Kevin Conroy had studied for and starred on the stage, advanced his career through soap operas, and was featured in television series like "Dynasty" and "Tour of Duty." But he says he had no idea that stepping into a sound booth in 1991 to audition for his first cartoon voice-over role would forever cement his place in the annals of animation and help to extend the Batman legacy to untold legions of fans.
Conroy has been the voice of the Dark Knight and Bruce Wayne for 17 years, beginning with "Batman: The Animated Series" and continuing through 16 films, video games and animated series (covering more than 220 episodes). He reprises the role in "Batman Gotham Knight," the third film in the ongoing series of DC Universe animated original movies.
From his home in New York City, Conroy spoke at length about the film, his ongoing relationship with the character, and the surprising manner in which he first approached and procured the role of Batman.
Q: What are your impressions of the film?
Kevin Conroy: It's a really rich experience. The artwork in this film is so beautiful, so amazing. I love the adult-themed animated shows like "The Simpsons" and "South Park" and "King of the Hill." I love the appeal of their writing, the irony, the sense of humor. Those are great animated productions. But you forget just how rich animation artwork can be until you see a film like this. There's just no comparison. I've never seen anything like this in terms of diverse and rich animation in the industry - it's like getting six movies in one.
The story is very interesting, especially the way it weaves in and out of Bruce Wayne's history - like the flashback to him training in India, learning to endure pain. It's very well conceived story and I think it enhances a lot of the Batman mythology.
I don't think there's any question the fans will love it, because it's such a deep animation experience, and it gives such great background into a character they already love. It's a very positive piece.
Q: After three years away from the character, what were the challenges of donning the cape once again?
Kevin Conroy: Getting back into the Batman voice was not hard - after so many years, it's so familiar to me now that it's like putting on an old coat. As you live with a character over the years, you fill out the skin. You don't even realize you're doing it. Sometimes they ask during a recording session, "What sound would Batman make here?" or "What would he say here" and they trust me to do that. They know I've been living with him for so long, I know what he'd say, and how he'd react.
Q: Batman Gotham Knight has essentially 12 different looks at your characters - nine of Batman and three of Bruce Wayne, varying in design and age range. Were there any challenges to maintaining the consistency of your performance despite voicing to so many different image variations?
Kevin Conroy: In the past, we've always treated the shows like a radio play - we recorded the lines and then the animation took place. This time, the artwork came first, and that made the process interesting. Sometimes the artists put extra mouth flaps in, or they made the cadence different from the way I'd usually deliver a line. So we had to work within those parameters and try to time the acting to fill the space.
Interestingly, they originally they were going to cast another actor to do the younger Bruce Wayne, and Andrea (Romano) convinced them to let me take a stab at it. I had done the younger voice in a number of the "Batman: The Animated Series" flashbacks, so Andrea knew that I could do it. And once I got into the studio and gave them a sample, they were convinced. The challenge is making the distinctions - you have to make concessions for youth and give the character the sound of a younger man, while still believably being the same guy.
Q: At its core, this film represents several different perspectives of Batman, providing many different layers to the character. Can you discuss that range of emotions the film explores, and to what depths you reach to capture those emotions?
Kevin Conroy: It's that delicate balance you get in voices. As an actor, it's still the same job - it's acting - except that you only have your voice, and you have to be a little more precise in finding the balance. You have to keep it very minimal and you don't want to be too cartoony, but at the same time you only have your voice to tell the story - so you have to juice it up a bit. Sometimes the hardest acting is in the non-dialogue aspects of the performance. As an example, there was one long scream when Batman is falling down a series of ladders into a pit. They recorded that over and over and over again, trying to figure out how to do it just right, and not overdue it. I had to give them lots of variations and I'm sure they picked the best one later. Overall, it was a little challenging with the different artistic styles and the different stories, but it was still Batman.
Q: The legions of Batman animation fans have hailed you as the definitive voice of the character. How did you originally settle on that particular voice?
Kevin Conroy: To tell the truth, after reading the original script, I really went to audition for the character voices - like Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Bullock. Like most actors, I really love to be challenged, and I thought they'd be more interesting and really push me. And then Bruce (Timm) and Andrea (Romano) said they wanted to hear me do Batman.
The only exposure I'd had was the campy Adam West live-action series, and they said that wasn't what they wanted. So I put myself into a very dark place in my voice, and my voice got deeper and darker and huskier, and it came out very mysterious. I really just took a stab at what I thought the voice would be, and then I saw Bruce and Andrea and Paul (Dini) running around the booth, so I knew I either was very good or very bad.
That's how it started -- just me in a sound booth, them on the other side of the glass describing the character, and then the voice just came out of my imagination. And it worked. So initially I was much more interested in doing the character voices, but luckily they talked me into Batman.
Q: Do you require a certain mindset to approach the voice of Batman?
Kevin Conroy: There's an emotional place I go to - Bruce (Timm) says he see it in me in the booth. It's much more a psychology than just producing the sound. Batman is very complex. The Bruce Wayne voice is the real put-on. This is a guy who saw his parents murdered in front of him, and nobody would be normal and together after that. He feels like a freak inside. So to do the voice, you have to take on all that drama.
That's why everyone relates to Batman - because everyone feels like a freak inside. Everyone has ghosts that they don't want to show anyone else. All of us feel like we have that inside us. For me, that's one of the most interesting aspects of the character - that a super hero would ultimately be based on that inner-freak that we all feel that we have.
Q: In your mind, what's special about playing Batman?
Kevin Conroy: I think what I didn't anticipate about voicing Batman was the fact that I was playing an icon - I just didn't take into account how much Batman meant to so many people. Coming from a very conservative background, and not having extensive exposure to comic books and the character, it just never occurred to me. So in the beginning, I only thought of it as an acting job.
Q: And now … you're an icon in the Batman universe?
Kevin Conroy: I'm always flattered that people actually know who the voices are. It seems to me such an anonymous job. But periodically, somebody recognizes me - it happened in a furniture store recently. To me, that's truly amazing - first that someone knows who does the voice, and it's even more amazing that someone would know the face of the voice.
I think a lot of the reason that I'm so linked to Batman is because I've been doing it for so long. Before "Batman: The Animated Series," there really hadn't been a voice aside from Adam West. People knew Batman from the campy live action series, and the fans knew the Dark Knight comic books, but there hadn't been a voice associated with the character, and certainly not a dramatic voice.
I think I just lucked out because I was the one who started with it, and people grew up with that voice.