and does know all the stuff that he says about these things. You have a version now that really is for everybody. It’s completely family friendly. It’s the perfect time for it. This is, “Hey, I want to sit down with my 7 or 8-year-old, and I want to watch because there’s no violence. There’s just action.” And there is a big difference between the two. So this really is a sit-down-with-your-kids-and-you-don’t-have-to-worry-about-it kind of thing.
On whether he feels “Batman Unlimited” is similar to or different from previous animated iterations of the Dark Knight:
I would say it’s just another version of Batman. I think “Brave and the Bold” was almost like that ’70s wacky style, ’60s-’70s throwback, that was really in a bubble all of its own — which is just from the crazy brain of Michael Jelenic, which you see with “Teen Titans Go!” where you watch that and you go “Wow, Mikey, what are you thinking?” [Laughs] So yeah, this is again, as it’s been done so many times with this character, it’s just another way of looking at it. It’s the beauty of Batman is you can never look at it from the wrong angle. It can get really dark or really light.
Choosing his favorite Batman:
Meaning what? Are you talking on-camera? To me, in my head, Kevin Conroy is Batman always.
Live action, I loved the Christian Bale take because it was such a real, raw, gritty way of looking at Batman, but Michael Keaton’s Batman. [But] when somebody says Batman to me, the first name that pops into my head is Kevin Conroy, always.
On his favorite “Batman Unlimited” scene:
You know, there were so many. I think a lot of the relationship between Flash and Nightwing is pretty phenomenal — and that’s Charlie, Charlie Schlatter. Of course, we’re all in the room together, and Charlie and I are sitting right next to each other, so that kind of dynamic, I think, was my favorite to play.
On whether he believes a live-action take on “Batman Beyond” would work:
I think it would be great, I do. I think I would like them to stay true to the story, to the origin story. Because I felt the origin story that Bruce [Timm] and Paul [Dini] and… Alan [Burnett] and all of them came up with phenomenal. So, I mean, to me that opening scene in animation, to me, became iconic where it’s Bruce Wayne, now in his late sixties and he has the heart attack and he has to grab the gun, and even he’s looking at the gun and then he just shuts off the lights in the Bat Cave — in Kevin [Conroy]’s voice, “Never again.” It was totally cool to me. So if they could do something along those lines, I would be the first one in line.
Oh, God, it would be so — can you imagine? And then you get the 17-year-old kid who comes in, who’s got to find his way. Phenomenal, phenomenal. I mean, they really did model future Gotham on, like, “Bladerunner,” so you would have that complete kind of Bladerunner-esque, future — oh, forget it. I would be all over that, it would be great.
I would be happy doing another direct-to-video “Batman Beyond.” We stopped after the “Return of the Joker,” which was so good that I would love to do another.
On what it’s like to be a part of the “Transformers” franchise:
It’s great. It’s great. There’s a lot of very exciting projects coming out now, and every morning I wake up thanking the stars that I have the opportunities to do what I do. It’s one of those things where somebody asked me, “What’s your favorite role?” I can’t [narrow it down], because I say to myself, well, nothing will ever beat Batman. And it’s like, well, wait — now you’re Lion-O [in the 2012 “Thundercats” reboot]. It’s like nothing will ever beat Lion-O. Wait, now you’re Bumblebee. I mean it just keeps getting — you’re Blue Beetle [in “Batman: The Brave and the Bold”], you’re [Green Arrow in the DC Comics/Cartoon Network shorts]. It’s unbelievably cool, and I tell this to people: I’m a fan first, so I will gush with everybody as I hear that I have the opportunity to do one of these things. I’m in my room going, “Oh, this is this coolest”. I love it. So yeah, it’s incredible — [I’m a] very lucky person.
On working with Peter Cullen, original voice of Optimus Prime:
I was born in 1976, so when “Transformers,” “Thundercats,” “G.I. Joe,” “M.A.S.K.” all came out, I was 8. So I always tell people these cartoons were made for me, exactly. So, yeah, I mean it was Peter Cullen — you talk about voices of childhood, Peter Cullen’s voice is etched in my memory as the voice of my childhood. So, we’re recording RID and it’s the first episode where he comes in. We recorded three or four together and he hadn’t been there yet. So he walks in and we walk him over, “It’s nice to meet you.” Everyone’s sitting there and we’re playing it real cool. It’s like, “Hey we’re actors, he’s an actor, no big deal, whatever.”
He stands behind the microphone, we sit there, and it’s the first line and he just goes, “Bumblebee.” And the whole room must have sat there staring at him. And there was 30 seconds of silence before I went, “[Crap], I’m Bumblebee, I have to answer him.” I remember looking down and, “Optimus, I don’t know –” And we were just staring at him. One word, and the room, it was a proverbial [record scratch]. It was so cool. And he’s the nicest guy in the world. He just wants to come up, put his arm around you, and then all of a sudden, it’s like, “All right and Peter, Action.” “Bumblebee,” and you’re just going, “Uh, uh.” Forget it, forget it.
I felt that way with Larry Kenney. The first time I met Larry Kenney [who voiced the original Lion-O and played his father Claudus on the reboot] and he [said], “I don’t know what to do, Cheetara.” I was like, “Oh, it’s Larry Kenney.” So you do, you have those moments where it rings that adolescent tuning fork inside of you and you are instantly 8-years-old again. And that’s absolutely my favorite part of doing this, it’s — I just love it.
On being the one to give Bumblebee his voice back after years of the character not having one:.
I remember talking to the guys who created [“Transformers Prime”] and all the other shows, and Bumblebee, he speaks and we’re sitting there doing the audio commentary for the episode and I looked at him and I said, “Really? You wait until the last episode of the entire series to get him to speak? This couldn’t have happened in episode 4? We couldn’t have done this? I couldn’t have been on this series with you?” So they started laughing. “Don’t, don’t worry, you’re going to get a movie and we’re doing a new show with you.”
But it was and it was also, in my opinion, I thought the actors on “Prime,” at the time…it was one of the best ensemble casts in all of animation. So stepping into that, with those guys, you know, Nolan [North] and just everybody was daunting but such sweet people and Steve Bloom and everybody — of course [Blum] accepted me in the Starscream voice, “Welcome.” It’s like, “Oh hey, thank’s Steve.” So it was very, very cool but such nice people and just another world to be dropped into was pretty incredible.
His reaction to hearing “Thundercats” was canceled due to low toy sales:
That one crushed me. I had written two episodes for the first season and I was taking over as, working [as] more of [Michael Jelenic’s] assistant…for the second season, where I was going to be writing a large number of the second season. So we were actually picked up for our second season, I already wrote the first episode for the second season when we heard the toys weren’t selling and they pulled it. That one hurt. We loved doing that.
On his upcoming “Girl Meets World” appearances:
I’ve already shot two of them. I’ve shot two “Girl Meets World” episodes and I have a third one coming out that I actually wrote. So I will be in the third one and I wrote the third one.
On returning to the world of live acting after spending so much of his career doing voice work:
It was strange, but it was strange in a great way. It was strange like going-back-and-sleeping-in-your-childhood-bedroom strange. A lot of the crew was the same, I’m there with Ben [Savage] and Danielle [Fishel], Rider Strong directed the episode with his brother Shiloh. So we’re all back there. It’s all the same producers, and hearing Michael Jacobs’s voice as you miss a joke, going “No!” It’s like, “Oh man, I’m 12 again. How did this happen? I’m 19-years-old, how did this happen?” So yeah, the stars really aligned to get me back there.
On whether fans recognize him more as “Boy Meets World’s” Eric Matthews or his animated personas:
It depends where I am. If I’m at a place like a convention, like this, it’s all animation. If I’m out at a restaurant, it’s usually Eric, it’s normally what I’ll get. And I’ll hear somebody do the Feeny call from across the room and I’ll go, “Okay.” So yeah, certainly, but I love it. I love that I get to do things that endure because it’s a very strange and a very fickle business and if you can do one thing that lasts, it’s very special. And when you get to do several, it’s just — you’re blessed.
On the excitement fans expressed at the return of the “Boy Meets World” cast in the new series:
Yeah, it is. “Boy Meets World,” we didn’t know it at the time, but it filled a niche, I think. It just did. Or a niece, “it filled a niece,” as Eric would say, [Laughs] where we were right at the end of good family television. And “Boy Meets World” was one of the last pure family [shows] — again, like this movie, like “Animal Instincts,” where you can sit there with your kids and not have to worry about what was going to pop up on the screen. It wasn’t going to be all about sex. A lot of it now, it’s very young people growing up very quickly. “Boy Meets World” wasn’t that, and “Girl Meets World” isn’t that. It’s trying to stay a kid as long as you can and that’s what it should be. And I love that.
That’s one of the reasons I was so honored to be a part of this film, because it was one of those things where it’s, okay, great, I have a 12-year-old nephew — I don’t have to worry about what’s there. He can sit there and watch it. If he’s got 8 and 9-year-old friends, I don’t have to worry about it. It’s not a problem. And there’s not a lot of things you can say that with anymore.
On why he prefers voice work to live-action, and whether he has plans to return more regularly to the latter:
I left on-camera. I really just couldn’t do it anymore; it was far too stressful for me. I was getting serious anxiety, which is one of the reasons that I left the on-camera side, something that I’ve been talking about more and more because I know a lot of people deal with it. So it was something that I wanted to tackle, and that’s why I went back on “Girl Meets World.” The stars aligned for me to make it very easy for me to go back on camera after so many years. So having voiceover was the greatest thing in the world. I loved it but really when I left on-camera and immersed myself in the world, it was some of the greatest times I ever had in my life. So, thank God I was there.
There’s some talk of some on-camera stuff, which may happen. Some things that the fans would be very, very happy about, I can’t get too much into it. But right now, you guys you know this industry, it’s just talk. People can say, “Hey, I’ve had ten meetings.” That doesn’t mean anything. But there’s some possibilities out there of getting back on-camera, if it’s something I want to do. But really nothing’s more fun than animation, it really isn’t.
It’s just you and a microphone. It’s not getting in shape and it’s not, “Ooh, how do I look? And my clothes and I have to meet the wardrobe.” It’s just pure, stripped down acting, which is pretty wonderful. I mean, I’ve worked with some of the most amazing on-camera actors in this business and have been honored to do so. I would still put up any voiceover actor against them for pure acting talent and say just as good, if not better. Some of the men and women you sit in these rooms with, they’re just ridiculously talented.
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